Every evening in summer, Casco Bay ferries return from Maine’s coastal islands and head toward the Portland waterfront. Sunburned tourists, tired from a day of swimming or biking, stand at the bows and watch the city get closer as the sun sinks below the horizon. Portland’s cluster of old brick buildings, turning vermilion under the fiery sky, and its large Victorian homes, perched high above the sea on the Eastern Promenade, lend a true 19th-century appearance to the skyline.
Arriving by boat is a great way to get a feel for the city’s nautical history. Christopher Levett, an English naval captain, founded Portland in 1623, when King James I granted him 6,000 acres to establish a permanent settlement at Casco Bay. Portland’s early residents endured harsh winters, conflicts with Native American tribes, and several disastrous fires. Despite the hardships, many more Europeans found their way to the windy, rocky coast, and by 1786 this spit of land — a peninsula originally dubbed ‘‘The Neck” — was already a major shipbuilding center and commercial port. After the Great Fire of 1866, the town was rebuilt in the Victorian style. Prominent architects left their mark in the form of Victorian mansions and Gothic cottages. John Calvin Stevens, probably the most influential designer in the city’s history, is responsible for hundreds of Queen Anne and Romanesque houses and the Mission Revival homes of the 1920s, many of which remain standing today.
Because Portland’s early industry involved the sea — shipbuilding, fishing and a cargo port — its downtown received little attention. Even today, no building stands more than 17 stories, traffic gridlock is unheard of, and downtown is so compact that almost everything is within walking distance. Department stores and smaller shops began to close in the 1970s when the Maine Mall opened in South Portland, just minutes from the city. Through the early 1990s little development occurred downtown, even in the historic Old Port where empty stores and lots along Commercial Street faced the troubled fish auction houses and the cold bay beyond. Real estate was inexpensive, national travel magazines did not yet have Portland on their radar screens, and only a few good restaurants remained open past 8 p.m.
In 1993, however, the tide turned for Portland, spurred by the Maine College of Art’s purchase of the landmark 1904 Porteous Building for classroom space and further restorations of older downtown buildings for dormitories. This inspired the creation of the Arts District, where galleries, high-end design shops, the Portland Museum of Art and several award-winning restaurants flourish today.
Development continued during the early 2000s, including the Old Port district, where new shops, bars and restaurants opened along cobblestone Wharf Street and Exchange Place. Investors and young professional couples, drawn by the view — and the prices — snapped up the exquisite Victorian mansions on the Eastern and Western promenades. As stories of Portland’s dramatic turnaround appeared in the national media, talented young chefs and business owners came to take a look; they liked the friendliness and fresh air and put down roots. They embraced the idea of a cultural mecca by the sea, a city with Victorian charm and high-speed Internet access, a place that revered its symphony orchestra as much as its lobster rolls. They called it a mini-Boston and settled in to make it even better.
If Portland had been looking for new blood, it never expected to get so much, so fast. Author Colin Woodard, in his book The Lobster Coast, wrote that more than 90,000 young Mainers left the state in the 1990s, replaced by about 110,000 newcomers, many of them retirees with money or young professionals. The influx of a more moneyed population created high housing costs and suburban sprawl along the Maine coast, a situation that led the Bangor Daily News to feature the division between local Mainers and newcom ers in a series called “The Two Maines.”
In any case, the arrival of young entrepreneurs from “away” certainly gave Portland a shot in the arm. From award-winning chefs to public relations professionals, owners of trendy shops and symphony orchestra directors, thousands of young business people helped create the current buzz about Portland — and made it possible to use the words “cutting edge” and “Maine” in one sentence.
Their creative energy is also one reason Portland was chosen as a 2007 “Best Town” by Outside, and was in the top 50 of Forbes’ 2006 “Best Places for Business and Careers” and earned Food Network’s “Delicious Destination of the Year” designation.
Despite the downturn in Maine’s economy, Portland continues to plan large development projects. The Bayside neighborhood, a former industrial area, is slated for extensive rehabilitation. Last year, a 55,000-square-foot, $15-million Whole Foods Market opened, and developers have plans for a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood of mixed-income housing, restaurants, shops and offices. The eastern waterfront is also undergoing historic preservation. The State Department of Transportation is considering a commuter rail network connecting Portland and its suburbs.
