When you cross the Salmon Falls River from New Hampshire into southern Maine, you see a small gas station and a big sign: "Welcome to Berwick, Home of Prime Tanning." Before you get out your goggles, remember you're in an old mill town. Prime Tanning is the headquarters of a modern-day tannery that began making patent leather in Massachusetts nearly a century ago. A few miles away in South Berwick, tanning beds may not be far off. The town is heading down a path familiar to many northern communities. The old red barn on Route 4 is now a posh golf club with Sunday brunch. Another old barn in Berwick has been renovated into the Hackmatack Playhouse. Berwick, which feels like an extension of Somersworth, N.H., across a small bridge, is the old industrial center. North Berwick is rural and filled with farms. South Berwick has the area's small commercial center, where good restaurants and small stores are beginning to spring up. So far, no Starbucks.
The Little Hat Co.
(10 Portland St., 207-384-0080, thelittlehatcompany .com) does indeed sell little hats for children, created locally from beautiful fleece and cotton prints. But the tiny shop is also a child's paradise of giant, stuffed jungle animals and an assortment of other intriguing toys. Across the street, the SoBo Book & Bean
(241 Main St., 207-384-8300) is a hipster bookstore and tiny cafe crammed into a narrow storefront. Perch on one of the stools with coffee and a muffin, or try one of the daily lunch specials, like shepherd's pie. Nature's Way Market
(271 Main St., 207-384-3210, naturesway markets.com
) opened last fall a few doors down the street, selling packaged sushi, fresh fish, and organic produce and snacks.
The Red Barn at Outlook Farm
, recently restored into an airy post-and-beam dining room with fireplaces and an outdoor porch, now serves Sunday brunch (Route 4, 207-384-1010, outlookgolf .com, adults $19.95, children under age 12 $8.95, 4 and under free). The large room has a breakfast buffet, an omelet station, a carving station, and a dessert bar. Watch the website; there are plans to open an inn on the property. Margaux
(404 Main St., 207-384-8249, dinners $17.95 to $26.95) is South Berwick's most elegant restaurant, serving dishes like duck confit and braised lamb shank in a tiny dining room. The restaurant's owners, who live in South Berwick, had run a bistro in nearby Dover, N.H., but wanted to open a restaurant in their town. When they saw a for-rent sign, they pounced. The Pepperland Cafe
(279 Main St., 207-384-5535, dinners $7-$19) also has won raves from foodies for its down-home food, well-executed with a bit of a Southern twang. And The Lodge at Spring Hill
(117 Pond Road, 207-384-2693, springhilllodge.com
, dinner $13.95 to $22.95), which specializes in weddings, also serves dinner five nights a week. In warm weather, try to get a table on the wooden deck overlooking the pond.
The Academy Street Inn
(15 Academy St., 207-384-5633, virtualcities .com/ons/me/s/mes9601.htm, $84 to $94) lies just down the hill from Berwick Academy, for which it served as the headmaster's house. Renovated into a bed-and-breakfast in 1985, the inn has five rooms, a long, wraparound porch and a power boat for charter fishing available only to guests. Beaver Dam Campground
(551 School St., 207-698-2267, beaver damcampground.com
, $28 to $83) offers 60 camping sites for tents or RVs, two cabins, and one pop-up trailer rental along a 20-acre pond. The campground, which opens Memorial Day weekend, has activities every day, from whiffle ball to card night. For other places to stay, you'll have to head out of town. The oceanside towns have many choices; Kittery has budget options and chain motels, York and Ogunquit have more upscale inns.
Swing by the Sarah Orne Jewett House
(5 Portland St., 207-384-2454, historicnewengland.org/visit/homes/jewett.htm
) in the center of South Berwick, a white clapboard house where the author of the 1896 novel "The Country of the Pointed Firs" spent much of her life. The house is open Friday through Sunday from June 1 to Oct. 15; tours are given several times a day. You may need to ask directions for the house, which is in the center of town, since the sign out front recently broke off its post. For another jaunt through history, tour the Hamilton House
(40 Vaughan's Lane, 207-384-2454, spnea.org/visit/homes/hamilton
.htm), built in 1785 and restored in the late 1800s by a wealthy family. The house, whose grounds include a formal garden, is open June 1 to Oct. 15. To burn off brunch at the Red Barn, hike through old-growth forest in Vaughan Woods State Park
(28 Oldfields Road, 207-490-4079), 250 acres with trails and picnic areas along the Salmon Falls River.
Show up for the town's biggest party - the South Berwick Strawberry Festival
- the last Sunday in June (this year, June 28). About 20,000 people turn out every year to listen to music, look at crafts, and eat strawberry shortcake. Run five miles, preferably before the shortcake, in the annual Strawberry Run
that day. Also in warm weather, play golf on the course surrounding a big red barn (don't miss the small graveyard near the 10th tee) at The Links at Outback Farm
(see Fuel). On former farmland not far from working farms, the course was designed to resemble a Scottish course.
In Berwick, the Hackmatack Playhouse
(538 School St., 207-698-1807, hackmatack.org
) hosts concerts and plays from June through August in a barn renovated into a 218-seat theater. This year, look for Neil Simon's "Rumors" and the Broadway musical classic "Annie Get Your Gun," among others. Otherwise, travelers will do better looking for night life in some of the busier beach towns. Ogunquit has clubs and piano bars.
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