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Portland (Maine) Overview
Portland, Maine, is all about lobster. It's hard to imagine this crustacean was once deemed poor man's food, but it's true -- lobsters would wash up on Portland's shores after a storm and be used primarily as fertilizer and bait. But with the advent of land transportation, lobsters were brought inland by the mid-1800's, and as the demand for lobsters increased so did the price. Today, the city boasts numerous restaurants -- all of which feature lobster (in some form) on their menus.
But Portland has more to offer than a bunch of crustaceans. The coastal New England port boasts a vibrant working waterfront, an abundance of Victorian-era architecture and numerous historic lighthouses. Nestled on a picturesque seascape, the city is perched on a peninsula jutting out into the island-studded Casco Bay, protected from the Atlantic Ocean. The romantic movie "Message in a Bottle" was filmed in this seaside town and even the famous Portland-born poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called Portland a "Jewel by the Sea" in one of his poems. The city welcomes close to 50,000 cruise ship passengers annually.
The historic port was once a major shipbuilding center, as well as one of the busiest fishing ports on the Atlantic as far back as the 18th century. Its success as a port made it a prime target for the British during the War of 1812 and also for the Confederates during the Civil War. The coastline and islands are still dotted with forts that were built to protect the city. Ironically, during an Independence Day celebration in 1866, a firecracker ignited a fire that quickly spread across the city's east end, destroying 1,800 buildings.
The city quickly rebuilt, resulting in lovely Victorian-era architecture, and today the Old Port (sometimes referred to as the Old Port Exchange) is a bustling seaport with a high concentration of quality eating and drinking establishments. With less than 65,000 residents, Portland is compact enough for visitors to explore the town thoroughly -- tourists can stroll along the working waterfront of Commercial Street, walk the cobblestone streets of the restored Old Port district, or visit a historic building or two.
What will you remember most from a visit to Portland? Will it be the lobster traps piled on the wharf, the smell of sea air combined with the chatter of seagulls or a visit to a historic attraction? If you're like the majority of visitors, a succulent lobster lunch may be your most savory memory of this New England port.
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Other Canada & New England Cruise Ports:
Bar Harbor • Bayonne (Cape Liberty) • Boston • Charlottetown (Prince Edward Island) • Halifax • Montreal • New York (Manhattan) • Newport • Portland (Maine) • Quebec City • Saint John (New Brunswick) • St. John's (Newfoundland)
Buy a souvenir that celebrates Maine's lobsters, lighthouses or maritime industry. Porte 4 (www.porte4.com, 366 Fore Street) sells fine jewelry with nautical designs such as 18K gold sailboat and lighthouse pendants. For unusual and historical nautical artifacts, check out China Sea Marine Trading (www.chinaseatrading.com, 324 Fore Street). Another unique souvenir is Sea Bag's handmade water-resistant tote bag made in Maine from recycled sails. The company's headquarters is located on the working waterfront (www.seabags.com, 24 Custom House Wharf).
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
There are ATM's and banks located throughout the city. One of the closest ATM's can be found at the Casco Bay Line Terminal adjacent to the Maine State Pier and the cruise terminal at Portland Ocean Terminal (56 Commercial St.). To exchange other currencies into U.S. dollars, Maine Bank & Trust has weekday hours (www.mainebank.com, 467 Congress St.; Monday to Friday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.).
Where You're Docked
All the major cruise ships dock at the Portland Ocean Terminal on the fringe of the Old Port.
The cruise terminal is located adjacent to Commercial Street, which runs alongside the waterfront and features restaurants, quaint shops and fishermen at work. A visitor information booth is located just outside the cruise terminal, where you can pick up self-guided walking tour maps.
By Foot: It's easy to walk from the ship to shops, restaurants and attractions. While walking around downtown, look for Portland's Downtown District Guides, recognizable in their "outback" hats. They are on the streets of Portland in the summer to help visitors find their way around -- and their services are free! Alternately, 90-minute guided historical walking tours such as "The Old Port" and "Homes of Portland's Golden Age" are offered daily at 10:30 a.m. for $7 per person (www.portlandlandmarks.org, 245 Commercial Street).
By Trolley: Take a 90-minute narrated trolley tour, passing many popular attractions (adults $21, kids $15). Tickets can be purchased at 170 Commercial Street on Long Wharf.
By Bike: Rent a bike from Cycle Mania located a few short blocks from the Old Port for $25 per day (www.cyclemania1.com, 59 Federal Street).