Portland’s city government and the region’s largest employers — including Hannaford Bros., Unum, IDEXX Laboratories and Fairchild Semiconductor — all contribute to keeping the city’s parks, bike trails and city waterways green and clean. In the past decade Portland has made a dramatic move from manufacturing, construction and shipbuilding to health care, scientific, technical and financial services. Bath Iron Works vacated its historic shipyard in 2001, making room for Ocean Gateway, a $20-million cruise ship and ferry terminal due to open this year. Gov. John Balducci’s Pine Tree Zone program of 2004, tax increment financing and state workforce development training funds have all encouraged companies to start or expand operations in Maine and have greatly helped Portland’s business community. To compete with neighboring New England states, Maine’s Department of Economic and Community Development is encouraging growth in aquaculture, biotechnology and composites. In all, local and state business incentives have reduced the greater Portland commercial vacancy rate to only 5 percent, compared to Boston’s 16 percent, and 13 percent nationally.
PORTLAND HARBOR HOTEL
Located in the Old Port district, one block from the waterfront and across the street from a lively nighttime entertainment scene, the property opened in 2002 as part of the Old Port’s revitalization. The 97 guestrooms and suites are tastefully furnished in dark wood with granite bathroom counters. Amenities include morning newspapers, free lobby coffee, in-room WiFi and evening turndown service, along with affordable parking in a garage under the hotel. Guests include everyone from small corporate groups midweek to couples on weekends. The hotel’s restaurant, Eve’s at the Garden — newly renovated with expanded indoor and outdoor garden space — focuses on Mediterranean cuisine.$$$$
PORTLAND HARBOR HOTEL
468 Fore St.
tel 888 798 9090
PORTLAND REGENCY HOTEL & SPA
Converted into a hotel in 1987, this neo-classic armory was built in 1895 for Maine’s National Guard. The original brick exterior and old-fashioned elegance blend with the restored Old Port district. No glitz, just comfort, one of the city’s few extensive spas, a circular driveway and doorman, and a lovely restaurant called Twenty Milk Street. A member of Historic Hotels of America.$$$
PORTLAND REGENCY HOTEL & SPA
20 Milk St.
tel 207 774 4200
PORTLAND MARRIOTT AT SABLE OAKS
This suburban property is just five miles (10-minute drive) from downtown Portland, two minutes from the airport, and within shouting distance of the Maine Mall. All 227 guestrooms are large and modern. Hotel amenities include a heated indoor pool, health club, sauna, WiFi, airport shuttle and nearby Sable Oaks Golf Club.$$$
PORTLAND MARRIOTT AT SABLE OAKS
200 Sableoaks Drive, South Portland
tel 207 871 8000
In 2007, Food & Wine magazine chose Chef Steve Curry as one of America’s “Best New Chefs,” and the restaurant has lived up to its expectations. Chef Curry said that when New Yorkers and Bostonians started calling him in April to make dinner reservations for August weekends, he knew he was doing something right but did not want to alienate locals who support him year-round. He now takes reservations only one month in advance. Curry and his wife Michelle serve butter-poached Maine lobster, diver scallops, artisanal cheeses and a seasonal tasting menu.$$$
555 Congress St.
tel 207 761 0555
BACK BAY GRIL
The building was constructed in 1900 as a pharmacy (you can still glimpse the tin ceiling outline), but today large colorful paintings line the walls, and the look is modern and chic. BBG is located in a somewhat gritty part of the city, at least by Portland’s standards, but most out-of-towners won’t mind the urban character of the neighborhood. The fact that it is somewhat hidden behind downtown means visitors sometimes can’t find it, which opens up dinner tables. Caribbean white shrimp, house-cured gravlox, grilled filet mignon, seared duck breast and braised lamb shank are just a few of Chef Larry Matthews’ inventive menu items. $$$
BACK BAY GRIL
65 Portland St.
tel 207 772 8833
Another local restaurant whose reputation has gone far beyond Portland’s city limits. Owner/chef Rob Evans was nominated by the James Beard Foundation for “Best Chef-Northeast”; and was listed in Food & Wine magazine’s “Best New Chefs” in 2004. At age 44, he is almost a senior citizen among Portland’s new breed of talented young cooks. Evans’ menu changes with the seasons since his organic meats and vegetables, fresh-caught fish and wild greens are usually raised or caught in Maine. Somehow he turns unpretentious local produce into artful, French-style productions including Maine Bouchot mussels and picked periwinkles, or lemon sole and peekey toe crab en croute. $$$
