Home to Colby College and Thomas College, and with a history of textile and paper production, Waterville is a city of juxtapositions where Mainers, tourists, and college students “from away” share the same space.
My friend Phi and I arrive at our home base for the weekend, the Pressey House Lakeside Bed and Breakfast in Oakland, about a 15-minute drive from downtown Waterville. With a view of Messalonskee Lake from both our suite and the living room, the bed-and-breakfast is spacious and rustic, especially since much it was previously used as a barn. It’s also decorated for the holidays, as we’re visiting ten days before Christmas. Wreaths hang on the wide windows that look out to the lake, and to a Christmas tree lit up at the end of the dock.
Phi and I settle in, and then we head to The Last Unicorn, a Waterville fine-dining staple. To start, we split the pastrami-style smoked salmon, served with pumpernickel bread, cream cheese, and various toppings, and a plate of “dragon wings,” fried chicken wings cooked in a spicy Thai sauce. We’re almost full by the time our entrees arrive. We’ve both ordered the special layered panko eggplant and rosemary rubbed lamb rack. Leaving our to-go boxes in the car, we head to Mainely Brews, a classic Maine pub with a range of brews on tap, including six of its own microbrews, for a late-night beer.
At 7:15 a.m. I’m awake and dressed in leggings and a sweatshirt for my morning yoga class. For breakfast, our host, Sharon, makes me a potato omelet, a blueberry scone drizzled with a sweet, lemony glaze, and sausages accompanied by a cup of fresh fruit. By 8:30 a.m., I’m seated cross-legged on a yoga mat facing Jeri Wilson, co-owner of School Street Yoga. Intended for practitioners of various levels with some degree of experience, the class is upbeat and refreshing, ending with a longer meditation than I’m used to. Afterward, Phi and I stop by Universal Bread Bakers for a French loaf, which we save in plastic wrapping for the afternoon, and Selah Tea Cafe for coffee and snacks. Phi orders an avocado breakfast sandwich and a strawberry banana smoothie, a choice that the owner’s young daughter, Naomi, endorses from behind the bar. I drink a Kyoto rose tea, which comes with an hourglass timer for optimal brewing.
We plan to go cross-country skiing next, but I forgot my gloves, so we walk to Sign of the Sun, an eclectic, colorful shop on Silver Street. I purchase red mittens and a brass tree-of-life wind chime, a Christmas present for my stepmother. Quarry Road Trails has several Community Ski Free Days throughout the winter, when the facility offers free cross-country skiing courses and ski rentals. I already know the basics of cross- country skiing, so we skip the lesson and explore the area, which offers 10 kilometers of groomed trails, 3 kilometers of which have snowmaking capability.
In the early afternoon, we check out Modern Underground, a furnishings and home goods store specializing in midcentury pieces. Its name refers to more than its retro, under-the-radar finds: the shop is run out of a basement. Owner Brian Kallgren shows us his favorite item currently in stock, a 1950 built-in stereo by George Nelson for Herman Miller. Kallgren likes to tinker with old-fashioned electronics, and the stereo still works, so he plays us some music, both with the radio—it only gets the country station, he tells us— and with the record player. Phi buys a late-1940s to early-1950s typewriter by Hermès on layover. Across the street at Heirloom Antiques and Vintage, I pick out a white Saks Fifth Avenue tuxedo jacket with brocade embroidery and black lapels and a suit jacket originally from Benoit’s, a Maine department store long out of business. Heirloom’s owner, Nicole Sulea, tells us that downtown Waterville used to be lined with mansions, whose residents shopped for couture goods, both from Maine and abroad. Her dog, Gracie, hops her front feet up onto the glass counter to get a better look at the shop’s customers.
Hungry, we split an anchovy and pesto pizza called Dragon’s Smooch at Grand Central Cafe. Famous for its creative, wood-fired brick-oven pizzas, the restaurant also features bright colors and quirky decorations, such as the doll dressed in patchwork clothes that sits on the windowsill above our table. Before the sun sets, we make it to Common Street Arts, a nonprofit, collaborative arts space, for its pop-up holiday bazaar, a juried exhibition of works by craftspeople and artists from around the state. Then we drive back to Oakland for a tasting at Tree Spirits of Maine. At the tasting room, owners Bruce Olson and Karen Heck offer us small pours of their apple, maple, and pear wines (the distillery doesn’t use grapes), their “subLimes”—brandies blended with fruit juices—and their fruit and maple spirits. The only distillers of absinthe in New England, they also serve us a taste of that spirit in a traditional three- chambered reservoir glass.
For our last meal of the day, we dine at Riverside Farm Restaurant and Wine Market in Oakland. Softly lit and decorated with vines, the space is relaxing, and our food—crab cakes and a salad of candied walnuts, roasted squash, apples, and dried cranberries topped with salmon—is fresh and filling. Although we had wanted to catch a movie at Railroad Square Cinema, I’ve already seen most of the films being shown, so I head back to the bed-and-breakfast early while Phi drives to Auburn for work.
Still full from the night before, I grab a tea from Jorgensen’s Cafe, and feeling a cold coming on, I stop at Enchanted Herbs and Teas for a box of tea. After warming up in the car, I walk out onto the Two Cent Bridge, a wire-cable suspension bridge connecting Waterville and Winslow. Built in 1901, the footbridge originally charged crossers a two-cent toll and was aimed primarily at mill workers. At noon, the Colby College Museum of Art opens. I’m more interested in contemporary works, and I particularly like Philip Taaffe’s Garden of Extinct Leaves and Joan Mitchell’s Chamrousse. The museum also features works by Maine-based artists, such David Driskell, Lois Dodd, and Alex Katz, the last of whom donated over 400 artworks to the museum.
While 48 hours might be too short for a place like Waterville, I’ve gotten a taste of what the town offers, and since it’s only an hour and a quarter from Portland, I can always come back.