Portland, ME has become on of my more favorite nearby cities to visit. It is near and similar to Boston, yet the differences are striking.
Like Boston it was settled on a peninsula, unlike Boston they did not fill the surrounding harbors and bays. The city still feels like a peninsula with water surrounding three sides. The architecture is similar, but without the multiple high-rises. The streets are still narrow, and the traffic isn't overwhelming.
A couple weeks ago, my wife and I took our son to Portland, and one of the nicest things for him was the abundance of parks. There were many playgrounds, but the open space, fields, trees, ponds and hills alone were entertainment enough. Deering Oaks Park is particularly nice.
Our friends, Dorea & Angela, over at Carfree with Kids recommended the Eastern Promenade, above. They also noted that at the top of the hill is a great cafe and next to it is a little market where we also got lunch. This area is probably one of my favorites, with nice restaurants, beautiful old homes, the signal tower and an expansive view of the boats sailing across Casco Bay.
The promenade is near the top of a hill and it can be a long ride up to from the bike path, but well worth it. Speaking of bike paths, Portland has an ample supply. The back cove trail is nice with a crushed stone surface. Our favorite is the one along the bay just below the Eastern Promenade, it even has a narrow gauge tourist train, what more could one ask for?
The bike paths are primarily flat. The rest of the city is quite hilly. With modest traffic on a rather small peninsula with the abundant bike paths, cycling around the city remains a pleasure. Even the random cobble stone streets can be fun.
There is, of course, more to do than just bike around and go to parks. Here is a hand full of things we either did and would recommend, or would like to have time to have done ourselves:
- The Standard Baking Company, down by the old port, by far the best bakery I've been to.
- Portland Velocipede, a pleasant bike shop and they carry just about any urban utility bike that you may want, which includes a couple different bakfietsen!
- Local 188, a fabulous dinner and even better drinks. I would recommend a reservation.
- Children's Museum of Maine, we didn't get here but I've heard many good things.
- Casco Bay Lines, which is the local ferry service. Of particular fun in Portland as there are so many islands that you could go visit.
- Duck Fat Restaurant, after we returned I heard of this place and was sad that I missed it.
As for lodgings, we stayed at the Holiday Inn downtown. They had a small bike rack in the parking garage, which wasn't secure but was out of sight. It also had a door directly into the hotel and elevators making loading & unloading easy. The indoor pool was an added bonus.
The price was reasonable, and on the lower end for downtown lodgings. Some of the B&Bs are similar or less expensive. On past trips, we once stayed at the The Inn at St. John, which is inexpensive, quirky and a little far from the center of downtown. On another time we stayed at the The Percy Inn, which was a nice B&B on the border of the arts district and the west end neighborhoods, but a little far from the Old Port where most of the action is.
Portland is a fun place to be, and so is getting there from Boston. The Downeaster, an Amtrak train from Boston to Portland, is a great way to get there. The seats are comfortable, the conductors are helpful and the cafe car has decent food. For those, like us, wishing to take their bikes, well that is easy. The train has a large baggage car with bike racks, which we had used on a previous bike trip to Maine.
But this time we also had a cargo bike instead of two standard sized bikes. I knew it could fit in the baggage car, but I wasn't sure that would all work out. Luckily the train crew worked with us to get the baggage car open so we could get the two bikes in. Initially they wanted to put both bikes into the coach section; maybe they do not use the baggage car for bikes once summer has passed. Once in Portland the crew helped us get the bikes off the train, which would have been difficult to do it alone since the platform where the baggage car stops is 4' lower the car deck.
Worried that I would have to lift the bike back up the 4' when we left, asked the station agent for extra time to load. The agent requested that we load with business class. To our pleasure, they stopped the business class and baggage cars at the high section of the platform so we didn't have to lift the bikes.
I would definitely take large cargo bikes on the Downeaster again. Though I would definitely ask the Boston agent to let us board earlier.