88 Middle St.
tel 207 774 8538
The first order of business, even during the off-season, is to hop on one of the passenger ferries of Casco Bay Lines (Pier at Commercial and Franklin streets, tel 207 774 7871, http://www.cascobaylines.com) that sail to six inhabited off-shore islands in Casco Bay. On Long Island, about 45 minutes from Portland, a 5-mile perimeter road circles the island and makes for a great walk or bike ride, passing ponds filled with wild ducks and the houses of local lobstermen, where wood traps are piled high in the backyards.
Although you can visit many historic buildings in Portland, only the Portland Observatory (148 Congress St., tel 207 774 5561, http://www.portlandlandmarks.org/portland_observatory/observatory.shtml) provides a spectacular view. Admission ($7) to the 86-foot, 1807 maritime signal tower includes a 30-minute guided tour and visit to the little museum on site. The Portland Museum of Art (7 Congress Square, tel 207 775 6148, http://www.portlandmuseum.org) is located in the downtown arts district and offers fine arts and photographic exhibits, with seasonal Sunday morning jazz breakfasts. The Merrill Auditorium (20 Myrtle St., tel 207 842 0800, http://www.porttix.com), a 1,900-seat downtown performing arts facility, is home to the Portland Symphony Orchestra, in addition to offering numerous live theater performances, dance and music concerts.
Head to J’s Oyster Bar (5 Portland Pier, tel 207 772 4828) for lobster rolls, steamers, local beer and a traditional waterfront atmosphere. Marcy’s Diner (47 Oak St., tel 207 774 9713), a 1940s -era eatery with original wood booths, serves delicious and inexpensive breakfast s beginning at 6 a.m. daily (7 a.m. on Sundays). Duckfat Restaurant (43 Middle St., tel 207 774 5561, http://www.duckfat.com) is tiny but serves the best Belgian-style French fries (cooked in duck fat, of course) in the country, homemade sodas, milk shakes with real ice cream and incredible paninis.
At Home with Colin Woodard
Author of The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators, and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier
Global Traveler: When did you move to Portland, and what was your impression of the city when you first arrived?
Colin Woodard: I grew up in interior Maine, but my father worked in Portland, so I remember the gritty, decaying port city of the 1970s. When I moved here five years ago, I was startled by the extent and vibrancy of its cultural life: a town of 65,000 with advantages and amenities you’d be hard pressed to find in many cities five or 10 times its size. But it’s still got a Maine soul, the sense that we’re all in it together.
GT: Do you feel that Portland’s suburban sprawl has been offset somewhat by all the commercial and residential development taking place downtown?
CW: In 2001, a national survey found that Portland had the worst sprawl in the entire Northeast, measured by the consumption of open space per capita. If anything, the intervening years have been worse, as the housing bubble drove bulldozers into the fields, forests and low-density city neighborhoods. The city’s population has remained flat, while the once-rural towns in its outer halo have exploded. Families look for elbow room, good schools and low taxes, and there’s a limited supply of professional jobs to support a well-heeled singles crowd.
GT: As Portland reinvents itself into a more polished and sophisticated city, is it in danger of losing its traditional atmosphere as a hard-working, salty Maine coastal port?
CW: The big transformation on the peninsula happened in the 1990s, when Portland became a magnet for affluent Bostonians, New Yorkers and Bay Area retirees looking to escape big city challenges without sacrificing all the perks. But while Maine is a nice place to live, it’s still a hard place to make a living. Those who haven’t already made their fortune — or can’t take their work with them — often find the job market challenging. This keeps a lid on gentrification, as does a citizen-driven zoning regime that’s prevented the working waterfront from being turned into condos and hotels. If we swap lobstermen for lobster-themed boutiques and the fish pier for a yacht marina, the city will be much the less for it.
INFO TO GO
Portland International Jetport (PWM)) is located about five miles from downtown Portland. Flat-rate taxi fare to the city’s Arts District and Waterfront area is $16. Several car rental firms service the airport from on/off airport locations. The airport handled 1.6 million passengers in 2007, a 17 percent increase over the previous year. For more information, visit http://www.visitmaine.com or http://www.visitportland.com
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