Maine's great – even if you hate lobster

Portland, Maine, is becoming a popular weekend destination for gourmets

When the travel editor dispatched me to Portland, there was something I should have disclosed to her. Maine is home to a monster that terrifies me: the lobster. I mean, here's a creature that's practically a mixture of arachnid, scorpion, crab, and cockroach – what's to like?

It's not as if I haven't tried to overcome my aversion. A few years ago, I tried ordering one off a menu. But when I saw the size of the claws on the plate, it looked more like it was about to eat me than the other way around. With just a mere knife and fork to defend myself, I opted for discretion over valor and swapped dishes with my companion.

I wondered if it would be possible to spend an entire weekend in Maine without having to eat a lobster, but I gamely set off to the rustic land of lighthouses.

I'm glad I did. Maine's largest city – comprised of just 62,500 people – offers a very gratifying weekend getaway.

The best way to experience Portland is to start at the top. The lounge at the top of the Eastland Park hotel has the best view of the city – truly spectacular at dusk.

Actually, it's the bay rather than the urban detail that draws the eye first. There are dozens of little boats, but little traffic apart from ferries departing the harbor. An impressive miniature archipelago of more than 700 islands of all shapes and sizes are silhouetted against the horizon as the light of the setting sun slices between them.

From that lofty vantage point, the cityscape is less arresting. It's only at street level that Portland's character becomes evident. Actually, the streets aren't level at all – the heart of the town is paved with cobblestones, and many of the roads have a slight incline. Even so, this is a town well-suited to walking – and shopping.

In an age of malls, it's refreshing to visit a place where stores have welcome mats outside their entrances and hanging baskets of flowers above door frames. Here, art stores rub elbows with antique sellers, jewelry stores, toy stores, and pottery studios. You can buy perfumes next to a store that specializes in goods from Scandinavia, which is worth visiting just for its imported chocolate-bar selections.

These tourist-suited establishments have worked hard to create a quaint, rustic appearance – 20 years ago, few of them were here. Before this downtown area became an arts and cuisine bazaar, the red-brick buildings were largely in disrepair, often empty. It was a growing community of artists, initially attracted by low rents, who set gentrification into motion.

Portland's origins as a working port since 1632 are still in evidence. The farmers of the sea still rise before dawn, often congregating at Becky's diner on the waterfront as early as 4 a.m. Well, so I'm told. I can't claim to have been around to verify that.

Thank goodness Becky's welcomes late risers such as me. By 9 a.m. on a Saturday this establishment is filled with a mix of locals and outsiders eating from a kitchen that serves up everything from fresh cantaloupes to crepes. (And there's not a single mention of lobster on the breakfast menu, which is a plus.)

From Becky's, you can opt for excursions on either land or sea. The neighboring marina offers personalized boat trips into Casco Bay. But a less expensive way to get close to seals and marvel as they slip beneath the Atlantic without creating a ripple is to take a ride on America's oldest ferry service. The sunset cruise ferry stops at all of the major islands, while the daily three-hour mail boat run offers an even more extensive tour.

Afterward, you can visit Custom House Wharf's many hole-in-the-wall eateries for a fresh catch of the day.

The non-nautically inclined can catch a trolley tour almost directly across the street from Becky's. It's a great way to get a quick overview of the city, its layout, and its history.

The driver gave us a knowledgeable overview of Portland's history and landmarks. As we passed a life-size mural of whales on a wall of Hobson's Wharf near an alley of lobster restaurants, we were told that well over a century ago, the crustaceans had once been considered beggars' food, fit only for consumption by jailed prisoners.

For perhaps the first time in my life, I found myself feeling something approximating pity for criminals under lock and key. It's not as if the prisoners had Amnesty International around to campaign on their behalf to get something besides lobster on their menus.

I was cheered, however, to hear that a law was eventually passed to halt the feeding of lobsters to inmates more than three times a week.

But the relief of that news was tempered by the tour guide's factoid that approximately 53 million pounds of lobsters are caught in Maine each year.

Oh. That hardly narrowed the chances of my avoiding one.

The multicolored buoys of lobster pots were certainly evident at a 15-minute pause at Fort Williams park, a lovely picnic spot and home to one of Maine's 67 lighthouses.

Alas, all too soon we are departing this lovely view and heading back past the Cape Elizabeth neighborhood. The homes in the town's suburbs lend promise to the state's license-plate motto – Maine: The Way Life Should Be. The leafy, quiet lanes and gentle sloping hills are lined with enviable late-1800s Federal- and Georgian-style architecture.

As the trolley enters the city, I am struck by the predominance of red-brick buildings. Again, a tour-guide explanation: Firecrackers burned Portland down July 4, 1866, and the city rebuilt with brick rather than all-too-combustible wood.

Hungry following our mid-morning tour, we headed to the Portland Public Market, a source of pride in a city that has become a beacon for gourmets over the past decade. One by one, top chefs have come to Portland to make their mark in waterside restaurants. But of all the food establishments available, the one that every true foodie and casual tourist must visit is the Public Market. Here, more than 20 stands offer the finest from Maine's farmers.

If, like me, you have trouble picking from 31 flavors of ice cream, you'll be both delighted and flummoxed by the enticingly presented varieties of seafood, salads, cheeses, fruits, meats, and breads at the stalls. Fortunately, there are free samples galore.

Just a few minutes walk from the market is one of Portland's oldest houses, the childhood home of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

More interesting is Victoria Mansion. The home's main draw is its stained-glass windows, which would put most chapels to shame. If that prospect doesn't make you glassy-eyed, check out the Stein Gallery of Contemporary Glass where the artistic possibilities of glass are stretched to their limits.

If there's one must-see museum, it's the Portland Museum of Art. It has an impressive selection ranging from Munch, Rodin, Wyeth, Homer, and Magritte to marquee attractions such as Courbet, Renoir, and Monet.

Come dinnertime, every local can offer suggestions on the best places to eat..

As for me, well, I wasn't able to avoid lobster. When I visited Decoupage, an upscale restaurant inside the Eastland Hotel, it was one of the courses on a set menu. Help! Would I have to operate on a lobster? (Waitress, would you pass me the scalpel and the nutcracker-thingy?)

As it turned out, the lobster wasn't in a shell at all. The meat was mixed with a croissant, tarragon, and assorted spices inside the shell of a large caramelized onion. And I have to admit that, like the restaurant's other dishes, it was good.

I still can't say that I'll don a lobster bib inside a Portland restaurant in the future, but I will definitely return to experience the way city life should be.

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