April 10, 2018
This venerable Penobscot Bay commercial port is gaining a steady following among boaters looking for an alternative to Maine’s busier harbors.
By Ken Textor • Photography by Tom Richardson
Becoming a standout amid the “star harbors” of Penobscot Bay may sound like a tall order, but Belfast is what many better-known destinations in Maine’s biggest bay once were: relaxed, accessible, relatively uncrowded, authentic and boater-friendly.
“Visitors these days are a pretty diverse group,” says Belfast harbormaster Kathy Pickering, who has seen the local waterfront go from nearly ignored to pleasantly busy in her 22 years on the job. With plenty of deep-water transient moorings available, even megayacht owners are charting a course to this 243-year-old city whose roots include a long tradition of blue-collar industry and commercial fishing.
The city actually set its sights on rejuvenation years before Pickering was hired, and those self-improvement efforts continue today. In fact, as you pass the abandoned light tower on Steels Ledge and head northwest into the confines of the Passagassawakeag River, it’s readily apparent that the Belfast waterfront is precious to this city of some 6,600 permanent residents.
For example, there is no wall of condominiums separating the city from its estuary, unlike some other popular coastal locations. Instead, Belfast’s southwest shore is characterized by lush parks, old sea captains’ homes and the newest addition to the city’s attractions: the Harbor Walk.
“That’s been pretty popular since it opened,” reports Pickering, whose office sits in the middle of the city’s spacious municipal pier, near the midpoint of the Harbor Walk. The pier offers short-term tie-up for day visitors, and Pickering is happy to arrange for overnight accommodations on one of the city’s transient moorings.
Boat enthusiasts in particular like the Harbor Walk for its variety of perspectives on the harbor and its eclectic fleet of vessels—everything from tugboats to schooners. The public pathway encircles the harbor and also takes strollers past Front Street Shipyard, which for any mariner is breathtaking in itself.
Harkening back to Belfast’s heritage as a major shipbuilding port, Front Street was established in 2011 specifically to service megayachts, several of which seem to be in residence on any given day. With the ability to lift and bring ashore vessels up to 200 feet long and weighing up to 480 tons, the company always has some fascinating project underway. Thus, it’s not unusual to see visiting boaters sitting for hours on Harbor Walk benches, watching Front Street workers labor on one magnificent yacht or another. Even landlubbers have been known to stop and marvel.
It’s all in keeping with Belfast’s maritime history—and the primary reason the city boasts so many handsome old Federal, Greek Revival, and Italianate homes. As with many of Maine’s major ports, the 19th century marked a shipbuilding boom for Belfast, along with an upswing in shipping and the exporting of raw materials from the Pine Tree State.
Today, Belfast continues to serve as home base for the Penobscot Bay ship pilots, who greet giant, world-traveling vessels far down the bay and guide them into nearby Searsport or up the Penobscot River. The pilot boats, along with tugs needed for docking ships safely at the terminals, are berthed along the Belfast waterfront, as they have been for generations.
For anyone interested in more of Belfast’s varied past, there is the city’s Museum in the Streets. This ingenious installation includes 30 “tour panels” strategically placed at historic sites all over town. Each panel includes a description of the significance of the site, as well as vintage photos of what once existed there. A map of the panel locations is available at the Chamber of Commerce office at the city landing.
If history is less important than shopping, Belfast can handle that preference. It’s a worthwhile, uphill walk from the harbor to the collection of shops selling everything from high-end clothing and antiques to the obligatory mug-and-tee-shirt outlet (only one) and three pretty good bookstores.
Sprinkled amid the shops are restaurants that specialize in everything from upscale fusion cuisine to diner-style fare, and pretty much everything in between. There’s even a cart vendor who sells organic hot dogs near the harbor, should you desire a politically correct brat.
Back on the sidewalks, it soon becomes obvious that Belfast hosts a strong local arts community. It’s nearly impossible to wander the downtown area and not bump into at least one painter trying to capture a handsome Victorian home or perhaps the local charter schooner Timberwind. When my wife and I visited midweek in early September last year, we counted no fewer than four painters working hard at their easels at various spots around town.
Boaters are uniquely positioned to appreciate another of Belfast’s artistic touches. As you enter the harbor at half tide or lower, you’ll be greeted by four faces carved into otherwise submerged pilings. These are the Belfast “Muses,” an artist’s tribute to a city that never gave up on its waterfront.
Given all the attractions, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would pass up a chance to visit a Penobscot Bay port where even the weather is more salubrious than its competitors. Because it’s located well inland and amid relatively slower and shallower waters than harbors farther down the bay, Belfast often remains fog-free when it’s socked in just a few miles farther south. During summer, the warm land and warmer waters often keep the fog from settling in—and even tempt visitors to go for a swim. A swim? In Penobscot Bay? Who would have thought it, but then again, who would have thought that Belfast would become a major boating destination?
Belfast at a Glance
Dockage, Moorings & Service
- Belfast City Landing
Maintains guest moorings for $25 per night. Pump-out is available, as well as fuel, water, showers and ice. Dinghies can be tied up at the landing for those who moor or anchor.
- Front Street Shipyard
Full-service marina and yard offering transient slips and moorings for boats up to 150 feet. Also offers water, electricity, showers, ice, pump-out and one of the largest TraveLifts on the East Coast.
Anchoring is allowed along either shore of Belfast Bay, outside the mooring fields. Many cruisers also choose to anchor in nearby Searsport, which offers better protection from southerly winds.
A hard-surface ramp with tie-up floats is available near the city landing, at the foot of Main Street in downtown Belfast, with parking nearby for seven rigs. More parking is available in an overflow lot nearby. Daily fee of $4 for non-residents.
- Water Walker Sea Kayaks
Kayak and SUP rentals and tours.
- Bay City Cargo
Movie memorabilia, marquee letters, classic movie posters, fiberglass animals, fair-trade goods and other eclectic and interesting stuff.
- All About Games
Old-fashioned, non-electronic, family-oriented game store. Carries familiar classics, new games from small manufacturers and mind-challenging strategy games for hobbyists.
- Conklin’s Maine Mercantile
Wooden utensils, cutting boards, hand-printed cotton and linen towels, stoneware pottery, pewter oil lamps and more.
- Left Bank Books
Cozy bookstore stocked with interesting books, vintage cards, imported gift wraps and beautiful globes.
Where to Eat
- Darby’s Restaurant & Pub
One of Belfast’s most upscale restaurants; features items like pecan-crusted haddock and Jack Daniel’s flank steak.
- Dockside Family Restaurant
Popular dock-and-dine restaurant on the harbor, specializing in seafood.
- Nautilus Seafood & Grill
Steaks, seafood and comfort food overlooking the harbor. Inside and outside seating.
- Pig Out BBQ
Highly rated, southern-style barbecue joint near the Harbor Walk.
- Young’s Lobster Pound
Arrive by boat and dine in the rough at this authentic lobster pound and restaurant on the east side of the harbor.
Things to See & Do
- Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railroad
Departing daily from the municipal docks, these old-fashioned trains take visitors on a 14-mile, round-trip ride to Waldo, passing through stunningly beautiful Maine countryside along the way.
- Museum in the Streets
Follow this series of informative panels around the city to learn intriguing details about Belfast’s varied past.
- The Belfast Maskers
Live theater at a funky old stage one block from the city landing.
- Colonial Theatre
First-run movies at reasonable prices.
- Schooner Timberwind
Day sails on Penobscot Bay aboard a restored wooden schooner.