'Free' in Maine's Freeport means off-price

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FREEPORT, Maine -- Call it imprudent, if you like, but there I was dodging Main Street traffic to head to a McDonald's for lunch.

What kind of madness would drive me, a world-weary traveler, a gone-to-seed gourmet, a man of self-admitted taste and distinction, to forgo a host of local haunts with beguiling New Englandy names for such mundane fare?

Well, for one thing, this McDonald's is not your typical fast-food outlet, specializing as it does in that culinary staple of Maine, the lobster roll. Not that you can't clog your arteries here with the standard array of Macs, both big and small -- of course, you can.

But it is the lobster roll -- an unadorned lump or three of lobster meat, topped with a hint of mayonnaise and encased in a hot dog roll -- that distinguishes this outlet's otherwise undistinguished universal menu.

It is not this down-east delicacy alone that makes the McDonald's of Freeport unique. Rather, it is its benign ambience that sets the place apart from its aggressively branded brethren.

For one thing, like all the outlets and factory stores that together make Freeport a bargain shopper's happy hunting ground, this McDonald's is housed in a turn of the century or older structure, in this case a 130-year-old Italianate and Greek Revival home known as the William Gore House.

When McDonald's purchased the property, town residents launched a 1,000-signature petition, a Mac Attack of sorts, that forced the company to preserve the home's historical integrity, furnish it with period reproductions and keep its vaunted golden arches under wraps.

It is, without question, the town's success in maintaining the brick and wood period structures that front the main drag and side streets that keeps its history alive and kicking.

For although wall-to-wall shopping is its lifeblood, Freeport is not a mall disguised as a town. Rather, it is a community whose VIPs, for want of a better word, are stores such as Banana Republic, Coach and Abercrombie & Fitch.

There are, in all, about 80 shops that constitute Freeport's commercial heart, and they range from nationally branded outlets such as Cuddledown of Maine and the Gap to local artisan galleries and unique specialty shops such as Edgecomb Potters Galleries, Goldsmith's (jewelry) and Ike's WWII shop.

The prime tourist draw -- Freeport hosts 3.5 million visitors annually, according to Catherine Glover, president of the Chamber of Congress -- is the L.L. Bean Co., which operates a factory store off Main Street and a retail outlet so vast it is a destination unto itself.

The flagship operation, which sells everything from shoes to home furnishings, features trout ponds, hiking ramps and a 24/7 operating schedule just in case you get a yen to buy a kayak (the sea-touring Tesla NM awaits you at a price of $2,849) at, say, 3 a.m.

L.L. Bean also operates what it calls its Outdoor Discovery Schools, which are designed to teach customers basic skills in kayaking, fly casting, sporting-clay shooting, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing -- and hopefully turn them into avid buyers of equipment.

I took a turn at the sporting clays, during which my instructor, a state champion shooter named Keith MacDonald, introduced himself as "the best shot in the world." He must also be the best teacher in the world because he got me to knock a few of the clay pots out of the sky on my first try.

One hour of sporting-clay private lessons goes for $150, while a one-day course costs $250. Although not commissionable, participation in the Outdoor Discovery Schools would augment a client's overall experience in Freeport and on that score alone makes them worthwhile.

So, when it is all said and done, can a penny-pinching traveler make up the cost of his vacation with a judicious round of off-price shopping?

Town leaders will tell you, of course, that the more you spend the more you save, although I have always found that the more you spend the more you spend.

For example, I resisted the impulse at the tony Cole Haan factory store to buy a $600 leather jacket for $400 (a savings of either $600, $400 or $200, depending on who does your accounting), but did buy three pairs of heavy-duty sweat socks for the price of two in the Timberland outlet for $15, which put me up $7.50.

Knee-high waterproof boots, regularly $74, were going for $39.95 at the L.L. Bean Factory Store (as opposed to the retail shop), but an "are you nuts" look from my wife was enough to discourage that purchase.

Add it up: Two pairs of socks and a lobster roll at McDonald's. For Freeport, I am a one-man recession.

