BETHEL, Me. — Even some of Bethel's nearest neighbors don't know where it is. So when Sandy Mahon phoned her father to say that she and her husband, Jack, were moving here, he had one question: Was it in America?
And he was born only 70 miles away.
Relatively unknown to strangers just five winters ago, this village in Maine now finds itself in a prime position: Off the main thoroughfares, it is within skiing distance of two of Maine's eight downhill centers and enmeshed in a 100-mile web of cross-country trails.
It's also about as bucolic as any weekend retreat should be, with plenty of clapboard homes, open fields and quiet roads. Equally important, southwestern Maine is a feasible Friday evening drive from Boston.
Locals Looked Askance
When the Mahons bought their 16-room Victorian home on Main Street, most of Bethel's locals, like Sandy Mahon's father, looked askance. Even the Mahons could see that nearly every building on Main Street was either boarded up or for sale. And everyone knew that the old house was rumored to be haunted.
The ghost stories proved partly true, but the five-block avenue is now studded with shops--a potter's studio, a craft gallery, a bakery and several restaurants.
Nearby, a growing colony of antique shops sells everything from last year's junk to early American simplicity, at prices to match.
Those who don't care that much for man-made artifacts can find solace in White Mountain National Park or the Appalachian Trail. Hundreds of miles of hiking paths offer a quiet reprieve for cross-country skiers.
Most of Bethel's winter visitors come for the Sunday River Ski Resort's four peaks and 17 chairlifts. Snow making over 220 acres practically guarantees skiing from Thanksgiving through Easter.
Those who discovered Bethel in the 1950s probably began with the Pleasant Mountain Ski Area, Maine's first downhill resort.
Now Mt. Abrams Ski Slopes, established in 1960, also attracts many Bethel and Portland-area skiers.
"Nobody knows about it until they come to Bethel," says Robin Zinchuk, part-time director of Bethel's chamber of commerce who moved to Maine from New Jersey seven years ago.
But anyone expecting the trappings of a posh ski resort shouldn't seek it in Bethel. And though the glamour may be elsewhere, so are the steep lodge prices, hour-long lift lines and in-town crowds that can make a visitor wonder whether the entire city of Portland has come north for the weekend.
Overdevelopment Not Likely
"We don't want to see it turn into another North Conway," Zinchuk says. "And it won't, because the main road bypasses Bethel. It's not going to happen here."
Unlike North Conway 30 miles away, Bethel has no factory outlets or designer ski-wear boutiques. Bethel even hasn't many traffic lights. And in some cafes, dinner begins at 5 p.m., as it might at home.
Even in the restaurants where the tables are covered with linen, there is an easy familiarity with strangers as well as neighbors.
A few years ago, when the Sunday River resort exceeded its expected growth, day-trippers who came expecting to book a room at day's end frequently found themselves without any place to go.
On several weekends the ski resort had to phone residents to find spare bedrooms rented out by the night.
Better Prepared Now
Now Bethel is better prepared, with about 5,000 beds in town or nearby renting for $26 and up, including breakfast and dinner. New worries are circulating, though, that about 8,000 people may ski down Sunday River's mountain each weekend day, so even this expanded inventory may not be enough.
Villages on all sides of Bethel also offer restaurants, lodgings and occasional daytime diversions, which are usually craft shops or antique barns. Compared to Bethel, some of the towns are a little fancier and a few are more removed from tourist trade.
Bridgton, which is closest to Mt. Pleasant, has more than 30 antique shops and also contains some of the costliest real estate. In contrast, Rumford lies 20 miles north on U.S. 2, its industry and air dominated by the paper mill.
Geographically and socially, Bethel lies midway between the two. Many residents still live a backwoods economy, their homes powered by generators and their lamps fueled by kerosene.
Condo Craze Has Begun
The craze for condominiums has begun. Bethel's Opera House has already been converted to accommodate vacationers who want to invest in deeper seasonal roots.
Land can still be bought for $1,000 an acre, though it's best to ask how far the lot is from the road and whether any utilities have been installed.
One woman asked after she had bought the house, Jack Mahon recalled. "The electric company wanted to charge her $35,000 for a hookup, and the telephone company wanted $8,000. She got the phone, but she uses a generator."