Sometimes the grass is not greener in the other fellow's city. Take Portland, Maine for example. Portland isn't the distant cousin of Boston, Baltimore, or other places that have redone their waterfronts and infused their city with an urban community spirit. It stands on its own.
At first glance, the city has a Victorian feel to it — winding, cobbled streets, a scattering of pubs and inns, small specialty shops and grand homes and historic estates. But there's more than meets the eye. There's plenty of chic here and plenty of things for kids and families to do that are fun and educational year-round.
Church Turned Children's Museum of Maine
I love those places and activities that break down barriers between kids and adults, letting big and little people become equally enchanted and excited. The Children's Museum & Theatre of Maine (207/828-1234), located at 142 Free Street, Portland, ME 04101, does that.
Next door to the Portland Museum of Art (207/775-6148) on Free Street, the children's museum is the kind of place where kids can be kids– and grown-ups can be kids.
Formerly a Greek Orthodox church that was converted in 1971, it's as bright and cheery as the church was doubtless formal and serious. The staff has recognized what experts have been telling us: toddlers need stimulation at an early age, so they designed a fun series of interactive exhibits based on Portland's businesses and Maine's produce. Little ones (and big ones) can weigh fruits and vegetables in the country grocery store and scan the prices, a big favorite. They can do their banking, twirl the colorful, puzzle-like vault lock, and deposit their pennies in a huge penny bank. The bright, red fire truck is a big pull, but I especially liked the lobster boat. Surrounded by the sounds of the sea, the cry of the gulls and the haunting call of fog horns, I rolled with the waves slapping the sides of my trusty boat. I steered the craft through towering surf in search of my lobster pots when suddenly…well, anyway, that's what the place did to me. In summer, there's an outdoor shipyard where kids can explore the real thing.
The "Animal Hospital" is a perfect example of combining learning with sensitivity and fun. The "office" is filed with lovable stuffed animals that are so very life-like. Then there's the inevitable stethoscopes, needles (ugh!) and the stuff of an animal doctor's office. Anne says the kids really learn the healing power of medicine and overcome medical-related fears for themselves and their pets. They also learn compassion for their furry friends. What's also unique about this play area is its design: parents have a 180-degree view of their children from any point.
There's a cool diner and a theatre play area downstairs that makes preschoolers, who can immerse themselves in role playing, bubble with excitement. In conjunction with the local Maine Theatre Company, it presents live performances, many of them aimed at the younger kids, as well as regularly scheduled storytelling and day camps held over school holidays.
Upstairs is for older kids. A 2nd floor is filled with exhibits about sustainable logging and an L.L. Bean sponsored outdoors adventure area, a "please touch" tide pool filled with inhabitants from nearby Casco Bay; certainly enough for a full day of fun. On three, there's a TV camera so budding TV personalities can sharpen their skills, and there's a huge globe with strategically placed bar codes scattered around it. Spin the globe and the scanner reads the code and a profile of a Maine scientist and her world-wide location pop up on a computer screen, providing information about his or her work out there. Cool!
Portland Public Market, Once Again a Gourmet Mecca
One of the highlights for families is that in nice weather, the entire city is walkable. Not far away from the museums is what has arisen to take the place of Portland's former centerpiece: the Portland Public Market House (207/228-2056). Since the famous Portland Public Market closed in 2006 to enormous public outcry, a new group of civic-minded vendors opened a smaller alternative at 28 Monument Square, Portland, ME 04101.
Firm believers in the potential of the downtown area, this group of bakers and oenophiles and farmers has occupied a part of the old Haymarket Row buildings on the same square that used to house the original public market. Monument Square is also site of the weekly in-town farmers market; this proximity to the farmers has enabled them to support local businesses and promote locally grown produce.
Within this smaller structure (the original market was vast), the vendors represent more than a rich array of fruits, cheeses, wines — or a cornucopia of fresh Maine produce — arranged in a visually appealing series of indoor stalls.
Like their predecessor, they are committed to "growing" their offerings and reintroducing the popular cooking classes, interactive events, performances, and festivals that made the original Portland Public Market such an attraction. Until then, it's still a worthwhile stop and one that will educate the kids while satisfying their endless appetites.
In an exciting development that has met many hurdles (and will surely encounter more), another local development group has targeted a nearby three-block-square parcel of land to develop into the multi-facted, year round, James Beard Public Market, named in honor of the city's most famous foodie. Once completed, this should become a major draw for visitors as its predecessor once was.
Fishing Port of Portland turns Family Town
In a small city with such a high quality of life and a burgeoning economy, it's no wonder that many families have settled in Portland for their entire careers. That's why the city has evolved into such a family-friendly destination.
For a fun summertime outdoors adventure reminsicent of the old days, take a two-hour sail on Casco Bay with the Portland Schooner Company (87/SCHOONER, 207/766-2500). Their office is at the Maine State Pier, 56 Commercial Street, Portland, Maine 04112-0210, and ships sail from their dock on Commercial Street at the Old Port. During this 90 minute tour you can help hoist the sail or steer and you'll see the rugged coastline up close and personal, and seabirds galore. There are even half-day sails — perfect for toddlers — that include a delicious lobster bake on shore at lunchtime.
Lonely but fascinating restored lighthouses along the rocky coast also attract visitors and Portland Head Light (207/799-2661) in nearby Cape Elizabeth is a particular favorite. Located at 1000 Shore Road, Cape Elizabeth, ME 04107, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the oldest lighthouse in Maine; guiding ships since 1791.
