WHY GO: Though the home town of Colby College might be a bit spare, its got some insidery aspects sure to please an Offbeat Getaway seeker. To whit – the largest Art Museum in Maine, a black wire-cable steel suspension pedestrian bridge just aching to be the Paris Love Bridge, and a couple of secondhand shops with gently used treasures at such unbelievably low prices, in-the-know Bostonians are starting to take notice. All this and a cute place to stay and eat rounds out this unassuming but fun escape.
Things to Do in Waterville ME
VISIT: Colby College Museum of Art. The Portland Art Museum cannot lay claim to the largest art collection in the State of Maine. That would be this five-wing museum on the Colby College Campus – the darling of contemporary artist, Alex Katz, who has donated over 700 of his pieces to this institution. (Katz attended the prestigious Skowhagen Art School, about 20 minutes from here).
The latest expansion, a stunning glass rectangular building designed by architect Frederick Fisher, added an airy 10,000 sq ft. to an already large space in which you’ll find Singer Sergeant, Winslow Homer, Copley, Renoir, Remington, Rockwell, Calder, and a 1790 John Rogers portrait of George Washington and much more in its many galleries. The Colby Art Museum has enough clout to mount a Whistler Exhibit (though most identified with France and England, Whistler was actually born and raised in New England), which includes a precursor to the famous portrait of his Mom that hangs in the Louvre. Plan to spend some time here – especially if you are prone to mulling over fine art. Open Tues – Sat 10-5, Sun 12-5, free.
GO: Common Street Arts. Waterville has a very strong arts infrastructure, as evidenced by the Colby Art Museum and this shop-front, rotating-exhibit gallery. Offering a place for locals to showcase and make art, Common Street Arts stands near the live-theater Waterville Opera House and indie-art house Maine Film Center @ Railroad Square Cinema.
WALK: Two Cent Bridge over Kennebec River at Head of Falls Park. Waterville was once a shipping and manufacturing center. (Hathaway Shirts, the company that supplied uniforms to Civil War soldiers, operated in Waterville for 165 years and closed its doors in 2002). Owners of the mills built a pedestrian bridge linking immigrant neighborhoods to the factories across the river and charged each worker a penny each way to cross it (hence its name – Two Cent Bridge). A stroll across costs nothing now and provides visitors with beautiful views and time to contemplate corporate greed. You might see a few padlocks clinging to the sides of the bridge – in an attempt to copy the “Love Bridges” in Paris that span the River Seine.
SHOP: Heirloom Antiques & Vintage. I’m not much of a shopper, but I have to admit that this place got me excited. As tidy and clean as an upscale boutique, with amazing finds organized by color, Heirloom will soon be swarming with high-end designer bargain hunters. Before its financial decline, Waterville was a large retail center, rivaling Portland and Boston in number and quality of shops. A good number of the gently used items here were purchased in snazzy Waterville department stores – Sterns for example – and come from local estate sales. Most are resold for under $35. Sequined shirts and gowns, in excellent shape are just $19, and my favorite – a Faux Fur full length Pucci coat for just $65.
SHOP: Modern Underground. This is not your Brooklynized “curated” secondhand furniture shop. Descend steps into the basement that houses a jumble of mid-century chairs, tables, record albums, and accessories in various stages of repair. Modern Underground is Old School all the way – more tag sale than antique shop – but a favorite of modern furniture lovers from all over the country who are clued in and know a good buy when they see one.
SHOP/WASH DOG: Loyal Biscuit. Did you happen to bring your dog along? Or did you leave her home and need to find an “I missed you” treat? Either way, this upscale puppy boutique is perfect. There’s a self-service dog-washing station, and enough caviar-level treats and toys to spoil your fido rotten.
Where to Eat in Waterville ME
EAT: 18 Below. As you head down the stairs into a brick wall tavern, you’ll soon encounter the atmosphere of a ratskeller without the dankness, and food a few levels above expectations. It’s the reason that even on a Wed night, the place is full of happy eaters. Choices run inventive – with favorites like Panko-Crusted Maine Lobster Cutlet ($26) and Cococnut-Vanilla-Oragne Broth Sauteed PEI Mussels ($10), and my fave, Maple Glazed Cedar Plank Salmon ($19). Dark, intimate and surprisingly good.
Where to Stay in Waterville ME
STAY: Pleasant Street Inn. I shy away from chain hotels unless there’s no alternative, but in Waterville, surprise, surprise, there’s a cheerful little place a short walk from town. More like a guesthouse than a B&B, keys are left on the desk, you carry your own luggage and let yourself into your colorful, bright (not luxurious or large, but lovely) room.
Mint green walls, colorful quilt on a comfy bed, small compact, but clean bathrooms, and cold breakfast and hot coffee waiting in the common kitchen in the morning – Pleasant Street Inn is perfect for Colby parents and visitors with an independent, fun spirit. Rooms $65 (shared bath) to $99, include Continental Breakfast.