Intrepid travelers fly in to experience Portland in a free-form way.
I’m thinking that not many tourists do this, but I can’t resist. We’ve left steamy South Carolina for a couple of days in Portland, and Maine’s early-hour sunrises are inspiring a pre-dawn wake-up.
“Let’s take the first ferry,” I say to my partner, photographer Peter Frank Edwards.
It’s not even 5 a.m. and he’s not fully awake. But ever since our flight arrived yesterday, the gushes of saltwater-chilled air have invigorated me. Within minutes of landing we picked up our rental car and headed downtown, following Portland’s peninsula north and east all the way to the sunny Eastern Promenade, and walking down the hillside to the waterfront. I’d heard there may be sand here, but had never seen the tucked-away East End Beach. A couple people are unloading kayaks from car rooftops when we find it, this sandy stretch in the city, perfect for a summer swim.
The official start of summer is still a few weeks away—it’s jacket weather and the forecast threatens rain—but the weekend has begun with the blue sky and green grass of early summertime. I smell and can almost taste a bit of the cool, briny ocean with every breath.
“Ready to get out there?” I ask Peter Frank. He’s sleepily propping himself up amid the nautical blues, whites, and reds of our generously sized room at the Portland Harbor Hotel on Fore Street. Photographers, I’ve learned, are inspired by good light. When I open the window blinds to the promising golden-pink sunbeams that are just beginning to brighten the sky, he immediately says he’s game for the ferry plan. By now, it’s about 5:15 a.m. and a boat departs in 30 minutes. I pull on a jacket, Peter Frank grabs a couple of cameras, and we both make our way downstairs and begin walking toward the waterfront. There’s very little car traffic this early on a Saturday morning, just the sounds of a few gulls calling out. At this hour, even the bakeries we pass aren’t open yet for customers.
We don’t see other passengers waiting at the Casco Bay Lines terminal, but I’m happy to smell and see a coffee vending machine inside the boxy, all-glass building. I’ve got the paper cup dropping into the dispenser and lling with coffee even before I find the counter to navigate a ferry ticket purchase. The next boat departs in just a few minutes for Peaks Island, the ticket seller tells me, and I ask if it matters if we don’t disembark at the island landing, but just stay onboard for a round trip.
“Either way,” he says matter-of-factly. “But you’ll have a few minutes if you do get off of the boat. en we sound the horn.”
Rise and sunshine, Casco Bay
It’s just us, a man in a pick-up truck stacked with lumber, and another guy who’s reading a book—that’s everyone on the first outbound ferry.
Thee water’s surface is smooth as liquid silver and the ride is a peaceful passage. The engine hums, water laps. I breathe more of that water-cooled air and get some of the views you really need to familiarize yourself within a waterfront city. Seeing the peninsula from a boat feels essential. Out here, the Casco Bay islands o er shelter from the open Atlantic. When I look back at the port city, I’m struck by the working-waterfront sights of cargo ships and shing boats beside the mix of new hotels and other buildings downtown. On the streets rising up from the water, I see countless red brick buildings, showing the architectural bones in this largest of Maine’s cities.
We decide to spend the boat’s brief stop walking up the hill from the Peaks Island landing, and I’m captivated by the handful of shops and the town bulletin board. Peter Frank reminds me that he knows one of the owners of Down Front, the ice cream shop where we peek in the windows. The shop is owned by Leslie Davis and Stuart Jackson; it’s Jackson who’s a friend of his from middle and high school, an artist who grew up partly in South Carolina and partly in Maine. Nothing’s open yet for the day, of course, but we’re already thinking we’d like to zip back over later—it was only a 17-minute crossing.
On our return to downtown, we make our way westward along Commercial Street past the Portland Fish Pier to Becky’s Diner. We’re lucky. In the morning buzz of customers, two seats open up right away at the front corner of the counter, and the coffee being poured into thick mugs is hot. Next to me, a man named John is picking up two of the big mu ns with tops bursting over the sides— he says, “make it three,” before his order is tallied—and I’m soon sliding my fork into one of the plate-sized blueberry pancakes and a side of cheesy scrambled eggs. We’d stay awhile, but a line of people is waiting. What’s next? The rain that was expected hasn’t arrived, dozens of cyclists stream past on a Saturday ride, and we simply keep walking and letting the Portland day unfold.