Or, for landlubbers, just walking around Portland is an experience. The waterfront has been refurbished, the shops and eateries are accessible, attractive and friendly and the country is never far away.
Fun Kids Attractions for Portland Area Daytrips
Take some time to visit Smiling Hill Farm (800/743-7463), a short car ride away. Farmer Roger Knight is the real McCoy, a true Maine farmer… with a savvy approach to marketing his sustainably grown farm business. Part of the burgeoning agri-tourism movement which aims to save working farms by opening them up to tourists, Roger provides visitors with a real farm experience. He gives them a chance to know barnyard animals up close, to watch the egg-to-chick transformation, for example, at the Hatching House. A Maternity House barn allows guest-farmers to see the new arrivals, and the Smiling Hill Farm ice Cream shop makes its 150 flavors right on the spot with dairy products from the farm. This is a 500-acre farm for all seasons, established back in 1720, and Farmer Knight is an engaging guy. Kids and parents love him for his humor and down-east ways and accent.
All Aboard! The Maine Narrow-Gauge Railroad (207/828-0814) on Fore Street is home to the defunct railroad cars that once plyed the route of the Edaville Railroad in Carver, Massachusetts. The two-mile twenty-minute ride on these old-fashioned, toy-like trains is a ride into the past, but with today's views of Casco Bay, the harbor, lobster boats and the working of this unique city. If you're visiting between Thanksgiving and Christmas, don't miss a ride on their seasonal Polar Express.
Take them out to some type of ballgame for great, low-key and inexpensive family fun. Depending on the season of your visit, plan to attend a Portland Pirates (AHL Affiliate of the Anaheim Ducks) hockey game, or a Portland Sea Dogs (Eastern League Double A Affiliate of the Boston Red Sox) baseball game.
Portland Maine is a Shopper's Paradise
Legendary L.L. Bean (800/441-5713), open 24/7/365 is in nearby Freeport. There are endless activities and cool ways to test the merchandise within the huge, multi-wing store, as well as musical performances and demonstrations of unusual new tools and camping items almost every week of the year. Come here for everything from a T-shirt to a canoe, and while you're here, visit the many designer outlet stores — including an L. L. Bean Outlet Store, that line the streets of this otherwise not-so-interesting outlet town.
If the kids are less than thrilled, promise them a stop at Tree House Toys (207/775-6133) located at 47 Exchange Street back in Portland. Manager Pam Main believes her shop offers the best in quality toys and customer service. The dolls and puppets, for example, are often hand made and collector quality. The store has some fun events including teddy bear teas, bear making classes and story telling. "Imagination's the thing," Pam says and that philosophy has enabled her to open a new store in Portsmouth, New Hampshire as well.
Portland Maine Trip Planning Details
Where to stay? Always a question with families. We think an overnight visit to Portland is well-worth it and the news is good here.
Embassy Suites Portland (800/753-8767, 207/775-2200), at 1050 Westbrook Street, Portland, ME 04102 near the city's small airport, offers a good deal. The suite concept means two rooms, one with two double beds and a living area with a pullout sofa, so you can pack in a lot of kids. Besides rooms that allow for light cooking and refrigeration (and privacy), the Embassy provides a full complimentary breakfast, a two-hour cocktail reception also complimentary and, kids stay and eat free! There are some minor restrictions on these savings, depending on season, so check their website.
The Hampton Inn Freeport (800-HAMPTON or direct at 207/865-1400) is located in the heart of outlet store country at 194 Lower Main Street, Freeport, ME 04032, and is convenient to L.L. Bean. This hotel also provides a complimentary deluxe breakfast buffet. Here, children under 18 stay free all year long in the same room with adults.
We loved renting a room in a genuine, down-east lighthouse, but the Isle au Haut Lighthouse (207/460-0257) on Point Robinson in Isle au Haut, also known as the Keeper's House, is currently for sale. While the inn with four guest bedrooms (but no electricity, phones, TV or microwaves) is no longer open, a sweet cottage on the property still accepts guests on a weekly basis. Picture an incredibly beautiful island light house, gaslights, candles, kerosene lanterns, the waves… and thou! Maybe it's time for a change of lifestyle?
Eating Out is another important consideration. If anything, there are too many places to chose from in this small city of 70,000 residents. You can choose from several microbreweries. I personally think Gritty McDuff's Portland Brew Pub (207/772-2739) at 396 Fore Street, Portland ME 04101 is a winning place for families. This is a true old school brew pub, but the staff are friendly and kids love this place. Maybe it's the four-page tabloid menu with funny tall-tales interspersed among all those choices, or maybe it's all the fun stuff to look at, but if there isn't anything that you or your family will like on this wacky menu, I'll eat it! If you choose to make Freeport your base, never fear, there's a branch of Gritty's there as well as one in Auburn, Maine.
You can also participate in a culinary tour such as a 2 1/2 hour Culinary Walking Tour of the Old Port or a 2 hour Chocolate Lovers Tour hosted by Maine Foodie Tours. You will sample fresh lobster, smoked seafood, locally made chocolates and cheeses and get a chance to talk to the producers.
For more information on Portland and its surrounding area, visit the Maine Tourism Office website.
Additional accommodation suggestions can be found here, Portland Hotels.
Thanks to Fran Falkin, who stayed at the nearby Inn By The Sea, for her additional reporting for this update.
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