The Best Food Trail is an Ice Cream Trail

The sweet smell of just-baked waffle cones is in the air, take-out windows are open, and ice cream stands are in full swing. At seemingly every turn in the sunniest season, Maine is truly an ice cream state.

The Best Food Trail is an Ice Cream Trail

The sweet smell of just-baked waffle cones is in the air, take-out windows are open, and ice cream stands are in full swing. At seemingly every turn in the sunniest season, Maine is truly an ice cream state.

by Sandy Lang
Photography by Peter Frank Edwards

Issue: July 2022

On summer days, there’s that moment when the sunlight is slanting into the long evening and we come to a crossroad, or a tucked-away shop, or an overlook on the remotest coastline, and there it is, the familiar beacon: an ice cream stand.

Sweet relief. Soon a scoop or a twist on a cone—maybe with sprinkles—will be ours.

It’s a rewarding summer quest. On warm-weather travels with photographer Peter Frank Edwards, I’m always on the lookout for chances to get a cone. And Maine has seemingly endless ice cream diversions. The Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry is currently compiling a “Real Maine Ice Cream Trail” online at, but a statewide tally a few years ago counted more than 300 ice cream windows. Across the state, a combination of entrepreneurial spirit, frozen confections, and afternoon sunshine adds up to mile after mile of ice cream opportunities to discover.

Boats by the Bridge

The first time we stop at the Dairy Port in Bucksport, one of the soft-serve flavors on offer is Grapenut, Peter Frank’s favorite. Made in-house, the ice cream retains the crunch of the cereal blended into the creamy base. We’re hooked.

Owners Colin and Faith Meshey bought the ice cream land-mark in 2020 from Larry Wahl after Colin, a local youth pastor, had worked in the shop to learn the recipes and traditions. The soft-serve recipes are developed on-site, and details are closely guarded, Colin says. “Lots of testing and tweaking. Ingredients like peanut butter are tricky.” Customers vote on favorites, including Orange Dream, peanut butter chocolate, black raspberry, and coffee, which are announced in an online daily calendar.

Open since the 1950s, the Dairy Port is located in a historic narrow storefront that was previously a fish market and a barber shop. The shop catches direct afternoon sunlight, and that’s when the lines start. The Mesheys invite me inside to see some of the scoop-ing action. As I step across the black and white checkerboard floor between freezers and milkshake blenders, the crew is working in rhythm. Faith lifts a lever to release vanilla soft serve onto a cone, and then Colin dips the cone in a cherry-red coating that imme-diately begins to harden into a shell. It’s a classic ice cream feat.

I also notice what the crew sees out the order windows. Just across Main Street is Bucksport Harbor, with across-the-water views to the towering Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Observatory and the mid-1800s Fort Knox beside it. At our next visit, my order is the Schooner, an oversized banana sundae served in a boat-shaped bowl. I carry it closer to the shore views before happily shoveling whipped cream, bananas, pineapple, and bridge-high scoops of ice cream out of a pool of chocolate.

Afternoons at Red’s

Local kids on an afternoon ice cream break at Red’s Dairy Freeze in South Portland.

There’s an Otto Pizza across the street and Portland Head Light within a few miles, but first we join the line that’s forming in the parking lot of the white, barn-shaped building with the tall red roof. This is Red’s Dairy Freeze in South Portland, where long menu boards list shakes and slushes, cones, and candy-blended concoctions. All the options here are made with soft serve in dozens of flavors, including yogurt and dairy-free varieties. Kids’ flavors like tutti-frutti and cotton candy are on offer, along with more adult-leaning butter rum and pina colada shakes.

The first children we see are holding soft-serve cones dipped in googly-eye sprinkles—the silly eyeballs are edible, of course. Established in 1952, Red’s is known for dishing up fun menu items and drawing loyal customers year after year. I sidle up for one of the many specialties, the Boston Shake, a chocolate shake that is given an extra pour of cold chocolate sauce to float on top.

“Winter is long, and we know that it’s over when we see the lines at Red’s,” says Havi Asch, who lives nearby and says that visits to the shop have been a tradition in her family since she was a child. Now she brings her own children. “Everything here is sticky sweet, and they even have vegan,” she says. “It’s incredible.”

Science and Sweetcream

“Essentially, you can put anything into ice cream,” explains Jonathan Denton when we visit Sweetcream Dairy in Biddeford. “Our thing is to use fewer ingredients.”

We’re watching him fold fresh peaches into an ice cream he’s making inside the shop that he and Jacqui DeFranca founded in the Pepperell Mill Campus. The couple’s business is set to move into a Main Street storefront of its own this year. The peaches were brought in from a small farm in Acton just this morning, and the cream is from Harris Farm in Dayton. “We’ve met the cows,” Denton notes.

Sourcing seasonal and local ingredients has been key to the Sweetcream model since its founding in 2016, and the couple also pasteurize their own mixes. Denton learned about the process in the venerable Ice Cream Short Course at Penn State. He has a passion for food science: “I can nerd out on milk fat and sugar content,” he admits.

