03 August 2017

A Perfect Day in Portland, Maine: Coffee, Food, Shopping, Lighthouses

The city of Portland, Maine, lies about 100 miles north of Boston and is the Pine Tree State's largest city, although still compact and easily explorable on foot or bike. The route from Gloucester, MA, where we are staying passes by Portsmouth and Kittery, which we visited last week, but I wanted to spend a full day in and around Portland and it's a relatively straightforward two-hour drive up the I-95, so we decided to make two separate trips. If you are car-free, the train from Boston takes about 2h30, so it's just about do-able as a day trip, although there's enough to do in and around Portland to keep you occupied for two or three days.

We first made a detour to Freeport for a brief bit of outlet shopping. The stores and range of clothing and other products were pretty similar to those in Kittery, so unless you're a big shopper or bargain-hunter, you probably don't need to do both. I did get to try a cortado from the branch of Maine roaster Coffee by Design in L.L. Bean's flagship store, which was decent and probably your best bet for coffee in Freeport.

It was just after 1:00 pm before we arrived in downtown Portland, and after parking, we headed straight down to the waterfront. As Portland's name suggests, the harbour is a working port and isn't especially photogenic, but I loved the red-brick pavements and buildings of the shopping- and eating-centric downtown area. As it was relatively late for lunch and I was by myself, I thought I'd have no problem getting a seat at the bar in three of the eateries I'd identified, all on Middle Street: burger bar Duckfat, hip but relaxed East Ender and oyster-lover's paradise Eventide.

There was a 30-minute wait at all three, however — a sign of the rise and rise of Portland's foodie identity — but they let me stand at the bar at Eventide. I would define this as the best seat in the house as I got to watch the expert shuckers at work. I had a half-dozen of local oysters and they were among the best I've ever head: fresh and delicious. I also loved the frozen kimchi and frozen red onion relishes they came with.

I also stopped by The Holy Donut, which sells hand-made doughnuts made — surprisingly — from potato. Try to get there early if you go, as they only had lemon doughnuts left by the time I arrived ("it's our third biggest seller, though"). I had one anyway and it was excellent. I also tried some samples from new doughnut and coffee joint, HiFi, which were delicious. Condé Nast Traveler has plenty more inspiration for how to eat your way around Portland in 72 hours.

Hunger satiated, I spent some time browsing the shops in the Old Port area, roughly between Congress Street and Commercial Street. There are lots of great boutiques and independent shops, particularly those selling locally produced or locally themed goods — it's clear how much pride the Portlanders have in their city and their state. Some shops I liked include: K Colette (interiors), Blanche + Mimi (interiors and antiques), Rough & Tumble (accessories and beautifully soft leather bags), Judith (clothes), Pinecone + Chickadee (gifts, especially Maine-themed; pictured below) and Longfellow Books.

By then, it was coffee o'clock again. I had three places on my list and they were all relatively close together. All three had great coffee, plenty of character, thoughtful design and an excellent selection of merchandise.

Bard Coffee
Located on Middle Street in the heart of the Old Port and named for an ancient order of Celtic minstrel poets, Bard Coffee was the first speciality coffee shop I visited. The bright and thoughtfully decorated café was a lovely place to sit and enjoy a coffee on such a sunny, sweltering day. I was tempted to have a cold brew but went for a cortado in the end with the High Tide espresso, a Central American/East African blend. The cortado was really excellent — a very well-balanced shot with latte art that persisted right to the bottom of the glass.

If I had had a little more time, I would have liked to try one of the pourovers too: there were five single-origin coffees on offer (including a decaf, if you're that way inclined); one of them, the Honduran Bertilio Reyes, was also available as a Chemex for two. There are retail bags for sale (they have lovely packaging) — if I weren't already fully stocked, I'd have liked to buy a bag of the Kivu Butembo from Congo.

Bard Coffee is located at 185 Middle Street nr Exchange St. Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Speckled Ax
South-west of Bard on Congress Street, Speckled Ax was my next stop. I got a very warm welcome at the cosy, rustic café, whose roastery is based just outside the city centre in South Portland. As the name suggests, there is something of an axe theme, with a print of the titular speckled axe displayed on the wall behind the seating area. The café has been open for about five years but owner Matt has been wood-roasting coffee using local hardwood since 2007.

