When traveling from Colorado, like Hawaii and Alaska, Maine feels rather far away. Still, Portland and the surrounding area exude a character unmatched anywhere else in the country – or world, for that matter – and it doesn’t stop at scruffy fishermen and awesome lobster dinners.
While my inaugural visit to America’s northeastern-most state was short and centered in and around the city of Portland, it left a lasting impression of friendliness, outdoor activity, breathtaking landscapes and really good food.
What Portland has that few other New England cities don’t is a distinct air of a slower pace of life and relaxation. This was immediately apparent when we began our weekend at J’s Oyster Bar.
The Oyster Bar spun forth a living display of every stereotype imaginable of a hole-in-the-wall locals’ joint on the harbor in Maine. Situated directly on the wharf, which unlike San Francisco (to which Portland ranks second in the U.S. as most bars and restaurants per capita), is in no way a beckoning, dolled up tourist attraction. J’s is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get type of place in every possible way. Literally a shoebox-shaped shack with a few metal tables and umbrellas outside on the pier, due to rain when we arrived (not uncommon in early summer), we sat inside, where anyone over 6 feet tall may have to duck to make their way around the bar (packed at noon) to a table. Our baggy T-shirt and ball cap-wearing waitress yelled over the bar to grab a corner table and proceeded to be an amusing bundle of warmth and honesty, directing us to the menu’s crab rolls rather than the lobster rolls (neither of which are sushi, mind you).
“Everyone loves the lobster, but go for the crab … it’s especially tender today,” she said, referring to the daily fresh catch that had been netted just a couple hours before.
Because we were eager to plunge right into Maine’s storied lobster rolls, we ordered one of each. J’s philosophy is that the flavor of its fresh catch speaks for itself, and aside from a little lettuce, both rolls arrived in simple hot dog buns without any added spices, sauces or butter, accompanied only by a small packet of mayonnaise. It was a toss up as to which was tastier, the bright red lobster chunks piled high or the large shreds of generously packed crab, succulent and deliciously buttery on its own.
Of course, Portland is also a place that appreciates good beer, and both the Allagash White and Shipyard Pale proved worthy partners for the rolls as well as for the Raw and Nude oysters, served strait up with cocktail sauce, horseradish and lemon.
Accommodation and recreation
Unpretentious as it is, Portland’s waterfront is definitely the epicenter of the area, flecked with gelato parlors, artisan cheese shops, locally made art vendors and wine stores – all housed in the gorgeous red brick buildings that characterize the city, which admittedly feels more like a seaside resort. As for location, the Hilton Garden Inn Downtown Waterfront is far and away the No. 1 lodging option. With a cozy bar, super helpful staff and rooms with views across the harbor, it’s pretty much unbeatable, to which the presence of three separate wedding parties on the same weekend would attest.
For recreation, the place is a bustling mecca. A jog along the path paralleling the Eastern Promenade revealed kayakers gliding through Casco Bay, fishers at work in the Back Cove and a parade of mountain bikers and road cyclists pedaling to and from the harbor.
Food and beer
Getting back to Portland’s overwhelming array of restaurant choices, we passed up the opportunity to indulge in the city’s No. 1-rated lunch spot: Duckfat, wherein nearly everything on the menu is brought to decadent perfection by virtue of being cooked in the restaurant’s namesake. Instead, the ultra fresh omelettes and rosemary potatoes at The Farmer’s Table hit the spot – particularly from the fresh air patio across the street from the harbor.
In savoring the area’s many offerings of cold brew, Ri Ra on the waterfront boasts a legitimate Irish charm and also rotates eight U.S. craft brews and eight imports on draft along with 100 of the world’s best in a bottle. In the heart of town, tucked into a cave full of large wooden tables and wall-to-wall beer lovers, Novare Res has more than 30 rotating taps, generously apportioned with Maine’s homemade brews: Allagash, Maine Beer Company and lesser known crafts like Rising Tide, Marshall Wharf and non-wheat options such as Maine Mead Works and U.F.F. Cider.
Not that it goes great with beer (but then again … what doesn’t?), we can’t forget the ultimate Maine sweet treat: whoopie pies. Don’t leave Portland without eating the famed devil’s food cookie filled with cloud cream. Two Fat Cats Bakery makes a mean one … and also sells minis.
Last but far from least on the things-to-see list … who could visit Maine without feasting their eyes on a couple of the majestic glowing beacons that for centuries have safely guided wayward sea vessels into shore? Fort Williams Park is a glorious place to walk along the brambles across the cliffs of Casco Bay, taking in Ram Island lighthouse in the distance, Portland Head Light at the corner of the harbor and the ridiculously picturesque Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse down the south coast.
As luck would have it, there’s even a food truck on the lighthouse tour … on the plateau up the road from Cape Elizabeth. A little pricier than the oyster shack, the Connecticut-style (butter-only) or curry lobster roll at Bite Into Maine is worth it and the sea breeze blowing over the cliff is the ultimate accompaniment.