Downtown, Maine: Sugarloaf
A travel series by Elizabeth Peavey
Gather around children, because I have a special holiday treat for you. I’m going to tell you about a frozen, faraway land. It’s home to bounding reindeer and toymaking elves and a jolly old soul with a big white beard, who, for the price of a well-crafted ale or bourbon, will hoist you up on his lap and let you whisper all your Christmas wishes in his ear.
I know you’re probably thinking Santa and the North Pole, but not so fast. I’ll confess, I did throw you a couple curves. When I said reindeer, I meant moose. When I said toymaking elves, I meant merrymaking. And when I was talking about that old soul letting you up on his lap, well, that’s political columnist Al Diamon. He’ll let you sit on his lap provided you’re not a politician. Or a member of the media. Or a human being. Or anything short of the canine persuasion. And since dogs rarely carry beer money, it seems everyone’s out of luck on the lap front.
Still, this magical Maine place has allure. It’s part North Pole, part North Woods, part Never-Never-Land and part Big Rock Candy Mountain. You may know it better as Sugarloaf.
Now, before your eyes glaze over and you dismiss this as something geared toward the Spandex-and-goggles crowd, I have to tell you something. If you live in Maine long enough, you’re going to meet a skier. And there’s a very good chance that skier will either own, or have a relative or friend who owns, a camp or condo at Sugarloaf, and someday you might be invited along. If you decline the invitation because you don’t ski, you will be making a grave mistake. A trip up there is like getting dropped off at Drunk Sleepaway Camp for Grownups.
Thus, I present you with a non-skier’s survival guide to the Sugarloaf area.
The first order of business is getting there. But before you leave behind the culinary comforts of the Portland peninsula, remember this: One never goes to the North Woods empty-handed. Make sure to hit Micucci’s, RSVP, your favorite coffee roaster and Standard Baking (I personally suggest scones, baguette and chocolate corks) before you head out. You want to get invited back, don’t you?
Now, there is some debate as to the best route, and I like them all, but I will steer you to the most direct: via Route 27 out of Augusta. Take Exit 112B from the Maine Turnpike and just stay on 27 North until you arrive at your destination. (If you hit Canada, turn around.)
As you exit the turnpike, behold the sprawl. You’ll soon encounter a bustling megaplex and an Irving Station (a good place to top off your tank and drain your bladder). As you press on, the blight begins to lift. Your grip on the wheel may loosen when you drive by Messalonskee Lake and smell the newly sawn pine at the Hammond Lumber yard there.
You’ll next pass through the summer community of Belgrade Lakes, best known as the place that inspired On Golden Pond. Inside Day’s Store, a real landmark here, you can get anything from fishing gear to great sandwiches and baked goods to loon oven mitts and underpants (maybe). As you shop, do your Katherine Hepburn imitation — “The loons! The loons!” They love it when you do. Honest. Try it.
From here, you’ll start gaining elevation and catching glimpses of mountain vistas, some of which — when the snow cover and light are right — are dazzling. Less dazzling are the gangly birds at The Turkey Farm in New Sharon, but if the only uncooked turkey you’ve ever seen is on the label of a whiskey bottle, take a gander as you pass these critters ranging freely in their pens. (Wait, isn’t that an oxymoron?)
Soon you will come to a T-stop. Hang a left, cross the Sandy River (with a quick look to your right at the magnificence of this deep, rocky gorge) and proceed into the countryside. Roll down the windows and take a deep breath. What’s that you smell? Stilton? Camembert? Limburger? Nope, you’re in cow country. Water cracker, anyone?
At this point, it’s just a short stretch into the college town of Farmington. Since we’re on a mission, I will only highlight one stop: Java Joe’s Corner Café, on your right as you’re almost all the way through town. They have a clean bathroom and serve excellent Carrabassett Coffee. (I prefer their Back Draft roast; it’s like drinking coffee from a dirty ashtray, yet it’s delicious. There are tamer brews, too.)
The next big milestone is the right turn just outside of town, where 27 parts ways with 4 (a route it picked up in Farmington), which I have heard referred to as “beer corner,” though I can’t possibly imagine why. Continuing on 27, you’ll pass through New Vineyard and New Portland, the home of Nowetah’s American Indian Museum and Gift Store (very mysterious looking, but worth a stop), and then through the gateway town of Kingfield, where you can get breakfast at the Kingfield Woodsman, just out of town on your left. (This information is relevant in that, for an area that produces so many hangovers, there are very few breakfast joints.)
Aside from the massive logging trucks that rip around these hairpin turns, this is one of my favorite stretches of roadway in the state. That’s because of the spectacle of the Carrabassett River, which snakes beside Route 27. Whether high water or low, ice-heaped and snow-covered or raging with the torrents of spring, the sight of the Carrabassett is itself worth the price of the journey. And you will know this, my friends, because we’ve arrived at our initial destination: Carrabassett Valley. As the sign says, “From here on out, your life will never be the same.” (I have to confess: I still don’t know if they mean for better or for worse.)
