Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Rise of Portland, Maine

Article and Photo by Eric H.
File Portland, Maine, under "Most Improved City" in New England.

This isn't one of those personal honors that found 1/20th of the city to have improved significantly, or eating at a memorable restaurant that used our appetites to think favorably of Portland. This is an honest-to-goodness, first-hand traveler's account of one who once couldn't wait to leave Portland, but who now can't wait to leave for Portland.

Portland's renaissance is the real deal. While no city is immune from the urban blight that has us running for for the green suburbs or a rural spot getaway, Portland has improved enough to the point where we can safely say that it is a legitimate urban vacation destination.

Always perfectly situated on picturesque Casco Bay (and between rugged coastline to the east, north and south and scenic countryside and Sebago Lake to the west), Portland has always possessed a small-town charm within its big city leanings. The trouble was, the city seemed more possessed with a dark feeling -- empty storefronts, shady people standing in the alleyways, bad Chinese restaurants serving as the leaders of the local dining scene, and hotels in need of renovation so badly that even HGTV would give up on them (if they were around back then).

Now Portland is vibrant, with its "anchor," Old Port Exchange, offering several historic blocks of cobbled streets, beautifully restored Victorian brick buildings with many fine restaurants, cafes, microbreweries, art galleries, boutiques, upscale souvenir/gift shops, the famous Stonewall Kitchen, antique stores and much more. It is the perfect place for a trip-back-in-time stroll, with views of Casco Bay.

The cultural scene has painted an artistic sheen to to Portland with seemingly endless opportunities including the Portland Museum of Art, the Arts District with many art galleries, Portland Ballet, the Children's Museum and, the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

Portland's waterfront has also undergone an impressive renovation -- much like Boston's ambitious project -- with many new stores and restaurants. For dining, we enjoy Dimillo's Floating Restaurant, residing in a huge converted car ferry on the water. Specializing in fresh seafood, Dimillo's also offers great outdoor dining on the deck in the warmer weather.

On the recreation side, there's sailing on Casco Bay as well as minor league baseball and hockey teams (Portland Sea Dogs and Portland Pirates, respectively) for the sports enthusiast.

When staying in Portland, we enjoyed the Holiday Inn Portland by the Bay. This Holiday Inn seemed to be well above the norm with attentive service, elegant decor, very well-appointed rooms, a terrific indoor swimming pool, saunas, a fitness center, a restaurant going way beyond bland "hotel food," and most importantly, a short stroll to Portland's best attractions (like Old Port Exchange).

Portland certainly meets all the criteria you'd want in a city -- attractions, dining, hotels, etc. All these city features are great, indeed, but what gives Portland an edge is its tree-lined brownstone streets, fine old homes, wide-open spaces and an overall understated, quaint historical look. At times, when walking through neighborhoods in Portland, it's almost like strolling through a quiet village.

Another Portland gem: the Eastern Promenade offers a two-mile oasis that leads to Easter Enf Beach and incredible views of the White Mountains in New Hampshire!

With close proximity to boating, kayaking, skiing, golfing, mountain climbing, and biking opportunities, Portland really seems like a great foundation point for a Maine vacation. Ten minutes from downtown Portland in Cape Eliazbeth is For William Park, home of the Portland Head Lighthouse, one of the most photographed lighthouses in the country -- and with stunning ocean views, to complement this classic Maine coastal scene. Twenty minutes north of Portland is Freeport, Maine, where you'll find the original L.L. Bean Store and more than 170 outlets stores, designer shops, boutiques, bed and breakfasts, hotels, and restaurants! About 20 minutes from Portland is Old Orchard Beach, a little bit cheesy but fun with its arcades and amusement areas, an amazing stretch of sand beach on the ocean and a wide choice of dining options. About a half hour from Portland is Sebago Lake where the 1,400-acre Sebago Lake State Park offers a pristine lake scene and includes swimming, boating and a 250-site campground.

How many times have we read in the press about a renovated city, only to go there and say "What in the world were they talking about?" While Portland is like any other city with its areas of questionable elements, Portland is unlike most other cities in its small-town-meets-big-city presence -- and with the renovation to make it really work as a fine urban vacation destination.

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