48 Hours In…Bath
March 2010 | By Chelsea Holden Baker | Photographs by Michael Heiko | Illustration by Karen Gelardi
The city of ships is also the city of shops. One of Americas best main streets can be the starting point for a trip into the past, or a weekend picking up presents.
If you’re of Irish Heritage, or just like to honor St. Patrick, the best time to visit Bath in March may be during Blarney Days—a lively celebration of the Irish holiday that lasts from March 11 to 17. It includes everything from a 5K run to a midnight shopping sale, a lecture on the history of the Irish in Bath, and the grand finale: an all-day affair at Byrnes’ Irish Pub, a place that keeps a 365-day countdown to St. Paddy’s Day on the menu. Last year, the festivities began when an elderly woman sat down at 7 a.m. and asked, “What do you have for a light breakfast beer, dear?”
Like many Mainers, when I think of Bath I think of Bath Iron Works; of the big crane emblazoned with “BIW,” and the sign under which each worker walks before clocking in. It reads, “Through these gates pass the best shipbuilders in the world.” That sense of Yankee pride permeates a town that’s experienced both boom and bust, but also buoy. In 2009, the American Planning Association designated Bath’s main avenue, Front Street, as one of America’s ten great streets. Still floating on the recognition, the townspeople are happy to tell you that “it’s the only great street in New England.”
Bath is bustling for a good portion of the year—including the holiday shopping season, thanks to its variety of stores clustered around brick walkways and cobblestones with a scenic view of the Kennebec River. And as the gateway to some of Maine’s best beaches—at Reid State Park in Georgetown and Phippsburg’s Popham Beach State Park and Bates-Morse Mountain Conservation Area—Bath is a great place to experience summer in a Maine town. But late winter and spring offer a more authentic experience—so authentic that if you spend 48 hours in Bath, talking with shop owners, eating in its restaurants (or having an impromptu afternoon treat of vanilla ice cream doused in Grand Marnier, miraculously procured in a design store), you’ll soon have people to wave to, and someone to talk to at Café Crème, the coffee shop that serves as a cold-season town square. Provided you can make the time to slow down, a weekend in Bath is like experiencing life in a European village.
And there are plenty of educational excuses to plan three days in the area. Up Route 1 in Woolwich is Shelter Institute, which offers DIY classes for homeowners throughout the year. Not only is the Institute an institution, the majority of its classes are free. For anyone who watches the Food Network while eating takeout, the kitchen emporium Now You’re Cooking offers classes in their chef’s kitchen. The massive store displays a rainbow of Le Creuset and Staub, any kind of cookie-cutter you can imagine, fine knives, hard-to-find tagines, and everything in between. Explorers of the past could dream away a whole weekend just at the extensive and well-curated Patten Free Library’s Sagadahoc History and Genealogy Room. The resources include cemetery and vital records, Civil War musters, and ephemera like a high school girl’s diary from the 1800s. For the crafty sort, both the huge Halcyon Yarn and the Mariner’s Compass Quilt Shop offer extensive inventory as well as classes.
If you’re interested in a drive down the peninsulas, chose Arrowsic Island Pottery or Georgetown Pottery as day destinations. An evening option is the disorienting and delicious Robinhood Free Meetinghouse, six miles outside of Bath on a country road in Georgetown. If you’ve had chef Michael Gagné’s cream cheese biscuits at Hannaford or Whole Foods, then you know his fabled restaurant could be a basis for a weekend itself.
If you’re coming into town with kids, especially teenagers, you should know Bath has the ultimate babysitter: the Bath Youth Meetinghouse and Skatepark. This isn’t Happy Wheels, it’s the largest indoor skate (as in skateboard) park in the state. It’s open until 9, which means the parents can have a romantic jazz night at Solo Bistro, where the Scandinavian design inside matches the bold, inventive, and mostly organic food. The prix fixe menu is more than fair at $22.99 (on Wednesday nights it’s an outright steal for $15.99). An inclusive family option for the evening can be had on the third Friday of the month from October through May at Bath Dance Works’ family nights. From the Virginia Reel to the Patacake Polka, everyone learns the steps to the tune of live fiddle music from 6:30 to 8 p.m.
