The Maine attraction

You can hike, fish, or kayak, but don't forget the shopping bags

At 2 in the morning, I am hiking up a rocky slope in southern Maine, and have already spotted a fox, a pheasant, and a hungry-looking black bear.

Not only that, but the light is shining just as brightly as it did 12 hours ago, and the weather hasn't changed one bit from a pleasant 72 degrees F.

Where is this unusual travel destination, you ask?

The L.L. Bean headquarters in Freeport, Maine.

The round-the-clock mecca for outdoor goods and apparel happens to be the second-leading tourist attraction in the state, behind Acadia National Park.

But I hadn't intended on letting consumer behavior be the highlight of my trip to Freeport, home to some 170 outlet stores and local shops including J. Crew, Gap, Brooks Brothers, and Patagonia. I was there to soak up Maine's regional beauty, kayak its rocky coastlines, hike seaside trails, and perhaps even learn to fly-fish.

Besides, I was only briefly "browsing," I told myself at 11 p.m., as I checked out L.L. Bean's wild animals (they're stuffed, by the way) and tried out a pair of retro sport sandals on the mock mountainside - a plastic structure that lets shoe shoppers test for traction and stability.

I would buy only a measly jar of beeswax to preserve the leather boots I bought last year, I thought.

But suddenly I, like many a Maine lobster, fell for the bait.

"How are those boots holding out for you?" asked an earnest shoe- department employee.

"They're really great ... except," I quickly remembered, "they gave me blisters the last time I wore them."

Bean is famous for its satisfaction-or-you'll-get-a-new-one policy, and for its down-to-earth service. This time was no exception, as they gave me a new pair of boots. I also spent $210 on Christmas presents and other "essentials" before heading back to the inn.

I could have hung out in the store even longer, yakking with store clerks about camping-trip ideas, if it weren't for the kayaking trip scheduled at 7 a.m.

All around Freeport, the company has, for 22 years, offered an extensive roster of outdoor-education programs for adults and children, including fly-casting, canoeing, wilderness skills, and photography.

Sure, Bean benefits by creating a profitable pool of loyal customers who outfit themselves to pursue their new interests. But the program also lets tourists take up a new sport besides maneuvering down Main Street with heavy shopping bags.

Briny air filled our nostrils as my fellow kayakers, our two guides, and I arrived at the dock early the next morning. After a brief Kayaking 101 demonstration on paddle technique, we set off to explore the shoreline.

During the proverbial New England autumn, conifers such as pine and spruce hold their deep green hues and form a background for colorful broadleaf varieties that change their vivid summer greens to pink, scarlet, vermilion, umber, brick, yellow, gold. This three-week envelope of prime leaf peeping, which comes sometime during September or October each year, must vie for the No. 1 tourist draw in Maine.

On we paddled, gliding past boats filled with men rigging fresh traps for lobsters. On beyond a sailboat lost to the sea long ago, with just a mast and boom rising above the water's surface in the shape of a cross - a tribute to all seafaring Mainers who've tread down a similar path.

We stopped next to an outcropping of rocks to watch dark gray, vulture-like creatures, perched in a row just like soldiers at attention, sunning drenched, outstretched wings.

The cormorant's feathers lack oil, making for good diving but poor water repellency. It takes off for flight sputtering along the surface water like a plane running out of fuel. Then, suddenly, its wings are dry and it catches a puff of wind, soaring effortlessly.

The next day I learned to fly-cast at the L.L. Bean training grounds: two shallow, rectangular pools below a grassy knoll. I didn't catch any fish because, well, there weren't any, and the flies don't have hooks - fortunately for me.

We were instructed in the four-point cast: slow to fast, slow to fast. But after a few pathetic first attempts, I cast my line wildly back and forth over my head like Brad Pitt in "A River Runs Through It," until the guide came over and told me that technique was just for looks. So long to my romantic image of fly-fishing.

I also hiked along scenic trails overlooking the ocean at Wolfe's Neck Woods State Park, then, admittedly, I took a last stroll down Freeport's Main Street.

As far as outlet malls go, it has the most character I've seen. The roof of Ben & Jerry's features a flower garden dotted with tables to lounge at, and a delicate waterfall descends before the L.L. Bean behemoth.

Even the McDonald's - whitewashed with green shutters - could blend into a quaint New England neighborhood.

The only night life is 30 minutes away in Portland, though rumor has it Freeport officials have been scouting New Orleans for inspiration for a new jazz bar and performing arts center.

But my long daytrips had tired me out anyway, and I walked a few blocks back to my room at the Harraseeket Inn. The elegant mahogany paneling, cozy fireplaces, and delicious food with mostly local ingredients, exude the welcoming feel of an English country house. I took a long dip in my whirlpool bath, then fell asleep listening to the crackling from the fireplace.

Who needs New Orleans anyway, when you're looking for a refreshing weekend "the way life should be" - as the state motto goes.

For more information on Freeport, Maine, log on to www. freeportusa.com, call 800-865-1994, or e-mail info@freeport usa.com.

For details on L.L. Bean's Outdoor Discovery Schools, see www.llbean.com, call 888-LLBEAN1, or e-mail outdoor.discov ery@llbean.com.

Call the Harraseeket Inn at 800-342-6423, or visit www.harra seeketinn.com.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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