When the Maine Crime Writers were asked to write posts for our summer series “A Day In…” my choice was obvious.
E.B. White, 75 year ago, wrote an essay about Belgrade Lakes, “Once More to the Lake.” He’d taken his son there, to the same place he himself spent summers as a child.
The essay was about a lot of things: life, mortality, days lost and found. But it was also about Belgrade Lakes and how it made him feel. At one point in the essay he just lets loose:
Summertime, oh summertime, pattern of life indelible, the fade-proof lake, the woods unshatterable, the pasture with the sweetfern and the juniper forever and ever, summer without end.
The great thing about Belgrade Lakes, a little village about 15 miles north of Augusta squeezed onto an isthmus between Great and Long ponds, is that much of what White wrote about in that essay still rings true. The smells, the lakes, the camps. Boating to the store, which is still there and much like it was when he wrote about it.
I’m lucky enough to live here. But it’s easy to spend a day in Belgrade Lakes. Easy in more ways than one. This central Maine village, a small but important part of the spread-out town of Belgrade, is true vacation land. If you’re looking for fancy restaurants and shops, snappy downtowns, lobsters or lighthouses, you can find them somewhere else in Maine. Belgrade Lakes is quintessential relaxed summertime slowdown central. It’s a throw-back town that summer residents on the lakes still boat to, where the town’s seasonal eateries roll the dice on nice weather for a few months and seating is outside at picnic tables, and most of the things to do don’t involve spending money.
No morning in The Lakes would be complete without a coffee and pastry of breakfast sandwich from Hello, Good Pie. The bakery and coffee shop at the south end of town on Route 27 (Main Street), has been a must-stop for locals and tourists alike since it opened last year. It’s just one of many small, local eateries in town. No one goes hungry in Belgrade Lakes.
After breakfast, the best way to relax on a nice summer day is to head to the town beach on Long Pond, a minute or two walk from downtown. This isn’t some sandy, suntan-oil smeared, people-packed beach. It’s a grassy spot in the woods, with granite steps — a vestige from the old Lakeshore Hotel that burned down in the 1950s — leading into the too-clear-to-believe water of Long Pond. Sometimes it’s crowded, but not often.
If boating is more your thing, there’s a public boat landing on Great Pond, and you can put a canoe or kayak anywhere on the three bodies of water that define the mile-long village: Great and Long pond, and Mill Stream, which connects them.
Great Pond, which the play and later the movie, “On Golden Pond” was the inspiration for, bounds the east side of the village. Long Pond, which stretches along the west side, may not have inspired a movie, but its crystal-clear water, mind-blowing sunsets and ever-present loons have inspired a love of Maine that keep people coming back year after year.
A relaxing stroll down Main Street is also in order. No fancy shops here, but several small gift shops and the excellent Maine Lakes Resource Center, which is a great place to spend some time on a rainy day or to get out of the heat. Not only does it have lots of exhibits and information about the lakes, but also about the history of the area. It also frequently hosts talks and events, all of it free.
Hungry already? The lunchtimes options abound. The best gyro you’ll find anywhere is at Spiro’s Gyros on Main Street. Right across the street is Pete’s Pig, some of the best pulled pork you’ll find anywhere. Want more? Down the street is 182 Main, with wood-fired pizza. All are seasonal businesses with outside seating. Nothing fancy in the Lakes, because we’re on vacation, right?
Want more of a walk than the three of four blocks of Main Street? The Kennebec Highlands offers trails throughout the region. One within walking distance north on Route 27 in Rome, The Mountain, is a great hike for all ages and the payoff is views of both Long and Great ponds at the top. There are dozens of hikes within a short drive of the village, and if you want something more strenuous, drive north on Route 27 and within 45 minutes you’ll be entering the High Peaks region of Franklin County. Just get back in time for dinner!
But you don’t have to keep moving around. It’s vacation, after all. There are a lot of places in the village to just sit and watch — whether it’s people or the water. Mill Stream, which connects Great Pond and Long Pond, is a happy thoroughfare in the summer, but also a home to ducks, loons, sweet breezes and daydreaming. Take a seat along the public docks behind the post office and the lakes resource center annex, and across the street from Day’s Store. You won’t want to get back up.
Speaking of Day’s Store, no trip to the village is complete without a stop there. The same store E.B. White wrote about in “Once More to the Lake” caters to area residents year-round and also is a must for summer people and those passing through. It’s got groceries, pizza and subs, coffee, booze, bait, outdoor equipment, the best home-made doughnuts in Maine and even some books by one of the town’s resident mystery writers (that’s me!).
You can eat your sub or drink your coffee at the picnic tables out behind the store on the shore of Long Pond, and get an ice cream fix at the ice cream window that overlooks the lake. Those who have camps on The Lakes boat to Day’s, tying up at the dock behind the store, or from Great Pond, the docks on Mill Stream at the Maine Lakes Resource Center and its annex next to the post office and across the street from Days. Just like E.B. White used to do!
After all that swimming, walking around and hiking, a great way to wind down at night is at the Sunset Grille. Trivia night and live music not only keep the locals busy year-round (it’s the only restaurant open in town during the winter). Union Methodist Church also has a coffee hour with music on many Saturday nights, and Day’s sometimes has music, wine tastings and out door movies on the lake. That’s about what you’re going to get for live entertainment in the village.
e Village Inn, which also has live entertainment many nights on its tavern on Mill Stream. Or rent a camp on one of the many lakes. Once the sun goes down, the only sound you’ll hear are the cries of loons and the breeze in the trees.
When the crime writers first talked about writing this series, there were some jokes, as there always are in Maine, about wanting to keep our special places secret and keep the crowds away. But I’m not telling you anything E.B. White didn’t already say 75 years ago (and better). So come on up for a day or longer. It’s worth it.
COMING UP: If Belgrade Lakes still has too much hustle and bustle for you, check back on July 27, when I’m posting “A Day in Baxter State Park.”
Maureen Milliken, a Belgrade Lakes resident, is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series (available at Day’s Store among other places!), the second of which, No News is Bad News, was released earlier this month. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47, on Facebook at Maureen Milliken mysteries, and check out what’s going on with her books or sign up for email updates at maureenmilliken.com.
BOOK SIGNING: Maureen will be signing No News is Bad News and Cold Hard News from 10 a.m. to noon, Saturday, July 23, at The Children’s Book Cellar, 52 Main St., Waterville.