Freeport offers more than shopping

By Joe Rosen

FREEPORT, Maine -- There is plenty to do here besides shop. Some possibilities:

• Farnsworth Art Museum and Wyeth Center. Located in Rockland, the Farnsworth houses more than 9,000 works of art, including contributions by American artists such as Gilbert Stuart and Thomas Eakins.

The Wyeth collection, comprising works by N.C., Andrew and James, is showcased in a former church-meeting house across the street from the art center. Phone: (207) 596-6457; www.farnsworthmuseum.org and www.wyethcenter.com.

• The Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Although this center's showpieces include American paintings and Italian Renaissance art, artifacts from the ancient Mediterranean distinguish its collection.

A finial in the shape of a black cat and the terra-cotta "Goddess Holding a Fawn" are standouts. Phone: (207) 725-3275; www.bowdoin.edu/artmuseum.

• The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum. Across the college quad from the museum of art, this facility celebrates Bowdoin College's association with explorers and explorations, notably treks to Labrador, Greenland and the Arctic. Phone: (207) 725-3416.

• Swan Island. There are no swans on Swan Island, nor were there ever any. Moreover, this 1,400-acre blot of land in the Kennebec River is not shaped like a swan, or any other creature, for that matter. The island, whose name derives from the Indian word "swango," which means "island of the eagles," is a nature preserve maintained by the state.

Lots of wildlife here, especially nesting bald eagles, and lots of hiking trails. You can reach it only by a flat-bottom mini-ferry operated by the state from May 1 through Labor Day. For reservations, phone: (207) 547-5322; www.state.me.us/ifw/education/swanisl.htm.

The agent connection: Lodging, etc.

Accommodations: The three most prominent properties in town are the Harraseeket Inn, the Freeport Inn and the Comfort Suites; all pay 10% agent commission.

• The Harraseeket Inn is clearly the top of the line, both in terms of ambience, aura and accessibility. This 84-room inn, which is located two blocks from downtown Freeport, features six suites, 24 fireplaces, canopied beds, an indoor pool, charming gardens and two excellent restaurants -- the formal Maine Dining Room and the Broad Arrow Tavern.

Originally a bed-and-breakfast, the Harraseeket Inn comprises two historical structures (1798 and 1850) and one built in 1989, and though it plays heavily on its period charm, it offers guests contemporary amenities such as cable TV, air conditioning and modem jacks.

Rates for a standard room range from $195 to $260 through Oct. 31. The property hosts agent fam tours and offers the trade a 20% discount.

Call: (800) 342-6423 or book through Worldres and Sabre; Web: www.harraseeketinn.com.

• The Freeport Inn has a north country feel to it, courtesy of local artwork and its two fine seafood restaurants, the Muddy Rudder and the raffish Freeport Cafe, a roadside standby. The property's business class accommodations feature data ports, a coffeemaker, a refrigerator and a large desk with lamp.

Room rates range from $110 to $140 through Oct. 19.

Call: (800) 4-CHOICE or (800) 998-2583 or book through Worldres; Web: www.freeportinn.com.

• The eponymously branded Comfort Suites offers roomy accommodations and family-friendly amenities such as refrigerators, microwaves and an indoor pool. In addition, the rooms are equipped with modem ports, and local calls are free.

Rates for a standard room range from $129 to $199 through Oct. 26.

Phone: (877) 865-9300 or book through any of the major GDSs.

Connections: Nearby Portland Jetport is serviced by United, Continental, Delta, Northwest, US Airways and American Eagle.

Amtrak's Downeaster service connects to Portland from Boston, with four roundtrips daily, and several coach operators feature Freeport as a destination, including Tourco, a New England-based operator, and Tauck.

Tourco, (800) 537-5378, offers agents commission ranging from 10% to 15% or net rates for groups, and Tauck, (800) 468-2825, also pays between 10% and 15%, with the range being 15% to 22% for groups.

For additional information, call the Freeport Merchants Association at (877) 865-1212; Web: www.freeportusa.com. -- J.R.

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