Portland is a city of contrasts. On one hand, it remains a major shipping port and commercial fishing center. On the other, it has thrived in its transition from its past legacy as a shipbuilding and exporting hot spot to a modern city with an active arts community, reclaimed Victorian neighborhoods inhabited by young professionals, and cobblestone streets lined with five-star restaurants and chic boutiques.
Commercial lobstermen and yachtsmen share downtown dock space, and weathered New England salts seem to coexist with trendy, Tweeting hipsters. Even Portland’s size suggests contrast. It is Maine’s largest city and the metro area’s population is 250,000, yet it somehow has the feel of a much smaller — even quaint — New England town. Old waterfront warehouses and the former Bath Iron Works facility have been renovated and transformed into a vibrant shopping, office and restaurant district, providing a charming connection between old and new.
Stacey, an art teacher and water colorist, suggests we first visit the Portland Museum of Art, which houses more than 17,000 works covering three centuries. Here we see pieces by American artists Winslow Homer, Louise Nevelson, John Singer Sargent, Andrew Wyeth and many others. European movements are represented by Degas, Monet, Picasso, Renoir and more. We are among the first to take a 2½-hour guided tour of the Winslow Homer Studio, which departs from and returns to the museum three times a day.
My wife knows my limited attention span for museum visits, so for a change of pace we search out the hard-to-find Novare Res Bier Cafe for lunch. Hidden in an alley off Exchange Street, this little treasure, which translates from Latin to “A New Thing,” offers a 20-page beer menu, good bar food and a cozy outdoor patio.
It’s soon time to walk off the pints of Belgian brew, so we embark on a guided tour of the Portland Observatory, which takes us to the top of an 86-foot wooden tower overlooking the harbor. In operation since 1807, the observatory became a National Historic Monument in 2006. We can imagine its founder, Capt. Lemuel Moody, peering through his telescope and communicating with ships in the harbor by signal flag. On a clear day, this shouldn’t be missed.
Topping off our day of sightseeing, we follow the interactive “Old Port Tour Map” created by Greater Portland Landmarks. The map provides the location and history of more than 20 prominent buildings in the historic district. Much of the 19th-century architecture remains even after the infamous Great Fire of 1866 destroyed a good part of the commercial district and left 10,000 people homeless. Now a mixture of condos, apartments, offices, shops and restaurants, it comes alive during summer evenings. Since it happens to be Thursday, we are treated to a free concert held from 5 to 7:30 p.m. in Monument Square.
Our day of art appreciation, walking tours and concert-going comes to a grand finale with dinner at Street & Co. on Wharf Street. After forgetting to make a reservation, we wind up sitting at the bar, where we follow the friendly bartender’s superb recommendation of grilled lobster over linguine.
The next morning we awake under a heavy blanket of fog and realize that we’re going nowhere for the next several hours, at least. We can barely see the bright-yellow ferries in the harbor — although we can hear them — and the shoreline of Old Port is completely obscured. We take advantage of this downtime to walk to Hannaford Supermarket in the Mill Creek Shopping Center for some provisioning. With more groceries than we can carry, we take a taxi back to Sunset Marina and see that the fog hasn’t lifted. It looks like the perfect time to catch up on some boat-maintenance chores and our summer reading.
Saturday morning brings more fog, but the forecast for an afternoon clearing looks promising. Glad that we’re “stuck” in a port with so much to see and do, we take a taxi to see the Portland Head Light in Fort Williams Park on nearby Cape Elizabeth. This famous light was first lit in 1791 with 16 whale-oil lamps, and today the new light and foghorn are maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Returning to our boat, we find the fog is finally lifting, and we leave Sunset Marina eager to head Down East and explore more of Maine’s fascinating coast.