I’m sure that most travellers will agree that after the bright lights of New York City and the old-world English charm of Boston, most US cities have a very hard act to follow and my hopes were virtually nonexistent when it came to the state capital of Maine. But as if to prove me oh so wrong, Portland turned out to be my favourite stop on our NYC to Montreal road trip – it’s quiet, unassuming vibe was a welcome relief after the bustle of Boston and the fresh sea-salted air reminded me of being back home in Wellington. For anyone wanting a foodie stop on their East Coast road trip, this is the place and there are a raft of newly-renovated apartments and lofts to rent on Airbnb – we stayed here and promptly decided the deco and couch were nice enough to spend the evening in with a bottle of wine and random episodes of Gilmore Girls.
The next day, we started our morning with a cold brew and some morning bread on the sun-drenched terrace (an ultra-thick slab of cinnamon-spiced brioche) at The Standard Baking Co., located in the Old Port directly across from the Casco Bay Ferry Terminal. It’s a family-owned bakery making artisanal breads and pastries and heavily influenced by Maine’s pan-European past. There’s German Vollkornbrot, French brioche and cinnamon scrolls to rival the kanalbullar I tasted in Stockholm. Definitely a place for any bread geeks out there!
With the last brioche crumbs gone, we headed off to wander around the Old Port. Until very recently, downtown Portland had suffered in the name of capitalist progress. The opening of a huge mall in southern Portland (the largest in the state of Maine) put many department stores and smaller retailers in the port area out of business and stores sat empty for several years. However, recently the council has committed to rejuvenating the area, with ongoing projects to protect the city’s elaborate Victorian architecture, and the Old Port is now a mecca for independents and quirky eateries.
We spent the morning wandering past local coffee roasters, organic food stores, homeware shops and market stalls selling jewellery and art. It’s nice to escape the cruise ship crowd and explore the smaller streets that branch off from Commercial Street. The best place to get a photo is either down on the pier by the Information Centre (14 Ocean Gateway Pier – worth visiting for the toilets and friendly advice on the city and surrounds) or next to the Casco Bay Ferry Terminal, where restaurants and bars stretch out onto the piers.
One thing this city has in common with its West Coast namesake is a small but buzzing independent coffee scene, which is surely the lifeblood of the city’s “hipster” revival. We stopped at Coffee by Design, a café with a cosy, community feel to it and just a stone’s throw away from the information centre. Other local recommendations included Tandem Coffee Roasters, which is just a bit further up the street on Anderson Street, and Crema Coffee Company on Commercial Street, which we popped into to take a look at – a huge space, great for working and with a fireplace for those cold wintery Maine days. For any keen coffee beans, there’s a great guide to Maine’s coffee culture both in and around the city here.
After the coffee break and before heading out to Cape Elizabeth to do some seagull spotting, we decided to make one last stop at Duckfat in Middle Street, just off the Old Port area. People from around the country flock to this tiny eatery to try the Belgian-style chips that are fried in (you guessed it) duck fat and served in a cone along with one of eight homemade dipping sauces – we can highly recommend the horseradish mayo! If we’d had more time, we definitely would have stayed in to eat – they also do sandwiches, salads, charcuterie, milkshakes and soups, and if everything is as good as those fries were, then it is definitely a lunch-worthy stop.
Finally, before you leave the Portland area, make a stop at Cape Elizabeth for superb views of the rugged Maine coastline. The town was originally settled as one of the English trading posts in the early 17th century, with the first being on Richmond Island where beaver skins and rum was traded with the Native Indians. It went from strength to strength as a trading outpost until it became Maine’s twenty-third town during the American War of Independence. Along with the Portland Head Light (which was built at the order of George Washington), visitors can also see the remains of a large artillery fort (hence the name Fort Williams Park) that was built at the end of the 19th century and remained active until 1962. The park is a twenty-minute drive from Portland and there is lots of free parking on site.
Happy travels folks, Mo