OK, so I’m going to make a couple presumptions for our tour: that you’ve arrived on a Friday afternoon and that you’re staying with friends. The first thing you’ll want to do is find your digs and stow your gear. Because space is usually at a premium, this will most likely involve a sleeping bag and very often a loft. Let me speak from experience — you do not want to come home from an evening out in downtown Carrabassett Valley and have to make your bed. You want to be ready to flop. So, a little preplanning in this department goes a long way. Also, there is no taxi — tipsy or otherwise — in these parts, and Route 27 is not safe to walk in broad daylight, let alone on a black, frozen, drinky winter night. So I’m also assuming you’ve brought your chauffeur.
Once you’ve settled in and presented your hosts with your Portland booty (if you screwed up and forgot to bring booty, you must stop at Ayotte’s Country Store — in the heart of downtown CV — and select something from their wall of liquor), it’s time to don your North Woods drinking togs. This is tricky, because it’s usually damn cold and slippery outside, but steamy inside the bars. Sensible footwear (leave the groovy boots at home) is a must. As are layers. I have developed my own personal look — a cross between Donna Karan and the Kittery Trading Post — that I call “Backwoods Chic.” I also like to have a place to safely tuck my money and I.D., so I don’t have to carry a wallet. For a night in the Valley, you want to keep your hands free.
And that night is about to begin at Tufulio’s. The bar in this Italian restaurant is the main clubhouse for what are known on the mountain as Valley Rats. You should plan to arrive at this dusky drinking den at 4 p.m., when the bar opens and happy hour begins. You enter through a long hallway and then turn a corner to a ta-da! moment. This is, to my knowledge, the only double-U-shaped bar in the state. (Or is it M-shaped?) The ceilings are low, there are a couple TVs always on, free popcorn and happy-hour snacks, and, best of all, a wide selection of good beer; plus, it’s cheap ($2.50 a pint).
To understand the dynamics of the Tufulio’s experience, envision a diagram of an atom. At the nucleus are the scene’s own proton and neutron, Joe and Ruthie. (They’re the couple sitting at the center island with the martinis in front of them.) There are other protons and neutrons who reside in this nucleus, but not so much at the center. The rest of us orbit around them like electrons.
There’s an ebb and flow to the Tufulian rhythm. Joe and Ruthie arrive promptly at 4, followed by the rest of the happy-hour crowd. The room is fairly modest in size and fills up quickly. If you are a flatlander, it’s best to have a local envoy stationed near the bar to expedite your drink order. Assuming your friend has local ties, you will soon meet the gang. These locals have the opposite of xenophobia. They have philoxenia. (Thank you Google for wasting so much of my time looking up stupid words no one is going to know or care about.) So long as proper introductions have been made, you’re in. Why, you might even see the aforementioned jolly old soul himself. (Go up and pull his beard to see if it’s real. He loves it when people do that. Honest.) And if someone offers you an invitation to “hurl” on Sunday — well, it’s a little complicated to explain here (it’s a sport that involves frozen milk jugs, bull’s eye targets spray-painted on a pond, and much drinking) — trust me, it’s a compliment to be invited, and you should say yes.
The most engaging part of the Tufulio’s experience is that last dash to the end of happy hour at 6. It’s sort of like the final moments of Supermarket Sweep, without (thank God) the shopping cart. Once your last happy hour beverage is purchased, you can relax a little and contemplate how to spend the remainder of your evening.
If it’s youthful companionship you’re looking for (the core Tufulio’s crowd trends more toward Centrum Silver ‘n’ Social Security), you might head to Judson’s, a motel/drinking establishment a little farther up 27. (Rumors of nude cribbage tournaments there have been only partially confirmed, so call ahead.) The only problem with the youthful companionship at Judson’s is that it’s usually of the hurling variety — and I’m not talking ice sports. Your hosts may want to take you to the adjacent Carrabassett Inn for another slice of local color, but don’t forget dinner. To use skiing parlance, you’ll want to “lay a base.”
Hit the dining room at Tufulio’s for a pizza or head up to The Rack, a lodge-like bar and BBQ joint located near the bottom of the access road to the mountain, for a pile of meaty ribs.
The next morning, after you shake off the cobwebs, it’s time to get outside. That’s right, I’m going to make you earn a little of your leisure. Here comes another presumption: You didn’t follow my advice and bring your chauffeur, so you ended up having to bum a ride home with one of your new BFFs, and your car is back at Tufulio’s parking lot. Perfect. Just get dropped off at the Maine Huts & Trails Poplar Stream Loop Trail, accessed from the trailhead on Gauge Road, within walking distance of Tufulio’s. This four-mile loop takes you past the stunning Poplar Falls (if you have not seen falls in winter, you’ve not seen falls) and through great stands of hardwoods and fir. Maine Huts & Trails’ excellent Web site has all the particulars.
