Fryeburg and Bethel Are Notch Your Average Towns

Get to know Maine’s funky White Mountains gateway communities.

The recently muralized Gem Theater, Bethel
Bethel's recently muralized Gem Theater. Photo by Brandon Pullen.
By Brian Kevin
From our August 2022 issue

Fryeburg

Nestled in the foothills some 15 miles south of the national forest, Fryeburg feels more like a quiet New England farm town than a classic mountain town. Don’t expect the same sprawling tourism infrastructure as in, say, neighboring North Conway, New Hampshire — the hotel strip and outlets stores and mini-golf courses are all across the border. But comparatively quiet Fryeburg makes a fine White Mountain basecamp, with a few charming inns and low-key hangouts and the lazy Saco River meandering through.

STAY with innkeepers Jonathan and Natalie Spak, who run the four-room Oxford House Inn (548 Main St.; 207-935-3442) and who, as avid outdoorspeople, can dish on favorite trails, climbing routes, and river bends. The 1913 mansion was designed by heavyweight architect John Calvin Stevens, and selling points include the airy wraparound porch, knockout mountain view from the back lawn, and the spacious dining room and pub, open to non-guests, where Culinary Institute of America grad Jonathan turns out top-notch New American cuisine (with a big old wine list).

UNWIND with a beer at Saco River Brewing Company’s barn-like taproom (10 Jockey Cap Ln.; 207-256-3028; ) or with a cone at Froagie’s Ice Cream (183 Bridgton Rd.; 207-935-2669). The former has more than a dozen taps (try the crisp Clearwater Pale Ale), plus frequent food trucks and live music; the latter has 50-plus flavors of soft and hard serve.

STROLL up the nubbin of a granite outcrop known as Jockey Cap (trailhead at 116 Bridgton Rd., next to Quinn’s Jockey Cap Country Store), where a mostly gentle trail (with one short, steep stretch) of less than a half mile leads to a lookout with a cool bronze monument that helps you identify the many surrounding peaks.

DETOUR to neighboring Lovell, where Chris Lively is creeping up on 20 years of running one of the world’s most impressive beer cellars at Ebeneezer’s Pub (44 Allen Rd.; 207-925-3200) and chef Rose Adams serves bistro fare with Cajun and ​​Caribbean twists at the Center Lovell Inn (1107 Main St.; 207-925-1575).

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Bethel

Outdoor rec has been in Bethel’s DNA since the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad started shuttling rusticators to grand hotels there in the middle 19th century. A ski town in the winter, it’s a perfect launchpad for summer adventures in the Whites, the Mahoosucs, and the Oxford Hills. The leafy, walkable streets are lined with inns and B&Bs, gear and bike shops abound, and the dining scene is surprisingly cosmopolitan for a town of 2,500: on any given Friday night, you can tuck in to wood-fired pizza, sushi, or good Southern barbecue alongside tables of other famished, sun-kissed diners just off the trail.

STAY at the Bethel Inn Resort (21 Broad St.; 207-824-2175), where the hotel-style rooms are comfy and efficient but the draw is the rambling, country-club–like property, with its 18-hole golf course and dozen-plus miles of single- and double-track mountain-biking trails (rentals available at Barker Mountain Bikes, a mile down the road). Other perks include an outdoor heated pool, firepits, and old-school console video games in the on-site Millbrook Tavern.

The front patio at Le Mu’s new home; chef Sav Sengsavang; cocktails and Laotian-American fusion from the Le Mu Eats menu. Photos by Branden Pullen.

DINE at Le Mu Eats (119 Main St.; 207-824-1155), which upgraded last winter from a trailer to a downtown space with patio dining, a few tables, and a handsome, seven-stool bar overlooking an open kitchen. Chef Sav Sengsavang dishes up Laotian-American comfort food, including a killer bánh mì sandwich and big bowls of nam khao, a curry salad with crispy fried-rice balls.

UNWIND at the Gem Theater (48 Cross St.; 207-824-8248), which hosts first-run blockbusters all summer, along with concerts and the occasional touring outdoor-adventure doc or film festival. Before or after, tuck into a pint at Steam Mill Brewing (96 Sunday River Rd.; 207-824-1149), which opened a new taproom, with a kitchen and a full bar, last winter (although the outdoor bar and umbrella-shaded picnic tables are where the action is). If it’s on tap, ask for the Paradise Perle Belgian wheat ale, a summer quencher made with Maine wildflower honey.

Pulling drafts at Steam Mill Brewing; al fresco drinks on the Steam Mill Brewing patio. Photos by Branden Pullen.

DETOUR to Sunday River ski resort (15 South Ridge Rd., Newry; 800-543-2754), where summer offerings include scenic Chondola rides to the summit of North Peak, the best place to get a postcard view of the craggy Mahoosuc skyline without breaking a sweat.

Read more about Maine’s 50,000 acres of the White Mountain National Forest.


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