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Bethel oozes New England charm, from the white-steeple churches and Victorian inns to its prep-school campus and handsome clapboard homes. Add a gazebo-crowned town common, an occasional horse-drawn carriage clip-clopping along, alpine and Nordic skiers to-ing and fro-ing, and the scent of wood smoke riding on the breeze. Skirt it with farmlands peppered with barns and livestock. Put it all together, and it’s a Currier & Ives lithograph.
This quiet town, tucked along an elbow in the Androscoggin River and hugged by the White Mountains, is the yin to nearby Sunday River’s yang. While quiet, Bethel isn’t sleepy, though, thanks to the presence of Gould, a private prep school dating from 1861, and its proximity to the resort, six miles up the road. Although small in population, Bethel thinks big. In 1999, it built the World’s Tallest Snowman, Angus, King of the Mountain, who surveyed the village from a height of 113.7 feet. It repeated the effort in 2008 with Olympia, the World’s Tallest Snowwoman, made from eight pairs of skis and standing 122.9 feet tall.
The Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railroad connected timber-rich Bethel to Portland and later to Montreal, putting the town on the map in 1851. Summer rusticators followed, but Bethel’s early fame came from its success as a healing center. Dr. John George Gehring treated patients with nervous disorders by pairing mind and body treatments, including outdoor activities.
The rambling, mustard yellow Bethel Inn, on the town common, opened in 1913 to house Gehring’s patients. These days, the inn remains a center for outdoor fun, including horse-drawn sleigh rides and ice skating. It’s also the winter home of Bethel Village Trails, which offers Nordic skiing, fat-tire biking, and snowshoeing on the woodlands in and around town.
Bethel’s favor with outdoor enthusiasts amplified when the Sunday River Skiway opened on Barker Mountain in 1959. More than 60 years later, the destination resort sprawls over eight lift-and-trail connected mountains. Recently, Sunday River announced its 2030 vision for the future. Although the pandemic put a crimp in this year’s developments, short-term plans include replacing the Jordan Bowl and Barker Mountain chairs, building a new SnowSports School facility, and breaking ground on a condo complex on Merrill Hill.
On the road up to Sunday River this season, take a five-minute detour: Keep right at the fork at the Jordan Bowl base and you’ll soon see the Artist’s Bridge, so named because many artists have painted it. This 87-foot covered bridge not only spans the actual Sunday River, but also metaphorically links Bethel’s past to its present.
Bethel Village Trails
Rent a fat tire bike at Bethel Village Trails and explore this expansive trail system, with dedicated easy, moderate, and difficult trails that are shared by bicyclists and Nordic skiers. The Trail Center is located at the Bethel Inn Resort, and the trails, which are also dog-friendly, radiate from there, with the easiest ones on the golf course.
Chef Brian Nichols and his wife, Jessica, purchased a gingerbread-trimmed Gothic Revival in downtown Bethel and opened Brian‘s in 2016. Order a Maine mule, made with blueberry vodka, and settle in for well-executed international fare such as Thai calamari and duck wontons, as well as updated comfort foods; the farmhouse meatloaf is killer.
Maine Mineral & Gem Museum
Home to the world’s largest collection of lunar meteorites and the five largest moon specimens, the Maine Mineral & Gem Museum opened in December 2019. The 19 interactive exhibits showcase 40,000 gems and minerals, 6,000 meteorites, and the world’s oldest known igneous rock, estimated at 4.56 billion years old.
Spice up a cold night at Pok Sun Lane’s Cho Sun, where the flavors of the Land of the Morning Calm mingle with those of the Land of the Morning Sun. Expect a leisurely meal focused on Korean classics, such as bibimbop and bulgoki, and Japanese fare, including tempura and sushi. Bonus: the extensive craft beer, wine, and sake offerings.
Bethel Hill Bed & Breakfast
Set in a quiet location just beyond the town common, the Bethel Hill Bed & Breakfast puts everything downtown within walking distance. Innkeeper and owner Scott Gould is a ski instructor at Sunday River, so he can help map your perfect day. And thanks to the fact that he’s lived here for more than 20 years, your perfect night, too.
Choose from 29 beers, with an emphasis on New England craft brews, on tap at Sud’s Pub in the Sudbury Inn. Locals gather on Thursdays for Hoot Night, an open-mic tradition since 1987. Enjoy live music Thursday-Saturday, and $5 pizza on Tuesdays. As for the rest of the week, make like a local and soak in the chill, welcoming vibe.
Local Tip for Bethel
Parker Gray, Head Alpine Ski Coach, Gould Academy: “Anytime coaches come to town, we can’t wait for the races to end so we can go to Graceland, the orange trailer parked at the Good Food Store. Smokin’ Good BBQ’s food is legendary.”