Belfast Quietly Dazzles, Year Round
Words by Susan Grisanti | Photos by Lauryn Hottinger
We drove north to Belfast, and discovered a vibrant year-round community with not a single shop shuttered for the season
Lisa and Alex Pelling were wanderers with no intention of settling down. They began in their native England and traversed 65 countries around the world, much of it in an old RV. Then they found Belfast, and parked the RV for good. “In the fall of 2015, we drove into Belfast and immediately felt at home,” says Lisa.
Instead of a land yacht, Lisa and Alex now run summer cruises on their traditional wooden lobster boat The Back and Forth between Young’s Lobster Pound and downtown Belfast, giving tourists an easy, economical way to get out on the water. They also own a stylish home in East Belfast, just across the Passagassawakeag River from downtown, where they host Airbnb guests year-round.
The Pellings aren’t alone in choosing Belfast after a global search. Nordic Aquafarms, an international developer of land-based aquaculture, recently chose Belfast for a new, environmentally friendly facility—after looking in China, Japan, Ireland, and Spain. “Aquaculture is a growing force in Maine’s economy, bringing new jobs and opportunities to our state’s fishing industry,” said Senator Angus King. “Nordic Aquafarm’s facility will build on our state’s rich fishing traditions and promote innovation and sustainability that can help Belfast and the surrounding community thrive.”
Shortly after that news broke, photographer Lauryn Hottinger and I headed north for an off-season sojourn at the Pelling’s home. We discovered a vibrant year-round community with not a single shop shuttered for the season.
At the Pellings’ home, set on a six-acre plot of wildflower meadow, we sit around their 9-by-5-foot marble kitchen island while they give us the lowdown on some of their favorite spots in town. At Young’s Lobster Pound, you can bring your own beer or wine and eat lobster and steamers on the back deck overlooking Penobscot Bay. Opera House Video, one of the last remaining brick-and-mortar rental shops in the country, stocks over 3,100 movies. Quench, which sells jewelry, accessories, locally thrown pottery, and body care items, is a favorite of Lisa’s.
Lisa directs us to park on the east side of Belfast and walk into town via the Armistice footbridge, which crosses the river and connects to the Belfast Harbor Walk, a scenic, flat half-mile stretch along the downtown shore. A short walk up the hill puts us in the heart of downtown, but first we stop for a cocktail on the edge of the harbor at Three Tides. (Three Tides and the adjacent Marshall Wharf Brewing Co., which helped usher in the craft beer wave in Maine, are for sale by owners David and Sarah Carlson, perhaps by this summer. I recommend a trip to this local institution soon.)
After a dozen fresh oysters at Ondine Oyster & Wine Bar we walk over to Meanwhile in Belfast, which serves a varied menu of authentic Italian cuisine: house-made pastas, cured meats, and seafood, but we’re here for the genuine wood-fired sourdough Neapolitan pizzas, with a shared salad and a bottle of red from Calabria that’s made from the intense Gaglioppo grape of that dry region.
When considering dinner plans in Belfast, one should check the schedule at Chase’s Daily, a popular breakfast and lunch spot that serves dinner on Friday nights in the restored Odd Fellows Hall (although the owners have announced plans to add more weekly dinner seatings). Chase’s has been serving exquisite farm-to-table meals since the term farm-to-table barely existed. It’s also a bakery, produce, and flower market. We plan for a luncheon feast the next day.
We end our evening with a cocktail at Neighborhood, the next manifestation of Seth Whited and Sarah Waldron’s popular food truck, Good ‘n’ You. I look forward to returning soon to try some of the popular dishes from their eclectic menu, like shrimp and grits or Korean bulgogi tacos with a waffle churro with homemade salted caramel ice cream for dessert.
The next morning, on our way to coffee we stop at Bennett’s Gems & Jewelry and are momentarily lost in awe at the gemstones and fossils. It’s a reminder of the wonders of design and form that exist deep within our planet.
At Moonbat City Baking Co., cups of 44 North coffee and a shared, must-be-tried-to-be-believed chocolate chip cookie muffin are our fuel. I grab a smattering of goodies to butter up my son at home later.
Downtown Belfast is one of the most charming and walkable towns in Maine—every boutique, art galley, and bookshop on or around Main Street is worth a visit. Today, we wander through the rich, warm wood shelves of the self-proclaimed “Harvard Square Bookshop in Belfast,” Old Professor’s Bookshop. We peruse the paintings and sculpture at the Maine Farmland Trust Gallery and then Neil Parent’s marvelous fine art photography of the Maine scene at The Parent Gallery. City Drawers lingerie, Man on Main menswear, and Justine Consignment Boutique all offer stylish, high-quality clothing. Other standout stops: Brambles, a gorgeous garden and gift shop; Eat More Cheese’s wonderful selection of cheeses, cured meats, and wine; and the Belfast Bay Shade Company’s vast variety of bold, block-printed linen lamp shades handcrafted by artist Dina Petrillo.
The Belfast Co-op market and cafe, the Belfast Farmers’ Market (every Friday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.), and the United Farmers Market of Maine (every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.) are all rich with local natural, farm-fresh food. I’m saving future visits to experience some of the town’s art and performance organizations including Waterfall Arts, Cold Comfort Theater, and The Belfast Free Library. On the first Friday of every month, the Belfast Flying Shoes holds a community and contra dance at the Legion Hall.
After two days in Belfast, we understand why Lisa and Alex Pelling stopped their RV. We get why Nordic Aquafarms stopped their search. This place is forward-looking, stunning, and open year-round.
Belfast Bay Shade Company, 1 Franklin Street Belfast Co-op, 123 High Street Belfast Farmers’ Market, 231 Northport Avenue Belfast Flying Shoes, 143 Church Street Belfast Free Library, 1106 High Street Bennett’s Gems & Jewelry, 45 Searsport Avenue Brambles, 2 Cross Street Chase’s Daily, 96 Main Street City Drawers, 105 Main Street Cold Comfort Theater, 139 Northport Avenue Eat More Cheese, 94 Main Street Justine Consignment Boutique, 50 Main Street Maine Farmland Trust Gallery, 97 Main Street Man on Main, 103 Main Street Marshall Wharf Brewing Co., 40 Marshall Wharf Meanwhile in Belfast, 2 Cross Street Moonbat City Baking Co., 137 Main Street Neighborhood, 132 High Street Old Professor’s Bookshop, 99 Main Street Opera House Video, 109A Church Street Ondine Oyster + Wine Bar, 108 Main Street Quench, 33 Main Street The Back and Forth, Belfast City Harbor Dock or Young’s Lobster Pound The Parent Gallery, 92 Main Street Three Tides, 2 Pinchy Lane United Farmers Market of Maine, 18 Spring Street Waterfall Arts, 256 High Street Young’s Lobster Pound, 2 Fairview Street