Portland & The Lobster Roll Quest
Portland, Maine appeared on our weekend trip radar after we were contacted for a well overdue catch up by our French Canadian friend Edie. We met this loud, feisty character on the magical Western Australian roadtrip that brought me and Sahar together 7 years ago. Even with the almost 10 year age gap, we bonded on our journey through the red dust of the outback, forging a friendship which began with campfire songs and sun warmed goon.
Our plans were finalized and research commenced. Soon enough my mind was brimming with thoughts of boat trips, craft breweries and perhaps most important of all: lobster rolls. I sought out valuable advice from a lady at work who passes her summers in Maine and my friend Caitlin who used to lived in the Portland area. Those recommendations combined with up to date blog posts and hiking app suggestions, proved that without a doubt, we were going to have two busy, fun filled days together.
Our air bnb was in Yarmouth, a small spread out town on Cousins Island, a 20 minute drive from downtown Portland. The house had the feel of a traditional English country cottage. Beamed ceilings, hard wood floors, cosy rooms with antique metal beds and rose adorned duvets. The whole property was encircled by tall tree’s and garden beds bursting with chaotic greenery on the verge of coming into flower. With a sun room for warm summer days and a log burner for winter, our host really had created the perfect getaway oasis.
After all the driving, we stretched our legs by walking around the perimeter of Mackworth island. This 100 acre green space is connected to the mainland by a causeway, but it somehow still manages to retain a feeling of remoteness and sanctuary for those who visit. Outlines of the other islands in Casco Bay can be seen through the tree’s, as well as Fort Gorges, a fort which never saw any actual battles or even troops. These days it has fallen into a state of disrepair and is only visited by tired sea birds and curious kayakers. Our stroll around the island allowed us to fill each other in on the events of the past few years. Even though communication between us all has been virtually nil since waving goodbye at Rockingham beach, it didn’t take long for us to fall back into that comfortable camaraderie you develop only when having travelled with someone for an extended period of time.
With the sun having passed over us and the light becoming golden, we began discussing our plans for the rest of the day. It didn’t take us long to discover that Edie has an underlying and unexplained passion for lighthouses, which took care of the rest of the afternoon. Portland is home to the Portland Head Light, the oldest lighthouse in Maine and one of the states most treasured icons. It really was no different from any other lighthouse we’ve been to on our travels, but there is something about these historic, practical structures that continues to draw us to them wherever we go. These solid, striped guardians that stand watch on the very edges of our lands, looking out onto the ocean.
The evening took us into the city itself for the first time and from the outset It was clear that Portland was eclectic. With four devastating fires in it’s relatively short history as a city, I would expect nothing less and we were not disappointed. The Old Port district was a clash of; cobbled streets, upscale restaurants, moose adorned souvenir stores and trendy cocktail bars down narrow alley ways. In recent years Portland has really put itself on the map as a foodie destination, it’s restaurants gaining attention from many notable magazines and being awarded multiple accolades. As well as being a haven for urban farming, organic growers and vegetarians, Portland also possesses a very strong craft beer scene. In a 2016 survey conducted by The Brewers Association, there were 77 breweries in the city, ranking it 5th in the nation for most breweries per capita. But despite forming a new identity for itself, the city hasn’t forgotten it’s roots as a fishing village or lost any of it’s small town feel along the way. Even though the economy has turned more towards tourism and the public service industry, with the city being right on the water, the harbour and the fishing boats continue to play an important role everyday for many people.
Novare Res Bier Cafe had been one of my colleagues “don’t miss” suggestions on her list. Sadly it was not quite warm enough yet to sit outside and enjoy the bier garden, a well thought out space shaded by a beautiful late blooming cherry blossom tree. Instead, we joined the revelers inside sitting on long wooden benches, pulling apart oven warmed pretzels and taking swigs from various sized vessels. The beer list was incredible and in true Belgian style, neither quality nor quantity had been sacrificed. Many of the beers hailed from breweries just around the corner but there were just as many far flung brews with strange ingredients scribbled on the chalkboard.
We could have easily stayed put all night working our way through the drinks list but we upped and left before it got too difficult. We ambled along the waters edge until we came to The Porthole, a wharf side pub with live music and a sizable crowd already gathered on the un-even wooden jetty. The drinks were cheap and the people watching was fascinating. Men in business suits with their ties loosened, brushed shoulders with fishermen in plaid flannel shirts with their sleeves rolled up to their elbows. Young groups of friends leaned casually on the handrail sipping their drinks, watching an older couple enthusiastically ballroom dance to a distinctly country number. Tired with standing, we ventured further along the harbour in search of the first lobster roll of our trip.
