Delightful Down East
W hile most shoppers who head this far north do so in summer, there's plenty to explore among Maine's quieter villages in December, particularly if you enjoy long coastal drives and scenery. Bangor and Ellsworth remain the busiest shopping centers in the region, but if you are prepared to take your time, you'll find great shopping, delicious dining, and cozy accommodations in every direction.
After crossing the Penobscot River and bearing left into downtown Bucksport, you'll find the Old Bank, 55 Main Street (207-469-7980), a working stained-glass studio in what used to be the Bangor Bank. The studio centers around a large workspace for artists and a vault full of supplies. On hand are numerous consignment pieces hanging in the windows and filling the glass case up front. Or commission a piece of your own. Delight dad with a three-dimensional, fishing boat, $375, or mom with hand-blown glass bead jewelry, $18 and up.
About twenty minutes up Route 1 bear right onto Route 15. Twenty minutes more and you'll come to Blue Hill, as picturesque a Maine village as they come. Handworks Gallery, 48 Main Street (207-374-5613), offers fine contemporary crafts such as wood sculpture, pottery, jewelry, small home furnishings, and handbags in a yellow-clapboard storefront in the center of the village. For a friend, finely pieced Maine sea-shell wreaths, from $70, are a way to bring the shore home. Or show mom she walks on gold with a wonderful and elaborately designed hand-woven rug, from $700, with multi-colored geometric designs.
Farther down the peninsula, over the suspension bridge and Eggemoggin Reach, Harbor Farm, 20 Little Deer Isle Road, Little Deer Isle (800-342-8003), is the kind of store that makes you want to return time and again. Whether shopping for handmade tiles, early American reproduction furniture, or fine gifts, the drive is worth the trip. For granny, the hand-blown, multi-colored, glass candy cane bowl, $360, is a treat in itself. An ash-glazed keepsake pot, $18, an intriguingly small, painted pottery vessel with a fir tree on front and a metal and wood handle on top, makes a fun gift for a friend, especially when you fill it with a gift, as it was traditionally intended. Check out the Christmas room with whimsical ornaments and admire the fresh balsam fir wreaths made and sold right outside.
Pearson's Jewelry, Old Ferry Road (207-348-2535), just across the causeway on Deer Isle, has a reputation for affordable, hand-forged, silver and gold jewelry inspired by the Danish modern movement. Pieces by Ronald Pearson are included in the Smithsonian. Stop by this weathered house gallery and select from among gold and silver earrings, bracelets, and neckbands so fluid they look as if they are moving in midair. Prices start at $70 for silver earrings, $100 for bracelets.
Following Route 172 (also known as the Ellsworth Road) from the center of Blue Hill toward Ellsworth, Rackliffe Pottery, 132 Ellsworth Road 207-374-2297), showcases the work of four generations of family potters known for blueberry-glazed stoneware from native clays. Located at the top of Green's Hill, the working studio is as fun to visit as it is to shop at. See new pieces being thrown on the wheel while you browse. Young kids will get a kick out of the studio's hand-painted baby mug, bowl, and plate set, $80, which can be personalized with a child's name. Or light up mom's Christmas with a traditional glass chimney oil lamp, $72. The studio also makes whimsical piggy banks, cheese dishes with pottery mice, and whale and harbor seal figurines.
Following Route 172 thirty minutes to the center of Ellsworth's historic downtown, the street is full of stand-out shops. Four the Fun of It, 100 Main Street (207-667-2252), has plenty to keep kids busy through the long winter. Maine Monopoly, $40, with such properties as Camden, Boothbay, and Bar Harbor, is a perennial favorite. Or keep all hands busy with a Maine Lobster Boat Kit, $10. The toy emporium carries a full assortment of popular children's gifts from trains and books to kits and collectibles.
Just up the block, J&B Atlantic Co., 142 Main Street (888-667-2082), has three floors of antiques, home furnishings, and collectibles intermingled with Maine-made, pine Shaker cabinets, benches, and shelves in an array of country colors — cranberry, pine, blueberry, maple. The four-foot-high double jelly cupboard, $449, will keep mom's treats tucked away this winter, while the three-foot farmer's bench, $85, will do dandy for hiding dad's boots.
