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A Tank Away: Belfast, Maine

Old, new, and always independent

A festive mix of artists, shops on Penobscot Bay

Belfast’s eclectic downtown is a mix of preserved historic buildings, art galleries, thrift shops, and cool customers. Belfast’s eclectic downtown is a mix of preserved historic buildings, art galleries, thrift shops, and cool customers. (Hilary Nangle for The Boston Globe)
By Hilary Nangle
Globe Correspondent / April 20, 2011

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Named by Budget Travel magazine as one of America’s 10 Coolest Small Towns in 2008, Belfast blends a well-preserved architectural heritage with a contemporary counter-culture vibe. Located on the Passagassawakeag River where it flows into Penobscot Bay, Belfast is home to an eclectic mix of artists, creative entrepreneurs, corporate refugees, a co-housing community, and back-to-the-landers. Downtown storefronts reflect the diversity, with art galleries and specialty shops next door to thrift stores and off-price bonanzas.

STAY Innkeepers Ed and Judy Hemmingsen spent years meticulously renovating adjacent mid-19th-century row houses into the stylish Belfast Bay Inn (72 Main St., 207-338-5600, www.belfastbayinn.com, $198-$375), an elegant boutique hotel. The Jeweled Turret Inn (40 Pearl St., 207-338-2304, 800-696-2304, www.jeweledturret.com, $120-$159) is loaded with handsome woodwork, Victorian antiques, and an unusual stone fireplace. The White House Inn (1 Church St., 207-338-1901, 888-290-1901, www.mainebb.com, $131-$250) is a stunning Greek Revival built in 1840. The oceanfront Belfast Harbor Inn (91 Searsport Ave., 207-338-2740, 800-545-8576, www.belfastharborinn.com, $59-$159) allows pets in some rooms for $10.

FOOD Fresh food prepared in creative ways earned Chase’s Daily (96 Main St., 207-338-0555) a nomination for a James Beard award. It’s open for breakfast, lunch, Sunday brunch, and Friday dinner, when entrees are $15-$22. Delvino’s Grill and Pasta House (52 Main St., 207-338-4565, entrees $13-$22) satisfies cravings for fresh pastas and Italian fare. A longtime standby for creative world cuisine, Darby’s Restaurant and Pub (155 High St., 207-338-2339, www.darbysrestaurant.com, entrees $11-$20) served tofu before tofu was cool. Industrial chic, casual, and laid-back best describe Three Tides (2 Pinchy Lane, on Marshall Wharf, 207-338-1707, www.3tides.com, $3.50-$22), a waterfront tapas bar and brewery, with outdoor seating and bocce ball court. The Belfast Co-op (123 High St., 207-338-2532, www.belfast.coop, sandwiches $5.25-$8.29), a full-service organic and natural foods grocery, has a deli-cafe serving salads, sandwiches, prepared foods, and baked goods. Another good spot for a quick bite is Bay Wrap (20 Beaver St., 207-338-9757, www.baywrap.com, wraps $7.25-$8.25), where wraps approach gourmet fare; try the samurai salmon wrap.

DURING THE DAY Spend a few hours admiring the Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, and Victorian architecture peppering Belfast’s three distinct National Historic Districts: the downtown Belfast Commercial Historic District and the Church Street and Primrose Hill residential neighborhoods. At the Chamber of Commerce office (14 Main St., 207-338-5900), pick up the free Belfast Historic Walking Tour map-brochure detailing more than 40 in-town sites. Or, explore the Belfast Historical Society’s Museum in the Streets, comprising two large panels and 30 smaller ones highlighting historic buildings and people. Take in the views from the pedestrian bridge at the river or Harbor Park, on the waterfront. Up for some shopping? Colburn Shoe Store (81 Main St., 207-338-1934 or 877-338-1934, www.colburnshoe.com), founded in the 1830s, bills itself as “the oldest shoe store in America.’’ Brambles (69 Main St., 207-338-3448) carries fun, whimsical, and practical garden-themed merchandise. Out of the Woods (48 Main St., 207-338-2692, www.kilndry.com/outofthewoods/default.html) specializes in Maine-made wood products. The Green Store (71 Main St., 207-338-4045, www.greenstore.com) carries a huge selection of environmentally friendly products. You never know what you’ll find in Reny’s (1 Belmont Ave., 207-338-4588, www.renys.com), one of a small Maine chain carrying a little of just about everything, at very low prices. Just over the Belfast bridge is Cherished Home (31 Searsport Ave., 207-338-4111, www.thecherishedhome.com), where Genie Francis, who starred as Laura on the soap opera “General Hospital,’’ now sells home-oriented merchandise. On April 30, the Belfast Free Range Music Festival (www.freerangemusicfestival.com, $18 advance, with a limited number of tickets sold the day of the festival for $20) provides 13 hours of live music at eight venues.

AFTER DARK Grab a beer and watch the Red Sox or other sports action on five high-def screens at Rollie’s (37 Main St., 207-338-4502). Catch a flick at the Colonial Theatre (163 High St., 207-338-1930, www.colonialtheatre.com), a restored Art Deco classic (just look for the rooftop elephant). Open-mike nights, jazz jams, classes, and lectures fill the calendar for Waterfall Arts (265 High St., 207-338-2222, www.waterfallarts.org). The Belfast Maskers (43 Front St., 207-338-9668, www.belfastmaskerstheater.com), a community theater group, performs contemporary and classical dramas. Just south of Belfast, the funky Blue Goose Dance Hall (Route 1, Northport, 207-338-3003) hosts folk concerts, contra dances, auctions, and other events.

Hilary Nangle can be reached at www.MaineTravelMaven.com.