Even after the huge gap between going to Portland and finally getting around to writing this blog post, the most memorable thing about the Portland Lobster Company was the flashing, vibrating, red plastic lobster they gave us to let us know our food was ready. Having had a ridiculously good lobster roll in Boston the summer before, I had a pretty high expectation and sadly this didn’t quite reach it. However, the atmosphere was light hearted, the food was hot and we were looking forward to everything else Portland had to offer us over the weekend.
We started Saturday off in the best possible way, with a bagel. Union Bagel Company did a smashing job, keep an eye out for a separate post on their wares later. The neighbourhood of Munjoy Hill not only offered up New York worthy bagels but also impressive coffee, according to Edie. I watched her slowly come to life after polishing off a cup the size of a large coke from McDonald’s over the course of our short walk. Coffee By Design was one of those places you walk into and you just know you’ve found a gem. Regional products lined the shelves, local art covered the walls and there was even a chalkboard where customers had written their favourite places in Portland. A guy sat having his coffee told us the subject changes every week and a while ago everyone had been asked what their favourite flowers were. That simple question created a beautiful, impromptu collage of chalk drawings.
Our last find before reaching the harbour, was the 2 Fat Cats Bakery. This place had made the list for it’s whoopie pies, something I’d never heard of until we decided to visit Maine. In simple terms, it’s two rounds of light chocolate cake sandwiched together with vanilla frosting. Our host had warned us that they were nothing to write home about but seeing as; Maine, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Virginia have all staked a claim on this chocolatey treat, this was obviously something we had to try for ourselves.
The Casco Bay mail boat was another thing that I had discovered through someones blog. It seemed like a cheap, easy way to get out onto the water and to see some of the smaller inhabited islands off the coast. The service has been running continually since 1878 and the boats have had many roles, tourist attraction being the most recent and probably the least important. Many people commute to the mainland everyday, a car ferry services three of the severn islands and all children year 7 (6th grade) and up attend school in Portland. The length of the journey depends on what and who is being delivered that day. We had the perfect weather and enjoyed watching everything play out whilst munching on our whoopie pies, which were well worth trying by the way.
A gaggle of women armed with pink balloons, bags of gifts and a carefully carried cake disembarked at our first stop, Little Diamond Island. They were accompanied by a shiny new John Deere lawn mower winched over the side of the boat onto the jetty. This must have been an unusually busy day as according to the census done in 2000, the number of permanent residents on the island is just five.
We house spotted as we chugged past peaceful inlets and calm bays. Deck chairs were placed at the bottom of almost every garden, facing out onto the ocean. The other islands that the ferry services are much more inhabited. Some of them have; places for visitors to stay, churches, libraries, museums and even fire stations crewed purely by volunteers. In summer, the population of these islands triple as many of the residences are vacation homes. A holiday here takes you back to basics and provides the simple pleasures; short strolls down to the beach, hunting for wild blueberries, taking your bucket and line out for some crabbing.
All that fresh sea air had made us ravenous and Portland had plenty of amazing food options waiting for us to try when we returned to the harbour. The recommendation of ’Duck Fat’ came to us from our chef friend Zhoel, who we met whilst working and travelling in New Zealand. He was pretty gutted that he hadn’t had time to try it himself on his own trip to the states, so when he saw we were in Portland, he sent us a message. The line to sit down and eat was like something out of New York City so we placed our order as take out and joined the masses sitting on the grass across the street. The inspiration for this place came from the humble Maine potato. The owners loved their spuds fried in duck fat so much, that they decided to open a whole restaurant based around the Belgian concept. With a small but delicious and quirky menu, they have something to everybody’s taste, even Edie gave their poutine a thumbs up and I wouldn’t think about leaving Portland without trying their Tahitian vanilla milkshake.
Directly down the street was Eventide Oyster Co, another place so busy that the crowds had spilled out onto the pavement waiting to get a table. Recognising the logo on the window, I realised that the place I had had my lobster roll in Boston was their sister location. With our hunger peaked and not wanting to wait for a spot, we opted for take out again. We sat outside in the sunshine delving into our mouthwateringly good lobster rolls. Warm, succulent pieces of lobster tumbled in brown butter were piled high upon a roll that was light as air and garnished with fresh scallions. It was enough to make any foodie weak at the knee’s and elbow their way back through the crowd for more.
