12 of Portland’s quirky, unsung & simple pleasures
Major attractions tend to be big and bold in Portland, Maine.
The city’s Old Port area, with its dizzying array of lobster choices, offers a beguiling mix of working waterfront and tourist haven.
And the Portland Head Lighthouse, sprawling along the rocky Atlantic coast, is drop-dead gorgeous and might just be the perfect example of a lighthouse.
Certainly, those two things alone are reason enough to visit Maine’s largest city.
But on my recent visit, I was delighted to find multiple layers in Portland. The city is full of simple pleasures that perfectly complement all of that delicious lobster.
Here are a dozen of my favorites:
1. Scarborough Marsh
The salty scent of the ocean is the first thing I noticed upon arriving at Scarborough Marsh. Strange, I thought, since the town of Scarborough is several miles inland from the Atlantic coast.
It turns out, though, that the Scarborough Marsh – the largest salt-water marsh in Maine – is a product of the ocean. The marsh’s pretty pools and channels fill and drain regularly with the tides of the nearby Atlantic Ocean.
When I visited in May, the marsh was teeming with migratory birds, including a flock of snowy white egrets. I watched as the graceful, long-legged birds dipped their black bills repeatedly into the circular ponds of the marsh.
A couple of other bonuses of visiting the Scarborough Marsh located off Pine Point Road: The 50-mile-plus Eastern Trail runs right through it, offering easy access for hikers and bikers; and the Maine Audubon has a center there and rents out canoes and kayaks.
2. Old Orchard Beach Pier
Old Orchard Beach will fulfill all of your beach-town fantasies. With a quaint old pier that stretches 500 feet into the ocean, plenty of pizza and fried-bread joints, and a Ferris wheel towering overhead, the beach is Maine’s version of the Jersey Shore.
Located about a half-hour south of Portland, Old Orchard was a wonderful surprise as I meandered through southern Maine. I spent a lovely afternoon on the oceanfront, taking in the weathered-wood fence that borders it and the clam-studded sand.
The pier features five restaurants and five bars, and I couldn’t resist the stellar ocean view at Hooligan’s. My order of blazing-hot buffalo shrimp and local Allagash craft beer was the perfect fare to end my beach day.
Because I visited in early May, some of the shops and eateries were still in the process of opening up for the season, but that meant fewer crowds. I had virtually the entire beach and the pier to myself that sunny, windy May day.
3. Toast Bar
If you love your morning toast like I do, you can’t miss the quirky little Toast Bar in South Portland.
From the outside, the silver building bears a strong resemblance to a whimsical toaster. And from the inside, Toast Bar is a modern bakery/coffee shop offering an array of toasted breads and bagels.
As I scanned the menu, the fun “flight of toast” option immediately caught my attention. Similar to a flight of beer, it offered variety – a selection of breads toasted up and served with three different toppings.
Along with its inside seating, Toast Bar has a cool outdoor patio and garage doors that make for an indoor/outdoor feel.
4. Cape Whoopie
Here’s another surprising fact about Maine: Whoopie-pie pride is rampant.
I learned that the gooey-sweet dessert is considered a Maine creation (similar claims by Pennsylvania, Virginia, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire notwithstanding!)
For a sweet selection of flavors and a fascinating look at the production of the soft-cookie-and-marshmallow-filled treat, check out South Portland’s Cape Whoopie.
Step inside the Wadsworth-Longfellow House on Portland’s busy Congress Street, and you’ll be instantly transported to an earlier era – a time when the Revolutionary War was still in the recent past, and soon-to-be-famous poet Henry Wadsworth-Longfellow was a schoolboy, spending long candlelit nights studying and writing.
For me, a tour of the slightly dark and chilly house conjured up vivid memories of Longfellow’s famous lines: “The day is cold and dark and dreary,” or “One if by land, and two of by sea.” It didn’t take a major leap to imagine the house being an early inspiration for Longfellow’s later works such as “The Rainy Day,” or “Paul Revere’s Ride.”
