The Other Portland | Travel Off the Grid to Maine
The "Other" Portland
When one thinks of vacationing in Portland, I would have to guess that the first thought people have is of that laid back city located on the West Coast. Ironically, the United States offers two vastly different versions of the namesake, one being on the Atlantic Ocean and the other 3,200 miles away on the Pacific Coast.
I have to admit, the Portland located in Maine is not usually mentioned as a top vacation destination, but somehow a trip there had always appealed to me. The lighthouses on the ocean, the off the grid mentality, and of course the fresh lobster were reason enough. I love to see the personality of a city and felt that this Portland, while not as touted as the one of the other coast, would be worth a visit.
I have always liked American cities that have an old time feel to them. Historic buildings and streets with tales to tell of their own. If the current occupants had a story of a paranormal event it always took it up a notch also, no matter whether factual or not.
Unfortunately, I did not find the old architecture here that I was looking for. While the city has a rich history, the buildings do not. You will find sporadic cobblestone streets and an older building here and there, but the Old Port area does not scream of Colonial times. A history lesson will teach you the reason why you do not see much of this old infrastructure. The city was practically destroyed and rebuilt four times in it's long history.
In 1775 during the Revolutionary War the British burned the city to the ground during a nine hour bombing campaign. The residents rebuilt only to have their city again up in flames in 1866 in what was termed the 'Great Fire' during an Independence Day celebration. The city pulled itself up again, but many of the remnants of Colonial times were left in the ashes.
We took the drive up the East Coast from a stopover in Boston, a city that definitely holds a Colonial feel with more history that can be held in a book. What you will learn is that in Maine, someone coming up from this area has a nickname of their own- 'Masshole'. Ya, you see the negative connotation for someone with money who vacations "up-north".
For residents of Maine, there are two sections of the state. The upper wilderness area which is so "off the grid" that the power feed is actually a part of Canada and not the USA. Moose and wolves outnumber people in much of this vast land. Trying to access anything north of Bangor can be a challenge once the snow starts flying.
In contrast, the part of Maine that hugs the coast is 'Masshole' land. Wealthy residents of the Boston suburbs love to call this area their own during the Summer months and their presence isn't always appreciated by the locals to say the least.
Because of my affection for being in the middle of a city that I visit, we decided to stay in the 'Old Port' district, which is located right on the Atlantic. This area was run down and deserted for many years, until the 70's when citizens decided the area was worth preserving and revitalization projects begain. Now it serves as an entertainment area of sorts, with tours, restaurants, and shops.
Looking out over the bay you will see lighthouses, fishing boats, and tons of buoys on the water. These are there to mark lobster crates sitting below waiting to be pulled up and brought ashore. There will always be that salty smell coming from the water which lets you know the north Atlantic sits just outside the piers.
A travel rule of mine has always been the "When in Rome" theory, meaning that whatever an area is known for should be part of the experience. When you think of Maine you think of lobster- FRESH lobster. A must do is a visit to one of the "lobster off the boat" shacks which are located right on the boat piers. These are not fancy restaurants with white tablecloths and a waiter ready to fill your glass after every sip. They are usually shacks that take their catch directly off the boat, throw it in a pot and serve it up fresh.
Trust me, having lobster that was crawling the ocean floor an hour ago far exceeds anything packed in ice and shipped across the continent on a plane or truck. While you may have to sit on an old picnic table on the dock to consume it, the experience is worth it. Three Sons Lobster and Fish was one of the best, but unfortunately, they have closed this part of the operation. Walk down one of the piers and you will be able to sniff out another mom and pop seller of the delicacy of the sea.
Tours are available of many varieties, one such being Odyssey Whale Watch. This is your typical boat tour which goes out into the Atlantic and tries to get close enough to a whale for personal viewing. While they claim a high sighting rate, we did not get to add this to our bucket list. While the captain pointed out something in the far distance that maybe qualified as a whale, we saw only a small dot, something extremely anti-climatic when wanting to experience one of earths largest creatures. Of course, this was in-between the constant dry heaving over the side of the boat. Despite a healthy dose of dramamine our stomachs could not tolerate the boat being tossed up and down like a salad. In the end our experience with wildlife was only a school of hungry saltwater fish jumping up to the side of the boat to indulge in our frequent vomit offerings.
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Being on the ocean, Maine is also known for it's abundance of lighthouses. Of course, there are tours to get this part of the experience also. We took the Lighthouse tour that included a visit to Fort Williams, an inactive military installation built in 1873. A short trolley ride from downtown drops you off on-site with time to explore. Frequent rides back are provided on the same aforementioned vehicle.
For the beer aficionado, there is Shipyard Brewery located within a brisk walk of downtown. The tour is lacking to say the least, with little more than a customary view of the bottling room. The real treat is the tasting room afterward, which offers you the pleasure of sampling many of their offerings. There is not a restaurant on site, nor an actual bar. A decent gift shop does allow you the ability to buy more beer if you want, along with a full range of souvenirs.
Ferry tours to the outlying islands are available through Casco Bay Ferry service among others. Most are scenic tours with short stopovers and/or lobster bakes. After the whale watching tour you can understand why we decided against this.
Portland, Oregon or Portland, Maine
There were a wide range of restaurants downtown, with most offering a good selection of seafood as would be expected. While the Old Port region is busy on weekends, the area really empties out at times. We were there in Fall and once off the beaten path it felt like we were the only people in town. Strange feeling to say the least walking along city streets and not seeing another soul for 10 minutes at a time.
One place I highly recommend is the 'Portland Lobster Company' which is located right off a pier in Old Port. It is regularly ranked the top seafood restaurant in Portland. There is an outside seating area overlooking the pier and many times live music is provided. While you may catch an occasional smell of the dock, it can be overlooked with a cold beer, a lobster roll, and a musician with an acoustic guitar belting out old favorites.
Overall, Portland is worth visiting but I wouldn't give it more than a few days. This is not your week long vacation destination unless you want relaxation and time to read a good book. You can easily experience everything you want in an extended weekend. Take in the lighthouses, have some really good seafood, and breathe the fresh Atlantic air.