By Car: Although most rental car companies are represented at the Portland Airport, Hertz offers a kiosk at the cruise terminal whenever there is a ship in port (except on Sundays). Rentals start from $60 per day and include unlimited mileage. (www.hertz.com, 800-654-3131).
Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad: Take a ride on a historic narrow gauge steam train. The train departs on the hour between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., and passengers can enjoy the view of Casco Bay while riding along the waterfront by the Eastern Promenade (www.mainenarrowgauge.org, 58 Fore Street).
Portland Head Light: Maine's oldest lighthouse, built during George Washington's presidency, is located on the shores of Cape Elizabeth. Originally, the 80-ft. tower was lit with 16 whale-oil lamps. Today there are a number of interpretive displays at the onsite museum (www.portlandheadlight.com, 1000 Shore Road).
Portland Observatory: Climb the 103 steps to the top and enjoy the views of Portland and Casco Bay. This signal tower is the only remaining wooden maritime signal station in the U.S. It was built in 1807 and is currently listed on the National Landmark Registry (138 Congress Street).
Victoria Mansion: Originally built in 1858 for a wealthy New Orleans hotelier, the Italian villa-style mansion has graceful verandahs, a four-story tower and a lavish interior. The house was named for Britain's Queen Victoria when it was turned into a museum in 1941. Visitors can tour the property, which still boasts 90 percent of its original contents such as gas light fixtures, elaborate wall paintings and exquisite woodwork (www.victoriamansion.org, 109 Danforth Street).
Wadsworth-Longfellow House: Built in 1785, this is the boyhood home of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It was the first wholly brick dwelling in Portland and now features a collection of Maine's historical artifacts (www.mainehistory.org, 489 Congress Street).
Maine Historical Society Museum: Located next door to the Wadsworth-Longfellow House, this museum houses exhibitions that feature art and artifacts that bring Maine history to life (www.mainehistory.org, 489 Congress Street).
Been There, Done That
Explore Peaks Island: Take the 15-minute ferry ride (www.cascobaylines.com, 56 Commercial Street) from Maine State Pier to Peaks Island. On the island, you can rent a bike from Brad's Recycled Bike Shop for $14 per day (115 Island Ave.), or take a guided kayak trip to explore the protected waterways of Casco Bay -- you'll paddle past Civil War-era forts, lighthouses and seal-covered ledges (www.maineislandkayak.com, 70 Luther Street).
Shop in Freeport: The well-known outlet shopping destination includes the L.L. Bean flagship store, which is open 24 hours a day and 365 days a year (www.llbean.com, 95 Main Street). New attractions in the store include a 24-ft. riverbed aquarium alive with fish and turtles native to Maine.
Experience a Seafood Auction: The Portland Fish Exchange is a fresh seafood auction held Monday through Thursday at noon and Sunday at 11 a.m. at the Portland Fish Pier Complex by the Casco Bay Bridge. Commercial fishing vessels are offloaded in the early morning and buyers arrive throughout the morning to inspect the day's catch. Visitors can watch the auction unfold with the auctioneer soliciting bids for each species and size of seafood (www.pfex.org, 6 Portland Fish Pier).
Stroll the Village of Kennebunkport, Maine: Located about 45 minutes south of Portland, this charming coastal village features several Federal- and Victorian-style homes built by wealthy merchants and sea captains in the 1700's and 1800's. Today it is regarded as one of the most expensive vacation areas in the Northeast (the Bush family has a home here). Visitors can explore the small district of art galleries, seafood restaurants and souvenir shops.
According to the Maine Restaurant Association, Portland is home to about 230 restaurants. Although many restaurants are within the downtown area, some good ones are located on the outskirts and are worth the trek. Seafood is a staple, with lobster being the star. Almost every restaurant features a "lobster roll," which is basically fresh picked meat from the lobster brushed with sweet butter and served on a toasted roll with mayonnaise. Other traditional dishes include whole lobster boiled or steamed under seaweed at a seaside lobster bake.
The Portland Lobster Company: For a truly Portland seafood experience, head to The Portland Lobster Company, specializing in you-know-what -- lobster. Big appetites can order the Downeast Feast, which includes lobster, steamers (Maine steamed clams), corn on the cob, coleslaw and fries (www.portlandlobstercompany.com, 180 Commercial Street).
Dimillo's on the Water: Situated in a converted car ferry on the Portland waterfront, Dimillo's on the Water offers fresh seafood with an Italian flair. Choose from items like the Lobster Roll, Beer Battered Fish and Chips, the Maine Crab Club, plus a number of traditional Italian dishes such as Chicken Parmigiana. While you dine, you can watch the sights and sounds of Portland Harbor from the outside decks or enjoy the water views from every window in the dining room. (www.dimillos.com, 25 Long Wharf; open daily at 11 a.m.).