As one of Portland, Maine’s most famous native sons, Henry Wadsworth-Longfellow’s legacy is commemorated throughout the city – from the street that bears his name to the imposing statue that anchors Longfellow Plaza at the corner of Congress and State streets.
The most personal, though, is the Wadsworth-Longfellow House, which was built in the 1780s by Henry’s maternal grandparents, and later served as a home for Henry’s family. His younger sister Anne Longfellow Pierce left the house to the Maine Historical Society at the time of her death in 1901.
In the simple-pleasure category, I loved the garden that adjoins the house. I learned that it once served as a part of the Wadsworth-Longfellow farmyard. Today, it stands as a green oasis in the bustling commercial district.
Tours of the house and adjoining garden are available for $15 for adults.
6. John Ford
Portland does well by its famous native sons. Like Longfellow, legendary movie director John Ford is remembered lovingly with a statue that overlooks a busy intersection – in Ford’s case, Gorham’s Corner.
Ford’s monument includes plaques commemorating his most famous movies such as “Stagecoach,” and “The Grapes of Wrath.”
With pretty flowering trees as a backdrop, the monument offers a fascinating look into the life of a movie icon.
7. Cherry blossoms
Visiting Portland in May has its perks – not the least of which are the numerous fruit trees that become loaded with lush blossoms in the spring.
I especially enjoyed the cherry blossoms that beautifully set off the pink hues of Portland’s downtown City Hall building.
Even though the weather can be a bit gloomy in the spring, the cheery flowers are there to compensate.
8. Casco Bay Bridge
It is central to travel between Portland and South Portland, and I found the Casco Bay Bridge to be a fascinating feature of the community.
As a drawbridge, the structure is closed to vehicular traffic periodically to allow large tankers to pass through on the Fore River.
On my first day in Portland, I was among the travelers stopped for a time while the bridge raised its bascule-style arms to allow for river traffic to proceed. I learned that Portlanders and South Portlanders schedule their transportation around the bridge’s whims.
One another day, I spent a pleasant afternoon walking across the bridge from South Portland to Portland, taking in the expansive views of the bay along the way.
9. Seagulls – Lucky Catch Tour
Technically, we were supposed to be trolling for lobsters on my boat excursion into Portland’s Casco Bay with Lucky Catch Tours.
But the looming seagulls took up a lot of my attention during the 90-minute tour. They seemed to be everywhere, swarming in when the tour guides tossed bait into the sea.
With the birds suspended above the boat and around my head, I felt like a doomed heroine in a Hitchcock movie.
Of course, the tour’s theme centering on the daily routine of a Maine lobsterman was cool too, and I learned a lot about this intrinsically Maine occupation. Our tour ended up not catching any lobsters, but we had a great time with the gulls.
10. Lighthouses – Real Portland Tour
Although the Portland Head grabs much of the lighthouse attention, the community has several other amazing lighthouses as well.
I got an up-close look at three of them on the informative Real Portland Tour led by Portland insider Derek. Along with a stop at the Head Light at the Fort Williams Park, we also took in the Bug Light and the Spring Point Ledge lighthouses.
Derek offered up a number of local tips, such as the opportunity to view the Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse from above on a nearby rise.
11. Bikes – Summer Feet Cycling
Even in the chilly, misty, windy weather in early May, the Summer Feet Cycling Tour was a delightful way to see Portland and South Portland.
From the scenic lighthouses to the coffee stop at the trendy 158 Picket Street Cafe, the stops along the Lighthouse Tour were all on-point, and the tour guides were knowledgeable and friendly Mainers.
My final view of Maine was seen through the window of the comfortable and convenient Downeaster train.
For my trip to Boston, I booked a seat on the Amtrak train that runs between Portland’s train station and Boston’s North Station.
As the marshlands and New England towns flashed past, I decided it was the perfect simple-pleasure ending to my Maine visit.