Downtown, Maine: Brunswick
A travel series by Elizabeth Peavey
I have to confess: the idea of a getaway to Brunswick did not entirely thrill me. It’s not exactly terra incognita. I grew up next door in Bath and, according to the rah-rah high school stuff, there should be an inherent sense of rivalry – but I can tell you there is not. (For God’s sake, I even ended up—after roaming the world—marrying a Brunswick boy, my husband, John.) Once I got my driver’s license, it served as a hideout: there was coffee and cheesecake at the Ruffed Grouse, hanging out in the Bowdoin library trying to not look like a townie and, of course, the live airing of my Brunswick local-access TV show, Digressions (or Dimensions or Digestions —neither I, nor my former co-host, can recall the name). Anything to get me out of Bath.
Plus, John’s family still lives in the Brunswick area, and my mom moved there after she sold the Bath family home in 2000, so I’m/we’re there once a week, minimum. All this exposure has made Brunswick pretty familiar turf. Setting our alarm on a Saturday morning to adventure there just didn’t seem right.
But, ah, grasshopper, that is the true challenge of travel: to make the exotic familiar and the familiar exotic. (Did I just make that up? If so, it sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?) So, armed with the essentials —a roadie (of coffee), a copy of Kathleen Brandes’ indispensable Moon Handbooks: Maine (which has saved me from many bad baked-stuffed haddock dinners on my travels and a lot of time looking for phone numbers for this article), and my trusty DeLorme Gazetteer—John and I set out to discover (or rediscover) Brunswick.
Brunswick is located about 30 minutes from Portland, in what some call the Midcoast region. (Those farther down east—in the twee and tony Camden area—also lay claim to the term.) It was settled in 1628 around the falls of the Androscoggin River, which the Native Americans called Ahmelahcogneturcook, “a place of much fish, fowl, beasts [and syllables].” Later, the power of these falls ran sawmills and textile mills.
A grade school outing in the 1960s to the Pejepscot Paper Mill remains a standout memory from my childhood. The roar of the machinery was numbing, and the vats of slurry were smelly, but we were all fascinated to see that muck smoothed on sheets and rollers and become paper. At the end of the tour, we were all given a nice packet of multicolored construction paper—a big prize for a Bath kid back then and reward for not sticking our hands in the machinery and losing a finger. Meanwhile, in the Androscoggin, the mill’s discharge—which was the color of the head on a pint of Guinness and had the consistency of a bathful of Mr. Bubble —churned and roiled. Happily, the river’s cleaned up today, but the falls still boil.
Brunswick is the home (for the time being) of the Brunswick Naval Air Station, where my dad worked as a civilian until he retired (I thought all grown-ups had armed guards overseeing their place of employ); and of Bowdoin College, where my protégé, Mac Evans, goes to school and who, I figure, will get his friends there to read this if I mention his name. The presence of Bowdoin and BNAS is often credited for what some travel writers call Brunswick’s “lively mix”—code for the fact you might actually see a person of color there.
There’s a pretty town green, where you can find a couple hot dog carts, ice skating in the winter, and a weekly farmers’ market in the summer, as well as other civic events, year-round. The main street (Maine Street) is a broad 198 feet wide. Fortunately, there are plenty of crosswalks and traffic lights, so you don’t have to dash. Most of the action in town takes place off Maine Street, and, aside from a detour or two, that’s where we concentrated our visit.
Now, as to getting there. One of my road credos is to never take the highway when a back road is available, no matter the extra driving time (which explains why it took me three months and 13,000 miles to complete my first cross-country trip). But I am going to give you three options.
You might be unnerved just by the idea of crossing Tukeys Bridge and leaving Portinsula, so if you need to stay on I-295, so be it. Just don’t miss your exit (28), or you might end up in Augusta. (Ordinarily, I would now make a crack about Augusta, but I’m afraid if I do it will inspire Busby to send me there next.)
For the more adventurous, there are two other options, which we term in our household the Upland Route and the Lowland Route. The former travels along Route 9, which you can pick up at the end of Presumpscot Street or off the Cumberland exit of I-295. It will take you through Cumberland Center (a stop at Sweetser’s Apple Barrel is a must for local heirloom apples), through Pownal, past Bradbury Mountain State Park (a cute, quick hike, if you want a geographic overview of where you’re heading), and through farmy Durham. There are a couple tricky turns: Route 9 briefly joins and quits Route 136. Stay on 9. You then must leave 9, turn onto Swamp Road, which becomes Soper Road, which becomes River Road, which will take you to Pleasant Street (go left) and, at its terminus, Maine Street. As you can see, this course is not for the faint of heart. One wrong turn, and you’re screwed—code for “you’re likely to end up in Lewiston.” (Ditto on the Augusta remark above.)
