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.
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Once a major seaport and shipbuilding center, Waldo County’s seat and chief municipality fell on hard times in the 1960 and ‘70s. Up until the 1980s it was home to a foul-smelling chicken-processing plant, and the waterfront in general was decidedly industrial. The city was pretty rundown and not very inviting to boaters (or anyone else).
Today, the poultry plant and industrial look are gone, replaced by an attractive waterfront that is seriously interested in drawing more recreational boaters. And Belfast as a whole displays renewed pride in its nautical heritage.
You can rent a slip or mooring from the harbormaster or drop anchor just outside the harbor and leave your dinghy or skiff at the city docks, at the foot of Main Street. From there you can make the easy stroll to downtown, where you’ll find some interesting and unpretentious shops and restaurants. Note that Belfast’s Main Street is nothing like tony Camden or Rockland Harbor. However, the city has managed to maintain the best of its past, including a variety of historic homes and buildings. Perhaps best of all, most of the stores and restaurants in downtown Belfast are less than 5 blocks from the city docks.
The former Route 1 automobile bridge, now reserved for pedestrians, makes an attractive ambling way from drowsy downtown Belfast to highway-oriented East Belfast, just across the Passagassawakeag River. (Warning: pronunciation of this river should only be undertaken by locals; play it safe and simply refer to it as the “Passy”.) Located about a block from Main Street, the old bridge spanning the river is popular among walkers and fishermen. And speaking of walking, keep a eye out for the numerous tour panels comprising the “Museum of the Streets”—a series of plaques with old photographs that explain sites of historic importance around the city.
North of the footbridge, the Passagassawakeag turns into a quiet little backwater that seems as if it belongs to more distant ports in far eastern Maine, not the heavily visited Midcoast area. It’s an ideal spot for kayaking, rowing or exploring in a dinghy. Or maybe bagging a striper.