By Victor Block
When visitors to Bethel, Maine, describe what makes the town special, many responses have a common theme expressed in different words.
Stanley Howe, a native who serves as associate director of the Bethel Historical Society, refers to “outside influences” that have added to the fabric of the community.
Those influences lend a veneer of sophistication — unusual in towns of comparable size, with about 2,400 permanent residents.
That doesn’t become evident immediately. The first impression is of the magnificent scenery and setting. The town lies in a fertile valley nestled among rolling, tree-clad hills and some of the highest mountains in Maine. Small lakes, ponds and meandering rivers, dot the landscape. The stretch of the Androscoggin that runs past Bethel offers good angling for brown and rainbow trout.
Fishing is one of a long list of activities that attracts lovers of the outdoors. Spring to fall means hiking, road and mountain biking, canoeing, kayaking, river raft and float trips and mountain climbing, among other pursuits.
Golfers have a choice of two courses. The Bethel Inn course, which includes seven holes that remain from the 1915 layout, offers what Northeast Golf Magazine has called “mountain golf at its best.” Sunday River is included on Golf Magazine’s list of the leading public courses in the country.
Come winter, Sunday River offers skiers 132 trails and glades spread across eight interconnected peaks. Nearby Mt. Abram Resort is known as family-friendly.
Bethel is a good starting point for drives through some of New England’s most spectacular fall foliage. Roads follow rushing rivers and deep valleys, climb hills and skirt mountains — with a kaleidoscope of brilliant color around every twist and turn.
While we visited Bethel before the onset of Mother Nature’s autumn display, my wife Fyllis and I experienced the beauty of the area by hiking on several of dozens of trails that offer something-for-everyone variety. They range from an easy amble along a path in town beside the Androscoggin River to a challenging climb to the summit of 4,180-foot Old Speck Mountain, the third highest peak in Maine.
On the Gray Memorial Trail we soon left behind the noise of what some call civilization and passed through forest where the only sounds were birds chirping and our footsteps. We spotted old cut and painted blazes on trees that historically were used to mark property lines, and saw lines of holes that a bear left when it climbed a large birch tree.
A hike along Wright Brook leads to Step Falls, a series of lovely descending cascades that drop a total of more than 250 feet, making it one of the highest falls in Maine. Near the top of the rock-strewn stream are deep pools where those hardy enough to brave the cold water can take a dip.
Along with introductions to the natural beauty that surrounds Bethel, Fyllis and I immersed ourselves in the history and charms of the town itself. Farming was the principal occupation of the first European settlers who arrived in 1774. When the village was connected by railroad to Portland in the 1851, and later to Montreal, timber cutting, manufacturing and tourism developed.
The town center would be at home in a Norman Rockwell drawing of a quintessentially New England town. Old trees that shade well-preserved historic homes that were built over a span of 125 years line the broad Common and adjoining streets.
The Dr. Moses Mason House (1813) and the adjacent O’Neil Robinson House (1821), are home to the Bethel Historical Society. They contain exhibit galleries and nine fully furnished period rooms that, among other things, demonstrate how hard people worked during the first half of the 19th century on chores that today are done by labor-saving utensils.
A personal favorite was the Albert Stiles House (1852), a cozy cottage adorned by gingerbread trim. In contrast is the rambling Bethel Inn, which has been providing room and board to guests since 1913. In addition to its golf course, this four-season resort boasts an excellent dining room, spa and a menu of available activities ranging from fly fishing schools and moose tours to snowmobiling and dog sledding.
Those less inclined to such outdoor activities have inviting alternatives to check out at an eclectic choice of shops and studios. At a number of them, local artists and craft people produce and sell their wares, which adds an air of unexpected chic to the small town setting.
Whether you’re a shopper, history buff or lover of the outdoors, Bethel offers much to attract and keep you there for a while.
For more information, call the Bethel Chamber of Commerce at 20-824-2282 or log onto bethelmaine.com.