Four-season fulfillment in the foothills
If you don’t ski the western Maine mountains, it’s just possible that you don’t know much about the town of Bethel. Even for skiers who don’t venture any farther than Locke Mills—where Mount Abram is located—or if you always hang a right prior to entering the downtown village area of Bethel to head to Sunday River, then you might be missing some of the best elements of the place.
Nestled along Maine’s western border with New Hampshire, and with close proximity to the White Mountains and Mahoosuc Range, Bethel offers visitors spectacular scenery and four-season recreational opportunities, as well as small-town quaintness.
This season in particular, it’s pretty much all about skiing, which is just a short drive away. But there’s a lot more to this town and area, starting with Main Street itself. In fact, much of the business district that proceeds along Main Street and up the slight hill toward Broad Street hasn’t changed dramatically from the time when the town was a booming 19th-century tourist destination, known for its views and luxury accommodations.
Smaller communities are often best visited on foot. Bethel, with its shops, cafes and restaurants along Main Street, is especially accessible to walkers. This may very well be a holdover from the period after the Civil War when communities began introducing municipal facilities and infrastructure. According to Stanley Russell Howe’s “Bethel, Maine: A Brief History,” an indication of this trend in Bethel was “the arrival of wooden sidewalks in the 1860s and 1870s.” Howe noted that these were replaced with concrete and granite curbing. Additionally, kerosene street lights were lit each night by a lamplighter.
This “walkability” is one of the key features noted by Jessie Perkins, events and marketing manager for the Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce. “Bethel is an especially pedestrian-friendly community,” she says.
Perkins also mentions Bethel’s “authenticity,” and there is no question the downtown has a historic feel dating back to the time chronicled by historians.
A short walk up Main Street’s slight incline delivers you to Bethel’s Broad Street Historic District. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the district is a great approximation of how Bethel might have looked 100 years ago, when sleigh rides around the commons were the norm. Today, you can bundle up and tour the town via a horse-drawn wagon. Rides leave off near the commons on weekends.
The Bethel Inn and Resort, which was built in 1913, is a holdover from that period of luxury hotels, with many updated amenities, including a redesigned 18-hole championship golf course designed by the renowned architect Geoffrey Cornish. The inn was constructed in 1913, following the fire that destroyed the town’s major resort hotel, the Prospect House.
The district includes a broad commons area, a gazebo and a number of historic residences, including the town library and the Bethel Historical Society. Gould Academy and much of its vintage era architecture is a short walk away.
Circling around Paradise Road offers visitors panoramic views of the surrounding mountains that ring the town. The 3.5 mile loop is a popular place to walk, bike or run.
While history and historic preservation is a foundation of the town, this is also a municipality in the present and on the move.
The downtown will have a new addition in 2015: the opening of the Maine Mineral and Gem Museum at 99 Main Street. Plans are for the museum to house mineral collections from Maine and across the globe. Included will be the famous Perham collection, housed for 90 years in West Paris at Perham’s Store, which closed in 2009. Additionally, there will be a solar system collection with meteorites from Mars, the moon and an asteroid belt.
Further, given Bethel’s four-season recreation orientation, organizations like Mahoosuc Pathways, a nonprofit corporation, are active in promoting outdoor adventure. The group is currently working toward connecting Bethel and the surrounding communities that border the spectacular Mahoosuc Mountain range. Trails are being developed for non-motorized uses, such as walking, bicycling, mountain biking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Intown Bethel, there is already the 1.5-mile Bethel Pathway that connects several public facilities and businesses in the village, including a skate park, playground, picnic area and a boat launch site on the Androscoggin River Trail. This trail is handicapped accessible, has parking and may be used summer and winter.
All the walking is bound to make a visitor hungry, and Bethel has a host of eateries to satisfy—from casual places to stop for a cup of coffee and baked goods, to a mix of pubs and places serving hearty fare and local microbrews, to an assortment of high-end restaurants featuring fine dining.
Of course, it’s the people who make a town, and on the Saturday before Christmas, members of the Bethel Rotary Club—Bruce Powell, Pat Roma and Scott Hynek—were standing out in sub-freezing temperatures at Hannaford collecting money for the Club’s Christmas for Children program. This has been a tradition for the past 24 years in Bethel.
According to Powell, “we’ll raise $15,000 this year—our biggest year yet.” The amount will make sure that 200 area children have a more memorable Christmas.
Bethel resident Marvin Ouwinga praises the broad mixture of people that now comprises the population of Bethel.
“We’re the home of poet Richard Blanco, and we have a zillion skiers coming through the area every year. We also have people who have settled here for the quality of life Bethel offers,” adds Ouwinga, whose, Tineke, is the president of the Bethel Historical Society’s Board of Directors.
Bethel has a wealth of places to see and things to do. Surrounded by mountains and unforgettable vistas, the town is a great place for a weekend getaway or a memorable vacation, winter or summer.
Jim Baumer is a freelance writer. He blogs about Moxie, small towns, and other Maine-centric topics at his blog, http://jimbaumerexperience.com/blog.