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Ray Routhier

Portland Press Herald staff writer Ray Routhier will try anything. Once. During 20 years at the Press Herald he’s been equally attracted to stories that are unusually quirky and seemingly mundane. He’s taken rides on garbage trucks, sought out the mother of two rock stars, dug clams, raked blueberries, and spent time with the family of bedridden man who finds strength in music. Nothing too dangerous mind you, just adventurous enough to find the stories of real Mainers doing real cool things.

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Posted: November 28, 2017

How Gardens Aglow became Maine’s must-see holiday attraction

Written by: Ray Routhier

The folks at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens know something about the power of color.

Since opening in 2007, the Boothbay site has drawn people from all over Maine and the country because of colorful blooms from roses and rhododendrons to hosta and hydrangea, not to mention acres of lush green forest. So it makes sense that a few years ago the garden’s managers decided to add some color in the dead of winter, a time of year when strolling through gardens is not exactly top of mind.

The result was Gardens Aglow, a November and December extravaganza of lights at the botanical gardens. Now in its third year, the spectacle has grown to include some 500,000 LED lights on 43 miles of cord, lighting up the major areas of the garden, including the children’s garden, the woodland garden and the Lerner Garden of the Five Senses.

It’s fast becoming one of southern Maine’s best-known holiday attractions. Last year, Gardens Aglow drew more than 75,000 people in just about a month, while the botanical gardens drew 113,000 people May through October.

Gardens Aglow opened for the season Nov. 16 and will be open Thursdays through Sundays from 4 to 9 p.m. until Dec. 31.

Because of the success of Gardens Aglow, the Boothbay Harbor Region of Commerce organizes a seasonal event called Boothbay Festival Of Lights, in its second season. People can park at a free lot in downtown Boothbay Harbor and take a free shuttle to Gardens Aglow a mile up Route 27 in Boothbay, past businesses and homes lit up for the event. Shops, restaurants and inns in Boothbay Harbor are also decorated and open for people either on their way to or from Gardens Aglow. For a list of other Boothbay Festival of Lights events, including the Harbor Lights Festival on Saturday, go to boothbaylights.com.

People can also park at the botanical garden’s lot and visit downtown Boothbay Harbor on their own.

“It’s tough when you’re in a seasonal area with only seasonal jobs, and we had talked about ways we could have more of an impact on the area in our off-season,” said Kris Folsom, marketing and communications director for Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. “We thought this would be valuable, bringing a lot of people in at a time when there aren’t usually a lot of visitors.”

On a recent Friday night, the appeal of Gardens Aglow was evident as hundreds of people walked around open-mouthed in blustery weather, with temperatures in the low 30s. The appeal, in a word, is lights. There are more lights than most of us have ever seen at one time, in more color combinations than one would normally associate with Christmas. There were pink and yellow lights, for instance, on a line of tall thin trees that were blowing in the wind, as if waving at visitors. There were two shades of orange lights on evergreens, creating the illusion of towering, flickering flames in the forest. The music wafting from speakers hidden in the gardens is varied too, ranging from pieces that sounded classical to some a bit more jazzy.

“The first time I saw it I was in such awe, I called everyone I knew and said they had to see it. Now I go three or four times a season,” said Bettina Heath of Augusta, who was visiting the gardens on Nov. 17. “Seeing all the lights and hearing the music playing, it’s just magical.”

Heath brought her boyfriend, Robby Coffin of Hallowell, who had never seen the lit up gardens before. Coffin said he was “stunned” by the size and scope of the lights, including ones that moved up and down trees like snow or rain and whole strings of lights that criss-crossed ponds, creating giant reflecting pools. He says he’d “definitely go back” but would dress warmer in order to stay out longer.

“Other than in Times Square (in New York City), I don’t know where you can see more lights,” Coffin said.

A visit to Gardens Aglow starts in the visitor’s center, where people are handed a map outlining where the lights are and, importantly, where the Winter Fun Warming Station is. The latter is a place where you can sit down, get warm, have a snack and watch model trains.

Unlike some holiday attractions, there are no long lines in the garden and there’s no tight schedule to follow. Once you’re in, you just wander at your own pace. You don’t have to be anyplace at a certain time to see Santa or feed reindeer.

In order to stagger the crowds at Gardens Aglow, tickets have a timed admission each evening, either 4 p.m., 6 p.m. or 7:30 p.m. But the lights really are best seen in the dark, so if you get there at 4 p.m., before sunset, you might want to start with a snack inside until darkness falls.

Last year, Gardens Aglow had about 360,000 lights, so some 140,000 have been added for this season.

The gardens’ horticulture staff – 10 people, plus some helpers – started putting up the lights in September, using a couple boom lifts to get up into the tallest trees, some 60-feet high. The gardens’ lighting pattern was designed by horticulturist Anna Leavitt, who said finding colors that work is sort of trial and error.

“Those big trees near the visitor’s center have pink and yellow lights, which doesn’t sound nice, but it works,” said Leavitt. “It’s just experimenting a lot, figuring out what works.”

And when you’ve got half-million lights to work with, you can do a lot of colorful experiments.

GARDENS AGLOW

WHEN: 4 to 9 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, through Dec. 31; closed Christmas Eve
WHERE: Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, 132 Botanical Gardens Drive, Boothbay
HOW MUCH: $12 adults, $6 ages 3-17, $30 family rate (two adults and two children)
INFO: mainegardens.org
WHAT ELSE: For more lights, park in Boothbay Harbor at a municipal lot and take a free shuttle from the fire station to Gardens Aglow. Along they way, you’ll see many local businesses and homes decorated for the Boothbay Festival of Lights, a season-long event created to coincide with Gardens Aglow. The lights are on each night, but on Saturday there will also be a day-long event called Harbor Lights Festival, including Santa’s arrival by boat, a festival of trees, a craft show and more. For more information on the Harbor Lights Festival and on shuttle buses from Boothbay Harbor to Gardens Aglow, go to boothbaylights.com.


Check out our Kid Review of the Gardens

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