Call me biased, but I don’t think there is a prettier downtown during the holidays than the one that’s right in my backyard. Bath, Maine is called the City of Ships because of its long history of shipbuilding that dates back to at least the 1800’s and because of Bath Iron Works, the large and extremely busy shipbuilding company located on the banks of the Kennebec River just down the road from downtown. While many of New England’s downtown districts are in decline, Bath’s Front Street district, named one of America’s Greatest Main Streets last summer by Travel and Leisure, thrives, and twinkles especially bright at Christmas time.
Above: The storefront at New England Antiques, 84 Front Street, harkens back to a time when window shopping was a genuine holiday pastime.
In Bath’s downtown, there are no Gap stores, no McDonald’s or Burger Kings, not even a Starbucks. You have to go elsewhere if you want to find the mall or a Walmart, but in Bath, you will find a Reny’s, a growing Maine-based chain that offers high quality goods at discount prices, things Mainers really need like plaid flannel shirts or crampons for walking on icy sidewalks. Bath’s downtown is full of independent stores, book shops, coffee houses and breakfast joints. It’s got a couple of drinking establishments, including Byrnes Irish Pub and J.R. Maxwell’s, where you can stop for a hot toddy after driving through a nor’easter to get your Christmas tree. You can even get ice cream year round at Dot’s Ice Cream Shop further down the road.
But even while it’s been a base for new business over the years, downtown Bath has held on tightly to its history. The city hall, built in 1928, looms large, its halls decked in wreaths this time of year, its bell tower twinkling with multicolored holiday lights. (Interesting fact: The tower contains an 1802 bell believed to have been cast by Paul Revere. The Paul Revere.)
Adding even more historical flavor and old time charm is the town clock, erected on Front Street near the corner of Centre in 1911, a large Seth Thomas that just keeps on ticking and ticking.
Maybe what makes Bath’s main street district so special is that people still go there, meet there, shop there and hang out there. As a downtown, it is charming and old fashioned, but also quite independent and mostly free from large scale commercialism, which is saying a lot in these times.