Travel Feature: A Winter Weekend in Bethel

Editor's note: A revised version of this story appears in the January/February 2010 issue of Maine. magazine. Image above courtesy Sunday River.

I've had skis practically as long as I've had feet, and when I was a girl, my family would travel to the Bethel area for one reason: Sunday River. During school vacations, we'd rent a condo and stay there for a few days, maybe a week. Sometimes, we'd wind up in a motel with a heated indoor pool, the only amenity that mattered to my little sister and me. But no matter where we stayed, one thing was constant: Mom, who does not ski and has no interest in learning how, was painfully bored. She tried cross-country skiing once. It wasn't pretty.

Too bad we couldn't fast-forward 20 years. I don't exactly remember Bethel as a hotbed of activity — we didn't do much except ski or sit around the condo. Of course, back then, I thought apres ski meant cocoa and a piece of pizza in the lodge. But today, skiing is only one of many reasons to visit this pretty little town in western Maine.

You could spend an entire afternoon taking a walking tour of the historic village, which is packed with stately, well-maintained homes. Settled first by the Abenakis and in 1774 by the English, Bethel was originally called Sudbury Canada Plantation. In 1796, the name changed to Bethel, or "House of God." The earliest settlers were farmers, and with the introduction of the railroad, lumber and wood products fed the economy. So did the wealthy summer visitors, who rode the train from Boston or New York to take in the mountain views. Since 1836, Gould Academy has drawn students and their parents to Bethel, and education remains a major part of the town's identity.

Want to guess what makes up the other major part? If you say skiing, you're only part right. Yes, Sunday River and Mount Abram are both nearby, and there are miles of cross-country trails in town. But recreation has become a year-round draw for ski bums and golfers, hikers and bikers, healers and students and people who just want to get away from it all. After 9/11, vacation home building soared, and visitors from New York and Boston, who used to just rent a condo for a week like my family did, decided they wanted to spend more time here. Now, they come up in the summer. And in the fall. And they stay awhile.

"Bethel's kind of like an eddy," says David Nivus, who owns the Good Food Store with his wife, Heather. "Some people come in, spin around once or twice, and they're gone. Other people get to stick to the bank and grow roots."

After one weekend, you'll understand why.

As soon as humanly possible, sprint out of your office, snap the skis on your roof rack — or not — and head toward Bethel. There are so many lodging options in and around Bethel, it can be difficult to choose where to stay. We stayed at the Gideon Hastings House, a renovated (and updated) inn and restaurant across from the Bethel Inn and the Village Green. Up the street is the lovely Bethel Hill Bed and Breakfast, and the Crocker Pond House is an architect-designed contemporary inn just outside town. Though there are far too many to list by name, most of the B&Bs in town are wonderful and welcoming, and there are plenty of motels nearby, as well. There are also a few ultra-luxe home rentals, such as SkiEsta, which sleeps up to 38 and has a hot tub on the roof.

Once you're settled in, take a stroll around town. It's beautiful at night, and you'll be able to peruse menu after menu as you walk through the village. For a town of a little more than 2,400 year-round residents, Bethel has a surprising number — and variety — of excellent, higher-end restaurants. Craving Italian? Stop at 22 Broad St. at the Gideon Hastings House, where chefs Don Hauser and Dave Burnham create rustic Italian favorites such as braised veal and beef tip ragout and osso bucco. On Main Street, Cho Sun, a beautifully decorated restaurant owned by South Korean native Pok Sun Lane, serves up authentic Korean and Japanese dishes — people drive hours for Cho Sun's Hot Stone Bibimbap. The Victoria is known for fine dining with a French influence, prepared with fresh, local ingredients. In the mood for British pub food? Head to the Jolly Drayman for a curry, a pint and live music. You'll want to turn in early — even if you're not skiing tomorrow, there's plenty of adventure to be had.

Pretty much every inn in Bethel serves breakfast, but you shouldn't miss the homemade bagels and strong coffee at the Mouse and Bean Internet Cafe. Ditto for the sweet treats at Cafe DiCocoa — can you say cupcakes?

Once your stomach is full, you have a choice to make: indoors or out.

For the indoorsy, there is plenty to do in Bethel. In addition to shopping and chatting with the locals, who couldn't be nicer, you can also relax in style. In recent years, Bethel has become known as a haven for those interested in holistic healing. The Jordan Spa and Summit Health Club at Sunday River provide a full menu of services, as does the Bethel Inn. Many of the bed and breakfasts in town work with independent practitioners to offer alternative therapies, and downtown, Spirit Wings provides massage, Reiki, hypnotherapy and more.

