Soak up the Coastal Maine Vibe in Portland

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SOAK UP THE COASTAL MAINE VIBE IN PORTLAND
by Debbie Stone

 

 

It’s ‘lobstah,’ not lobster, when you’re in Maine. That’s the first thing you learn upon boarding the Lucky Catch trawler. But it will certainly not be the last, as by the time your excursion is over, you’ll be a font of knowledge about this notable crustacean.

Taking a trip with the Lucky Catch was one of the highlights during my stay in Portland, Maine. This fishing boat plies the waters of Casco Bay, giving visitors a taste of the daily routines of a Maine lobsterman/woman while cruising near picturesque lighthouses, historic civil war forts, and the “Seal Rocks.”

You’ll hear about lobster habits and become a walking, talking lobster lexicon, spouting off lingo like shells, shedders, shorts, culls, and keepers. And you’ll participate in the preparation of baiting the traps and the excitement of hauling them up, as you anticipate a bumper payday. Before rejoicing at the sight of a cage packed with glossy orange and black-speckled creatures, however, your guide will explain that each lobster has to be measured (from eye socket to end of carapace) to determine if it’s of legal size – and thus, a keeper. It it’s too small, or oversized, or a female with eggs, it’s tossed back.

Often, a variety of marine life will enter the trap, including rock and hermit crabs, snails, and starfish. The captain will put them in the see-through live tank on board for observation. At the end of the day, they’ll be thrown back into the sea.

You can purchase any of the lobsters caught on your Lucky Catch adventure for wholesale or “boat” price. If you don’t have a kitchen or pot at your disposal, you can take them across the pier to the Portland Lobster Company and they’ll cook them up and serve you a fresh lobster dinner.

Lobster is big business in Maine. There are about 7,000 licensed lobstermen and women with upwards of three million traps in the state. The traps are made of wire and attached by a line to the colored buoy on the surface of the water. Each lobsterman/woman has his/her own individually painted buoy for identification.

The state’s average lobster harvest in a year is about 100 million pounds. What most people don’t realize is that lobstering is a physically grueling job, where you work long hours, often in inclement weather. Plus, the investment to get started in the business is sizeable.

It’s interesting to note that lobster as a food wasn’t always popular. Folks actually turned up their noses at eating these creatures. They were used for compost for gardens, fed to the hogs, prisoners, and domestic staff. Some job contracts even stipulated that employed help could not be fed lobster more than twice a week.

Over the years, this crustacean’s reputation and esteem have risen substantially and today, it’s viewed as a delicacy (and a luxury) in many restaurants and is usually the most expensive entrée on the menu. On the coast of Maine, this sought-after food is ubiquitous. It’s a ‘lobsterpalooza’ with lobster shacks everywhere you go, each one claiming to be the best. You’ll also find lobster in every form and preparation possible, from Lobster Benedict and Lobster Mac ‘n’ Cheese to Lobster Pot Pie and Lobster Carbonara. But despite its prolific presence in this part of the country, you’ll still pay a price for the fresh stuff.

Portland is definitely nirvana for seafood aficionados. But this small city is much more than that. It’s a veritable foodie haven and a craft beer mecca. It has become the East coast’s must-visit foodie city, boasting a highly touted farm-to-fork philosophy and practice.

One of the best ways to get a taste of the town’s culinary scene is to do a walking food and beverage tour in the Old Port area with Maine Foodie Tours. This leisurely-paced excursion offers a great introduction to the local food and drinks while providing interesting and entertaining information about the geography and history of this colorful section of Portland.

You’ll learn, for example, that there are 2,500 islands off the coast of Maine, of which only fifteen are inhabited, and 3,500 plus miles of coastline. Within Casco Bay alone, there are 200.

You’ll also hear about the Great Fire of July 4, 1866, which was accidentally ignited by a firecracker. It decimated the town, destroying 1,800 buildings, the majority of which were residences, leaving both rich and poor homeless. Aid poured in and in the following two years, the city was almost completely rebuilt, giving it the characteristic brick, Victorian architecture that’s still prominent today.

Your personable and knowledgeable guide will take you to several artisanal shops, restaurants and pubs, where you’ll sample a mix of classic Maine, Maine-inspired, up-and-coming, fancy foods and beverages. The narration is lively with the inclusion of lots of additional recommendations on where to dine and imbibe. Don’t miss a trip to The Holy Donut (go early!) for donuts made with Maine potatoes. The potatoes give these yummy creations a moist texture that makes them melt in your mouth. You’ll have twenty flavors to choose from, like fresh lemon, maple bacon, dark chocolate sea salt, and toasted coconut with a coconut milk glaze.

On our tour, Timothy, a Portland native, was the guide. The group was comprised of people from all over the country, most of who were first-time visitors. First stop was the Portland Beer Hub. No, we didn’t actually start the day with beer, but rather with a traditional Maine drink called Moxie. At one time, Moxie was marketed as a medicinal beverage, before becoming more mainstay. I would describe it as a cross between Dr. Pepper and cough syrup. Our sample of Moxie was accompanied by savory meatballs from Micucci Grocery, a famed Old World Italian market in Portland.

Second stop was Gilbert’s Chowder House, where the offerings included New England clam chowder, seafood chowder, or a chicken corn chowder. I had the seafood chowder, which was packed full of lobster, clams, shrimp, haddock, and potatoes. Our guide explained the differences between New England and Manhattan chowders and also proceeded to tell us that locals sometimes put tabasco sauce on top of their chowder for extra flavor. I opted out of this tradition, preferring to eat my chowder unadorned.

