Best Places: South Bristol

Saltwater pastoral.

Photo by Susan Cole Kelly
Population: 887
Median household income: $52,708
Percent of families below poverty level: 7.9%
Median home sale price: $324,413
Median age: 56
It’s not on the way to anything, there’s no Main Street to speak of, and more than half its residents disappear with the leaves — and yet South Bristol manages to be one of Maine’s most welcoming (and loveliest) coastal towns. Encompassing two distinct villages — to the north, the forests and farmland of Walpole; to the south, the shingled summer homes of Christmas Cove on Rutherford Island — the town snakes along the east bank of the Damariscotta River, following the scenic trunk of Route 129. The heart of town, such as it is, is the harbor at the peninsula’s southern tip, where fishing boats pass through The Gut, a slim channel separating the mainland from Rutherford Island.

But to hear residents tell it, South Bristol doesn’t feel fractured.

“The community is the thing I love most,” says eight-year-resident Topher Mallory, CEO of Mexicali Blues and cofounder of the soon-to-open Split Rock Distilling, both up the road in Newcastle. “There’s no real downtown, and there’s no single, central meeting point, but what that means is that if I need eggs, I’ll go knock on my neighbor’s door before I head to the store.”

Elementary-age kids head to small South Bristol School, where the student-teacher ratio hovers around 9-to-1. Central Lincoln County is a “town tuitioning” district, so the town pays for high school students to attend Newcastle’s Lincoln Academy or pick their preferred alternative. And after inheriting a $9 million bequest from a summer resident in 2004, South Bristol’s property taxes are among the state’s lowest.

“Especially on Rutherford Island, beyond the drawbridge, it is unbelievably picturesque — like Tolkienesque movie set.”– Mirek Jurek, Down East Design Director

Despite the lack of a town center, folks around South Bristol find places to gather. Tidy Island Grocery is the place to gossip while picking up produce or the paper — coffee drinks, ice cream, and Adirondack chairs on the porch make it a hangout as much as a bodega. On the island, Coveside Restaurant and Marina packs them in for pub chow, microbrews, and deck concerts overlooking a blue cove speckled with rocky islands.

Looking out over impossibly scenic waters (or boating on them) is a popular pastime.

“If community is the first selling point,” says Mallory, “the second is this great stretch of water, from Glidden Ledge on the Damariscotta out past The Gut. Everyone I know wants their ashes scattered in the Thread of Life, the channel between the island and these rugged-looking striated ledges. So if it’s quiet here now, at least we’ll have a lot of company out there after we’re dead.”

Next up: Yarmouth: One smart town.
Previous: Portland: Small city. Big sophistication.
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