Destination South Freeport, Maine - Part I

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This destination juxtaposes a coastal New England village with thequintessential shopping experience

There is nothing to do in South Freeport — that is, except enjoy the serenity of a quintessential coastal Maine village, the coming and going of boats, and lobster al fresco at Harraseeket Lunch and Lobster Co. on the town dock.

“It’s a dangerous harbor, with a Loch Ness monster that swallows any new boat,” quips the owner of an 87-foot Burger motoryacht berthed at Strouts Wharf Co., in an effort to keep this New England gem from becoming too popular. Then, more seriously, “I’ve cruised all over the world and keep coming back here.”

Across the harbor, Wolf Neck Woods State Park’s forested shore enhances the New England tranquility. But major action is only three miles away in downtown Freeport, home of L.L. Bean and 100-plus name-brand discount stores and factory outlets.

With advance reservations, you’re assured of space in South Freeport’s well-

protected harbor on northwest Casco Bay. Brewer South Freeport Marine and Strouts Wharf Co., which flank the town dock, have dockage and moorings. Brewer also has an upper harbor mooring field, “a secluded spot, like an anchorage,” says Alex Reardon of the Brewer dock staff. The facility’s launch serves all moorings.

South Freeport, which has deep water at all tides, has been the Town of Freeport’s harbor and shipbuilding center for more than 300 years. The area’s earliest prosperity came from cutting mast timber for the British Royal Navy. The tallest, finest trees were marked with a broad arrow, reserving them for the king. These trees were cut in winter, sledged out by ox teams to Mast Landing and similar locations, then lowered into the Harraseeket River. The timbers were floated down to South Freeport’s Spar Cove to be loaded onto ships for England. The king’s monopoly on mast timber ended with the Revolutionary War.

Photos in the Brewer marina and at the Freeport Historical Society on Main Street show the 300- to 400-ton wooden ships and coasting schooners built along the South Freeport waterfront in the 19th century. A few vessels were constructed during the first and second World Wars, but wooden shipbuilding essentially ended in 1880.

Today’s activity centers around the docks: lobstermen and clammers land their catch, kayakers explore, students in Harraseeket Yacht Club classes sail one-designs, sightseers cruise aboard excursion boats, and ferries carry residents from the town dock to the summer homes on Bustins Island.

“Boating activity picks up just after 4 p.m., when people get out of work,” says Reardon.

Stroll up the hill a block and you’re amid classic early 19th-century homes built by prosperous shipbuilders, captains and merchants. Most are impeccably maintained by their present owners. Capt. Thomas Ring, whose great-grandparents lived in South Freeport, operates Atlantic Seal Bed and Breakfast in one 1850s home.

The landmark stone tower on the ridge is the only remnant of “Casco Castle,” a luxurious 1903 hotel and amusement park. Guests came by trolley from Portland and beyond to stay at the 100-room hotel for $3 a day plus meals. The hotel burned in 1914, and the tower is now private property.

Three blocks from the marinas is the center of South Freeport — post office, school, church and The Village Store. The number of people carrying “Village Store” coffee cups reinforces locals’ claim that everyone goes there for coffee and great sandwiches. You can also buy lunches, deli items, staples and newspapers. (For major provisioning, there is a supermarket in downtown Freeport.)

In a small boat, you can poke into South Freeport harbor’s nooks and crannies — from Stockbridge Point, site of town-owned Winslow Park and swimming beach, to Mast Landing, where the Audubon Society maintains walking trails in its 150-acre sanctuary.

“It’s a nice kayak ride [to Mast Landing], but only practical at high tide,” says Reardon. Wolf Neck Woods State Park, across the harbor, offers picnic areas and nature trails, but the only access is by road.

Many boaters join the 3.5 million shoppers a year at the area’s major commercial attraction: downtown Freeport’s discount stores and factory outlets. Critics call it “Freeport, Inc.” in opposition to how tourism and shopping has overwhelmed their once-quiet village.

In Freeport you can literally shop until you drop — 24 hours a day, seven days a week, year-round at L.L. Bean. The retail giant stocks some 16,000 items — small boats, sporting equipment and clothing for all seasons — in its 160,000-square-foot flagship store and adjacent Hunting and Fishing store, as well as its Web site and catalogs. Workshops are offered in canoeing, kayaking and other sports. And to think, it all began with the rubber-soled, leather-topped Maine Hunting Shoe that Leon Leonwood Bean developed in 1911.

Among the dozens of famous-name shops you’ll find downtown are Brooks Brothers, Cuddledown, Dansk, Gap, J. Crew, Jones New York, Patagonia and Ralph Lauren. You’ll also find fine crafts, from local jewelry makers to Edgecomb Potters Gallery and Thomas Mosher Cabinetmakers. The 20th Maine American History and Antique Center emphasizes Civil War and World War II items. Outlying malls extend a mile south of downtown.

You have almost infinite dining choices downtown, from hotdog vendors along Main Street to the highly recommended Harraseeket Inn and the circa 1795 Jameson Tavern. McDonald’s exists, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find the golden arches. Before allowing the fast-food giant to open in the National Historic District, the town required it to retain the exterior of the circa 1900 Gore House it had purchased to house the restaurant. Subsequent businesses occupying historic houses were held to the same standards. Several 1800s homes are now bed-and-breakfast inns.

Some downtown shops occupy buildings that were set back at an angle so the long timbers for masts could turn corners. Most brick buildings were constructed later, during Freeport’s prosperous industrial period at the turn of the 20th century. You’ll learn this and more at the Freeport Historical Society in the 1830 Harrison House.

Downtown’s hustle and bustle will seem a world away when you retreat to South Freeport and its serenity. It is a very special village.