Whether it’s the bookstores and funky cafes, historic buildings and sloping lawns, or simply the lively local scene, college towns can charm the least studious of travelers. Brunswick is no exception.
From Bowdoin’s ivy-covered halls to refurbished antique mills along the Androscoggin, Maine’s oldest college town is a congenial mix of hip and historic. Stately trees, mansions, and “college houses” – former fraternities – recall Brunswick’s past. Diversity and youthful spirit tether it firmly to the future.
Amtrak’s Downeaster will soon be offering passenger train service from Portland to Brunswick. The Inn at Brunswick Station is poised and ready, offering comfortable boutique rooms and spacious suites that still smell “new.” The comfy, contemporary inn overlooks the new train station, and is close to Bowdoin College and Brunswick’s funky little downtown.
Lined with shops, bistros and galleries, Brunswick’s Maine Street has a retro feel, with appliance repair, toyshop, candlepin bowling, vinyl LPs and cigar emporium. The Wild Oats bakery offers tasty muffins and quiche, that popular 70s staple, and Broadway Diner offers free refills of toast. Little Dog and Bohemian coffee shops supply enough joe to keep time-travelers, students, and locals wide awake.
Straddling the riverbank is Fort Andross, a restored cotton mill full of exposed brick and ancient beams. The mill is home to yoga and dance classes, artist’s studios, and the sunny expanse that is Cabot Antiques. Frontier Café’s lofty space functions as an informal community center, with gallery, small cinema, views of the Androscoggin River, and locally sourced fresh fare. I enjoyed the surprise of Pineland Farms feta on a Middle Eastern plate.
Take a walk in the park to Bowdoin College Museum of Art, where visitors enter through an intriguing modern glass “box.” The museum’s permanent collection includes old masters, distinguished Mainers like Winslow Homer and Andrew Wyeth, plus vibrant works by the likes of Mary Cassatt, Robert Rauschenberg and John Marin — no Mainer should pass this gem without stopping.
After a satisfying town-and-gown walk, we head back to the Inn, whose collection historic photographs of Brunswick show how much or how little the downtown has changed in the last 100 years — depending on your perspective. To me, it seems remarkably intact.
The tavern is comfortable and neighborhoody, with locals enjoying conversation and cocktails. We inhale the aroma of coconut-curry mussels, delicious, and can’t resist. They’re sweet, briny, and we are not disappointed. A charcuterie and cheese board features artisanal flavors, both locally sourced and “from away.” Artichoke and crab dip has a potent hit of cholula that elevates it from standard pub fare to hybrid. Yum.
Chef Kevin Cunningham is young enough to work the room like a puppy but seasoned enough to know it’s all about what he puts on the plate. The man can sear a scallop. Bar manager Lise Baratta’s by-the-glass wine list and savvy recommendations make the evening feel like an event. Standouts include an inky Coppola noir that sips like liquid velvet.
After a blissful night’s sleep, we conclude our tour with a visit to vintage craftsman Michael Perkins and his reclaimed-wood furniture shop. Perkins’ hand-finished tables glow, as smooth and delicious as, well, the gelato across the street. Not quite ready to let go of the weekend, we stop at Lions Pride pub for beer and Belgian fries. Awed by the sheer number of taps, we choose the Weyerbacher Hops Infusion, Allagash White, and a small glass of Urban Farms Cider – delicious.
Hm. Maybe college towns are special because they’re smart. From highbrow to low, Brunswick’s got it covered. For a relaxed and surprising daytrip or weekend, explore this convivial Maine Street and beyond — you won’t be disappointed.
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Originally appeared in the Portland Daily Sun newspaper. Photos, top to bottom: Lions at Bowdoin College Museum of Art; Train Signage; John Marin, Weehawken Sequence, Bowdoin College Museum of Art; Historic Brunswick photo; Belgian Fries at Lion’s Pride; Kelly and beer taps at Lion’s Pride. Photos by David Margolis-Pineo