The Lure of Portland

Sara Gray
The Lure of Portland
Here's why you should linger in this urban, artsy bay town.

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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