BATH, Maine — Maine’s ragged coastline boasts one charming village after another. From Kennebunk to Wiscasset to Camden, they flaunt their prettiness. Each is a gem.
Bath, in the middle of the coast on the Kennebec River, is a treasure of a different sort. A shipbuilding hub for centuries, it revels in its history and its work ethic. Don’t get me wrong: Its downtown area has charm, and its restaurants know how to cook a lobster. But you visit Bath to learn about ships, not to say, “Awww, how cute.”
Bath’s major employer is Bath Iron Works, which has been building ships — private, commercial and military — since 1884. About 5,000 people work there. You can book tours of it ($27 tickets at bit.ly/17kt4GS, tours May-October) aboard a trolley, but leave your backpacks, cameras and cellphones in the car. This is a high-security place.
On down Washington Street past the Iron Works, the Maine Maritime Museum (mainemaritimemuseum.org) is a must-visit, with a phenomenal campus full of buildings and boats that covers so much ground, literally, that your ticket is good for a second day anytime within a week. (Some exhibits are only open seasonally; call ahead for details.)
Pay admission ($15 adults; $12 seniors and children) and see the main building exhibits, including a mockup of a tugboat wheelhouse, first. You’ll get a good overview of how shipbuilding has changed over the years. Next door is a building that describes some of the key boat-building jobs.
Then walk down to the water and board the fishing schooner Sherman Zwicker, which, between 1942 and the 1960s, hauled in a lot of cod off the Grand Banks of Canada’s Newfoundland — before the cod got fished out. (They’re starting to come back.) A tour takes you below deck, where you learn that the crew ate mostly dried meats and fishes.
Nearby, a pirate playship will occupy the little kids. Next to it sits one of my favorites, the lobstering building, which explores all things lobster, from the boats to the lobstering lifestyle. (It notes that local lobstermen don’t mind your watching them pull their traps, but they’ll bristle if you call them quaint.)
There’s a working boat shop on the museum campus, where I talked to a builder as he was putting the finishing touches on a pretty sea-green duck boat. (It’s essentially a floating duck blind; the hunters crawl down in a recessed area and shoot up at the ducks.)
Don’t miss the Donnell House, a beautiful home built by a shipyard owner in 1868 with major renovations in 1892. He had quite the kitchen for that day.
After you’ve seen the museum, drive back past the shipyard to downtown Bath. At 804 Washington St. you’ll find the Chocolate Church (it’s brown; hence, the name), which houses an assortment of performances: mystery dinner theater, local bands and major acts such as Judy Collins (Nov. 22). See the lineup at chocolatechurch.com.
Take a walk down historic Front Street to see the shops and restaurants that now inhabit its 19th-century brick buildings. Stop in Waterfront Park and join lunching locals in watching boats cruise down the Kennebec.
At 55 Front St., Bath City Hall is an imposing building with a dome and pillars and a bell tower. It’s also called the Davenport Memorial because it was paid for in 1929 using money from one George Davenport’s will, which directed the city to building a City Hall memorializing his father, Charles.
Looking for a hike? Reid State Park and Popham Beach State Park are both nearby. Do take along mosquito spray.
Just east of downtown Bath, you’ll find a great place to buy lobsters (as well as other seafood) to take home and cook, assuming you’ve rented someplace with a kitchen: Gilmore’s Seafood, 129 Court St.
Lobsters, by the way, have been super-cheap this year in Maine: $4 each for one-pound lobsters; $5 for two-pounders. Let’s hope next year’s situation is the same.