Freeport, Maine: Shopping and Exploring
Downtown Freeport has the feel of a classic small-town main street — a narrow commercial corridor of eclectic and trim architecture, some historic, some not, that divides in a gentle Y near the middle of town. (That’s a footprint from the earliest settlement; coastal villages often had such intersections to allow 100-foot masts to be brought down from the woods, then backed out to the landing for outbound shipping).
Yet it’s a village that seems somehow askew: Instead of hardware stores and used-book stores, it’s filled with celebrity brand shops like Brooks Brothers, The North Face, Gap, and Banana Republic, all occupying small shops and homes (Abercrombie & Fitch is in the old 1905 Carnegie library, and even McDonald’s is in a tidy center-chimney Georgian).
But tucked among them — and often missed by the Sharks — are worthy local outlets and shops. At Abacus, an arts gallery with four locations in Maine, you ascend simple granite steps into a plain home. But once inside, you’re awash in splashy colors and swingy jazz. It’s the perfect antidote to a November monochrome. There’s furniture and jewelry, bright prints, lustrous woodwork, and a quirky collection of three-dimensional photos crafted by Scott Matyjaszek.
Farther down Route 1, you’ll find other shops missed by many, including Weathervanes of Maine, another business with a handful of New England locations. The second generation of McElvains are crafting wonderful adaptations and replicas of classic weathervanes — geese, eagles, baseball players, sailing ships, and a heron launching into flight.
Town Wharf: 2:55 p.m.
It’s nearly 3 p.m., and the South Freeport waterfront is cool and overcast; the clouds are spitting rain. Lobster boats are coming and going with a throaty growl, piloted by men in yellow rain jackets who offer small explosions of color in the pigeon-gray landscape. The popular Harraseeket Lunch & Lobster — bustling in summer, buttoned up after mid-October, and located just across from a shaggy, shingled building at the boatyard — seems to list against the slight breeze.
If Freeport’s downtown is the main stage for shopping, there’s far more of the town existing behind the curtain. There are some 7,800 residents, most of whom have little connection with the shopping mecca. In fact, Freeport was originally four villages; today’s shopping mecca — once called Freeport Corner — was really the neglected back yard, an inland farming center. Not until the rail line came through in 1849 did Freeport Corner productively link to the outside world. (Like most of Maine, coastal villages were connected chiefly by sea.)
It’s worth exploring that past, winding along the fingers of land that extend out into Casco Bay. The quiet harbors and inlets edged with pines and ghostly late-fall birch trees give this stretch of the coast a look more like the inland lakes than the rugged Maine coast of the calendars.
Take a spin by Wolfe’s Neck Farm, a nonprofit purveyor of high-quality natural meats. Much of the taste is no doubt due to contentedness of the cows, who enjoy sweeping views of northern Casco Bay (the sort of view for which an investment banker in search of a summer home would gladly cut a large check) while cud chewing. The farm no longer sells meat to those who stop by, but do detour to the Bow Street Market on your way back into town, where you’ll find a selection of local meats.
Azure Cafe: 6:17 p.m.
To the surprise of many, Freeport has become, over the past few years, a dining destination. You can explore a range of fare here, from the sudsy cheer of Gritty McDuff’s brewpub to Conundrum’s lavish wine list served in a New York-style bistro. Our choice this evening is Azure Cafe, an oasis of delicate, contemporary Italian fare amid the shopping scene and nearly adjacent to the classic Colonial-style Jameson Tavern — a gulf of decades and miles of attitude in the space of a few dozen yards. Sip a two-rum mojito while perusing the menu, which includes the cafe’s award-winning clam chowder and dishes such as balsamic-glazed pork tenderloin enlivened with fire-roasted corn and a sweet pepper relish.
After dinner, wander down to the regal Harraseeket Inn to soak in some of the rusticity of the Broad Arrow Tavern. Angle for a seat by the fireplace amid Windsor chairs and snowshoes on the wall and order up a dessert and after-dinner drink.
It’s as grand a place to spend an evening as you’ll find in Maine.