- Portland Head Light on Cape Elizabeth is one of the most photographed lighthouses in New England. (Photo by Mike Leonard. Courtesy of Greater Portland Convention and Visitors Bureau)
- Portland's State Street is filled with distinctive and historical architecture. (Courtesy of Greater Portland Convention and Visitors Bureau)
Maine’s ‘Jewel By the Sea’ has something for every taste
Few cities in New England offer visitors both the scenic waterfront and great walking experiences that Portland, Maine, provides, along with top-quality shopping and superb dining.
Situated between Maine’s forest-covered mountains and spectacular rugged coast, it has been called “a rough-hewn gem of New England.”
The National Historic Trust for Historic Preservation has honored Portland by naming it one of a Dozen Distinctive Destinations, an award bestowed on 12 U.S. communities that offer enjoyable, natural, historic, aesthetic, recreational and cultural experiences.
Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called Portland a “Jewel By the Sea.”
We discovered why and more during a recent weekend there.
Few New Englanders realize English settlers inhabited the Portland Peninsula, then called by the Indian name Machigonne, in 1632, just 25 years after Jamestown, Va. – America’s first settlement in the New World – was established, and 12 years after the settlement of Plymouth at Cape Cod in what was to become Massachusetts.
The name was changed to Casco and, in 1658, to Falmouth. The Casco Bay area was part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
After the Revolutionary War, Portland was established as a commercial port and began rapid growth as a shipping center, which continues today. Local residents named their town Portland in 1786. In 1820, Maine became a state, and Portland its first capital.
The rest, as they say, is history, and is reflected in the architectural and artistic gems throughout the downtown.
We chose the Holiday Inn by the Bay in the heart of downtown for our accommodations. Our room overlooked Casco Bay. Stella, my interior designer spouse, would describe the room as “comfortably contemporary.” Great seascape and landscape paintings added a special touch.
Being able to do my morning laps in the hotel’s indoor swimming pool and using its fitness center and saunas were a bonus. Stella enjoyed being able to visit the large number of antique shops, galleries and boutiques that were within walking distance.
The hotel’s courtesy van actually helped her bring some of her large antique bargains back to the inn.
We enjoyed exploring Portland using the inn as our starting point. It was fun just walking and exploring the downtown. The architecture is exceptional. The waterfront area provides some stunning vistas.
Two destinations were exceptional – one a short walk and the other a short ride.
The Portland Museum of Art’s three historic and remarkable buildings are just across the street and showcase three centuries of art and architecture.
We especially enjoyed the paintings and illustrations of Winslow Homer in an exhibition that’s on display through Sept. 6. “Winslow Homer and the Poetics of Place” focuses on 28 of his distinctive paintings and illustrations – just 28 of the more than 17,000 objects at the museum.
It was also delightful to view Maine’s finest collection of European art by masters such as Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Pablo Picasso. It was hard to believe we were in Portland and not in Paris.
A short ride brought us to Cape Elizabeth and Portland Head Light, one of the most famous lighthouses in the world. Historian Edward Rowe Snow wrote, “Portland Head and its light seem to symbolize the state of Maine – rocky coast, breaking waves, sparkling water and clear, pure salt air.”
Longfellow, who was born in Portland, was a frequent visitor in his younger years. It’s said that Longfellow’s poem “The Lighthouse” was probably inspired by his many hours at Portland Head Light.
Although the museum situated in the keeper’s house at Portland Head Light is open to the public, the lighthouse tower itself is not. Visitors from around the world take pictures of this most historic lighthouse and don’t visit the Maine coast without paying a visit.
Four dining experiences were of special note: Lunch at the Portland Lobster Company and Duck Fat and dinners at Walter’s and the Back Bay Grill.
Folks from around the world would agree that Maine Lobsters are indeed the finest in the world. The Portland Lobster Company is situated on the waterfront on a lengthy dock overlooking the gorgeous Portland Harbor on Commercial Street in the heart of the Old Port. We probably had the finest lobster roll in New England, made with fresh-picked meat from a 1-pound Maine lobster, brushed with sweet butter and served on a toasted roll with mayonnaise and lemon on the side. How can you beat that?
The European-style fry and sandwich shop Duckfat has been written up in Food and Wine magazine, the New York Times Magazine and Bon Appetit magazine, and has been featured in the Phantom Gourmet Dining Guide.
My Duckfat Poutine made with Belgian fries topped with Maine cheese curd and homemade duck gravy and served with a tall mint and lime old fashion soda was absolutely delicious and unlike any fried potato dish I had ever tasted. Stella enjoyed a Roasted Beet Salad with orange segments, goat cheese and salad greens. They were two very different but superb creations.
Walter’s, near Portland’s historic Old Port, provided a dinner menu inspired by the flavors of Asia, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. These influences produce such a wide variety of delightful menu items that we decided to go with several starters and small plates: spice dusted Cracklin’ Calamari, Peeky Toe Crab Cake with roasted garlic chive aioli and Lobster Mac with torchon, Vermont cheddar, Stilton and Ritz cheeses, to name just a few, along with a Caesar Hay Stack Salad.
Our farewell dinner was a superb three-course wine-matching dinner prepared by chef-owner Larry Matthews Jr. at The Back Bay Grill.
We were surrounded by some great paintings: an interpretation of Vincent Van Gogh’s classic cheese painting, “Potato Eaters”; “Creme Brulee Eaters” by Vicki Goushaw; and an extensive 17-year-old mural of Back Bay Grill servers and guests by Ed Manning that reminded us of the King Cole Bar mural at New York’s St. Regis Hotel.
Matthews is an exceptional chef, as we discovered by nibbling on a Maine Crab Cake with pickled ramps, cucumber and remoulade sauce; a roasted beets, pistachio and Vermont goat cheese Frisee Salad; and an East Coast Halibut with tomato-smoked broth and white shrimp.
Tabitha, our server, poured the Sparkling California Domain Chandon and the French Sauvignon Blanc and White Burgundy that complemented each course. The Vermont Chevre Cheesecake with watermelon sauce and black pepper graham crackers was a perfect way with which to end the meal and our stay in Portland.
Dr. Charles L. Mitsakos is professor emeritus of education at Rivier College.