Discovering the coastal charm and culinary delights of Portland Maine
The combination of breathtaking coastal landscapes along with a strong sense of community, historical charm and a vibrant culinary and arts scene makes Portland Maine a great place to visit.
Itching for a new adventure we decided on a six day, late September getaway to New England, specifically Portland, Maine. Known among locals as the “Forest City”, Portland boasts a diverse culture imbued with a cosmopolitan, yet down-to-earth vibe.
After back-to-back flights (Savannah-Charleston-Portland) we settled into The Francis Hotel and Spa, located 30 minutes on foot to Portland’s storied waterfront district. The Francis Hotel and Spa is a locally owned boutique hotel occupying a beautifully restored historic mansion. With 15 uniquely designed guest rooms, a common gathering space and a small spa it was the perfect antidote to the corporate hotels that line Commercial Street on Portland’s waterfront
Following a friendly round of introductions and a speedy check in we dropped our bags and headed out for lunch and an afternoon of enjoying the waterfront district. After an exceptionally wet August we were blessed with mild temperatures, blue skies and the faint smell of saltwater in the air. Cooler temps prevailed near the water yet we were never in need of more than a light jacket.
We had lunch at Luke’s Lobster, founded by third generation lobsterman Luke Holden. With lobster shacks in several states as well as Singapore and Japan the Portland Pier location serves as the flagship restaurant for their growing business. Sitting at the upstairs bar overlooking the harbor we had a fantastic meal of clam chowder along with a serving of … what else … locally caught lobster. Suitably fueled up we spent the afternoon exploring the Old Port district while dodging the throngs of late season tourists pouring from a cruise ship.
Portland’s waterfront is made up of three distinct districts. The Eastern Waterfront is home to Portland’s passenger port with Casco Bay Island ferry service, international ferry service, and cruise ship facilities while the Western Waterfront is exclusively dedicated to freight and industrial uses that require access to the well maintained deep water channel.
Between the East and West is the Central Waterfront.
The Central Waterfront is the heart of the harbor and among its 19th. Century piers and wharves there is commercial fishing, boat tours, marine research and tourism. All three districts have their own unique look and feel yet the history and lore of the waterfront resonates deeply with all of them and the mix of work and leisure coexist in ways that we have experienced in various ports throughout the world.
On the recommendation of a local gallery owner our first dinner was at Street and Co., an all seafood bistro favored by Portlanders and intrepid foodies. Housed in a building constructed in 1827, Street and Co. has a warm ambience and weathered patina that proudly wears its age. I’m happy to report that it was a great tip as we dined on uber fresh oysters, artfully presented bluefin tartare and pan seared halibut over a bed of smokey polenta. Exquisite is a word that easily comes to mind when dining at Street and Co. and it was a fitting introduction to Portland’s thriving culinary scene.
The following day we booked passage on the Casco Bay Lines mailboat run which was a great way to spent three-and-a-half hours on the water while the boat delivered island residents and tourists along with mail and freight. With stops on five of the islands with names like Little Diamond, Great Diamond, Long, Cliff and Chebeague it was a fascinating way to see how people live away from the mainland and was by far one of the most interesting ways to cruise Casco Bay.
There is nothing like an afternoon on the water to work up an appetite so as soon as we deboarded the mail boat we beat a path to Scales restaurant, one of four restaurants run by the owners of Street and Co. Having been at Street and Co. the previous evening we knew that we would be in for another great meal. And what a meal it was as we dined on scallop crudo, grilled octopus and tuna tartare accompanied by dirty martinis.
Located on Maine wharf Scales was built on the site of a former fish packing warehouse. The airy dining room, chic interior design, open kitchens and floor-to-ceiling windows offering a great view of the harbor combine to make Scales one of the more architecturally arresting restaurants in Portland. Blend these attributes with a high energy vibe, well seasoned service and world class seafood and it’s no wonder that Scales is on many seafood lovers list of places to dine. It’s the reason that we returned the following evening!
Following on the heels of our mail boat tour we were anxious to get back on the water so booking an excursion aboard a working lobster boat called the Lucky Catch seemed like just the ticket.
For nearly 30 years Captain Tom Martin, and his crew, have been taking passengers for hour-an-a-half adventures to learn the ins-and-outs of lobstering. During our time we learned how to pull and bait traps along with understanding the difference between male and female lobsters. We were also informed about the strict regulations that lobstermen have to abide by. It was a truly enjoyable experience and another great way to get out on Casco Bay.
