A coastal trove of history, beauty, summer promise
WISCASSET — Freshness in the air, mud underfoot. Tourist towns are waking up, yet not all attractions are open for business. It must be spring.
The fickle season allows a traveler to poke about, indoors or out, in an unhurried way. In Wiscasset that means antiques and architecture, farms and food. Visit this justifiably prideful town of 4,000 — it calls itself the “prettiest village in Maine’’ — in springtime and you can acknowledge the past and anticipate the future while missing the congestion of high summer.
Two hundred years ago, one could step from deck to deck of the anchored schooners in this protected deep-water harbor, ice-free in all seasons. Nestled on the shores of the Sheepscot River, Wiscasset was the busiest shipping port east of Boston from the American Revolution until the War of 1812. Today, the village is an architectural treasure. A walk takes you past sea captains’ mansions; 19th-century barns; a sunken garden, now a town park; and the 1824 brick courthouse, still in operation.
Veer off Main Street to view the grand homes, privately owned and occupied, along High and Lee streets, stunning examples of Federal and early Victorian architecture. “What makes Wiscasset so visually interesting is its great variety of architectural styles,’’ says Jay Robbins, executive director of the Lincoln County Historical Association.
Wiscasset’s nearly 30 antiques shops reflect just how much locals love their history. Most are clustered within a few blocks of Main Street. About half are open by mid-April, the rest in May.
And don’t think it’s all Americana gone viral. Picture a mix of European, Asian, Colonial Indian, and New England furniture, linens, porcelain, rugs, books, art, and accessories from the 1690s on. Ask around for the map of shops and explore.
With their brick walls and plank floors, retail stores selling contemporary goods meld beautifully with the town’s historic sensibility. Willis Somoya makes custom lampshades as well as sells antique lamps and glass at The Shady Lady. Intarawut carries Asian silk, Thai antiques, handbags, and jewelry (Kaek Intarawut also has a store in Cambridge). Erika Soule keeps her collection of antique scissors displayed at her Main Street stationery store, Rock Paper Scissors. The nonprofit Maine Art Gallery, with several member artists and changing exhibits, is housed in an 1807 schoolhouse.
Just outside downtown, a circular driveway brings you up to the elegant, lush DayBreak Manor, where Heather Livingston sells 18th- and 19th-century French and English antiques out of the carriage house next to her Georgian manor house. Visit for atmosphere alone; it’s something out of a Jane Austen novel. The rolling grounds at the water’s edge include 1,200 grape vines, hens that lay eggs of muted pastels, raised vegetable beds, apple and pear trees, a “flower farm’’ of 100 PeeGee hydrangea bushes, and an apiary. The manor’s wines and European-style honey are available on site and from local purveyors.
Wiscasset’s museums don’t officially open until Memorial Day or just after. But die-hard history buffs who visit before summer are encouraged to make an appointment a day or two ahead for a guided visit to the 1811 Lincoln County Museum and Old Jail. Likewise, with advance notice, the Castle Tucker and Nickels-Sortwell house museums, both run by Historic New England, will accommodate visitors by appointment before their official June opening date. And their grounds are always open. The latter, high on a hill, has the best view in town.
Ready for a bite? The usual line at the ultra-popular Red’s Eats at the bottom of Main Street along the river is blessedly short before summer. Stop here for its signature lobster roll — a grilled, top-loading hot dog bun filled with 6 to 8 ounces of lobster meat, claws sticking out either end, topped with a whole tail. Drawn butter or mayo comes on the side. Red’s serves more than 8 1/2 tons of lobster meat in a season, which they figure is somewhere between 34,000 and 51,000 rolls.
“It’s the size and simple preparation that has drawn attention from travel and food writers and TV hosts,’’ says Virginia Wright, author of the upcoming book, “Red’s Eats: World’s Best Lobster Shack.’’ The waterfront eatery with outdoor tables opens mid-April. Sprague Lobster across the street (opening mid-May) steams lobsters and clams to order right on the dock.
For an informal lunch indoors, head up the block to Treats, a gourmet cheese and wine shop on one side, cafe on the other. Sit on a stool at the communal farm table to partake of soup, scone, or pie.
Once fortified, you may find your interests taking a turn from past to pasture. Pull on your boots and visit a nearby barnyard to breathe in the fresh earthiness of the season.
The atmosphere is a bit manufactured at Winters Gone Farm, 2 1/2 miles out of town, where Skip and Judy Taylor raise alpacas on 10 acres behind their Cape-style home. Enjoy the gentle creatures up close in the barn, stroll the manicured grounds, lunch at a picnic table. The well-stocked gift shop carries luxurious alpaca fashions and yarn spun from the animals. The farm opens May 1. All-day shearing, open to the public, is May 29.
For a farm visit mingled with an overnight stay and exceptional dinner, opt for the Squire Tarbox Inn on Westport Island, connected by bridge to Wiscasset. This historic farmhouse and giant red barn rests on a broad, idyllic clearing in the woods, not a neighbor in sight. Owners Roni and Mario De Pietro have been offering sustenance and relaxation here since 2002.
All 12 acres awaken in spring. Piglets forage in a fenced section of trees, beehives hum, mallards circle in the backyard pond. Kyle De Pietro, the owners’ son, cultivates organic vegetables in the fields and greenhouse and sells them at the on-site farm stand and at local farmers markets. Borrow a bike from the barn or take a rowboat out on the saltwater marsh at the property’s edge. Or simply enjoy a quiet read in the renovated carriage barn or cozy front room, surrounded by antiques. Roni’s charming collection of marionettes, mostly from Prague, dangle here and there about the inn.
Dinner is served beside a giant, Colonial fireplace in a 25-seat rustic dining room dating from 1763. Swiss-born Mario includes a few of his country’s specialties on the menu, such as dill-cured salmon, fondue, raclette, or sautéed veal strips with roesti potatoes. Most of the food comes from the inn’s farm or local growers and fishermen.
The dining room’s doors open to a deck that looks across to fields, brook, greenhouse, berry bushes, and woods. Diners are welcome to stroll about the farm. The pet goats may decide to follow.
After nightfall, observe stars undiminished by urban light pollution and listen to the high-pitched chirps of spring peepers. Wake up to a warm breakfast, fresh croissants, and homemade Swiss muesli before heading back to town.
In this small and pretty village, you’ve called on the past and the future, and so renewed, you’re ready for whatever summer brings your way.
Nancy Heiser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.