DeFranca, whose background is in professional dance, begins scooping and describing the different flavors to choose from. First, we try their signature sweet cream flavor—traditionally the base for other flavors, it’s simply cream, milk, sugar, and egg and is subtle and milky, not sweet. A scoop of strawberry flavor puts the summer berry at the fore—like a bowl of fresh strawberries and cream—and the brown butter crunch flavor is all buttery comfort.

The couple talk of other seasons and ingredients, and I’m eager to return for any and all—maybe starting with the sour cherry from a local orchard, or the roasted chestnut made from American chestnuts they help gather in the fall in partnership with a University of New England professor who’s studying the trees.

Gifford’s Ice Cream Factory

Ice cream flavors are made one at a time at the Gifford’s headquarters in Skowhegan.

To see ice cream making at a larger scale, we visit one of the state’s largest producers, Gifford’s Ice Cream, head-quartered in Skowhegan in a former dairy. Gifford’s opened its first ice cream stand in 1980, and the company is still a family business. Its ice cream is served at dozens of shops and stands in the summertime, including five of its own, plus it is sold in grocery stores. (I’ve been picking up quarts of the cannoli flavor lately.)

Gifford’s makes one flavor at a time, and this morning strawberry is on the production line. Five-gallon buckets of whole, thawed strawberries are poured into a cream mix. (The milk and cream are sourced in Maine.) A network of pipes moves the mixture overhead until it’s emptied into containers for a super-chilled freezing, then stored on racks until loaded onto trucks for delivery.

All of this is simply an expansion by the current generation of the Gifford family on what their parents did in the business’s early days. CEO Lindsay (Gifford) Skilling recalls that her father would sometimes get a call and then personally make a rush delivery. “He didn’t want our customers to run out of popular flavors of ice cream on a sunny weekend or Memorial Day or the Fourth of July,” she says.

J.C. Gifford, Lindsay’s brother and vice president of the company, says he sometimes got to ride along on those special deliveries, and he paid attention. “You’d get to see the intersection between your father and the customer—it was work, but you could see the friendship,” he says.

J.C. remembers when Gifford’s was developing the Lobster Tracks flavor. “Our dad and uncle were there, and they wanted to make sure the candy color was right. They went out to get a lobster and steamed it to see if the lobster cooked to the same orange-red.” The color matched the candy in the ice cream, he says, smiling, “and I got to eat the lobster.”

The company releases new flavors every spring. No seafood is replicated in this year’s lineup, but there’s Cone-y Pretzel Whirl, banana cream pie, and Maine Black Fly (vanilla strawberry ripple chip). Oh my

Ice Cream Roads

Throughout the summer, we visit more ice cream stops on various road trips, including tiny Bray Brook Ice Cream on a hillside beside a farmhouse on the roll-ing two-lane Route 131 in Appleton, and the fantastic glowing cone that houses the entire ice cream stand at Holden a Kone at the entrance to the KOA Campground in Holden.

Maine has a super-love for ice cream, and I do, too. It’s a personal interest—my first jobs growing up were at ice cream stands, and I’m always game to try the next scoop. But maybe ice cream is personal for everyone? Every time the cream melts a little before the cone’s finished, there it is: another reminder of summer-time’s sweetness.

Follow the Cone

Don’t fear, wherever you are this summer, surely someone’s scooping ice cream nearby, or lifting a lever to release ripples of soft-serve flavors into waffle cones and sundae cups. To get you started, here’s a list of some of our favorite ice cream stands and shops:

128 Main St., Biddeford (new location for 2022)
Small-batch ice creams made with ingredients from Maine dairies and farms and without corn syrup or artificial flavors or colors. Pints are sold in a growing list of Maine shops.

278 Mills Rd., Kennebunkport
Known for large scoops and unusual flavors, including Graham Central Station and Cherry Amaretto.

167 Cottage Rd., South Portland
Open seasonally since 1952 and serving soft-serve ice cream, frozen yogurt, dairy-free confections, shakes, sprinkles, and treats.

1333 Roosevelt Trail, Raymond
Established in 1996 and dishing up hard ice cream, frozen yogurt, sorbet, sherbet, floats, and freezes from a chocolate-brown barn.

382 Union Rd., Appleton
Hand-scooped Shain’s Ice Cream in cones, banana splits, and parfaits. New for 2022 will be ice cream sandwiches made with CupKate’s cookies baked in Waldo.

602 Main Rd., Holden
Homemade waffle cones, dozens of soft-serve flavors, Gifford’s scoops.

79 Main St., Bucksport
Founded in 1954 and serving specialty house-made soft serve, dips and sprinkles, sundaes, boats, and scoops of Gifford’s.

307 Madison Ave., Skowhegan (also in Farmington, Waterville, Auburn, Bangor)
Founded in 1980 by the Gifford family, made in Skowhegan in a former dairy with Maine milk and cream, and adding new flavors each year. Also sold in grocery stores and independent shops.

7 Firefly Ln., Bar Harbor (also at 51 Exchange St., Portland)
Since 2005, classic and new flavors made with whole ingredients—including Madagascar vanilla, French and Belgian chocolate, and Maine honey, sea salt, basil, and ginger.

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