Portland, Maine is a great place to visit any time (even in the winter!) but it’s hard to imagine a more exciting moment to have been there on the day they built the world’s longest lobster roll! The roll for the roll is seen arriving, above.
A big roll needs a big table, stretched out along the waterfront (above) and a big truck to bring it to town (below)
We were taking a late spring break in Portland, enjoying some of our favorite walks and restaurants, when we spotted an article in the local paper publicizing the next day’s event: an attempt by the West End Neighborhood Association to claim the Guinness record for lobster rolls.
Unfortunately, we weren't able to stay for the end of the festivities (we had a plane to catch) but we were able to watch a lot of the preparations, including the arrival of the roll…a roll so long (61 feet!) that it had to be baked in a special feed-through oven offsite. It was then hauled to the Portland waterfront on a specially-rigged trailer truck, and finally carried down Commercial Street to the site by a volunteer crew that included a Roller Derby team, on skates!
Pic at right, Tim Greenway/Portland Press Herald
The completed roll, assembled by volunteers from ingredients donated by local businesses (48 pounds of lobster, 4 gallons of mayonnaise, etc.) was measured by the mayor and Guinness officials and sold off in chunks to raise funds for the association. More details in the Portland Press Herald
As I mentioned above...lobster roll champions is only part of what Portland is. It's a small city, but a lively and cosmopolitan one, with one ear cocked to traditional and rural Maine, and one to the latest trends in food, clothing and design. It's definitely New England, but it has a hip edge to it.
Portland pops up in the gourmet magazines all the time, with such well-regarded places as Fore Street, Hugo's, Cinque Terre; some of these have more casual cousins. Vignola, one of our favorites, is paired with Cinque Terre for Italian; Hugo's French cooking is not as evident at Duckfat, which gets its name for the fat used to fry some of the best fries ever. Sandwiches there are great also.
Two of our greatest favorites, though, don't fall into the fine dining category. One is Becky's Diner, on the waterfront near the Casco Bay Bridge. It's always busy, and is popular with locals including fishermen and waterfront workers. Prices are moderate, and the selections include not only great breakfasts, but also great seafood, chicken and more. And it's run by an actual Becky.
One of the Cape Elizabeth lights, seen from the Lobster Shack
The other is the Lobster Shack, a 15-minute ride south of Portland at Cape Elizabeth, where not one, but two lighthouses guard the rocky coast. Service is casual: You order at a counter, and when your number is called, your food is ready. Quite reasonable prices for lobster, crabs, clams and more, and even a chicken offer for those who prefer. There are seats inside for colder weather, but most people sit outside on a sprawl of terraces looking down toward the water. The beach here is not sandy, and you quickly remember that phrase about the "stern and rock-bound coast of Maine."
Portland is a good base for a number of other favorite spots in Maine; it's just a short drive to Freeport, home of the original LL Bean Outlet Store (and these days about a million other outlets, so don't expect to find easy parking!). Heading south, you can visit two of our other favorite spots, Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge and Old Orchard Beach.
The Wildlife Refuge has an entrance at Wells, but there are a number of different areas. At Wells, there are trails through the woods and down to a tidal marsh, with a self-guided interpretive trail.
As for OOB, as signs and some locals refer to it, it's either best with children, or with an afternoon to play at being children. It's an old-fashioned family beach, with amusements and gooey food, fried food, frozen treats and all kinds of games on a pier sticking out into the water. Here's where you can lose yourself in the pleasantly tacky!
Portland also features some quite interesting in-town visits as well, including the Portland Observatory—built not for observing the stars, but to spot ships coming. Those who subscribed got first notice, and first shot at selling services and supplies to the captain and sailors. Also of note: tours of the Shipyard Brewery. This is the small but commercial producer; there are over 50 breweries of one size or another in Portland, claimed to be the most in any city in the world. (I doubt it, because they are counting every little brewpub, and there have to be more than 50 of those in cities such as London or New York alone).
The Portland Museum of Art is also worth a visit; it's a small but serious collection and includes a good bit of worthwhile regional work.
Casco Bay, which Portland faces, contains a number of large islands with both year-round and summer population, and a state ferry system serves them from downtown Portland. In summer there are a number of scenic routes as well, but even in winter it's worth taking the 15-minute ride to Peak's Island to wander the small roads and communities and look out over the water. A winter scene on Peak's below, and some others from spring and summer.
Aside from the typical brick waterfront buildings that are a feature of Portland (and have been since a post-Civil War fireworks display destroyed the old wooden waterfront) there are moments of architectural whimsy to be seen. Below, an entire small house, complete with patio, built on the roof of an 8-story commercial building, and below that, a monumental architectural dream made of nothing more than paint and illusion.
With all that, though, it would be a mistake not to set aside some time for just walking along a beach, and looking to see what the surf and seas have left behind.