48 Hours In…the western Maine foothills
by Kristen Andresen Lainsbury | Photography by Natalie Conn | Illustration by Karen Gelardi
Hallowell might be billed as the states smallest city, but its downtown feels big enough for a weekend excursion. Or as a perfect start for a harvest road trip.
October weekends were made for road tripping through the state’s small towns, through its rolling farmland, and through foliage-studded hills. The light is golden. The traffic has ebbed. The harvest is at its peak. Warm days give way to cool nights—perfect for curling up by the fire or sitting by a lake under a blanket and a canopy of stars.
Our weekend adventure starts and ends on the banks of the Kennebec River—a central location to the cities of Gardiner and Hallowell. The brick and Victorian downtowns seem even more welcoming as the days get shorter and the leaves begin to turn. From there, it’s a great, meandering trip.
After a long week, a stay at the eco-friendly Maple Hill Farm Inn in Hallowell is a well-earned treat. Soak in a double whirlpool (solar-heated, of course), light the gas fireplace, or lounge on a private deck. Relax—you’re going to need to rest up for tomorrow.
Rise and shine—plan to check out and be on the road by 8 a.m., driving toward Gardiner, where you can indulge in blueberry pancakes or corned beef hash at the A-1 Diner, a local (and, thanks to The Food Network, national) favorite. Gardiner has an explorable downtown, but you’ll want to keep moving—this is going to be a full day.
Take Route 9 toward Lewiston, passing lakes, farms, and old-time ice cream stands. Follow signs to Route 4 North, through Auburn and toward Turner, where you’ll find the biodynamic Nezinscot Farm. Hang out with the animals, peruse the farm’s own meats and cheeses, shop for yarn and woolens, or just grab a cup of coffee and relax in a rocking chair. Stock up on snacks for the road—the farm café makes great sandwiches and baked goods.
Make your way back to Route 4 and drive to Wilton, a lovely town flanked by Wilson Lake and Wilson Stream. Local innkeeper Susan Atwood says, “It’s the best-kept secret in western Maine.” She’s not kidding. If you feel like a low-key afternoon, you can stop here and hang out in one of the town’s well-maintained parks, stroll by the stream, or play nine holes at the Wilson Lake Country Club, a public golf course with a view of the lake and the mountains beyond. Mt. Blue State Park is also nearby.
If you’re up for an adventure, take Route 156 toward Weld and head off to Tumbledown Mountain for an unforgettable hike. A few words of advice: if you have a truck or SUV, bring it, because the 3.7-mile dirt road to the Brook Trail parking area is quite bumpy. Remember those snacks you bought at Nezinscot? You’ll want to pack them, along with water, a jacket, and a swimsuit. Even though the trail is only 1.5 miles long, plan to spend between an hour and a half to two hours on the way up. It’s a rugged and, at times, a steep climb. And you may be tempted to turn around. Don’t. At the summit, Crater Lake awaits. It’s like something out of The Lord of the Rings—a magical reward for all that hard work.
Take a dip, eat your snacks, take pictures of the blazing foliage, and head back down the mountain. Unless you hike really fast and drive like a maniac, you’re burning daylight. Besides, if you make this trip before Columbus Day, you won’t want to miss the sunset from the porch of the Kawanhee
Inn, an Adirondack-style lodge and restaurant on Webb Lake that is the epitome of rustic elegance. You can sip a glass of wine, order cedar-planked salmon or steak frites, and sleep off the hike in one of the inn’s guest rooms or cottages. If you miss the inn, try one of several dining and lodging options in the area.
In Wilton, Tom Marcellino and his wife, Rocelle, draw from four generations of family recipes to create homemade sauces, desserts, and limoncello at Calzolaio Pasta Co.—Calzolaio means “shoemaker” in Italian, and the restaurant lives in the boiler room of a former Bass Shoe factory. The Marcellinos are incredibly accommodating—when I visited with my sister, who has a life-threatening nut allergy, Tom sanitized the entire kitchen before cooking her meal.
Around the corner is the Wilson Lake Inn, a clean, inviting, beautifully landscaped motel with killer views. If you prefer chains, there’s a Comfort Inn on the outskirts of town, or, in Farmington, you can stay at several classic motor inns and dine at Granary Brew Pub or Homestead Bakery and Restaurant.
After yesterday’s hike, you’ll be tempted to eat a huge breakfast. Resist. Instead, grab a cup of coffee, get in the car, and start heading back on Route 4. This is prime apple-picking country, and there are plenty of pick-your-own options and farm stands along the way, including Harndon’s Family Farm in Wilton, Boothby’s Orchard in Livermore, and Greenwood Orchard in Turner. In Lewiston, take Route 202 toward Monmouth, where you can stop at Elm Crest Farm, and Manchester, home to Lakeside Orchards.
You’ve waited all year for the harvest, but you’ve waited all morning for breakfast, so be sure you reach Hallowell before 2 p.m.—after that, you won’t be able to experience the deliciousness that is brunch at Slates. Fire ravaged the popular eatery in 2007, but it rose from the ashes even better than it was before. Order the smoked shrimp Benedict or a goat cheese omelet and linger with a mimosa.
Walk it all off on the Kennebec River Rail Trail, a 6.5-mile path that stretches from Augusta to Gardiner, do a little window shopping in the antiques stores along Water Street or stop by Kennebec River Artisans, a co-op that features the work of some of Maine’s most talented crafters. Paper Kicks is great for gifts, and the Potluck Shop offers funky antiques and refashioned vintage furniture. Very cool.
For dinner, Cafe de Bangkok serves fresh, light, spicy Thai food. It also has a view of the river. But you might be too stuffed, or you might just want to go home after all that walking. If that’s the case, stop at Hallowell Seafood and Produce before you go. You’ve never seen such pretty crabmeat, and the veggies and cheeses will make your mouth water. Here, you’ll find everything you need for a harvest meal—a fitting end to a perfect fall weekend in Maine.