Click any blue-bordered photo on this page to enlarge it.
by Esther J. Perne
Even when milk and fresh produce were delivered by boat to remote camps on these lakes, even when there were no cars and few roads connecting towns, even when vacation meant not going anywhere or doing anything, going to town in central Maine has been a favorite, if not a standard, part of the summer experience.
For decades, folks summering among the quiet lakes and shady woodlands went to town for provisions, for books, for sociability, for a brief change of surroundings, for the marvels of communication — and they still do. This summer, especially, there is a quality of reassurance in seeing traffic on the roads, people on the sidewalks, communities with open stores and restaurants and the impressive adaptations and presentations of safe shopping, safe dining, safe service.
When it's time to go downtown, there are many choices that have wi-fi, takeout food, parks, historic buildings and views of nearby water bodies. Most have sidewalks, access to libraries, ice cream stands, indoor dining and farmers' markets; some have outdoor artwork, movies, trails and carefully distanced events.
When it's time to go downtown here are some choices:
Augusta: Awesome historic architecture, where the tide turns. Augusta's downtown along the Kennebec River is one of the best examples of historic architecture in New England. The main street, Water Street, deserves a walk up one side and down the other to observe from the opposite side the ornate brick buildings, granite entranceways and picturesque refurbishing, the dynamic development of shops and restaurants — many offering sidewalk dining and the emerging apartment culture that is fueling a downtown renaissance.
A weekly reason to visit downtown Augusta is the farmers' market in Mill Park, Tuesdays, 2-6 p.m. A unique event currently in progress is the Thursday Bangor Savings Bank Movies in the Park(ing) Lot, a drive-in at the Maine Housing parking Lot which will show Toy Story 4 on August 6 and Aladdin on August 13. The showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets, $5, must be purchased online.
Belgrade Lakes: Center of a legendary summer resort area, hub to a chain of seven lakes. The Belgrade Lakes Village invitation this year is meet the new Main Street. Two years of construction have produced village-long brick sidewalks, conveniently placed benches and bike racks, and strategically planted future shade trees — all while enhancing street side parking. Breezes off the water from both sides of town provide for pleasant strolling. There are parks and ice cream take-outs at both ends of the stroll and shops and restaurants along the way.
Weekly in Belgrade Lakes, the Belgrade Lakes Market sets up Sundays, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., in the parking area and on the lawn beside and behind the Maine Lakes Resource Center.
Farmington: College town with a downtown campus, gateway to Maine's Western Mountains. Farmington's downtown is a mix of historic brick buildings and modern college structures; old, elegant houses; logging trucks passing through; co-eds strolling on the sidewalks; and an eclectic mix of book stores, coffee shops and clothing outlets from thrift to classy — many currently open for business.
Skowhegan: County seat in a setting of rocky waterfalls, picturesque parks and unique wooden sculptures. Downtown, Water Street, is a collection of shops, restaurants and a grain mill in the former jail. Saturdays, 9 a.m.-1 p.m., the Skowhegan Farmers' Market meets in front of Maine Grains, the Somerset Grist Mill.
The Skowhegan Rotary Club will be offering its 36th annual lobster bake this summer in a unique To Go arrangement. Single meals will be $17, twin $27, available only through online orders through the Rotary Facebook page. There will be curbside pickup noon to 7 p.m. at the Municipal Parking Lot near the Chamber of Commerce.
Waterville: Home to the converted Hathaway Mill, Colby College, the Maine International Film Festival — setting standards in community-college collaboration. Downtown Waterville was the go-to downtown for goods and supplies for Belgrades vacationers. Today it is go-to for art, restaurants, specialty shops and entrepreneurship. One good weekly reason to visit downtown Waterville is the Thursday farmers' market, held 2-6 p.m. at Head of Falls.
When it's time to go downtown there are other towns to discover, visit, enjoy. There are downtowns not reviewed here: Gardiner, Hallowell, Oakland, Winthrop and many villages in between — all a rewarding addition to the summer experience.
When visiting a town in Maine, it should be noted that in addition to state guidelines on COVID-19, municipalities can have local prevention and protection plans in place which visitors are requested to observe and that if a spike in COVID-19 warrants it, some sector-specific re-openings in a community or region will be rolled back.