Pioneer American outdoors outfitter L. L. Bean has been a fixture on Main Street in Freeport Maine since its showroom opened in 1917. When Leon Leonwood Bean created the Bean Boot by combining lightweight leather tops with waterproof rubber bottoms, he offered a revolutionary 100-percent satisfaction guarantee. To this day, customers can return any item for a complete refund, no questions asked. In 1951, he also threw away the keys to keep the store open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Today L.L. Bean’s five stores (hunting and fishing; bike, boat and ski; retail apparel; kids; and factory store) make up an enterprising shopping campus, which has attracted more than 200 upscale discount outlets to this quaint coastal Maine village.
You could spend days meandering in this mecca to outdoor adventures. There is every conceivable item of clothing and outdoor gear for the hiker while the selection of bikes, canoes, skis, hunting and fishing gear leaves you speechless. I have never seen so many different types of flies, each one delicately copying an insect from the New England woods. In short, LL Bean offers an ode to all those classic New England outdoors pursuits.
But it is important not to forget that Maine’s iconic outdoors are right on L.L. Bean’s doorstep. Often visitors to New England would like to try fly fishing or kayaking but don’t have the gear or any idea where to go.
Outdoor Discovery Schools
To plug the gap, L.L. Bean offers inexpensive half-day Outdoor Discovery Schools. You’ll not only learn new sporting skills but also explore the countryside with a local. The choices range from kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, fly fishing, sporting clays, biking and archery in the warmer months to cross-country skiing and snow shoeing in winter. There are also weekend getaways and youth camps.
Their new online calendar makes it easy to browse and book a class. You have the option to search by date, location, event type, skill level and price, allowing you to select activities that fit your interests. All the courses are led by friendly expert instructors who, each year, guide thousands of people on new adventures in carefully selected locations in New England and the Mid-Atlantic.
Last summer I was exploring Maine with some friends who had never tried kayaking so we signed up on line for a class near LL Bean’s original Freeport store.
Of course, we had to check out store’s encyclopaedic collection of everything you need for the outdoors. When shopping vertigo finally set in, we relaxed on overstuffed leather chairs and played chess at a canoe coffee table in front of a massive stone fireplace. Later we watched a fisherman show kids how to fly-cast at the indoor trout pond. There is also a giant aquarium where all the different species of trout swim by, just to tantalize all those would-be fly fishers.
Kayak lesson along the spectacular Maine Coastline
But there is nothing like the real thing. The shuttle bus took eight of us to the Flying Point Paddling Center on Casco Bay. We met Rob, our guide, who ran down the basic paddling techniques on dry land before we walked through a wildflower-strewn field to the gaggle of neon-colored kayaks at the dock. After a not so elegant launch, we glided with varying degrees of proficiency onto the silvery bay to marvel at lobster pots and sailing boats bobbing in the tide. It certainly helped that the water’s surface was as calm as a guru.
As we meandered along the pine-tree-dotted granite shoreline, Rob explained that the hundreds of islets in Casco Bay are called the Calendar Islands, one for every day of the year. He said that many are used for family camps and I imagined soggy tents and campfire cooking before he elaborated that ‘camps’ here are really summer cottage compounds where generations gather to savor simple pleasures during the short summer. (So that was why they were selling wildflower patterned crockery at L.L. Bean…I thought that was too fancy for camping.)
We paddled close to uninhabited Googins Island, a designated osprey nesting area, and watched a mother osprey feeding fish to her chicks. Suddenly hungry ourselves, it was a quick paddle to the dock-side Harraseeket Lobster Shack where we snacked on classic lobster rolls.
For those who get hooked, L.L. Bean offers weekend trips and longer adventures also at reasonable prices. They figure that sooner or later you’ll need to buy all your gear from the best supplier in the country.
Where to stay
Two blocks from L.L. Bean is the luxury colonial-style Harraseeket Inn, named after the River of Many Fish that runs through Freeport.
I savored clam chowder and local prime rib in its atmospheric Broad Arrow Tavern, decorated with Native American birch bark canoe and hand-carved paddles, deer and moose heads, and antique snow shoes.
Staying the night in the Thomas Moser room, I got to test drive the exquisite American cherry and walnut furniture handcrafted by this nationally renowned Freeport artisan, rather like what I’d done with the LL Bean kayak on Calendar Bay.
After trying L.L .Bean’s fly-casting classes the next day, I was ready for Harraseeket Inn’s secret fly-fishing camp in Northern Maine. I guess you could say I was well and truly hooked.
I know that Recreational Equipment Incorporated has a similarly impressive flagship store in Seattle where you can try out all kinds of outdoor gear…they even have an indoor climbing wall. I’d love to hear from you about other sporting stores that are similarly impressive!
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