And we weren’t done eating yet. Our next stop took us right into the heart of the Old Port, an area where tourists and locals alike gather to walk the cobble stone streets, enjoy the tree lined avenues and peer up at the historical architecture. Well known brands and intriguing one off stores blend seamlessly together, balanced out by cute coffee shops and a deluge of compelling food options. That brings me to The Holy Donut, another Portland institution with enticing fare and admirable ideology.
This anything but ordinary donut shop came to pass from the creators yearning for a healthy but still comforting snack. Typically the words ‘donut’ and ‘healthy’ often aren’t heard together in the same breath, but after some kitchen experimenting, Leigh Kellis found the answer to her question: mashed potato. It began with 84 donuts a week being sold to a local coffee shop, then a few months later her dad had to be roped in to help with deliveries of 480 donuts a week. Now on a busy Saturday, 10,000 donuts can leave the store in brown paper bags clutched by eager customers. The amount of donuts has risen and so has the amount of employees and locations, but the principles have stayed the same. Every single donut is still hand cut, local ingredients are used whenever possible and not an artificial colour is in sight, all the glazes are made using fruits and vegetables.
We got there pretty late in the day which meant many of the favourites were nowhere to be seen, but we did manage to leave with a fresh lemon, a toasted coconut and a chocolate & sea salt donut for us to sample. Sahar wasn’t actually a huge fan but Edie and I didn’t necessarily see that as a bad thing and we chowed down. They were tasty and I do understand all the hype that they’re receiving, but I wouldn’t wait in a long line for them, put it that way. However, absolutely worth a stop if you’re anywhere nearby.
After all that food, we had to go nap it off before returning to the city to enjoy our last evening. We had classic cocktails at the dimly lit North Point bar, before making our way down to Scales in the pouring rain. Everything about this place was just incredible. The restaurant sat on wharf 68, look to your left and there was the ocean, fishing boats bobbing up and down listlessly. Set in a huge space, it must have been a warehouse at one point or at least made to look like one. Think tall ceilings, large windows and exposed industrial pipes overheard. The kitchen was open, providing a mesmerising show of the chefs going about their tasks like clockwork. A chute from the ceiling dispensed freshly shaven ice into boxes where crabs legs and oysters were sat waiting below, lobster tanks gurgled away quietly to the side.
I sat back and sipped on my glass of sauvignon blanc and took everything in whilst Sahar and Edie indulged in a platter of oysters. That’s one thing in the food world I just can’t get to grips with, it’s an expensive thing to keep trying and disliking anyway! I felt the need to compare one final lobster roll, Sahar took the opportunity to order a whole fish and Edie chose scallops as her main, we all tried each others food and everything was without a doubt, ridiculously wonderful. We had crammed a lot into one day, so picked up a bottle of wine and headed back to our accommodation to stretch out in front of the log fire before calling it a night.
The Purple House was the last excellent piece of advice given to us by our air bnb host and it was just down the road in the small town of North Yarmouth. It got recommended for Edie’s love of coffee but when bagels were also mentioned, the deal was done. It’s one of those places, if you blinked at the wrong moment, you’d miss it altogether. Set amongst budding lilac tree’s and a flourishing garden, it was the perfect spot to relax and enjoy the warmth of the morning.
The menu was so fantastic, but I would be lying if I said I even considered anything other than a bagel. And not just any bagel, but the legendary Montreal style bagel. I had stumbled upon this whole other type through my blog research. Found in Canada, the main differences are the taste, baking method and the appearance. Basically everything that makes a bagel a bagel. And don’t be fooled by the ‘burnt’ exterior, no charcoal tasting bagels here! To learn more about this alternative style, be on the lookout for the dedicated Purple House post which I’ll be writing soon.
Maine has a plethora of hikes on offer, ranging from 30 minute strolls to multi-day adventures. Sadly we only had time for a small one, our long drives putting a time limit on the days activities. We chose Hedgehog Mountain for it’s proximity to the town of Freeport which was the last area on our agenda. Short and sweet, the trail wound it’s way through the budding forest and up towards the summit which granted wonderful views over the woods.
