The Lure of Portland

Here's why you should linger in this urban, artsy bay town.

Portland Maine
Photo: Sara Gray

My passion for Portland, Maine, makes me go to extremes. I once drove four hours round-trip on icy roads to take travel companions to dinner there. We were staying in Camden, but I told them that one of my favorite restaurants in one of my favorite cities was just down Route 1. "It's called Street & Co., and we'll be back by midnight," I promised. The mussels, served steaming in a copper skillet with white wine, garlic butter, lemon, and shallots, were worth the drive.

And one summer, I forced my parents to eat Maine blueberry pie beneath one of the Cape Elizabeth lighthouses on Portland's outskirts, despite an impending thunderstorm. I insisted they have this singular experience, and no natural disaster could stop me. "That lighthouse is like a lightning rod," my dad said, as our plates rattled with each boom. "Eat up," I replied. We ran for the car as the rain came down.

But on my first visit to Portland I was alone, and that's when I fell headlong for this city. Wandering through the Arts District on that breezy spring day, I encountered the dour gaze of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose stony likeness sits surrounded by tulips in Longfellow Square. (On a later trip, I finally made time to tour his childhood home on Congress Street.) I stopped in Cunningham Books, fragrant with crowded shelves of "new and used." I walked a few blocks to the Portland Museum of Art, with a permanent collection anchored by Winslow Homer and the Wyeths and a temporary exhibit of paper collages that stunned me with their simple, clever designs. (Now I never miss a chance to stop in this jewel of a museum, and I'm always moved by whatever's showing.)

On that inaugural trip, I first sampled those Street & Co. mussels. First wandered the cobblestone streets in the shopping district known as the Old Port. First noticed the blend of brownstones and Victorians in nearby neighborhoods. First sipped the microbrews of a city that claims the highest number of breweries per capita. When I dragged my friends to Portland for dinner years later, I took them to popular Gritty McDuff's Brew Pub; they liked the lighthouse logo on the Portland Head Light Pale Ale bottle almost as much as the beer.

My initial encounter with the city came before I'd had a chance to see many of our country's ports and harbor towns. But even after traveling coast to coast, I still relish every return to Portland. Today the area lures with more attractions. For instance, the relatively new Portland Public Market offers seafood stalls, fresh-cut flowers, baked breads, and homemade pies (perfect for eating beneath a lighthouse, even in a rainstorm).

On your way to Acadia National Park or wherever you're heading in Maine, stay put for a few days in Portland. If you were my traveling partner, I'd drag you there. Chances are, you'd come back again without any prodding.

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