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Try doing Freeport, Maine, with no shopping list

Retail may reign, but yoga, movies, food, and other fun are gaining

(CHERYL SENTER FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES)
By Nancy Heiser
Globe Correspondent / April 29, 2012
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Outdoor fire pits flicker at the busy corner of Bow and Main streets. Settle at one of these sidewalk campfires, and you find yourself a customer at Linda Bean’s Maine Kitchen and Topside Tavern. The restaurant opened last July in a former Bath & Body Works. From here you can sip a local beer and scrutinize visitors as they navigate Maine’s foremost retail mecca.

A few shoppers stride the brick sidewalks in knee-high leather boots, scarves draped around their necks, shopping bags swinging. Others, unsure of the terrain, meander, searching for the best bargains.

Local teens skitter along in summer attire even though it is only spring, their thumbs moving across their cellphones as they make their way to the new gelato shop or movie theater in town.

Soon you will want to join the pedestrian blend, which in late April has yet to become the throng of summer.

If you have not been to Freeport in a few years, there is much that is new. There is a free parking garage just steps from Main Street topped with a plaza of shops and eateries; the whole thing is called Freeport Village Station. A block away a new platform for the Amtrak DownEaster is under construction, preparing for train service from Boston scheduled to begin later this year. Alongside is the visitors center, housed in the old hose tower of the Freeport Fire Company.

The flagship L.L. Bean store and campus, which covers 220,000 square feet of retail space and three acres (excluding parking) is across the street from the tavern. (Linda Bean, the granddaughter of Leon Leonwood Bean and an entrepreneur in her own right, did not pick her spot by accident.)

But shopping is not all there is to do in downtown. Nonshoppers have plenty of entertainment options. Last November, a six-screen Nordica movie theater opened in Village Station. Freeport Factory Stage, an intimate “black box” theater that also opened last year, offers live shows. A free concert series is held in Discovery Park on the L.L. Bean campus in summer.

L.L. Bean regularly holds in-store clinics and demonstrations on such topics as bike maintenance, catch-and-release fishing techniques (demonstrated at the indoor trout pond), and ultralight camping. Among its off-campus adventures in May are sport clay target shooting and fly-casting. The outfitter is 100 years old this year, and to celebrate it is offering even more events and activities.

Not up for an outdoor adventure? Check out the fish tank along the wall between the main store and hunting and fishing. Something smell good? Coffee by Design, a local roaster, serves espresso drinks on the first floor and has its own entrance off Main.

The Freeport Historical Society recently put together a self-guided audio tour of town, which starts near its headquarters in the circa 1830 Harrington House at 45 Main St. The first nine spots on the tour are located in the village center and easily walked.

Venture down School Street just a couple of blocks from Main and you will find woodsy Leon Gorman Park. Take a stroll (leashed dogs are welcome) in a ravine with attractive wood bridges and picnic tables. For sandwiches or other goodies, stop into Bow Street Market, a full-service grocery housed in a new, barn-like home adjacent to the park and just steps from the Hilton Garden Inn.

A new business, Freeport Yoga Co., took over the old market space at the top of Bow Street, and it, too, is an easy walk from the town center. Drop-ins are welcome. The town even set up a skating rink in an unused parking lot this winter.

A collection of new casual restaurants has diversified the town’s menu. The Fresh Batch, a cheerfully furnished eatery open since last July, serves a range of goodies: omelets, soups, sandwiches, espresso drinks, homemade gelato, beer, and wine. Parents with toddlers will particularly appreciate its indoor climbing gym.

Bigger appetites can tuck into a bowl of pasta at budget-friendly Petrillo’s or a burger at Johnny Rockets in Freeport Village Station. It is easy to grab a loaded hot dog and fresh lemonade at the ubiquitous outdoor stands manned by local college students.

Children will enjoy a visit to the lobster theater on the lower level of Linda Bean’s restaurant. It has a touch tank and 10-minute video of her lobster pound operation in Port Clyde.

For a genteel break, enjoy the afternoon tea buffet complete with finger sandwiches, fruit, cheeses, and scones in front of the fire in the drawing room at the Harraseeket Inn. Jacqueline’s Tea Room is a frilly, special occasion spot where you spend a couple of hours over four courses. It might be just the ticket if you are trying to skip an L.L. Bean kayaking clinic.

Freeport is home to plenty of stores not part of national chains, and many of these smaller, family-owned shops are located on the side streets: Bow, School, Mechanic, and Middle. Wander in just to browse. Find creations of Maine artisans at Abacus, Edgecomb Potters, and Georgetown Pottery; funky imports at Mexicali Blues, a Maine chain; and children’s classics at Island Treasure Toys.

Unless you are game for a longer walk, you will want to drive to the factory tour offered most Saturdays at Wilbur’s Chocolates, located in a pumpkin-colored farmhouse on lower Main Street. After viewing, listening, and of course sampling, visit the adjacent store and just try to leave empty-handed.

If more of the natural world calls, drive a couple of miles on a rural road to Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park, where easy trails of varying lengths through pine forests take you to rewarding coastal views. View the large nest on Googins Island just offshore; its resident ospreys are usually back by now.

Because it is mud, sand, and who knows what else season, be sure to leave those good leather boots behind.

BY NANCY HEISER | GLOBE CORRESPONDENT

Nancy Heiser can be reached at nancyheiser.com.

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