If there's a prettier spot in which to eat fresh lobster, I haven't found it. On nice days, boats chug past as you dine on picnic tables at the edge of the ocean. In the stormy spring and fall, the green and white-foamed sea writhes and crashes dramatically in an unparalleled dinner show watched from the warmth of the restaurant's small dining room.
Good place to unwind
I spent a couple of days reacquainting myself with the heart of Portland, although I stayed all but the last night outside the city, first in the Scarborough roadside motel, then Friday night at the Higgins Beach Inn. It's a romantic throwback of a building that has been added onto over the decades and now has a comfortable, laid-back feel that might be a little too rustic for some -- no phones or TVs in the rooms. The neighborhood is vintage Maine beach town, made for unwinding and doing nothing but reading, splashing in the waves or building sand castles.
And it's only a 10-minute drive from Portland. After watching the sand castle construction on the beach Saturday morning, I grab breakfast and head into the city, where local tourism revolves around the Old Port, which has been transformed over the last 30 years from dingy wharves into an energized neighborhood of shops and restaurants.
The city has paid close attention to maintaining the flavor of the past. The Old Port's mostly 19th century brick buildings house locally owned artists' outlets and co-ops, brewpubs and souvenir shops intermingled with restaurants and small nightclubs. The highly regarded Hugo's -- chef Rob Evans' resume includes Napa Valley's French Laundry -- is a couple of blocks away.
But this isn't a neighborhood just for tourists. Lobster boats drop off their catches at the wharves, where fresh seafood is sold from tanks and iced bins. Nearby is the pier for the Casco Bay Lines' yellow-and-white ferries that service island communities. I buy a $6.25 round-trip ticket for a morning run to Peaks Island, about a mile across the bay, where the Fifth Maine Regimental Museum overlooks Whitehead Passage.
Portland's beauty obscures a military past. Ft. Gorges, a three-story sod-roofed garrison, seems to float out in the bay where it was built atop Hog Island Ledge in the mid-1800s. During World War II, Hussey Sound, just off the eastern tip of Portland's peninsula, was a staging area for naval ships escorting North Atlantic convoys.
At the regimental museum, snatches of this history are encased in glass and reflected in displays of what life was like for soldiers deployed to fight Hitler from these rocky, sparsely populated islands. More of it can be found, too, in the small museum at Portland Head Light, one of the nation's first lighthouses, which I see for a few minutes as the ferry chugs back to the mainland.
I get lost in even more history at the Portland Museum of Art, a pleasantly rich collection of works by such Maine artists as Homer and the Wyeths, plus sculptures and paintings by Rodin, Cezanne and Degas. The museum wraps around a local landmark, the McLellan House, built in 1801 for a local shipping fleet owner and incorporated as an exhibit in the museum.
Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow grew up in a brick house on Congress Street, and it's now a museum of period furniture and styles just down the peninsula from the art museum. I visit its garden, a long and narrow sanctuary from a warm and muggy afternoon. The place is mine alone, and I rest my legs amid flowering hydrangeas and hyacinths, stands of ferns and lush green lilacs and small birches. Bees and butterflies slice through the air as white gulls reel and screech high overhead.
Portland is a good walking town, and from the Longfellow home I meander down Congress, poking into shops along the way. I consider walking up to Munjoy Hill, the peak of the peninsula, to visit the Portland Observatory, an 87-foot-tall wooden tower shaped like a lighthouse but built as an observation station, allowing the harbormaster to keep track of who was coming and going. (You can climb to the top for a spectacular view of the harbor.)
I choose the path of least resistance downhill to Monument Square and its 1883 statue honoring the Civil War dead, then cut to the right near the Portland Press Herald building, where my grandfather worked for decades on the newspaper's city desk, and back down to the Old Port and Commercial Street Pub.
The bar occupies a corner across from a line of red-brick buildings hiding the wharves, and on this late afternoon, has the settled feeling of a busy workday transitioning into playtime.