Speckled Ax is quite small and slender, with a few seats and small tables in the front, and a few bar stools at the counter. There were four single-origin coffees available (including one decaf), with siphon, pourover (hot), Aeropress (over ice) and cold brew available as well as the usual espresso drinks. I ordered a pourover with a Kenyan Gakuyuini AB coffee, which had lovely floral and slightly sweet notes. I also loved the axe-branded serving trays. There are bags of beans and various cool mugs and flasks available too.

Speckled Ax is located at 567 Congress Street bet. Oak St and Forest Ave. Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Tandem Coffee and Bakery
Tandem Coffee was the only Portland roaster I'd tried before visiting the city, most recently at Render in Boston's South End (it's also available at Sandpiper Bakery in Gloucester, MA, but I haven't been able to stop by yet). There is a café and the roastery on Anderson Street in the East Bayside neighbourhood, but it closes at 2 pm on weekdays (noon on Saturdays) and by the time I'd had lunch, it was already closed. However, I did get the chance to visit their beautifully designed café–bakery located in a converted gas station on Congress Street in the West End.

I loved the bright interiors, accented with gorgeous pops of colours, particularly in the small seating area in the room adjacent to the coffee bar and counter. As with the other Portland coffee shops I visited, there is a great selection of merchandise available and I love the quirky tandem-branded coffee packaging.

I was running out of time so I ordered a cortado with the West End Blues espresso, which varies seasonally and is currently a blend of Colombian, Brazilian and Ethiopian coffees. I thought the espresso worked well as a cortado and I enjoyed sipping my coffee in the serene and colourful setting. The baked goods — and especially the pies — are supposed to be particularly good here (go early for the best selection), but I was saving space for another Maine delicacy...

Tandem Coffee and Bakery is located 742 Comgress Street nr Carleton St. Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Fellow blogger Brian, of Brian's Coffee Spot, has spent more time in Portland than I, and you can read his reviews of some of the city's coffee shops here.

Lighthouses & Lobster Rolls
There are six lighthouses in and around Portland and you can either drive between them or take a tour on land or by boat. We decided to visit Portland Head Lighthouse, the oldest (dating to 1791) and perhaps the most iconic. Located in Fort Williams Park on Cape Elizabeth, it's about five miles south of the Old Port and only took about 15 minutes to drive there. We arrived just before 5:00 pm and the light was lovely, allowing for some great photo opportunities. There's a small museum and shop, which had already closed, and the park is great for a coastal wander. If you're feeling peckish, the lobster rolls at the Bite into Maine food truck came highly recommended.

We followed the coast road down to the southern tip of Cape Elizabeth, arriving at The Lobster Shack at Two Lights just before 6:00 pm. Various family members and I have been doing the lobster roll tour of New England this holiday, inspired partly by Yankee Magazine's feature on the best lobster rolls in Maine. Over a period heir food editor Amy Traverso sampled almost two dozen and, having devised her criteria (including portion size, saucing and ambiance), ranked them all. Scoring 9.57 out of 10, The Lobster Shack came in first.

There was already a big queue outside the shack and we had to wait about 20 minutes to order and another 15 before our food came out, by which point the sun had dipped into the clouds. However, it was hard to mind when the picnic table seating offers a glorious panoramic view of the waves crashing into the rocks and the Portland harbour. My dad and I both had lobster rolls and they were indeed superb. There was a little too much mayo for my taste but it was served on the side (as it should be) so that you could mix it in with the meat when you are ready to eat. The meat was juicy, flavoursome and just sweet enough, and the setting and the view get 10/10 for sure. I wish I had somewhere like this I could go to on a sunny evening!

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  1. Hi Bex,

    Thanks for the link! I love Portland: such a compact, relaxed city. You hit all the highlights, coffee-wise, other than Tandem's Roastery, but you can save that for another trip :-). I hope you said hi from me :-)


    1. Thanks, Brian. I'm still inspired to try your Portland-to-Portland cross country adventure one day; it sounded wonderful!