The Front Room: Serving American comfort food made from local ingredients, The Front Room offers classics such as Croque Monsieur (French for grilled ham and cheese), eggs benny, or biscuits and gravy. The cozy restaurant boasts warm woodwork and lots of windows overlooking the scenic Eastern Promenade (www.thefrontroomrestaurant.com, 73 Congress Street; daily brunch 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.).
Becky's On Hobson's Wharf: Eat where the locals eat at Becky's On Hobson's Wharf. Here you'll see a mix of waterfront workers sitting at the long counter, elbow-to-elbow with tourists in the know. This diner-style restaurant serves generous breakfasts made from local ingredients, such as their French toast cooked with fresh-baked Italian bread. And the vast lunch menu includes items ranging from the ubiquitous Lobster Roll to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, along with typical diner fare such as all-day breakfasts and burgers (www.beckysdiner.com, 390 Commercial Street; open at 4 a.m. daily).
Duckfat: Duckfat is a European-style fry and sandwich shop with reasonable prices. Their Belgian fries are cooked in duck fat for a unique flavor and served in a paper cone, and the milkshakes are made from locally produced ice cream (www.duckfat.com, 43 Middle Street; open daily at 11 a.m.).
555: For an exciting gastronomical experience, 555 offers a brunch menu that is far from just bacon and eggs. Try the Traitor's Eggs -- poached eggs served with lobster meat and a lemony hollandaise sauce. Maine Restaurant Association named Owner/Chef Steve Corry 2011 Chef of the Year (www.fivefifty-five.com, 555 Congress Street).
Eve's at the Garden: Combine sophistication, a garden setting and artfully presented lunches, and you have Eve's at the Garden. Located in the Portland Harbor Hotel, the restaurant offers seating outside in the courtyard by the fountain or inside the contemporary dining room. For a twist on traditional lobster dinner, try lobster ravioli with butternut squash, or for a change consider grilled quail with fig and honey (www.portlandharborhotel.com, 468 Fore Street; open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner).
Casual, Out of Town:
Freeport: Gritty McDuff's is a brew pub that offers more than just pub fare. Enjoy New England's classic seafood complemented by a pint of hand-crafted ale. There's even a playground onsite for the kiddies to play while you wait (www.grittys.com, 187 Lower Main Street).
Peaks Island: The Inn on Peaks is owned by the Shipyard Brewery and its pub offers views of the Portland skyline. Choose from menu selections such as burgers wraps or the signature Buffalo-fried Maine Shrimp -- beer-battered shrimp served with a blue cheese dip and a spicy Buffalo sauce (www.innonpeaks.com, 33 Island Ave.).
Cape Elizabeth: On the rocky shores of Cape Elizabeth, adjacent to the famous Portland Head Light, sits The Lobster Shack at Two Lights. Enjoy the inexpensive yet fresh menu selections at picnic tables that overlook the surf, or eat inside the dining room, which features simple furnishings and large picture windows (www.lobstershacktwolights.com, 225 Two Lights Road).
Staying in Touch
Free wireless is available at a number of places around town including Javanet Cafe (37 Exchange Street) and the Portland Public Library on Congress Street. In addition, the library has 65 computers available for public use. Kinko's offers both options, too (50 Monument Square, by Congress Street).
Best Overall Tour: The Best of Portland & Kennebunkport excursion is a motorcoach ride that combines a drive past Portland's city highlights, a visit to the Portland Head Light and almost two hours of free time in the charming seaside town of Kennebunkport (tour is approximately six hours).
Best for Foodies: Lobster Bake & Historical Fort Scammel starts with a cruise through Casco Bay to House Island. Visitors can explore the fort's subterranean vaults, tunnels and circular stairways before being treated to a traditional Maine feast of lobster, steamed clams and more … with steak or chicken substituted for the non-lobster lover (tour is approximately 3.5 hours).
Best for Nautical Buffs: The Lighthouses of Maine excursion features a visit to the Portland Head Light at Cape Elizabeth along with visits to two other historic lighthouses in the area (tour is approximately 3.5 hours).
For More Information
Portland Convention & Visitors' Bureau (www.visitportland.com): 207-772-5800 and Portland's Downtown District (www.portlandmaine.com): 207-772-6828
Maine Tourism (www.visitmaine.com): 888-624-6345
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--by Renee Ruggero, Cruise Critic contributor