We moved on to Gritty McDuff’s Brew Pub, a Maine institution and one of the earliest pioneers of the brewing renaissance in the state. We sipped a seasonal blueberry beer and a Halloween pumpkin ale, accompanied by tasty lobster rolls and handmade potato chips while enjoying the pub’s convivial English-style ambiance. Sit on the patio or window side to people watch and take in the atmosphere of charming, cobblestoned Wharf Street.

At $3 Deweys, we had a crisp Pumpkinhead Beer, rimmed with a cinnamon-sugar mixture, and fresh, haddock tacos. While sipping and munching, we heard the amusing story of the name behind Deweys. Years ago, when the sailors came to port, they would head to the bordellos. The prices for “services” back then started at $1 for “lookies,” $2 for “touchies” and $3 for “doies!”

The last stop on the tour was Dean’s Sweets. This specialty shop produces over thirty varieties of truffles, caramels, and buttercreams, using the finest imported chocolate. For Dean Bingham, who left a forty-year career as an architect to open the confectionary with his wife Kristin, chocolate-making is more than a business. It’s an art.

We sampled a Needham, a traditional Maine candy comprised of chocolate, (dark chocolate in Dean’s case) sugar, coconut, and potato. The potato, unbeknownst to me, is a classic staple in the state, and at one point, Maine was the top harvester of potatoes in the country. I thought it tasted like a homemade Mounds bar, and I could have easily eaten another…or two.

In addition to food, Portland is known for its lighthouses. These coastal sentinels are beloved icons of Maine. In Portland Harbor, there are six to choose from. Cape Elizabeth’s Portland Head Light is the region’s most recognized. And it’s a beaut! This famed 1787 beacon is the oldest in Maine and a darling of photographers all over the world.

The popular landmark is situated along the shores of Fort William Park, a ninety-acre greenspace with hiking and recreation opportunities and dramatic ocean views. It includes the keepers’ quarters building (now a museum with interpretative displays and a collection of lighthouse lenses), which until 1989, was home to the head and assistant lighthouse keepers and their families. The U.S. Coast Guard now maintains the actual light and the fog signal.

As you look out over Portland Harbor, provided it’s a clear day, you’ll be able to see an additional four lighthouse towers, including Spring Point Ledge, Ram Island Ledge, Halfway Rock, and Cape Elizabeth.

Accommodations are plentiful in Portland, but if you want to stay somewhere really special, reserve a room at the Black Point Inn on Prouts Neck. Just minutes from downtown, this property is located on a ruggedly breathtaking section of the coastline. Surrounded by water and beaches on three sides, it offers captivating views and peaceful trails to meander at your leisure.

Built in 1878, Black Point was once one of the grand hotels in Prouts Neck. Today, it’s the last remaining hotel in the area. This historic grand dame has been extensively renovated over the years, but still manages to retain its quintessential character and traditions, while providing all the modern amenities and luxuries you’d expect from an upscale property.

The inn boasts an excellent onsite restaurant (The Chart Room), a cozy lobby, where tea and cookies are served each afternoon, an all-weather sun porch, and a delightful veranda to take in the picture-perfect views and listen to the surf. The latter is the ideal spot to have a libation before dinner, as well as dine al fresco while watching a fiery sunset and listening to live jazz.

There’s something for everyone at The Chart Room, from casual pub fare and seasonal specials to creative entrees. Start your meal with the Bangs Island mussels, crispy Brussels sprouts, or harvest salad with roasted butternut squash. You’ll dine on such dishes as grilled salmon, baked haddock, Maine Lobster tails, short rib stroganoff, and Jamaican jerk chicken, among other notable entrees. Definitely save room for the Maine blueberry pie ala mode or the pumpkin cream cheese torte. I can vouch for both, as my husband and I shared these sublime desserts.

Our room was spacious, with a comfy king bed and sitting area, and a mesmerizing view of the beach and bay. Hard to leave the confines of this cozy domicile, but the outdoors beckoned.

One morning, we took the Cliff Walk, a 1.75-mile path along the shoreline’s cliffs. Another day, we strolled on the sandy beaches. If you’re seeking creative inspiration, this is the place. In fact, that was the case with artist Winslow Homer, who spent over 25 years at his family’s cottage on Prouts Neck painting the landscape.

Staff at Black Point are to be commended. Everyone we interacted with was hospitable and gracious. It’s obvious that the inn, which is managed by the Migis Hotel Group, takes pride in providing unpretentious, yet attentive service. The number of repeat guests each year says it all.

If you go:

Black Point Inn: www.blackpointinn.com  

Maine Foodie Tours: www.mainefoodietours.com  

Lucky Catch: www.luckycatch.com  

All things Portland, ME: www.visitportland.com 

Debbie Stone is an established travel writer and columnist, and regular contributor for Big Blend Radio and Big Blend Magazines, who crosses the globe in search of unique destinations and experiences to share with her readers and listeners. She’s an avid explorer who welcomes new opportunities to increase awareness and enthusiasm for places, culture, food, history, nature, outdoor adventure, wellness, and more. Her travels have taken her to nearly 100 countries and all seven continents.

 

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About the Author:

Debbie Stone is an established travel writer and columnist, and regular contributor for Big Blend Radio and Big Blend Magazines.

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