The Lowland Route is equally pleasing. Take Yarmouth Exit 19 from I-295 and travel north on Route 1. Turn right onto the South Freeport Road at the B.F.I. (you’ll understand the acronym when you get there) and go through South Freeport. If it’s off-season, go down to the town landing and look at the sea ducks. If it’s high season, go have a clam roll at Harraseeket Lunch and Lobster to tide you over for the ride. In Freeport, you’ll have to do a quick jog on Bow Street to Pleasant Hill Road, which, if all goes right, will take you all the way to Maine Street. Be careful of the tricky fork to the right leading to Wolfe’s Neck State Park, unless you want to work off those fried clams with a brisk shoreside jog.
If you travel on a Saturday, the Lowland Route is great because it will take you past the most-excellent Crystal Spring Farms farmers’ market. (Not to be confused with the one on the village green, which, as our seven-year-old nephew, Jared, has made clear to us, is the farmers’ market with hot dogs.) No hot dogs here—just great organic produce. Make sure to stop by and say hi to Mr. Keough, John’s apple man, and the free-range turkey guy from New Sharon. Crystal Springs used to be the site of a great pumpkin chuck in the fall using a giant trebuchet, and I wish they’d bring it back. I mean, a bunch of gourds flying through the air is something not to be missed.
Next, continue past the farm’s lush fields to the end of Pleasant Hill Road, and bang a left onto Maine Street. Wave to Mac (remember, my protégé?) as you pass Bowdoin on your right, and think Civil War thoughts as you pass Joshua Chamberlain’s house and museum on your left. There’s plenty of literary history afoot in Brunswick: Longfellow and Hawthorne went to Bowdoin, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin here, and I did my first post-publication interview at Bohemian Coffee House after my book, Maine & Me, came out. This sunny, cheerful café’s a good place to start your day.
Not too long ago, once you left the Portland skyline in your rearview mirror, you could kiss real coffee goodbye. (I can recall a time when the Bucksport Dunkin’ Donuts was an oasis—bleck.) The thought of Eight O’Clock Coffee and Styrofoam cups still fills my heart with dread, but now, thanks to all the flatlanders who moved here from away and drove up real estate prices so that real residents who have lived here all their lives can’t afford to buy on the peninsula or near the water or anywhere that isn’t abutting a meth lab, we can at least be sure to find a decent cup of coffee in almost every corner of the state, and Brunswick is no exception. I especially like Bohemian’s Bray’s Brew Pub roast. (Talk about killing two of my favorite birds with one stone.)
No trip to Brunswick is complete without a stop at one of my favorite independent booksellers in the state: Gary Lawless’ and Beth Leonard’s Gulf of Maine Books, where you can always get a heapin’ helpin’ of counterculture counter culture. (Full disclosure: Gary’s a pal, and the store carries both of my books; plus, I have a Gulf of Maine Books tote bag.) They’re great supporters of local and non-mainstream authors, and there’s usually a spirited conversation going on in the store. Think of it as Brunswick’s version of a leftward-leaning Hyde Park.
One of the nice things about travel is that it gets you out of your do-the-same-thing-the-same-way-every-day rut. Owing to my aversion to sharing collective experiences with strangers and their smells and noises, I no longer go to the movies. So, for this trip, I decided a matinee at the Eveningstar Cinema in the Tontine Mall was in order. Not only a matinee, but a silent movie matinee—John Ford’s 1924 The Iron Horse, with piano accompaniment. And to ensure I wouldn’t back out, I even preordered our tickets. Granted, we had to move seats a couple times so I could distance myself from other people in this intimate theater, but as the feature got underway, I barely noticed the smacking of popcorn behind me or the wafting of eau de toilet. I sneered at the villain and cheered for the hero and hooted appreciation for the piano player right along with everyone else. I am convinced I could only have fun doing something like this away from home—at least I hope so. The next thing I know, I’ll be clapping in time at a sing-along. (Please, someone shoot me, now.)
Having tamed the West, it was time for lunch. We could’ve opted for such local favorites as Scarlet Begonias’ homemade soups and hearty sandwiches; The Great Impasta, for Italian (both places are equally popular at dinner); Wild Oats Bakery & Café, in the Tontine Mall, for wholesome, healthsome fare; or the New York-style Big Top Deli, for a steaming pile of pastrami and corned beef. There are also a couple Indian restaurants and Mexican restaurants that can hold their own, but I had already made my mind up about lunch. John, who grew up here, had never been to the Fat Boy Drive-In —a Brunswick institution since the 1950s —and it was time to right that wrong.
Fat Boy, located on the Bath Road across from the bnas airfield (prime viewing area when the Blue Angels do their air show), is a ‘50s-style, drive-up diner that still actually employs a bevy of teenage girls for car-hop service, although they do not travel on roller skates. The menu is heavy on Fry-o-lator favorites, seafood and burgers; they boast their specialties to be frappes and Canadian bacon blts. It’s also really cheap ($1.45 for their “all steak hamburger”).
