The road less traveled holds many secrets, and the “Gems of 26” are most certainly worth a visit. The “Gems” consist of 7 unique points of interest nestled neatly along picturesque Route 26 in western Maine, between the towns of Gray and South Paris. Located within minutes of each other, with an early start you could visit them all in one long day or you could plan a stay at the Poland Spring Resort, a comfortable midpoint, and spend more time exploring these treasures.
Traveling north, the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray is your first stop. The Park offers a chance to see and learn about Maine wildlife in a comfortable, close and safe setting. Kids of all ages will thoroughly enjoy this Gem. The Maine Wildlife Park is home to more than 30 species of Maine wildlife, including moose, deer, bears, eagles, coyotes and owls, to name just a few. Enjoy the beauty of Maine’s indigenous creatures as you walk along the nature trails that wind through wildlife gardens. Be sure to visit the nature store, snack shack and picnic area as well.
Just a few miles up Route 26 you will find the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester. This is the only active Shaker community in the world. Explore 200 years of Shaker history as you wander through the museum buildings and exhibit rooms. Don’t forget to pay a visit to the farm animals that live on and work this beautiful piece of land. Guided tours are available.
The Poland Spring Preservation Society is housed in two historic buildings, just a stone’s throw from the Maine Inn at the Poland Spring Resort. The Maine State Building is a remarkable piece of Queen Anne style architecture with granite from ten Maine quarries and wood from Maine forests. The building was constructed for the Worlds Fair of 1893 (also known as the World’s Columbian Exposition) and was dismantled and moved from Chicago by railroad, cart and wagon to its present location. Presently, it is the home of many photographs and artifacts that tell the history of the Poland Spring Resort and Poland Spring Water. It is also home to the Maine Golf Hall of Fame exhibit and collections.
The adjacent All Souls Chapel is a magnificent stone chapel with hand-painted glass windows, tiled mosaic floors and a grand vaulted oak ceiling. The building has wonderful acoustics and is home to a summer concert series, as well as many weddings and other functions.
Your next stop is the Poland Spring Preservation Park, just a short walk away. Built in 1907, these buildings house the original spring, which still flows with Poland Spring Water. Visit the Water Museum in this dramatic Spanish-style water bottling facility where water was formerly bottled for seven decades and learn more about the amazing history of Poland Spring Water. The large collection of photographs and other memorabilia will take you back in time.
After exploring the history of Poland Spring, a 10-minute drive north on Route 26 will bring you to Harvest Hill Farm in Mechanic Falls. Harvest Hill Farm and Farm House Pizza Shop serve some of the best pizza and sandwiches around. Their Country Farm Market boasts natural range-fed meats, fresh locally grown produce, delicious breads, jams, maple syrup, lobster and other Maine favorites. After your meal, enjoy the wholesome Maine air and gentle farm animals at the petting barn. Each fall, Harvest Hill Farm hosts Pumpkin Land, featuring fantastic family entertainment with many attractions including a corn maze and haunted hay rides.
With bellies full and farm animals visited, take a 15-minute trip further up Route 26 to the village of South Paris and McLaughlin Garden. McLaughlin Garden is a horticulturalist’s dream-come-true. In the spring its air is rich with the intoxicating smell of more than 200 lilac trees and bushes. A system of paths winds through the garden around mature collections of hosta, daylily, astilbe, iris, phlox, wildflowers and other beds. The high canopy of deciduous and coniferous trees provides enough shade to make for a comfortable meander even on the hottest of days. After you explore the garden, be sure to visit the historic home, barn and gift shop to learn more about this Maine treasure.
Traveling between the “Gems of 26”, you will find charming Maine gift shops, greenhouses, ice cream and frozen custard shops, beautiful country scenery, delightful local restaurants and lovely bodies of water to stop, shop, taste and experience.
Rather than a “loop” trail, a visit to The Gems of 26 allows you to use one place as a central hub from which to explore “the secrets of the road less traveled.” Stay at the Poland Spring Resort and enjoy the hospitality of this historic Inn set on Ricker Hill in Poland Spring. Use the hiking trails, grass tennis courts, championship golf course, driving range, disc golf, pool and afterwards dine in the main dining room or by the lake at Cyndi’s Dockside Restaurant. In the evening, relax on the wide veranda while you enjoy the sunset, share a drink with friends at the pub or, if you have the energy, take advantage of the evening’s entertainment program. After the sun sets, let the quiet night sounds lull you to sleep. In the morning you will wake refreshed and ready to continue your journey.
This “loop” can easily be done in a day or two, but with so many things to do and see here on “the road less traveled” you will understand why they say that Maine is “Worth a visit, worth a lifetime.”