Day Tripping: 12 Hours in Portland

September 7, 2007
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A ride on the Casco Bay ferry offers a water view of this historic port city. Photo by Elliot Teel, courtesy of Flickr

One of the great paradoxes of Maine tourism is that few people are willing to travel from Boston to Portland for less than an overnight stay, but thousands will happily journey to nearby Kittery and Freeport for a day of outlet shopping. But this waterfront city is a worthwhile day trip, offering a mix of culture, shopping, outdoor adventures, and fabulous food. If you can make it to the bus station by 8 a.m. on a Saturday, you will have a full day to explore Portland and the surrounding Casco Bay — and still make it back in time to go out on Saturday night. We’ve mapped out your day in Maine, factoring in time for shopping, sailing, and three square meals (plus some extras).

10:30 a.m. — Second Breakfast at Standard Baking Company
By the time you arrive at the waterfront, you’ll be caught in the throes of the day-tripper’s dilemma: hungry, but afraid of spoiling your appetite for the lobster roll you’ve been dreaming of eating for lunch. Standard Baking Company (75 Commercial St., 207-773-2112) will tide you over with croissants, sugar-studded brioches, and strong coffee. If you prefer savories over sweets, the hearty rosemary foccacia is salty and tasty. Some might say that it’s too early in the day for a bag of the bakery’s rich chocolate sable cookies. Don’t listen.

11 a.m. — Salt Institute for Documentary Studies
A visit to the Salt Institute Gallery is like going to a museum whose exhibits are all about your quirkiest friends and family members. The Salt Institute has been teaching students from Maine and around the world about folklore and oral history for more than 30 years. The institute offers 15-week workshops in documentary photography, writing, and radio for graduate and undergraduate students, whose print work and photography are regularly published in Salt magazine. The whole multimedia experience is on display at the Salt Gallery (110 Exchange St., 207-761-0660), currently featuring Undertow, an exhibition of student work about the people of Maine. Recent subjects include a police officer who impersonates Elvis on the side and the regular riders of the Boston-to-Portland Downeaster train.

Noon — Lunch: A Two-Part Endeavor
Stroll back down to Commercial Street for that long-awaited lobster roll. Devotees dispute the proper ratio of lobster-to-mayonnaise and butter-to-bread, but at the Portland Lobster Company (180 Commercial St., 207-775-2112), it’s simple: tail, knuckle, and claw meat from freshly caught lobsters, doused in drawn butter, and served on a toasted hot dog roll — with mayo on the side. The recipe is clearly a success — the restaurant sells more than 10,000 each year.

Wander the waterfront until you’re ready for ice cream, then visit Beal’s (12 Moulton St., 207-828-1335), a family-owned business, with six locations throughout Maine, that makes the richest peppermint stick around.

1 p.m. — Shopping ’til You Drop (Anchor)
Portland isn’t exactly at the forefront of fashion, but there are always a few gems to be found at Mexicali Blues (9 Moulton St., 207-772-4080), a tiny import store that’s been dressing Mainers in 1970s style since 1987. The clothes and jewelry are imported from throughout Central America and South Asia, and the prices for unique yoga or weekend-lounging wear are more than reasonable. And speaking of lounging, Casco Bay Books (151 Middle St., 207-541-3842) is a pleasant place to sit and while away the hours before your harbor cruise begins. If you’d rather look for the latest indie releases, Bull Moose Music (207-780-6424) is downstairs in the same building. The company’s slogan is “Nothing Better. Nothing Cheaper,” and the selection of CDs on sale for $9.98 or less bears that out — John Legend, Billy Bragg, and the Garden State soundtrack are all in the bin.

2:45 p.m. — Rolling on the River

Enough of the mainland — it’s time to take to the waters of Casco Bay and explore its islands. You can do this via water taxi at any time, but the Casco Bay ferries will transport you in style and at a fraction of the price. The Casco Bay islands vary from largely uninhabited (Little Diamond, with just five year-round residents in the last census) to Peaks, which has enough people to warrant its own school system. Ferries run to all the islands throughout the day, and fares are collected only in Portland, so you can stay on board for a full tour of the bay or hop off at any point to explore. If it’s hot enough for you to brave the frigid Maine waters, rent a bicycle at Cyclemania (59 Federal St., 207-774-2933) or Peak Performance (59 Middle St., 207-780-8200) in Portland and get off at Long Island, where you’re just a short bike ride or a long walk from the city’s most beautiful beaches.

6 p.m. — Last Call
You’ve got a little more than an hour left before heading back to Boston — how to spend it? Eating, of course. If you’re not quite ready for a full meal, but wouldn’t mind some quiet time with a cold beverage, Rí Rá (72 Commercial St., 207-761-4446), the Portland outpost of this chain of Irish pubs, offers an upstairs seating area with lovely views of the waterfront. Hungry again? Walter’s Café (15 Exchange St., 207-871-9258) is housed in a funky duplex overlooking Exchange Street and serves food that matches any Boston restaurant for style and sophistication. Entrees range from $16 to $26. 

If by chance you’ve decided to stay overnight, make Fore Street restaurant (288 Fore St., 207-775-2717) your dinner destination. The food is legendary. So are the lines to get in.

Getting There: On Saturdays, the Concord Coach bus to Portland departs from South Station at 8 a.m. and costs $19.95 one way and $33.95 round trip; the last bus returns to Boston at 7:30 p.m. You can catch the Amtrak train back to Boston’s North Station at 8:10 p.m. for $23. The round-trip fare (the earliest train leaves Boston at 10:25 a.m.) is $35.70 with a Student Advantage card. 

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Day Tripping: 12 Hours in Portland