On the list provided by my work colleague, something called L.L.Bean had made it right to the top. My first encounter with this name had been seeing it on children’s lunchboxes at school, apart from that, I had no idea what it was. Eventually I discovered it was an outdoor store but I was still confused by why she would include it in amongst the restaurants, bars and local sites. She assured me that almost every time she went to the Portland area, her and her family would take a trip into L.L.Bean, so I shrugged my shoulders and added it to the itinerary. This place was RIDICULOUS. I could of stayed there for weeks on end, which wouldn’t have been a problem as it’s open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. (‘Merica!) In fact, since the location opened it’s doors in 1951, it’s been trading the entire time except for four Sundays.
The company was established by Leon Leonwood Bean, a hunter and a fisherman who wasn’t satisfied with the gear available on the market. He began to produce the Maine Hunting Shoe, better known the Bean Boot or duck boots. A mix between the rubber sole of a rain boot and leather uppers, they were an instant success in 1911 which led to him officially forming the company a year later. The flagship store in still in the same location as where the company was founded, Freeport, Maine and the wildly popular boots are still made today and are a huge part of the corporations image.
This place exceeded every expectation I had when I reluctantly walked through the door after taking the obligatory picture with the giant duck boot outside. We were drawn to the spiraling wooden staircase that took you up to the hiking section. There was a fake mountain up there. I repeat, there was a fake mountain. Customers were clambering up and down it, enthusiastically testing out their potential new footwear, all exclaiming how ‘this was such a wonderful idea and how did we ever buy hiking boots without it?!’
I found Sahar at the machine that would analyze your ‘step’ and suggest a custom insole for any type of shoe. Downstairs, we found Edie in the riverbed aquarium, waiting patiently behind the children to have her picture taken in the ‘fish dome.’ As we were leaving we passed the archery range and couldn’t resist giving that a try either. The pair of them basically had to drag me out of the store and snatch the job application out of my hand. They did let me keep my brand new hiking boots though.
Allagash Brewery was our final destination as a group before we headed our separate ways. Being one of Sahar’s favourites, we couldn’t pass up this opportunity, even if it was only a tiny taste before hitting the road. Known primarily for their Belgian style beers, Allagash has gained a steadfast following since 1995 and is found in most states around the country.
The brewery was on an industrial estate out of Portland that was also home to many other smaller craft breweries. You could easily walk from one to the other and have yourself a decent DIY local beer tour. The garden was already full of Sunday afternoon drinkers, backdropped by the huge stainless steel tanks at the rear of the brewery. The prices were incredibly cheap and we struggled to choose from the large selection on offer. We all came away with very different brews; me with a saison, Sahar with a wheat beer and Edie with something dark and chocolatey. We found a spot outside and mulled over the last few days while breathing in that trademark sweet, malty scent that only breweries have. We didn’t stay long and soon we said our goodbyes to Edie and watched her drive off back to Canada.
On our way out of Portland, we stopped in at The Urban Farm Fermentory, located in the up and coming neighbourhood of East Bayside. Kombucha only came onto my radar after my third trip to Thailand in 2017. It wasn’t anything I’d heard of, let alone tried, but in the mountain town of Pai, it came in every colour and every flavour imaginable. Luckily for us, the UFF doesn’t only offer kombucha, they also brew their own; mead, beer, cider & jun. I’d never heard of Jun either until walking through the door that day but I found I much preferred the delicate taste to that of it’s close cousin. Jun is made with green tea & raw honey while Kombucha is made with black tea & cane sugar.
The UFF was created in 2010 by Eli Cayer, a Maine local who wanted to have a space where he could showcase his talents for brewing while at the same time providing a community space for artists and local producers. This is the kind of establishment that attracts everybody and anybody. Children run around barefoot whilst their parents play corn hole, the health conscious come pick up their usuals and groups debate which flavours of which brew they should try. It was the perfect end to our trip to Portland and just the boost we needed before driving back to New Jersey.
In a nutshell, Portland, Maine has something for everybody. Whether you are; the outdoorsy type, a foodie, a beach bum, a beer enthusiast or just looking for a girls weekend away, this city and it’s surrounding areas have all the components for what you’re looking for. There’s not many places in this world that provide an equally diverse experience in such a small footprint and with comparable friendliness. In Portland you can eat bagels for breakfast, jump on a fishing boat before lunch, try three different desserts in quick succession, peruse upmarket local boutiques, hike up a mountain and then finish off the day by drinking metropolitan worthy cocktails and polishing off a gourmet meal, all before 9pm.
We ♥ You Portland!