By MEAGHAN CASEY
The Maine coast is home to some of the most picturesque spots in New England, and fortunately for residents off of Rt. 1, it’s just a short ride up 95 North. While it may still be too early in the season to enjoy the beautiful sandy beaches, it’s never too early for a daytrip to Portland for some lobster rolls, shopping and sightseeing. And if the traditional clam shacks don’t motivate you to hit the road, maybe the rest of the culinary scene will. In recent years, Bon Appetit named Portland the “foodiest” small town and in February, nine Portland chefs, restaurants, bakers and brewmasters were named semifinalists for the prestigious 2017 James Beard Awards.
WHAT TO DO
After only 1.5 hours in the car, you won’t be longing for a stop to stretch, but you will want to make a short detour to visit Portland Head Light, the most photographed lighthouse in America, and also the oldest in Maine. Situated on the spectacular shores of Fort Williams Park, Cape Elizabeth, it’s just a 15-minute drive to the Old Port from here.
Since there’s so much to explore in Portland, it’s no wonder there are so many tours available. Maine Foodie Tours offers a three-hour culinary walking tour through the downtown; a two-hour happy hour tour featuring appetizers and craft concoctions; an art, culture and food tour; and more. Maine Beer Tours offers all-inclusive tours of 16 local breweries, such as Shipyard, Rising Tide, Geary’s and more. (While each tour only gets you into three breweries, you can always explore others on your own). Come May, you can get out on the water for a lobstering excursion, whale watch or fishing trip.
The Portland Museum of Art, which offers free admission on Friday evenings, is just one of many cultural attractions in town. There are also more than 20 art galleries to explore, including the Constellation Gallery, which is home to the Maine Artists Collective. If you’re traveling with children, the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine features a wide variety of interactive exhibits and the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co. offers rides on the historic trains.
Deering Oaks Park is the scene for cooks, eaters and gardeners looking for fresh farm products on Saturday mornings from late April through November. Surrounded by one of Portland’s largest green spaces, this farmers’ market features food and other farm products, all grown, raised and produced in Maine. If you’d prefer a weekday trip, Monument Square hosts an urban market every Wednesday from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Check the calendar for live shows at the State Theatre or Port City Music Hall. The band Wet, which has been named one of the top new artists by Rolling Stone (and which features Swampscott native Joe Valle), will perform at the music hall on April 2.
WHERE TO SHOP
You’ll probably be able to pop into a couple dozen of the Old Port’s shops just by wandering through the quaint cobblestone streets, but make sure to add Lisa-Marie’s Made in Maine to your list. The Exchange Street shop features all Maine-made jewelry, pottery and products for the home. Abacus is another spot that features unique art, jewelry and home décor. Find vintage treasures and textiles at Blanche and Mimi on Middle Street and brightly colored rugs, bedding and furniture at Company C on Commercial Street. For clothing, check out Bliss on Exchange Street (for women’s wear) and
Portland Dry Goods on Commercial Street. Portland-based Sea Bags, which has expanded to nine locations across the East Coast, still has its flagship store at Custom House Wharf. See for yourself why their handcrafted tote bags and accessories from recycled sails have become so popular. And for the book lovers, Yes Books on Congress Street features a huge selection of rare and used books and Sherman’s Books & Stationary on Exchange Street, which opened three years ago as Sherman’s fifth location in the state, brings fresh energy to Maine’s oldest bookstore.
WHERE TO EAT
With so many dining options to choose from, this might be the hardest decision you make all day. Start with one of the Old Port’s bakeries for coffee and pastries (or stop on the way home for baked goods to go). Indulge in crepes, macaroon, pastries and specialty coffees at Portland Patisserie and Grand Café on Market Street. At the family-owned Standard Baking Company on Commercial Street, you’ll find traditional French baguettes, hand-rolled croissants, brioche, scones and other delicious breads and pastries. Alison Pray, one of the founders, is up for the James Beard Award for outstanding baker. Also on Commercial Street, Bam Bam Bakery offers gluten-free baked goods. Two Fat Cats Bakery on India Street is known for its
delicious pies, cupcakes, cakes and whoopie pies. It’s hard to pass up the hand-rolled Maine blueberry pie here. The Holy Donut, with two locations — one in the heart of downtown on Exchange Street and one on Park Avenue — starts each day with about 20 different donut flavors, from pomegranate to maple bacon to sea salt (the most popular). Vegan-friendly, these donuts are made with fresh Maine potatoes.
For a heartier breakfast, Becky’s Diner (which opens at 4 a.m.) on Commercial Street is where you’ll find most of the local fishermen. Hot Suppa on Congress Street is a popular spot for Southern comfort food like barbecue pulled pork eggs benedict. (It’s also worth returning to for $1 oysters at 4 p.m.). You’ll find at least eight varieties of eggs benedict — from the classic to lobster or bistro steak — at Bayside American Café on Portland Street. Woodford Food & Beverage on Forest Ave offers a $20 prix fixe deal on Sundays that includes a brunch cocktail, bottomless coffee and an entrée like croque madame or dulce de leche bread pudding French toast.
For lunch or dinner, find time to visit Duckfat on Middle Street. The small sandwich shop is known for its Belgian fries made with Maine potatoes and fried in duck fat. Eventide Oyster Co. on Middle Street has been celebrated for its non-traditional brown butter lobster roll served in an Asian-inspired steamed bun, and it’s definitely worth the hype. Chefs Andrew Taylor and Mike Wiley have been nominated as semifinalists for the James Beard Awards for the third year. The raw bar at Eventide, which features at least 16 varieties of fresh oysters daily, is equally impressive. To find the classic Maine lobster roll and steamers, visit J’s Oyster on Portland Pier or Portland Lobster Company on Commercial Street. DiMillio’s on the Water has both a lobster roll on a brioche bun and lobster club. If you’ve been saving your appetite for dinner and drinks, Central Provisions on Fore Street and newcomer Drifters Wife on Washington Avenue have the most extensive
menus of upscale small plates in the area. At the popular David’s Restaurant in Monument Square, award-winning Chef David Turin’s open-faced lobster ravioli dish satisfies all seafood cravings. It’s not only served with lobster, but with dayboat scallops and tiger shrimp as well. Looking for a sweet spot? At Mount Desert Island Ice Cream on Exchange Street, you’ll find innovative flavors of small-batch, homemade ice cream and sorbet like coriander blackberry streusel or cinnamon 7-layer bar. Or, stop in to Petite Jacqueline on State Street for some decadent dessert crêpes.