When it comes to tucking-in, Bath has numerous B&Bs within walking distance of the downtown area. The standard-bearer is The Inn at Bath, which is traditional in a tasteful way (read: no doilies) and serves a breakfast that’s been covered by Gourmet and Bon Appetit. A more modern option is the Kismet Inn, which could be described as a fusion of an Asian bathhouse and B&B (except the baths are private). The radiant heat of the bathroom floors in this Queen Anne house is part of an experience crafted for relaxation, from yoga classes to spa services. If the intimacy of a B&B is not for you, the Hampton Inn will open this summer. It faces Kennebec Tavern & Marina, the only place in town that’s right on the water.
The good news for those who love fresh food, or just the discovery of small Maine producers, is that the Bath Farmer’s Market is open year-round. On the first and third Saturdays of winter months, it’s held at the United Church of Christ from 9 to noon. For a similar experience at any time of day check out the Bath Natural Market. It’s where I first discovered the adorable and delicious Sparky’s Pure Honey made in Litchfield and the astoundingly good Black Crow Bakery Sicilian loaf, which lasted for days. If you’re looking to export a taste of Maine try Lisa-Marie’s Made in Maine, which carries both literal and figurative flavor in the form of everything from jams to nautical trivets.
To put something in your stomach for a day of walking and shopping, pop under Now You’re Cooking to the casual Starlight Cafe. My heart skipped a beat when I saw homemade Anadama bread on the menu, just like my grandmother (who was from Bath) used to make. It was the base for the daily special: a sweet-and-savory grilled cheese made with provolone, goat cheese, red onion, and apricot spread. However, if your sweet tooth is singing for something lighter than their two-pound whoopie pie, try the homemade turtles at Bath Sweet Shoppe, or have your tastebuds blown away by Marnee’s Cookies. The Nirvana lives up to its name.
If someone in your party prefers not to shop, send them to Chris Grill at Kennebec Angler for some fish tales. Not only does Grill know every fishing tour operator on the Kennebec, but he can teach you, gratis, to cast a fly—or extend your reach. Another option is picking up two free maps of architectural walking tours at the Visitor’s Center. But if you’d rather decorate your own home than gawk at someone else’s, find your way to Front Street. From the utterly fabulous finds at Trifles, a legend in interior decorating, to folksy wonders, like the hand-carved wooden shovel I almost bought at I Must Have It!, Bath is full of curios. Cobblestone & Co. and Brick Store Antiques should also be added to the list. For more modern home accessories, Ornament is up to the minute on design trends, but also has small staples like fine soaps. April 56 is well stocked. And of course, the bright blue awnings can’t be ignored: Reny’s is the anchor of Front Street. Further down, Magnolia is a place where you’re more likely to find a perfect birthday present than the perfect end table—because that would be Tintypes, a mercantile in the best sense of the word, and home to everything from jewelry to mid-century modern furniture. The only thing they don’t have is tintypes.
For a hearty dinner you can go two ways. For casual eating, turn to Beale Street Barbeque. If you prefer to sink your teeth into a savory steak or have a sidecar before a show at the Chocolate Church Arts Center, try Admiral Steakhouse next door. Neither the Sinatra on the sound system, the dark wood, nor naval theme belies what used to be in this location, but you can try to guess.
Your Sunday brunch must be at Mae’s Café & Bakery. With four kinds of eggs Benedict alone (bacon, crab, Portobello, lobster), there’s something for everyone. And you don’t have to count calories to enjoy the sticky buns; their aroma alone is satisfying.
One Sunday a month is the Bath Antiques Show, which brings fifty to sixty vendors to Bath Middle School even in winter months, from 10 to 3. If you happen to be in town on an off-weekend, it’s also a good day for the Maine Maritime Museum. The ten acres of galleries on 25 acres of waterfront can captivate the attention of kids (pirate ship!) and adults (scrimshaw! ships in bottles!) for hours. For a late lunch or early dinner on your way back to town, stop to gape at the enormity of the BIW buildings from the parking lot of The Cabin, then venture inside to what feels like a ship’s belly. It’s the town favorite for pizza. Locals recommend the shrimp scampi (the white sauce somehow paves the way for seafood on pie). I also give them points for serving Moxie.
Although thoughts turn homeward as the sun goes down, there’s a reason to stick around. Every Sunday from 5 to 7, an array of townspeople, ages 5 to 90, gather together under the auspices of Chief Pub Scout Joe Byrnes for the Sunday Sing-Along at Byrnes’ Irish Pub. From traditional tunes to the Shel Silverstein/Irish Rovers hit “The Unicorn Song,” you’ll be belting it out with the best and the worst of them. It’s a rite of passage for any resident—even the honorary kind.