Road Trip! Destination: Portland, Maine
By Bob Karlovits
Published: Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, 6:57 p.m.
Portland, Maine, finds its present in the past.
It was named one of the National Historic Trust's Dozen Distinctive Destinations in 2003, lending recognition to a community built around a blend of natural, cultural and aesthetic qualities along with a focus on historic roots.
The area was known as Machigonne — Great Neck — by the Native Americans who lived there before European settlers gave it the name Portland in 1632. It began then as a hunting-fishing settlement, and in many ways has maintained that role.
Portland is not a big city, with about 64,000 in town and 230,000 in the metropolitan area. But it has big-city elements such as a symphony orchestra and a baseball team, the Portland Sea Dogs, the AA affiliate of the Boston Red Sox.
The downtown is filled with red brick buildings dating from the 1860s, many by John Calvin Stevens, Maine's foremost architect in the 1880s. The Old Port area links a newly established shopping area and a working waterfront.
The Greater Portland Convention + Visitors Bureau offers details on the city at www.visitportland.com and publishes a visitors' guide.
Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7852.
Life on the islands
The waters around the Casco Bay Islands create an aquatic maze surrounding lifestyles and activities.
Peaks Island, for instance, has a thriving arts community, restaurants and sandy beaches. A rental kayak provides a good way to explore the shore.
Great Diamond Island is the site of a former coastal-protection fort where some of the buildings have been made into stately homes.
Casco Bay Lines offers a 20-minute ride to Peaks and trips to many other sites. The rides offer residents a way to work in Portland while maintaining a calmer lifestyle off-shore. Cruise and ferry information: 207-774-7871 or www.cascobaylines.com
At home with the arts
Portland exists in a blend between the sophisticated and the rough-and-tumble. The coast and the sea provide the eastern boundary, and the forests of Maine line the west.
Yet, it is not removed from the arts. The Portland Museum of Art, for instance, has works of European masters such as Picasso and Renoir, but also boasts those of Winslow Homer and Andrew Wyeth. Its collection has 17,000 works from the 18th century onward.
Details: 207-775-6148 or www.portlandmuseum.org
Meanwhile, the Portland Symphony Orchestra — which calls itself the PSO, similar to another orchestra — is directed by Robert Moody, an advocate of new music.
But he also realizes the need to present the classics, and so creates a mix of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the jazz of Dave Brubeck, which will be presented Nov. 2 and 3.
The orchestra performs in Merrill Auditorium, Downtown.
Details: 207-773-6128 or www.portlandsymphony.org
Ways of being Commercial
Commercial Street could be called the heart of Portland.
It was built on piers in the 1850s to accommodate the ever-growing seagoing and railroad trade. In the 1970s, nonmarine development stole some of the meaning from the area, but by the '80s and '90s, Portland voters and civic leaders worked to return that form of work.
Now, it bustles with shops as well as ships. Boats bring in fish from the sea and restaurants prepare it for meals. It is near the middle of downtown, so it can be the beginning or end of many activities during a visit.
The Maine State Pier has events such as outdoor concerts and food and beer festivals.
For the history-minded, Widgery Wharf and Union Wharf at the eastern end of Commercial Street are two of the oldest structures in the city, dating to the late 1700s.
Details: 207-772-5800 or www.visitportland.com.
Finding your way around
Discovering a new town always presents some challenges. Some features are obvious, but subtle elements can be lost or hidden.
The company known as The Scenic Route Maine Tours offers a variety of tours. In small vans, guides take groups on tours of the city and its well-known lighthouses. Or the vans will head out of the city and up to Kennebunkport and Freeport.
The Kennebunkport trip offers 90 minutes of free time in that famous town, and the Freeport trip, which is held only when cruise ships are in Portland, leaves and returns every hour, creating great flexibility.
Details: 207-518-3342 or www.thescenicroutemainetours.com
Using the old Bean
The shops on Commercial Street and elsewhere in the Portland area provide plenty of opportunities to find mementos of the trip.
But no visit to the area would be complete without at stop at the flagship store of L.L. Bean in Freeport. Sure, people in the Pittsburgh area are proud to have an L.L. Bean store in the Ross Park Mall, but it doesn't rival the 200,000-square-foot headquarters.
The Freeport store is open 24 hours a day, 365 five days a year, and there have not been locks on the doors since 1951, because there is no effort to keep anyone out. Inside, it has a trout pond, a 3,500-gallon fish tank, a kids' play area, two cafes and a coffee shop.
The seven-acre retail campus also has a Bike, Boat and Ski Store, a Hunting and Fishing Store and a Discovery Park, where summer concerts and other outdoor events are held.
Nearly 3 million people visit each year.
Details: 877-755-2326 or www.llbean.com/llb/shop
Looking at Portland's roots
The Maine Historical Society Museum provides a good way to understand what Portland means to the rest of the state and why it has developed the way it has.
With 15,000 pieces of art, artifacts and documents, the historical society has put together collections that tell the story of Maine's and Portland's pasts.
Besides its usual displays, the museum currently is the home of an exhibit called “This Rebellion: Maine and the Civil War.”
The museum site also features the home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of the most important literary and cultural figures in the history of Maine and the nation. The home was built between 1785-86 and was occupied by the family until 1901.
Details: 207-774-1822 or www.mainehistory.org
Stopping in for a bite
Portland has the kind of variety you can really sink your teeth into — a statement particularly true when it comes to its restaurants.
Bon Appetit once called the city the “Foodiest Small Town in America,” a statement justified by a look at the great number and variety of restaurants in the area.
They range from expected seafood eateries such as the first-rate Boone's Fish House & Oyster Room to five fifty-five, which owner Stephen Corry says he wants to be a “place for fine dining, but one that keeps the locals happy.”
He says he founded five fifty-five (207-761-0555 or www.fivefifty-five.com) with that idea 10 years ago and has stayed focused on using local products in the “farm to table” attitude. Besides multicourse dining in the main room and a mezzanine that overlooks the kitchen, he offers a lounge for a “burger and beer” or a quick meal before a show.
Meanwhile, Harding Lee Smith at Boone's (207-774-5725 or www.boonesfishhouse.com) has restored a historic space on Commercial Street where a guest can watch fishing boats bring in the catch for dinner. Besides full, fish-filled lunch and dinner menus, Boone's also has a 30-seat raw bar in an Oyster Room.
These two sites are only part of the menu.
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