Prefer retail therapy? Main Street is full of artisans' studios and charming boutiques. In Bethel, Brooks Bros. doesn't sell suits and patterned ties, it sells hardware, and this classic store is a must even if you're not in the market for a hammer or a can of spray foam. Stock up on Nicholas Mosse pottery, splurge on a Barbour jacket and scarf, or treat yourself to an Alan Ardiff "moving pendant" at Linda Clifford Scottish & Irish Merchant. Go glam at Ruthie's boutique, a grown-up girl's paradise packed with adorable accessories, colorful sweaters and the cutest little dogs in town. Watch the wheel spin at Bonnema Potters, where Garret and Melody Bonnema create porcelain and stoneware with glazes inspired by the woods, water and mountains that surround Bethel. Pok Sun Emporium, also owned by Pok Sun Lane, offers a fine selection of Asian tableware and antiques.

Oxford County is home to a rich cache of natural gemstones — and mines — so rock shops and jewelers who specialize in locally mined tourmaline and other stones are a fixture here. In Philbrook Place, a barn downtown that is home to a group of small retailers, you'll find Mt. Mica Rarities. Here, fourth-generation jeweler Phillip McCrillis works with smoky quartz, watermelon tourmaline, amethysts and other Maine minerals to create wearable works of art. The exhibit of crystals and geodes will enchant kids. So will the crystal cave at Mt. Mann Jewelers, where Jim Mann works his magic on local gemstones, many of which Mann mined himself. He's been in the business for 40 years and he had his first jackhammer by the time he was out of high school — a huge point of pride.

By this point, you've probably worked up an appetite. What better way to follow up a spa day and shopping than with ... pulled pork? Forget about your diet and drive to BBQ Bob's orange trailer, parked beside The Good Food Store on Route 2. Here, Bob Ballou cooks up pit-smoked barbecue that is so good, he guarantees it's the best you've ever had. In the entire time he's been doing barbecue, only two people have asked for a refund — and to hear Bob tell it, they were both kind of ornery. If you can handle it, ask for the hot barbecue sauce — Bob's secret ingredient is Moxie. And a ton of habaneros.

Even though you'll be stuffed by the time you finish your pork, chicken, brisket or ribs, wander over to the Good Food Store. Owners David and Heather Nivus worked in the restaurant business when they moved to Bethel about 20 years ago, and they both noticed that customers would ask to buy ingredients so they could cook in their ski house or condo — a few anchovies, maybe a tablespoon of rosemary. So 15 years ago, they opened this hip little gourmet grocery — which is absolutely crammed full of natural foods, local, organic produce, Maine-made products and house-made meals to go.

For the outdoorsy, this part of Maine is paradise. Well, actually, Bethel is right next to Paradise Hill, and the town is surrounded by mountains and streams, woods and waterfalls. In the winter, skiing is king, but there are many other ways to while away a day outdoors. Up for an adventure? Head to nearby Newry and try one of Mahoosuc Guide Service's daylong or overnight dog sled tours. Longtime guides Kevin Slater and Polly Mahoney and their team of Yukon huskies will take you on a scenic mushing tour of the Grafton Notch area — and you can warm up with a lunch cooked over a campfire. The overnights are truly a treat.

Feeling a little less adventurous? Stay downtown, where two outdoor ice skating rinks await — one for leisure, one for hockey. Or, go dashing through the snow on a horse-drawn sleigh ride, which leaves from the Bethel Inn. If you visit from January 23 to 31, you can take part in Bethel's winter festival, which will feature a snow sculpture contest, a snow maze with buried treasures, hot air balloon rides and an opportunity to ride on a snow-grooming machine.

Whether you're a snow bunny or a spectator, apres ski in Bethel — or in Newry, near the mountain — is a must. First, there's live music everywhere and second, the beer selection is outstanding. Indulge in Maine brews at Sunday River Brewing Co., warm up with a Ski Bar Beer and brick-oven pizza at the Matterhorn, a classic that Skiing magazine named best in class in its annual roundup of ski-town bars. Grab hearty pub food at Liam's, or head over to the Phoenix House and Well, an upscale yet family-friendly slopeside restaurant owned by Les Otten.

Intown, Suds Pub at the Sudbury Inn is a favorite with are 29 beers on tap, the food is great, and so are the live bands. Locals and tourists alike love the Funky Red Barn, a laid-back, fun hangout with DJs and karaoke. No matter where you go, you can drink — and dance — the night away.

Chances are, you'll be sleeping in this morning. But if you missed breakfast, don't worry. Nothing beats the apres-apres-ski blues like a hearty breakfast. Try the crisp home fries and thick rashers of bacon at Rooster's Roadhouse, just outside town heading toward Sunday River.

Bethel is a little sleepy on Sundays, but then again, so are you. If you feel like a mini-adventure, head out to Sunday River Alpacas, where Maureen Libby raises a herd of good-natured alpacas, each named for a Sunday River ski trail. You can also warm up at the farm store, where Libby sells alpaca fiber and yarn, as well as local and Peruvian alpaca clothing. Now would also be a good time to take that walking tour I mentioned earlier. The fresh air will clear your head, and the historic homes are postcard-perfect in winter.

After meandering through town, you may find yourself looking at real estate listings. You wouldn't be the first. Over the course of a bucolic winter weekend, it's easy to imagine how people get stuck here.

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