In Ellsworth's bustling commercial center, tucked in a small storefront, Marc Blanchette, Windsor Chairmaker, Route 3 (207-667-1818), has a small workshop in which the artisan owner handcrafts period reproduction furniture from Maine maple, pine, and red oak. A favorite with kids is the heirloom quality, spindle-back children's rocking chair, $850, made from an antique pattern. Blanchette says the only difference between his chairs and the originals is 250 years.
Continuing east on Route 3, the Monroe Saltworks, 150 High Street, (207-667-3349), is an outlet offering a large selection of salt-glazed earthenware factory seconds in its most popular hand-painted patterns — a prowling bear, moose, chickadee, bluebirds, crows, cattails, even lawn chairs — all made in nearby Monroe. On many pieces the blemishes are hardly visible, but the savings are significant. For mom, mugs start at $15. The store also carries a variety of Maine crafts, lobster crackers, soaps, and maple syrup. If you want first quality, you can also order here.
As you wind east on Route 3 toward Bar Harbor, Bar Harbor Weathervanes, 852 Bar Harbor Road, Route 3, Trenton (800-255-5025), has a humorous selection of copper roof-toppers, from $500, for any house, shed, garage, or barn. Made right up the road, the company's newest release, a dancing pig clutching a martini glass, is a best-seller sure to make mom smile. For dad, consider the popular motorcycle, bass, or fishing boat designs.
Island Artisans, 99 Main Street, Bar Harbor (207-288-4214), is an upscale collective of fine Maine craftspeople — potters, jewelers, basket and paper makers, metal and glass workers, weavers, and knitters. The full-length, hand-woven, cotton and rayon cape, $189, in cool shades of green and cream makes a snug gift for mom. For dad, the hand-painted tiles of the water and mountains of Acadia framed in wood with a beveled mirror, $110, is a striking surprise. Kids will have fun with wool-felted puppets, $50, in a variety of cute critters from puffins and penguins to elephants and panda bears.
In the opposite direction, heading west on Route 1A from Ellsworth (also known as the Bangor Road), Cozy Cat Farm, 162 Bangor Road, Ellsworth (207-667-1188), has a handful of knits made from owner Darlene Hillyard's own Romney sheep. After spinning and dying the yarn, she turns the fiber into one-of-a-kind mittens, hats, and scarves. You'll also find collectibles, soaps, gourmet foods, jewelry, gifts, and Maine toys at this family-owned shop. Keep a kid warm with a tweed sweater, $50, or select a unique beret for dad, $20 and up.
The Toymaker Gift Shop, 1000 Bangor Road, Ellsworth (207-667-3714), just a tad farther down Route 1A in a red and white ranch, offers wonderfully handmade wooden toys, some painted, others that you can paint yourself. This place is so like Santa's workshop, many folks wonder if Ed Parent, who makes the toys, is the real thing, especially when he's sanding a doll's chair or painting a piggy bank. For kids, the $28 banks — wooden ladybugs, beetles, crocodiles, and other critters — are hand-painted in vibrant hues with see-through bellies and include a Maine quarter to start kids collecting. Or consider an unfinished, stacking doll bunk bed, $60, or a five-car, Iron Horse, four-foot, choo-choo train, $125 (smaller models available).
In Bangor's downtown district, Rebecca's, 43-to-49 Main Street (207-945-3588), is hard to miss. It fills nearly an entire city block. The family-run gift store is housed in a historic brick building with tin ceilings and large rooms stocked with jewelry, braided rugs, specialty foods, buoy bells, miniature hand-painted blocks depicting historic Maine houses, and an enormous selection of "blueberry ware" — ceramic dishes with small blueberries painted on the sides. For grandparents, a set of blueberry-ware chowder mugs, $11 individually, will be sure to warm them through the winter. Or surprise a friend with a painted pie plate, $25 (you supply the pie). A locally-made, eighteen-inch, eucalyptus wreath, $50, decorated with baby's breath, heather, and real roses is a sure hit for a sweetheart.
