We were on the road again before dawn on our way south to Portland with a stop in Freeport to visit L. L. Bean (open 24/7). One Mainer we spoke to called Bean "the Disneyland of Maine" an attraction not to be missed. I would have to agree that the shopping center sized complex we found on Main Street was indeed impressive. Enormous, modern, lodge-like buildings face a central courtyard the size of a city block. Each one holds a different class of merchandise such as hunting & fishing, home, and clothing. Promising to try on just one pair of pants, I put on imaginary blinders as we walked past the indoor trout pond under the central stairs and the mountain trail mock up in the hiking boot department. After trying two pairs of pants, I succumbed to an impulse purchase of a pretty purple sweater. A photo of me proudly holding my Bean bag was a must.
The shopping stop worked up an appetite so we headed into Portland straight to Becky's Diner, a well loved breakfast/lunch spot on the waterfront. We could have fed an army with our plates of blueberry pancakes, bacon, eggs, home fries, and toast. Watching the local people come and go was worth the trip and the hearty food fortified us for the day ahead.
A short distance down the waterfront we found the Old Port, a once-decaying neighborhood that has been restored and is now one of Portland's liveliest areas. We took a walking tour of the narrow streets lined with Victorian-era commercial buildings. The cupola topped US Custom House built in 1861 reminded us of our own Pioneer Courthouse.
We continued our walk further up the hill past the elaborate old city hall, a large park, and a modern glass enclosed library. The setting by the water and the calm pace of this other Portland felt comfortable and inviting, but the promise of a sunny day lured us to the road again for a drive to New Hampshire and the official start of our leaf peeping.
Our Map Quest route out of Portland was surprisingly complicated due to numerous roundabouts that shifted us from one highway to another until we finally landed on Hwy 5 North through farm country to Fryeburg, Maine. The colorful tree-lined road into the small town, located on the New Hampshire border, was backed up more than a mile with traffic headed to a popular local fair. We hoped this traffic jam wasn't a bad omen. Neither one of us thought about the fact that the week we chose for our New England trip included Columbus Day, the height of the Autumn tourist season, until we tried to make hotel reservations. Leaf peeping with thousands of our closest friends.
The jam at Fryeburg was successfully cleared in less time than we expected. The next stop would be North Conway, considered the gateway to the White Mountains, where we planned to stay at the Green Granite Inn (overpriced & mediocre at best). Arriving too early to check in, we continued into the small resort town and found the streets packed with leaf peepers and outlet store shoppers. Thankfully there were more shoppers than peepers and the traffic thinned out on the north side of town.
The afternoon drive on Hwy 302 would take us up to Crawford Notch and the Mount Washington Hotel deep in the White Mountains. This area is known for rapid, severe weather changes - in fact the highest wind ever recorded on earth was 230 mph at Mount Washington in April of 1934. True to it's reputation, the wind was picking up and clouds were rolling over the mountain tops, quickly transforming the pleasant sunny day.
In spite of the weather, the trees and the mountains were magnificent. The first of many "Moose Crossing" signs made us wonder if we might actually see one of the impressive animals. We passed picnic areas and campgrounds near a route first established as a path through the Presidential Range of 4,000+ foot mountains, in 1819. Crawford Notch is a narrow (40 feet wide) steep walled granite pass between Mount Willard and Mount Jackson. On the other side we had our first view of cloud shrouded, 6,288 foot Mount Washington with the grand Mount Washington Hotel sitting alone in the foreground. A sight beyond words!
Following a leisurely self guided tour of the hotel lobby and verandas, it was still early in the afternoon. We returned by the way we came, stopping at the Silver Cascade on our way down.
Just before North Conway, we turned north on Hwy 16 to Jackson were we saw our first covered bridge.
The extreme weather conditions produced an extraordinary rainbow.
Another slog through North Conway traffic and dinner at the 1785 Inn completed another satisfying day.