Another option is to try out the Narrow Gauge Pathway, starting at the Campbell Field trailhead, not far south of the access road on 27. Like Poplar Stream Trail, this bike/hike/x-country ski trail permits no motorized vehicles and will be soothing to your nerves. If it’s at all slippery, a pair of Yaktrax ice shoes — basically a big spring to wrap around your boots — is essential. Warm socks are also a must. (If I need to further explain to you how to dress for the cold, you might as well stay in bed and sleep it off.)
This stretch of the trail (roughly 4.5 miles) follows the boulder-strewn Carrabassett River and has a couple of nice mountain-bike spurs that loop back to the main trail. Getting close to the river is a worthy detour. You must use your senses. If there is snow, note how in spots it is not white but Aqua Velva blue. Hear the quiet roar. Breathe in that sharp air. Don’t you feel better?
Hours later, when you’ve reached the trail’s end and are cursing my name, continue out to Valley Crossing Road, take a right, and soon you’ll see your car in Tufulio’s lot. Hate me? Thought so. Thirsty? Good.
Because it’s time to head to the mountain and see what all the fuss is about. Note on your way one of the most famous vistas in the area, Omigosh Corner, a startling view of the mountain face carved with slopes. Take a left onto the access road and continue to the top. Dodge all the people clomping around in their boots and swinging their poles this way and that, and duck into The Bag. This is a great spot to meet up with your skiing friends, who are probably ready for a break, and have lunch or a quick beer. You can sample one of the craft brews (I favor the pale ale), although many of the locals seem to drink Ballantine here. Say hi to my (and everyone else’s) old friend, the legendary Uncle Al of The Outerspace Band fame, who more likely than not will be tending bar. Take a look at the slopes to see what you’ve been missing. By then it’ll be time to head for the other side of the mountain.
Enjoy more scenic mountain vistas as you wind your way on (yes, still) Route 27 into the town of Stratton. A beer or a burger at the White Wolf in the heart of town is always good for another dose of local color, but carry on across the causeway that spans Flagstaff Lake (formerly the towns of Flagstaff and Dead River, but that’s a story for another time) as it opens up under the big brow of the Bigelow range. This, fellow travelers, is God’s country, as well as the stomping ground of my friend and collaborator, the painter Marguerite Robichaux, whose evocative landscapes remind us there are still raw and wild places left in Maine. (At least as of this writing.)
No visit to Stratton/Eustis is complete without a stop at the Pines Market, a grocery/sporting goods/hardware/clothing store nestled in the Cathedral Pines that line this stretch of 27. It may be one of the few stores where you can buy the Sunday Times (arrive early; they carry just a couple copies), have your deer weighed and do your Christmas shopping. Check out the great selection of Backwoods Chic-wear in the rear of the store. Just think: you can dress just like me!
Now for some serious lunch. If you want to be able to say you truly “got useless in Eustis,” a trip to Trail’s End Steak House (just a quarter mile off 27 into Eustis Village) is a must. The décor is simple: beer signs and stuffed game birds. Paneled walls. Occasionally a gun suspended over the bar for a raffle. On Twofer Night (two entrées for one price, not two entrees for the price of one — a complicated North Woods ritual most restaurants in these parts observe), the place is always packed with sports, skiers, loggers and locals. You must try the prime rib sandwich deluxe. (Just make sure they’ve served prime rib the night before. If they haven’t, go for the steak sandwich deluxe, just for the pleasure of ordering a deluxe anything.)
There are a couple drives you can take at this point to kill time until happy hour. Continue on 27 up through the Chain of Ponds to the Canadian border. Or get a bird’s eye view of the area from the top of Eustis Ridge, via the Eustis Ridge Road, back near the Pines Market. Or you can go moose chasing down Route 16 between Stratton and Rangeley, otherwise known in the area as “Moose Alley.”
To end your day, stop at The Porter House restaurant, located in a 100-year-old farmhouse on Route 27 in Eustis. If you’re still full from lunch, climb the narrow stairs to the Blue Heron Pub for an icy martini and the chef’s fried oysters. Take a seat on one of the few stools at the pine-paneled bar and get comfortable. This cozy, eave-y room is done up in a Maine camp motif, so it kind of feels like you’re drinking in Grandma’s attic. I often go there with Marguerite, a Louisiana native, and if she says these oysters are the real thing — I’ll tell you what — you know they are.
As you step out into the parking lot, throw your head back and look at the night sky. You are closer than you know to the top of the world. Is it the cold, the dark, the gin, or did you just taste the stars?