Destination of the week: Portland, Maine
Get out your walking shoes and check out this city by the sea.
Tue, Jul 06, 2010 at 09:05 AM
ON THE WATER: A ferry leaves Peaks Island on its way to Portland, Maine. Ferries are a great way to see Maine's famed rocky coast and islands. (Photo: Robert F. Bukaty/AP)
Maine is one of America’s most natural states. Inland forests and mountains, rugged coastline and vast, sparsely populated areas make it ideal for visitors to the Northeast who want a low-key, low-impact, nature-themed vacation.
Portland is Maine’s largest city, though with fewer than 70,000 inhabitants, it is hardly “large” by U.S. standards. Its shops, lighthouses and seaside vibe make it one of the state’s biggest tourist destinations and a favorite summertime hangout for New Englanders. It is only 100 miles north of Boston, making it the most accessible spot to introduce yourself to the Northeastern-most state in the U.S.
The city boasts shops, restaurants and a vibrant nightlife scene. It is a walkable place, with all central areas easily traversed on foot.
Portland sits at the center of a small metro area that includes Freeport (home of L.L. Bean’s flagship store), several popular islands and plenty of hiking trails. Visitors will find there's no need to travel to the state’s interior to get a taste of its natural landscapes.
Portland, like the rest of Maine, has a high number of bed and breakfasts. These small-scale inns offer a viable alternative to the sometimes impersonal, energy-eating mega-hotels. Many regular visitors will claim that bed and breakfasts or small inns are the only way to get an authentic Maine vacation experience. In greater Portland, the most notable of these small sleeping spots is the Wild Iris Inn, which is within walking distance of Portland’s arts and shopping districts. The Iris has an impressive green policy. It uses solar panels to power outdoor lights, the rooms have biodegradable plastic cups, and high efficiency heating and lighting systems have recently been installed.
Freeport’s Harraseeket Inn is larger than a B&B, but keeps a similarly intimate vibe. It is one of Conde Nast’s top 500 hotels, and as a member of the Green Hotel Association, says it is committed to reducing waste and increasing energy efficiency. Harraseeket’s packages include adventures in some of the natural areas around greater Portland.
The Inn by the Sea, only 10 minutes from Portland, is a high-end resort and spa that is (surprisingly — for such an exclusive place) heavily invested in conservation and preservation of the natural coastline on and near its grounds.
Portland is an extremely walkable city. At least, that is the case during the summer, when there are no icy winds blowing in from the North Atlantic. All of the city’s central districts, including the refurbished Old Port and the restaurant-and-gallery-heavy downtown area, are easy to navigate with no more than a decent pair of shoes. Getting to outlying areas or popular destinations in the Portland metro (such as Freeport and Bailey Island) requires a car. Some attractions, such as the Bird Sanctuary on Mackworth Island (see below), can be reached via Portland’s bus system.
Mackworth Island, a bird sanctuary, has one of Portland’s most accessible trails: a path that circles the entire island. Yes, bird watchers will have a chance to see avian wildlife, but the walkway is also great for those who want to get some views of the seashore and Portland’s scenic Casco Bay. Peaks Island (accessible by ferry from Portland) is another convenient place to take a hike and find picturesque views of southern Maine’s coastal waters.
Audubon’s Mast Landing Sanctuary, just a short distance from Freeport, Maine, is another great birding spot, though the quiet trails are a welcome attraction for anyone who visits Maine for the nature.
There is no shortage of fresh food in Portland. Portland’s farmers market runs from May through November. The stalls are set up on Monday and Wednesday at Monument Park and on Saturday morning at Deering Oaks Park. It is easy to find vegetables (many of them organically grown), though flowers, honey and chees are also on the menu. For those who visit Maine during the colder months, an indoor version of the market is held every Saturday.
Seafood fans who want to enjoy the day’s catch can find just-out-of-the-water marine edibles at seaside retailers like Harbor Fish Market.
As the salt-scented breeze will remind visitors, Portland is a seaside city. Plenty of on-the-water activities are available, including whale watches and lobster fishing trips.
Though it is not practical for fishing or whale-watching, wind-powered vessels are the greenest cruise option. Portland Schooner Co. offers visitors a chance to ride the Atlantic on an authentic sail-powered vessel built in the style of a classic schooner. Meanwhile, Maine Sailing Adventures offers cruises and sailing lessons on more modern boats. Kayaking is also a popular pastime, with outfitters found at seaside destinations like Kennebunkport, along the southern coast.
L.L. Bean, whose flagship store is located in Freeport, is known for its rustic-looking apparel. The retailer hosts a summer concert series each year on the lawn outside its store. This summer, events will include a green expo with exhibits focusing on conservation, as well as a handful of eco-friendly activities. The company has made other environmentally friendly efforts, printing its famed catalog with recycled paper and building half a dozen stores that have received the coveted LEED certification.
The greater Portland area is the most accessible part of one of America’s most natural states. There are enough low-impact activities in the city, forests, coasts and on the water to keep green-minded travelers entertained in a thoroughly eco-friendly way.
Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.
MNN homepage photo: ragingwire/Flickr