The stern influence of the North Atlantic may make Maine’s largest settlement misty and cold for much of the year but that doesn’t prevent the warm, relaxed lifestyle of Portland’s inhabitants from being extremely infectious.
One morning you find yourself at the farmer’s market in Portland’s red-brick Monument Square. You see honey from the nearby town of Hollis, blueberry jam from Buckfield, eggs from Unity. A handsome farmer with a beard and strange, yellow-blue eyes is selling baby arugula and bok choy. You ask this reserved man about his livelihood and he tells you, “This is the best life I could imagine. I am doing exactly what I want to be doing.”
You stop and allow this to percolate. Let me get this straight, you say to yourself. The best life I could imagine. The taciturn farmer is not being smug. He is simply telling you how it is. And as you spend more time in Portland you find that this sentiment is widespread. People are not borne around on a constant cloud of euphoria but they seem content. Happy. Someone else, a perfumer called Carolyn Mix, talks about “the daily deliciousness of living here”. Portlanders seem fiercely devoted to their town and their way of life. And you come to think that maybe they have reason to be.
Let’s be frank. Portland, Maine – population 66,000 – is no global hub. The downtown may be historic and quaint, with its rows of Queen Anne-style and Italianate buildings, but it’s small. Despite an influx of Somali and Sudanese refugees, it isn’t very ethnically diverse. And it does not throb with life, at least until the area’s annual 7.5 million tourists arrive, mostly during the summer and autumn foliage season. The icy winters are oppressive and drawn-out and you might have to turn the heating on in May.
Still, there are compensations, as you realise while sampling local oysters at Fore Street restaurant (probably the best eatery in town), or the moist, salty fries at Duckfat, or a delicate lemon cookie from the Two Cat Bakery. Portland has an outsized, ambitious dining scene, grounded in progressive principles. The Maine association of organic farmers, founded in 1971, is the oldest in the US, and this makes sense if you consider that the freezing state is a tough place for agriculture. “When food comes to you only through great effort, you tend to take better care of it,” says Sam Hayward, the avuncular founder of Fore Street and the winner of a James Beard award.
Down by the water, a motley mix of businessmen in ties, fishermen in wellingtons, tourists in Birkenstocks and oaps in comfortable white sneakers gather at Becky’s Diner. You won’t find haute cuisine here but everyone in town mentions the place to you and the experience is a pure slice of Americana. A lanky dock worker sits on a metal stool next to you and orders French toast from a waitress who calls him “Hon”. She brings him coffee and he pours in sugar from a dispenser. And pours and pours and pours. Perhaps because Portlanders need a little sip of something to keep the cold out, the town also has more than two dozen microbreweries. Take Urban Farm Fermentory, which produces alcoholic kombucha and mead in an hq with psychedelic frescoes and a pungent, yeasty smell. Out back they are using waste from a tank of tilapia to fertilise basil plants. Think of how self-righteous you’ll feel when you eat that pesto.
To really get a sense of Portland, though, you have to head out to the islands in Casco Bay, as the residents do on balmy summer days. Perhaps you’ll doze in a wicker chair on the porch of the Chebeague Island Inn. Or you’ll take the ferry to Peaks Island, where residents drive around in golf carts and there are no traffic lights. Existence is simpler here. The motto of the island’s only store is “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.” Everywhere you look is a postcard, a composition of three elements: white clapboard houses, green coastline, pewter-blue sea. Beauty is readily accessible in Portland. You can walk your dog on the beach every morning. You can sail, kayak, ski, snowshoe.
But if Portland were no more than its aesthetic delights, its food and its leisure spots, it would be just another hollow seaside town. The working waterfront, with its tangle of masts, pulleys, cables and ropes, is part of what gives the city its soul. It’s true that there are fewer fishing boats today – around 40 or 50 boats are based in Portland – but you can still watch an auction at the Fish Exchange, where salty men sit at computers and bid on the day’s catch. Gleaming fish wait in a chilled warehouse next door, some gutted so that the powerful stomach acid can’t leak out. Near another warehouse, three men wearing Crocs (style hub it’s not) and shorts catch glass eels, which can sell for $2,300 a pound. “Some of these guys made a million dollars,” says George Parr, who buys fish for Fore Street.
All of this is Portland’s present. City leaders see entrepreneurs and creatives as the economic key to its future – people like John McVeigh, who sings at the New York Met and also makes jewellery, or Carolyn Mix and Darcy Doniger at the 2 Note Perfumery. They talk about attracting 10,000 such people to Portland in the next 10 years. They might come for the art scene, anchored by an acclaimed college that sends students to Yale and an enchanting downtown studio complex that was formerly a hotel for travelling salesmen. Or for the neighbourhoods that have suddenly become hip, like Munjoy Hill, with its coloured clapboards and independent businesses.
The walk up the hill takes you past the octagonal Portland Observatory, a maritime signal tower from 1807. Perhaps you will stop at the Rosemont – a grocery store that helps hold this neighbourhood together – for locally baked bread and New England cheese. Fog is drifting through the trees and past the rooftops, yet you feel the warm sun on your back. Somewhere lost in the mist above you, a seagull is calling. And you think to yourself, what a curious, peaceful, pretty town. And you continue up the hill.
Why we love it
You can’t eat more locally than fish and lobster right off the boats in the harbour.
Portland is famed for its tolerance and is home to more gay bars than most tiny towns.
It’s close enough to Boston and New York for weekend trips – but not too close.
You can get away from it all by simply hopping on a ferry to the Casco Bay islands.
The people who live here – relaxed, friendly and welcoming.
Congress Street has seen a remarkable revitalisation but the homelessness problem must be addressed.
Portland is admittedly already on the case, but it needs to pull in more creative types.
The main waterfront strip should be geared more towards pedestrians, with broader pavements and more beautification.
“Our biggest export is our children,” says chef Sam Hayward. This out-migration should be stopped.
Urban Outfitters just opened downtown. Keep these cookie-cutter stores to a minimum.