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June 28, 2013

TRAVELIN' MAINE(RS): BETHEL INN celebrating a century of history

George and Linda Smith

For 100 years the Bethel Inn has been offering hospitality in one of the most beautiful regions of Maine. It's time to celebrate!

George

I love history and historic Maine inns. How can you not love an inn that started out catering to "out-patients" whose therapy included psychiatric treatment and a physical workout? Just what I need!

As part of its 100th anniversary celebration, the Bethel Inn Resort invited a group of travel and outdoor writers to visit for three days in late May. Linda was stressed out as the end of the school year approached, so I gave her a break and accepted the invitation, with the intention of giving her a week off from this column.

At least that's the excuse I used to indulge in a lot of pampering, a morning of fishing, a fascinating tour of the famous Bumpus Mine, a hike to a gorgeous waterfall, quite a bit of quality time in the inn's pub, two mighty fine dinners, evening presentations on the history of the Inn and the Bethel area and more.

It was a blast! Literally. High 80s. Hot as you know where. After a long day of activities, I skipped the first day's late-afternoon, digging-for-gems adventure in favor of a cold shower and even colder beer at the inn's Millbrook Tavern and Grille. But let's start at the beginning -- the very beginning.

Dr. John George Gehring built the Bethel Inn to cater to his patients, who he put to work tending the gardens. After his death, the inn tried to stay open year-round and floundered. One of Gehring's wealthy clients, William Bingham, rescued the business and carried it through the '50s and '60s. With the demise of the upper class's summer-long vacations, the inn tried to cater to new clients who preferred one-week vacations by adding an outdoor swimming pool, nine-hole golf course and ski-way.

Bingham gave up in 1976, selling to a group that closed the doors in 1979. A few months later, Richard Rasor -- a successful New York advertising executive -- purchased the inn and the rest, as they say, is history. Rasor stabilized the business, built a conference center and condominiums, expanded the golf course to 18 holes and constructed a health club with a year-round outdoor pool. Yes, I asked. The outside pool is open all winter. Cool!

Linda and I had a very enjoyable visit to the inn two years ago and wrote about it, including a memorable dinner at 22 Broad Street, right across the street. During my recent visit, I ate all my meals at the inn and was very pleased.

Arriving late afternoon the first day, I unpacked and headed for the Millbrook Tavern to eat dinner with a Vermont outdoor writer, Gary Moore. Having enjoyed a lot of seafood at our Boothbay Harbor visit the previous weekend, I focused on meat and ordered a full rack of ribs. They were soooo flavorful and came with really good fries (nice and crispy, with some seasoning). Luckily, I went back to my room before the evening gathering, because when I looked in the mirror, my face was covered with barbecue sauce!

A fishing adventure with local guide Luke Gray, of Locke Mountain Guide Service, in his brand new drift boat was scheduled the next morning for one of my favorite places to fish -- the Upper Androscoggin River. But after a long period of rain, the river was running far too high to fish, so we headed to a small remote pond to try for some wild brook trout. Alas, the terribly hot sunny day left us fishless, but the scenery, stories and opportunity to finally cast my first flies of the season, made this a special experience. I even did a bit of birdwatching, much to the amusement of the other guys.

I'll get back up there soon to fish the Andro with Brad Jerome, who not only does a great job as the inn's marketing director, but who also manages to fish more than almost anyone I know. Most of the writers spent that morning canoeing around Songo Lake with guides Ron and Dee Fournier, of Orion Outfitters.

Bethel's superb public relations/communications consultant Wende Gray recruited the writers for this event and she kept us hopping. While I might have preferred a nap after the morning of fishing, we were off to the Bumpus Mine for a fascinating tour with Bruce Barrett. And I mean it. This was really interesting. Beginning sometime next year, the mine will be open for public tours, hosted by a new Maine Mineral and Gem Museum now under construction on Bethel's Maine Street.

Finally, most of us truly exhausted, Wende allowed a retreat to the inn for cold showers and relaxation. Some of the ladies spent time in the pool. But with temps in the 90s, I don't think any of them got in the hot tub!

It was our very good fortune that it was Mexican night at the tavern, with a special menu of all my favorites. I began this culinary adventure with chips and a tasty salsa, plus a delicious cup of chili, and followed that with Rattle Snake Bites -- five jalapenos stuffed with Monterey Jack cheese and served with sour cream and salsa. They were not as hot as I expected, but delicious nevertheless.

Next was steak fajitas, mesquite-grilled peppers and onions, guacamole and tortillas. The steak was especially tasty and the entree was so huge I could not eat it all. The tavern presents Mexican fare every Thursday evening year-round and it's very popular.

After dinner we enjoyed an interesting presentation by Randy Bennett, of the Bethel Historical Society. It was an extension of our stay at the inn, a building steeped in history with displays and artwork that allow you to step back in time.

Wende was not finished with us yet, so after our second buffet breakfast at the inn, Landon Fake, of Mahoosuc Pathways, and Michael Cooper, of Caribou Trail Design, took us to visit with Kevin Slater and Polly Mahoney, of Mahoosuc Guide Service, and see their huskies -- including three pups born the day before. The Slaters' wilderness canoe and sled-dog trips are very well known. It's my dream to experience their 10-day sled-dog trip in the wilds of Quebec.

Our final adventure was a hike up Step Falls, where the steep descending series of cascades and pools were running high and fast. The beautiful mountain views from every ledge were jaw-dropping, and Landon and Michael kept us entertained on the short but stunning hike. We even ate our way out as Michael selected edible plants for us to try. Yes, it's all about food.

The collection of writers on this trip was impressive. They came from New York, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maine -- and I was most excited to meet and spend some time with my favorite food writer and restaurant critic, Nancy Heiser, whose restaurant reviews are published every other week in the Maine Sunday Telegram. We spent a lot of time comparing notes on restaurants -- which may explain all the eating I did on this trip!

Visit George's website: www.georgesmithmaine.com for travel tips, book reviews, outdoor news and more.

If You Go

Bethel Inn Resort

bethelinn.com

824-2175 or 800-654-0125

Lots of special events are scheduled for the inn's 100th anniversary

Luke Gray

Locke Mountain Guide Service, Newry

lgray_76@yahoo.com

382-7322

Ron and Dee Fournier

Orion Outfitters

orionoutfitters-guide.com

603-401-1802

Mahoosuc Mountain Lodge and Guide Service

mahoosuc.com

824-2073





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