Here’s how it works: You arrive. You park. You put on your headlights. A hop brings you—if you need one—a menu, although it seems most diners don’t. You turn off your lights. You decide. You turn your lights back on to order, and then watch and wait. Your heart leaps and your stomach churns every time a hop emerges from the diner with a laden tray. I don’t like this kind of arrangement, especially when I’m hungry and a place is busy, like Fat Boy was on this day, because by the time the food comes, I have a stomach ache—which is probably why my Whoperburger (sic), even though I didn’t finish it, kind of made me feel icky. But locals and visitors just love the place, and you probably will, too. Besides, what do I know? I usually eat lentil soup for lunch. Don’t listen to me. Really.
John and I needed a walk after our beef burgers, so we trundled across the pedestrian bridge that spans the Androscoggin, and then, since that took all of 10 minutes (including a discussion of what, exactly, Billie Jo McAllister threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge), we decided to try out the Androscoggin River Bike Path, which you can see from the highway between Brunswick and Cook’s Corner. That was ok, too, though I think this path is more suited for bike, skate, jogger, dog-walker and kid traffic than my taste cares for. Regardless, it was pleasant looking at the river, and the path is a good spot to shake a leg and work up a thirst.
Beer was in order. One of the places we had not yet visited on my hit list was Frontier Café, Cinema & Gallery, located in an expansive industrial space in the back of the Fort Andross building overlooking those roiling falls. (The front is primarily taken up by Cabot Mill Antiques mall—a great place to kill some time if you like looking at old junk.) Enter Frontier’s doors, and it feels as though you could land a small plane inside. The ceiling and windows soar. Various tables and counters and couches give each patron her own pod, but there is also a line of cafeteria-style tables by the windows for the more communal at heart. The place is self-service, the menu is light fare: sandwiches and soups and marketplates featuring samplers of international flavors (Italian, French, Middle Eastern). There’s a good beer and wine selection, although a curious dearth of Maine beers. The décor is decidedly post-industrial —big beams, burnished metals, rough-hewn floors—with lots of artwork on the walls. There’s also a screening room with comfy seats and row tables (you may order and bring your food in with you), where the café holds talks and shows movies. But for my money, the view outside the window was show enough.
The day was coming to a close, and our thoughts turned to supper. Again, we had choices aplenty, but we narrowed it down to two places: Back Street Bistro or El Camino Cantina. We love the former (full disclosure: co-owner Chris Pillsbury is a friend). It’s tucked off Maine Street near the fire station (in case your Bananas Foster goes awry). The bistro’s cozy and casual—in a rustic, post-and-beam, open-kitchen sort of way—but the food’s serious business. Their beef carpaccio is the best I’ve ever had, the mussels sublime, and the rest of the menu—fresh seafood, grilled meats, house-made confit, sausages and house-smoked salmon—reflects the owners’ Portland roots (both Pillsbury and his partner, Bob Magda, are Fore Street alums). But because John had never been to the cantina, we opted on this visit for El Camino.
It was early yet—sixish—but patrons were already starting to fill the seats in the festive dining room and gather around the oversized horseshoe bar in the lounge. We were greeted with a cheery “Hiya!” by host Paul Comaskey (who, along with his wife, Daphne, and their partner, chef Eloise Humphrey, own the joint), and felt at home at once. We explained we wanted to have a drink at the bar before heading into dinner, and found ourselves a nice cowboy seat where we could both watch our backs and the action.
I remembered this place as a red sauce-style Italian restaurant when I was growing up, but it has been utterly transformed. El Camino looks like one of those hole-in-the-walls you stumble on out west that’s been there forever. The exterior is yellow stucco and the interior’s melon-colored walls are festooned with hubcaps and license plates and mirrors and Christmas lights. The bar is rimmed with red sparkle-vinyl padding (like on a bike seat), the same that covers the bar stools and banquettes. Vintage light fixtures hovering aloft look like giant snowballs covered with jellied candies. When I requested a closer look at her old-timey, Wild West cowgirl dress, Eloise came over to talk to us and became (full disclosure) my new best friend. She confessed she needed to get out of there because she had been in the kitchen all day making chorizo. Hell, who needed to eat? I could’ve happily just sat there drinking and gawking.
When things started to get busy in the dining room, Paul showed us to one of the last tables, where we had a chance to pore over the menu, which features fresh, local (often organic) produce and meats. When I mentioned to the waiter I was interested in tasting Eloise’s (utterly yummy) chorizo, he instantly went to fetch me some in a ramekin and delivered it without charge. We opted, however, for the soft tacos filled with chili-rubbed skirt steak, and an order of chicken mole, plus some house-made chips, salsa and guacamole. We ate and loved every bite.
Our bellies full, our bodies tired and ready for bed, we were about to put a close on our day. It was hard to believe we had had such an adventure in a town we thought we knew so well. But we had managed to make our old, familiar Brunswick feel exotic.
Now, if we only had remembered to send postcards.