Boaters on Maine's Damariscotta River who only stop at Christmas Cove miss an almost pastoral 14-mile cruise to the charming twin villages of Damariscotta and Newcastle. Summer homes are scattered along the rolling wooded riverbanks. A dozen coves and a forest preserve with hiking trails tempt you to anchor and enjoy the solitude and fall colors.
The Damariscotta's head waters are the horseshoe crabs' northernmost breeding grounds, and each spring spawning alewives run the Damariscotta, a corruption of the American Indian word for "river of many little fishes". Above the wharves, shipyards and marinas of East Boothbay and South Bristol, the only industry along the pristine river are eight companies raising oysters. You'll have to watch out for the buoyed strings of floating 'cars' containing the growing crop.
FOR INFORMATION Damariscotta Region Chamber of Commerce, Main Street, Damariscotta, (207) 563-8340, www.damariscottaregion.com Midcoast Chamber Council, (207) 338-3808, www.mainesmidcoast.com Fourth annual Pumpkinfest, Oct. 10-12, (207) 563-8340, www.damariscottapumpkinfest.com
On the west bank, a half-mile below Damariscotta/Newcastle, stands Riverside Boat Co., established in 1946. It's an old-time wooden boatyard with a railway, 1934 winch truck, wooden yachts and the lumber and parts to build or repair them scattered about the property. Owner and Damariscotta harbormaster Paul Bryant, who cruises extensively in the 30-foot sloop he designed and built, lets cruisers pick up the yard's empty moorings at no charge, because, he says, "when I cruise, it's awful nice to get a free mooring."
Above Riverside Boat Co., the river opens up. Brilliant maples dot green lawns that sweep down to the bank. White steeples pierce the sky. The 'twin villages' face each other across the bridge at the head of navigation. You can dinghy above the bridge a mile or so upstream to Great Salt Bay. You'll pass 12-foot high, 2,500-year-old oyster shell middens left by Abenaki tribes who came here to feast on the shellfish. Local knowledge and timing the tide are advisable, for you'll encounter strong currents and a reversing falls.
However, most cruisers are content to explore the Twin Villages' shops, pubs and restaurants. You can tie up at Schooner Landing Restaurant and Marina, right downtown, next to Damariscotta's town boat ramp and waterfront park. Or you can dinghy in from Riverside Boat Co.
Damariscotta (population about 1,800) was settled in 1640, but flourished as the region's trading center only after peace between the Europeans and American Indians in 1747. Nineteenth-century cargo schooners, some locally built, traded out of Damariscotta. Steamboats continued docking here into the 20th century. The maritime profits translated into classic homes lining residential streets and a brick business district now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
From the town dinghy dock or Schooner Landing, you can walk to most everything. (The Chamber of Commerce on Main Street has maps, brochures and calendars of events.) Businesses range from day spas, specialty shops, antique stores and art galleries to Reny's Underground (discounted name brand clothing) and Reny's flagship store (an ever-changing unexpectedly diverse discounted merchandise). You can buy The New York Times or Wall Street Journal at Waltz's Pharmacy, browse the latest bestsellers over coffee at The Maine Coast Bookshop Café or buy used books at Skidompha Library.
A liquor store, fresh seafood market, bank, post office, gas station and Waltz's old-fashioned soda fountain are also on Main Street. Supermarkets and a natural foods co-op are 1.5 miles north on U.S. Route 1B.
The villages' dozen or so restaurants are equally varied. Many feature Damariscotta River oysters - renowned for their quality - and ales of both worldwide and local brews. Breakfast at The Breakfast Place and Bakery is a must. Salt Bay Café serves modest meals and you can pick up a pizza or sandwich at several spots. Schooner Landing's legendary 'Sunday Pier Parties' draw so many day trippers that boats must raft. King Eider's Pub and Restaurant, Damariscotta River Grill and Newcastle Publick House offer gourmet dining, casual pub fare and special events including wine tastings, themed dinners, "Mug Night" and live music.
The village doesn't roll up its sidewalks at dusk. The Lincoln County Theater presents live drama and musical performances. The library sponsors frequent classic movies.
Probably the most fun is October's annual Pumpkinfest, which is three days of parades, feasts, contests and zany activities involving that quintessential fall icon. Twenty or so pumpkins (more than 300 pounds) carved, painted and decorated by artists are displayed along Main Street and lighted at night. Other equally large pumpkins are carved into boats and raced by paddle- or engine-power in the harbor.
Amid all the activity, take time to stroll across the bridge a block to Newcastle's Glidden Street. Here you'll see impeccably maintained 19th century homes shaded by tall maples aglow in fall's glorious reds, oranges and yellows. After this glimpse of classic New England autumn, head back downtown for chowder, hot mulled cider or a frosty brew.
Making your way
The winding passage north up the quiet Damariscotta River makes a pleasant 14-mile cruise, with deep water and several tempting coves for peaceful anchoring. You need to follow the markers and be wary of strong currents in The Narrows off Fort Point.
At the head of navigation (the fixed Route 1B highway bridge) the 'twin villages' of Damariscotta and Newcastle face each other across the river.
You can pick up a vacant mooring between Green Can No. 23 and Red Nun No. 24 at no charge off Riverside Boat Co., which offers full repairs to wooden boats. You can dinghy the half-mile to the Damariscotta town dinghy dock. Boatyard owner Paul Bryant, who is also the Damariscotta/Newcastle harbormaster, can direct you to a vacant mooring nearer downtown. Damariscotta and Newcastle both recently passed an ordinance prohibiting anchoring upstream of Green Can No. 23.
Schooner Landing Restaurant and Marina, (207) 563-7447, right downtown, has free short-term dockage for diners and overnight dockage for $2 to 4 a foot per night. Depths are around 7 feet. The tide floods east to west through the marina and stronger river currents sweep under the bridge. Don't let the tide catch you while docking. Water and electricity are available at the marina, as are restrooms during business hours. Repairs can be arranged. Rafting is common along the riverside face dock.
Trash receptacles are in the town boat ramp and dinghy dock. Waltz's Pharmacy has public restrooms. Fuel, propane and ice are available at Colby and Gale service station on Main Street.
NOAA chart No. 13293, (The Damariscotta, Sheepscot and Kennebec Rivers, South Bristol Harbor and Christmas Cove), covers the area.
This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue.