Here's why you should linger in this urban, artsy bay town.
My passion for Portland, Maine, makes me go to extremes. I oncedrove four hours round-trip on icy roads to take travel companionsto dinner there. We were staying in Camden, but I told them thatone of my favorite restaurants in one of my favorite cities wasjust down Route 1. "It's called Street & Co., and we'll be backby midnight," I promised. The mussels, served steaming in a copperskillet with white wine, garlic butter, lemon, and shallots, wereworth the drive.
And one summer, I forced my parents to eat Maine blueberry piebeneath one of the Cape Elizabeth lighthouses on Portland'soutskirts, despite an impending thunderstorm. I insisted they havethis singular experience, and no natural disaster could stop me."That lighthouse is like a lightning rod," my dad said, as ourplates rattled with each boom. "Eat up," I replied. We ran for thecar as the rain came down.
But on my first visit to Portland I was alone, and that's when Ifell headlong for this city. Wandering through the Arts District onthat breezy spring day, I encountered the dour gaze of HenryWadsworth Longfellow, whose stony likeness sits surrounded bytulips in Longfellow Square. (On a later trip, I finally made timeto tour his childhood home on Congress Street.) I stopped inCunningham Books, fragrant with crowded shelves of "new and used."I walked a few blocks to the Portland Museum of Art, with apermanent collection anchored by Winslow Homer and the Wyeths and atemporary exhibit of paper collages that stunned me with theirsimple, clever designs. (Now I never miss a chance to stop in thisjewel 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 shoppingdistrict known as the Old Port. First noticed the blend ofbrownstones and Victorians in nearby neighborhoods. First sippedthe microbrews of a city that claims the highest number ofbreweries per capita. When I dragged my friends to Portland fordinner years later, I took them to popular Gritty McDuff's BrewPub; they liked the lighthouse logo on the Portland Head Light PaleAle bottle almost as much as the beer.
My initial encounter with the city came before I'd had a chanceto see many of our country's ports and harbor towns. But even aftertraveling coast to coast, I still relish every return to Portland.Today the area lures with more attractions. For instance, therelatively new Portland Public Market offers seafood stalls,fresh-cut flowers, baked breads, and homemade pies (perfect foreating beneath a lighthouse, even in a rainstorm).
On your way to Acadia National Park or wherever you're headingin Maine, stay put for a few days in Portland. If you were mytraveling partner, I'd drag you there. Chances are, you'd come backagain without any prodding.