PORTLAND, Maine — Wave-drenched rocky shores, romantic and soul-satisfying lighthouse views, and cool summer sea breezes offer plenty of reasons to visit Maine’s Atlantic coast.
The state’s biggest city just piles on the delights.
Portland has a metropolitan population of about 250,000, enough to support good foodie fare, one of the best craft-beer scenes in the country, plenty of cultural and historical sites, and even spectator sports.
I hadn’t yet checked in when my hotel desk clerk offered me cheap tickets to a Portland Sea Dogs minor-league baseball game that had already started at the cute ballpark just a couple of blocks away.
Hadlock Field was a great place to watch some double-A-level ball on a sunny Sunday afternoon. But what really set the experience apart, at least for an out-of-town visitor, was the ballpark fare. The highlights included lobster rolls and a good selection of local craft beer on tap, an irresistible taste of things yet to come on my Portland visit.
And, because the Sea Dogs are a Boston Red Sox farm team, we all got to stand up for the now-traditional singing of “Sweet Caroline,” an experience worth the price of admission, at least in my case.
More good seafood and microbrews, plus a variety of galleries, boutiques and souvenir shops, awaited in the historic Old Port district downtown. I loved strolling along harbor-hugging Commercial Street and onto the wharfs that stretch out like fingers grasping for the beauty of Casco Bay, where lobster boats, tour boats and ferries plowed through the water and tangy breezes.
One ship, now permanently docked, is home to the restaurant DiMillo’s on the Water. DiMillo’s helped spur Old Port’s renaissance when it brought its floating home to previously dilapidated Long Wharf in 1982. And the fresh local seafood and harbor views there are truly scrumptious.
Among other great places to enjoy fresh seafood is Portland Lobster Co., a casual dockside favorite with plenty of open-air seating.
The walkable Old Port district offers enough diversions that a visitor might never want to leave. But to see a bit more of the area, consider one of the many tours available of the city or Casco Bay. I chose a combo land-and-sea package that let me experience a bit of both.
My trolley tour went past several of Portland’s most interesting historic sites. The city has an unhappy history of periodically burning down, the last time being the Great Fire of 1866 — the biggest fire in American history until the Great Chicago Fire five years later.
But several historical gems from 18th and 19th centuries remain, including the Wadsworth-Longfellow House, where famed poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow grew up. Now a museum, the structure was built in 1785 by great-grandparents of the poet. It was the first brick house in Portland and is the oldest surviving building on the Portland peninsula.
The tour also offered a glimpse of Portland’s East End and West End neighborhoods, which bookend the old city with grand “promenades” designed by Olmsted Brothers, the famed landscape architectural firm.
After crossing the Casco Bay Bridge and passing through South Portland, the tour stopped at Portland Head Light to let passengers stretch their legs and gape. Portland Head is Maine’s oldest lighthouse and is said to be one of the most photographed in the country. That’s not surprising. Set on a promontory of glittering, wave-wet quartzite, the picturesque lighthouse is practically a New England cliche.
Built in 1791, and raised 20 feet to its current height of 92 feet in the 1860s, the lighthouse also is flanked by a pretty-as-a-picture keepers’ house built in 1891.
Later that afternoon, my “lighthouse lovers’” harbor tour gave me a different, and possibly even more dramatic, view of Portland Head, this time from the water.
The boat tour also offered close-ups of several other pretty and historic lighthouses, including Ram Island Ledge Light, built in 1905. Although the bay was quiet, the tour narrator told us harrowing tales of storm waves crashing over the top of the 77-foot-tall light.
The harbor tour also provided an up-close view of several of the pretty Casco Bay islands, many of which are reachable by ferry from Portland and are popular vacation destinations.
A visit to Portland wouldn’t be complete, at least for beer lovers, without a tour of at least one of the city’s 20 or so craft breweries — the most per capita of any city in the country. Shipyard Brewing is the biggest and best-known and offers tours and tastings at its large East End brewery.
I opted for the free tour at Allagash Brewing Co., in an industrial district northwest of downtown that’s chock-full of small breweries.
Allagash, which has grown from a one-man operation into Maine’s second-biggest brewery, specializes in Belgian-style beers. The most popular is the Allagash White, a wheat beer with fragrant, but not overpowering, notes of citrus and spice.
I was told I was tasting orange and coriander — but I also believe I detected a hint of summer sea breeze caressing a breaker-washed lighthouse.
— Steve Stephens can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @SteveStephens.