Spending your summers in Maine as a kid is both a blessing and a curse--it's the most idyllic place in the world…which means that every subsequent warm-weather season has you wishing you were canoeing on a lake, making a late-night visit to the 24-hour L.L.Bean flagship store, or getting lobster juice all over your Cool As a Moose tee, instead of sweating all over your silk, dry-clean only dress in an absurdly humid, practically land-locked city. (I live mere blocks from the East River and yet never feel like I'm near water.) Having spent seven of my childhood summers at a sleep-away camp just north of Portland, it has been a personal goal of mine to get up to Vacationland (no, really, that's its self-appointed nickname) as much as possible. Right now I'm at four times in four years--not bad for someone living in New York and Tokyo. The latest visit, earlier this month, was one of those blessed-cursed moments: I was spending the week in Vermont, doing all the things you fantasize about in the midst of winter--grilling farmstead corn and jumping off rocks at swim holes--but something was missing. Salty air. Gray ocean. Cups of melted butter. Blueberries (oh God, the tiny, real deal blueberries). Caution met wind and I woke up early one morning, gathered my things, typed a random Portland address into my GPS, and hit the road. Three hours later and there I was, driving past the run-down Funtown Splashtown USA in Saco where I would ride the watersides and hide candy to bring back in as contraband as a 12-year-old camper. Soon after that, I had arrived. Despite the Vacationland moniker, the best part about Portland, Maine is how un-touristy it feels. Yeah, trying to find a parking spot near the harbor is a nightmare, but even there you can run into some effortlessly cool, hole-in-the-walls.
Take Porthole Restaurant, which I wandered into on my way to the Sea Bags's shop/sewing space during my most recent visit just this month. Just around the corner from packed, visitor-filled lobster shacks, this vintage-styled spot serves up specialties like haddock sandwiches and blueberry pancakes. There's a vast deck where you can stare out at the lobster boats bobbing up and down, but I prefer to sit inside, near the arching counter and next to the worn piano. After lunch, I head towards Munjoy Hill. With its old captain's houses and locally sourced restaurants, it's the type of neighborhood that has me fantasizing about living full-time on the coast, where days start with a cup of Earl Gray tea while sitting out on a bench in front of the expanse of slate water and end curled up by the bay window in my two-story colonial. My snack en route is a basket of fresh berries I pick up from Rosemont Produce Company; a spin-off from the Rosemont Market and Bakery--with one location on the main strip in Munjoy Hill, natch--it's the love child of a farmer's market and a garage sale. (Souvenir alert: Their jars of Maine honey.) Walking up Congress Street, I pop into Angela Adams' flagship store.
She is Portland's latest star--trust me, you've seen her pop art rugs before--who is paying her success forward by showcasing a few of her favorite up-and-coming Maine designers. The standouts in the shop are the neon rope bracelets, necklaces, and key chains from Shana Aldrich Ready. Working under the moniker The Ropes, each piece is named after the state's famous destinations (Cape Elizabeth, Kennebunkport, Richmond Island). Following a re-fuel with a giant iced chai from Hilltop Coffee (if a cup of Joe is more your thing, Coffee By Design is the local favorite), I step out onto a suddenly dark street. Moments later, the sky opens up and, far from my car, am left to find a place to take cover. My rescue boat comes in the form of Eventide Oyster Co. Opened earlier this summer, the oyster and fish bar is more than just a dry spot; it's the type of carefully appointed--but hardly stuffy--restaurant that you wish was around the corner from your apartment, so you could go there on a weekly basis. Watching the pouring rain from my communal wooden table, with a spread in front of me (lobster stew! Roasted oysters! Grilled calamari salad!) and a zesty Bloody Maria in my hand (yes, I had a designated driver for the night), I no longer felt land-locked.
ADDRESS BOOK EAT The Porthole (20 Custom House Wharf, 207-780-6533) Eventide Oyster Co. (86 Middle Street, 207-774-8538) SNACK Hilltop Coffee (90 Congress Street, 207-780-0025) Rosemont Produce Company (5 Commercial Street, 207-699-4560) SHOP Sea Bags (24 Custom House Wharft, 207-780-0744) Angela Adams (273 Congress Street, 207-774-3523) The Ropes (theropesmaine.com