Just across the street, the Grasshopper Shop, 1 Market Square, (207-945-3132), has a little bit of everything, from contemporary women's clothing to Christmas decorations to table linens, toys, baby gifts, and cookbooks. Recipes from a Very Small Island, by Maine swordfish captain Linda Greenlaw and her mother, Martha Greenlaw, $26, includes beautiful pictorials of island life along with delicious recipes, such as grilled salmon with fresh blueberry corn salsa, and is a good bet for grandma.
For the last leg of your shopping journey, you'll want to be sure you have plenty of gas. It stretches from Ellsworth to Eastport, about 100 miles along Route 1. About halfway, you'll come to Columbia Falls, an eighteenth-century village where potter April Adams displays her floral and nautically-themed earthenware at Columbia Falls Pottery, 150 Main Street (800-235-2512). Lupine, iris, blueberries, columbine, bunchberry, and lady's slippers are among the flowers decorating her dishes, lamps, vases, and pots. When painted on a mug, $20, the multicolored lupine makes a great gift for a friend. For dad, the eight-inch, unframed, wallclock, $38, comes painted with a charming sailboat crossing a bay. Now in her thirty-fifth year of business, Adams displays her work on the first floor of a historic clapboard house and works in a studio out back.
After rolling farther Down East into Eastport, head downtown to Wood on Water, 75 Water Street (207-853-9663), where artist Amy Marcotte burns scenes onto Shaker boxes, treasure chests, plaques, tissue boxes, and small pieces of furniture. When a man from New Jersey dropped off a photograph of his golden retriever, Marcotte artistically transcribed it onto the top of a tissue box, which the man then gave to his wife for her birthday. The store carries finished designs with images of the outdoors and animals. Or call ahead and bring an idea of your own. Beautifully crafted treasure boxes, $35 and up, make a safe place for mom to stash her jewelry. Or give dad a custom laptop desk document holder, from $75. The store also features a variety of photography, pie chests, tables, and candlestick holders in a variety of finishes.
Where to eat
MacLeod's, Main Street, Bucksport (207-469-3963), is an informal pub-style restaurant with fine family fare for lunch (weekdays) and dinner all week long. The Captain's Boat — fresh haddock, scallops, and shrimp baked in a sweet vermouth cream — is a house specialty. Or try the tempting haddock chowder. Dinners average $17.
The Riverside Café, 151 Main Street, Ellsworth (207-667-7220), is a favorite dining spot in town serving breakfast all day, Sunday brunch, and a menu of Maine favorites from chowders to blueberry pie in a casual atmosphere with antique bar stools, wooden booths, and eclectic local art. Breakfasts begin at $6.
Serving lunch and dinner with an international influence, Thistles Restaurant, 175 Exchange Street, Bangor (207-945-5480), is known for fine dining, excellent wines, and live music. Family owned with a friendly environment, the restaurant serves such selections as smoked salmon canapés, cioppino seafood stew, and roast rack of lamb. Lunch is from $10, dinner from $17.
Where to stay
Near the center of Blue Hill, the Blue Hill Inn, Union Street, Blue Hill (207-374-2844), is an 1840s federal-style inn that prides itself on detail, from the Victorian furnishings in the guest rooms to the fresh maple syrup served with breakfast. Some of the inn's eleven distinctive rooms feature wood-burning fireplaces, and all include a full breakfast and evening hors d'oeuvres. Prices start at $138.
The Coach Stop Inn Bed & Breakfast, 715 State Highway 3, Bar Harbor (800-927-3097), is a quaint cape located on a quiet hillside five miles from the harbor. Built in 1804 (Jefferson was still president), it is the oldest lodging establishment in the harbor and offers quiet, comfortable rooms, from $79 a night, including an elegant breakfast. Some rooms even have fireplaces.
Midway between Ellsworth and Bangor, the Lucerne Inn, Route 1A, Dedham (800-325-5123), offers comfortable rooms and suites with views of nearby Phillips Lake and the distant mountains. The nineteenth-century mansion is also known for its fine dining and famed Sunday brunch buffet, included with all Saturday night reservations. Otherwise guests enjoy a continental breakfast. Room rates begin at $65.