The Other Portland: Authentic Travel in Maine
There was a New Yorker cartoon back in the 1980s that resonated with many who hailed from Maine. Two people at a cocktail party stood chatting above the caption: “Maine? What an authentic place to come from.”
Authentic is in, and the word has taken on new meaning when it comes to travel.
The search for what’s real is why we bring home a locally made notebook instead of a cutting board shaped like a moose. It’s why we document our travels with photos and stories about our personal experiences when we’re visiting the places that others call home.
Here’s how overlooked Portland is as a destination. Recently, about an hour from Portland, ME someone asked Siri for directions to the Portland Airport.
Siri suggested she take a cross-country trek to Oregon.
As is true in many cities, there’s tons of local pride in Portland. Locals and tourists alike frequent the Old Port neighborhood for its high concentration of shops and restaurants offering locally prepared and crafted goods.
Farm (or Ocean)-to-Table Dining
A little bit off the beaten path (the beaten path being anyplace right along Commercial where the cruise ships come in), is East Ender, a farm-to-table restaurant with locally-sourced ingredients and upstairs seating offering ocean views. Those in search of a lobster roll won’t be disappointed.
Trendsetter Fore Street opened in 1996 with a focus on local, organic and sustainable cuisine. The menu can vary day-to-day, which is great news. Don’t miss its bakery, Standard Baking Company, located a level down from the main dining room for fresh bread and pastries.
Speaking of… Maine has a thing about sneaking potatoes into foods where you don’t expect them. First, there are the candies that are popular statewide, Needhams. Then in Portland, there’s The Holy Donut. These are donuts made from Maine potatoes, local dairy and other organic ingredients. Why potato in a donut? Just trust.
In addition, if you ride your bike to the shop and buy a Bicycle Benefits sticker to put on your helmet you get a free donut.
Portland by Bike and Boat
Speaking of bikes, between meals, there are a number of great ways to take advantage of Portland’s bike culture.
In the city, rent bikes for the day and hit the Eastern Promenade. Portland is a very bike-friendly city so feel free to wander from the path.
Or, head to Peak’s Island. On the 15-minute ferry ride from the Old Port, check out the view of the working port, the lighthouses and the various small islands dotting the coast.
For the best ocean views on your tour of the island—especially if you don’t plan time to see the whole thing—when disembarking, head counter-clockwise. Rent a bike at Brad’s or just walk.
Around the corner from the ferry is a small sandy beach (accessible by stairs) where you can look for rocks and shells, dip your toes, or set up shop and hang out. There are a few shops on the Island, but the point really is to take be outside and breathe in that ocean air.
If you are looking to get really old school on your aquatic journey, you can take a 2-3-hour ride (the length of the journey depends on the volume of the mail) on the mail boat where you’ll dock at various islands around Casco Bay as the boat delivers mail to residents.
Made In Maine
When shopping in Portland, it’s easy to spot local items like blueberry maple syrup, blueberry jam, maple sugar candy and such, but, there are a number of great little shops that carry goods made by locals.
Journey just beyond the bustle of the Old Port to visit the Angela Adams store. Known for her nature-inspired graphic patterns and modern flare, some of the goods Adams sells are produced in Maine. The store itself is so homey (if your home was really lovely) that it’s kind of hard to leave.
Back in the port, visit Blanche + Mimi for a mix of vintage and new housewares, textiles, paper goods and more—basically, all that you didn’t know you needed. The store smells kind of amazing and is named for the owner’s grandparents. If you like Blanche + Mimi, dip into Folly, too.
Toko Indo, conveniently located close to the donuts, has outposts in a few other cities. At the Portland shop, scoop up locally-made arm warmers—necessary in more of the four seasons than you might think.
The Other Portland
Portland is comfortable with its status as the other Portland. The city’s natural inclination toward authenticity is why you stumble across locally sourced food without looking for it. It’s why visitors choose to take the mail boat instead of a cruise. It’s why the city, surrounded by natural beauty, is really second to none.