A server took a break from shucking oysters and shaking martinis to deliver my supper: a hat-sized bowl of plump, steaming mussels. I'd just finished snowshoeing along the Presumpscot River and was perched at the seafood counter at Scales, an upscale restaurant on a fishing wharf in the Old Port section of Portland, Maine.
The mussels were the best I'd ever had, and I noticed the guy next to me -- with wind-chapped cheeks and a graying goatee -- savoring his own bowlful.
"Where are they from?" I asked.
"Me," he said.
Gary Moretti, along with his son, Matthew, runs Bangs Island Mussels in a warehouse just behind the restaurant. They harvest the sweet little bivalves from ropes that dangle below rafts several miles offshore, motor them to the wharf and then deliver them to area restaurants.
Succulent and fresh, this dinner was a far cry from my first taste of Maine a couple of decades earlier when I had the equivalent of a dining cliche: a rubbery steamed lobster at a touristy cafe in Bar Harbor. I've been to this ruggedly beautiful state several times since the attack of the rubber lobster, but Portland was never more than a pit stop on my way to visit a poet friend and his family on a pond far from the coast.
Last winter, I finally decided to make Portland, Maine's largest city, a destination. I'd heard it had become one of the East Coast's hottest spots, I was already in Boston for business and a different set of friends had settled in Portland, so I took a two-hour drive up the coast from Boston. My four-day stay in the Old Port -- the heart of the sea-to-table movement in Maine -- left me hungry for more.
Portland is a thumb-like peninsula that juts into Casco Bay, an easy 100 miles north of Boston with several worthy diversions along the way. I detoured to Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Wells, Maine, where I trudged through knee-deep snow on a mile-long path through a pine forest overlooking an icy salt marsh. The area is named after the author of "Silent Spring," the 1962 book credited with sparking an environmental revolution; it was inspired, in part, by summers spent on Maine's coast. I also made a quick stop in Kennebunkport, a sleepy seaside village with a trolley museum and a quaint downtown.
Portland has no shortage of waterfront lodging options, but I booked a room at a newish hotel called the Press, aptly named because it occupies the former Portland Press Herald building. It's a hip boutique hotel that pays homage to newspapers with type-themed sculptures and type-patterned wallpaper and carpet. From my top-floor corner room I had a view of the Old Port: a historic warehouse district overlooking a bulge in the Fore River just before it spills into Casco Bay, where fishing boats and lobster haulers bob in the inky swells.
The Old Port has helped make Portland a great getaway. During earlier visits to my poet friend in the deep woods of central Maine, I had met back-to-the landers who had fled big cities to the quaint villages and towns of Maine. Today, something similar is happening in Portland, which has drawn a new wave of chefs, baristas and brewers from big city life elsewhere.
I shared a welcome dinner with my friends at DiMillo's, an old-school Portland restaurant perched at the end of an aircraft carrier-like pier that offers what is arguably the best harbor view in the town. We settled into a comfy nightclub-ish banquette and ate haddock and lobster rolls that smacked of the sea.
After supper I rambled along the antique clay brick sidewalks of Commercial Street, which parallels the waterfront and is the unofficial dividing line between the trendy shops and restaurants of the business district and the working wharves that reach into the harbor like the weatherworn fingers of a longshoreman.
On the waterfront side of the street, screeching gulls perched atop pier pilings. I dodged stacks of lobster pots, hivelike coils of tawny lines and faded saltwater-stained buoys awaiting the next day's trip to sea. The Old Port is very much still a working port, where fishing boats pull up to one of those wharves to unload thousands of pounds of fresh catch that then get auctioned at the Portland Fish Exchange.
The next morning I sipped a pour-over coffee at Bard Coffee on Middle Street in the old Chapman National Bank building, designed in the early 1920s by John Calvin Stevens, a famous Maine architect. Stevens is best known for his shingle-style houses, including a seaside carriage house in nearby Scarborough that he transformed into the studio and home of artist Winslow Homer.
Just a few blocks away at the Standard Baking Co., I stood in the tiny retail space and savored a flaky almond croissant and watched a baker pull pans of crusty baguettes from an oven, all while channeling a French boulangerie. I visited daily, sometimes twice.
Later, my friends toured me around town, starting with the Eastern Promenade -- aka "the prom" -- a seaside walking path that wanders through green space designed in the mid-1800s by Frederick Law Olmsted (who also designed Manhattan's Central Park) and his brother, John Charles. The main attraction? Views of Casco Bay and the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum.
For dinner I grabbed the first open seat I could find at Honey Paw, a hipster hangout where Asian fusion meets East Coast tradition. After a couple of appetizers, I sipped a local brew and lapped up a bowl of ramen with homemade noodles and local seafood.
On Day 3, I was first in line at the Holy Donut, which is famous for its potato doughnuts -- made with Aroostook County potatoes and buttermilk from Casco Bay Butter.
Stuffed, I needed a vigorous walk, so I skipped the most popular indoor attractions: the Portland Observatory, Portland Museum of Art and the Victoria Mansion museum. I considered a trip to one of the islands on the mailboat or ferry, but opted for a snowshoe trek along the Presumpscot River a few miles away in Falmouth.
I picked up my rental snowshoes and a map from the nonprofit Portland Trails and drove to the trailhead in a nearby suburb, but I quickly discovered that the trail along the Presumpscot was far from ordinary. Under lacy sunlight filtered by pines I made my way across craggy ravines and over makeshift bridges to Presumpscot Falls, where I sat on a boulder and watched and listened to the inky river flow unrestrained to Casco Bay.
The next morning, I took the long way back to Boston. I drove along Cape Elizabeth, a rolling swath of parks and stately seaside summer houses that marks the entrance to Casco Bay. Naturally, there was a lighthouse -- this one at Fort Williams Park, where I watched ocean swells roll toward shore like silky foothills, then break in a frothy splash at the base of the Portland Headlight.
There was an old fort to visit, and a beach to walk, but I'd spent all my time watching fishing boats glide out to sea.
While I was missing my friend the poet who no longer lives on the pond, it was heartening to have a new reason to visit Maine.
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