Scout and About
Tulips are blooming and the trees are budding out like crazy on this warm weekend. Along the way to buy some whole-bean Peruvian coffee from the Speckled Ax we take a path from Congress Street to a tucked-away garden that dates back to 1785. It’s next to the Wadsworth-Longfellow House, where Portland native and literary giant Henry Wadsworth Longfellow grew up. The pocket of urban quiet and green feels like a beautiful secret. For several minutes we’re the only people walking among the deep purple tulips and past the gurgling lion-head fountain. It’s a pensive, inspiring place. “Now here’s a spot I’d like to return to,” I say. Peter Frank laughs knowingly. When a trip’s going well,
he knows I’ll start scouting for future visits.
Another walk-to destination is Print: A Bookstore, which was opened by Emily Russo. (Her father, Richard Russo, created a captivating story and sense of place in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Empire Falls, set in Maine.) As soon as we walk in, I already like the looks of this stand-alone, independent bookstore on Congress Street. e daylight falls easily through the tall windows on the simple shelf organization and displays (including lots of Maine writers). The layout and the contemporary book cover designs all somehow work to make every title seem important and interesting. I quickly choose two books to take with me, including a debut novel by an Irish author titled Pond (Claire Louise Bennett, Riverhead Books, 2017), along with a pocket-sized book of haiku.
The bookstore was one of several around-town recommendations from Briana and Andrew Volk, owners of Portland Hunt and Alpine Club (which serves Scandi-Maine cocktails in the Old Port) and the newer restaurant and bar, Little Giant, on a Danforth Street corner in the West End. We stopped at the latter for an early dinner last night—not just to dip biscuits through the broth of the moules et frites, but I did. We shared some grilled fresh asparagus, too, and soft-shell crabs battered “Nashville hot” style. In a room of soft colors and mod watercolor portraits based on family snapshots, the biscuits were served with just a skim of lard instead of butter, and the martini was made with a splash of seawater—the whole dinner was a light-hearted, good idea.
I wouldn’t call it a spree exactly, but we do a little more retail browsing and shopping, including along Middle Street at the new Ramblers Way (thin, soft wool and cotton), at the airy Judith, where a pair of lilac-hued leather flats are beautifully tempting, and at the new Simon Pearce showroom of glass, pottery, and tableware. e lack of big chain stores is remarkable in the Old Port. And after we stop by the hotel and retrieve our car, we make a stop at another locally owned business. I’m thinking about Italy, so at Maine and Loire I ask about wines from Puglia and Umbria. Peter Frank, meanwhile, is looking for a bottle from the open shelves of natural wines for “something unfiltered and interesting, even funky” to bring home. Owners Peter and Orenda Hale are happy to oblige us with ideas, and with stories of some of the winemakers they meet.
We end this whirlwind of a mini-vacation with a nal stop a couple miles from the waterfront for an easygoing Sunday brunch in one of the booths at Woodford Food and Beverage, owned by the husband-and-wife team of Birch Shambaugh and Fayth Preyer. Instead of the maritime, brick-and-stone vibe of the Old Port, this restaurant is inside a refurbished, midcentury building with a multi- peaked roofline and a neighboring tenant that’s a longtime laundromat. Shambaugh likes the location. He’s a surfer who collects vintage LPs and Gourmet magazines, and when he stops by our table, he lets me know that he prefers a line-up of beverages, too. He’s noticed that I’ve got a hot coffee, a ginger-berry shrub with a paper straw, and a tall ice water arranged in an arc around my plate of eggs, grits, and pickled tomatillo.
Peter Frank and I are about to taste a couple of Winnegance oysters on the half-shell, and Shambaugh explains that these cold- water Maine oysters weren’t harvested until the fourth year. (I tip one back and it has an ocean-washed sweetness that I’d say is worth the wait.) Meanwhile, Peter Frank is sipping a Bloody Caesar cocktail that looks appropriately red from the tomato juice, but is garnished with enough celery, pepperoncini, and green olives that when I go for a sip it tastes like bright green health—a happy nish to the blossoming, almost-summer Portland weekend.