Portland is a great walking city yet after four days of exploring various neighborhoods on foot we were eager to rent a car for a day trip up the coast. Conveniently, our rental car was dropped at the hotel the night before making our exit the next morning a breeze. After breakfast in our room we headed north up Highway 1 to our first destination…Pemaquid Point Lighthouse. The lighthouse was built in 1827 and sits on a steeply sloping, rocky promontory carved by the sea over the eons. It is astonishing to think that after all these years, decades actually, that the tower’s original Fresnel lens is still in use.
The Pemaquid Point Lighthouse is one of 65 lighthouses (57 of which are still active) that dot Maine’s coasts, inlets and islands. Today these lighthouses have become cultural icons of coastal Maine, with visitors from around the world traveling to immerse themselves in the history and lore of these life saving monuments. Having never been inside a working lighthouse the thrill of climbing the steep, cold, winding stairs leading to the tower to take in the view, and the impressive Fresnel lens, was a highlight of the day.
Second stop on our road trip was the , a nearly mile long breakwater that terminates at the Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse, one of the 57 working lighthouses along the coast of Maine. We were fortunate to arrive to very few tourists as the breakwater can be overrun at certain times of the year. With over 700,000 tons of massive granite boulders jutting into the sea it is a impressive feat of engineering built to protect the commercial port and Rockland Harbor.
A day spent exploring set us up perfectly for our final destination … the James Beard award winning restaurant, Primo Restaurant, located just outside of the city of Rockland. With a strong recommendation from the manager at the Hotel Francis we knew that Primo would be a sure bet for a great dinner.
Opened in 2000 Primo has developed into a true “farm-to-table” establishment, with three of their 4.5 acres dedicated to growing fruits and vegetables. In addition there are two greenhouses on the property along with a working farm that raises free range chickens, ducks and pigs. During peak season, roughly 80% of the kitchen ingredients come from Primo’s own property with the remaining ingredients sourced from local, sustainable farms in Rockland and the surrounding community. It is testimony to chef / owner Melissa Kelly’s commitment to supporting neighboring farmers.
Sticking close to Chef Kelly’s mantra of simple, seasonal and fresh food we dined on locally caught oysters, Jerusalem artichoke soup and one of Primo’s signature dishes …“backyard bird” … a Calabrian honey glazed chicken breast with sweet potato gnocchi, smoked ricotta sauce & kale. Dining at the upstairs bar of the old Victorian house, located on Primo’s property, was an immersive, informal and intimate experience and one we would gladly repeat.
The only downside to the day was the 80 mile drive home, 50 miles of which were on the twisty, pitch black backroads of Highway 1. It was a white knuckle affair for an hour or so but once back on Highway 295 it was smooth sailing. After the adrenaline fueled drive sleep came easy.
On our final day in Portland we had lunch with our good friend Togue Brawn from Downeast Dayboat, a premier provider of Maine dayboat scallops. After lunch we spent the remainder of the afternoon visiting the Portland Museum of Art before heading off to dinner at SOLO Italiano Restaurant.
At the helm of SOLO is chef/owner Paolo Laboa who hails from Genoa, widely recognized as the epicenter of Northern Italian cuisine. Chef Paolo and his team turn out an impressive menu that changes daily and reflects Paolo’s Northern Italian background combined with his adopted home in Maine. Everything on the menu is uber fresh and his signature dish of handkerchief pasta, rolled thin and bathed in the smoothest, greenest, most vibrant basil pesto I have ever seen or tasted was incredible.
The interior of SOLO has a warm, rustic charm with original brick walls, exposed beams and ducting along with colorful artwork and a generous U-shaped bar, which on most evenings is filled with locals and walk-in patrons. Close your eyes and it’s easy to picture that the building once housed a fish warehouse or processing plant.
With impeccable service, great food, a world class wine list and a casual ambiance SOLO is a must stop on any visit to the Portland.
Our six day trip (and our first) to Portland was enough to whet our appetite for a future visit. With Portland’s friendly, laid back vibe, easy-to-get-around walkability, great art and culture along with a deeply rooted culinary scene it is easy to see how the city attracts such a diverse crowd of travelers. Combine these attributes with an old world, European charm and multiple ways to experience being on the water and you have the makings of a great getaway.