We stood on the cliffs, just a few feet from Portland Head, the tiny jut of land that marks the confluence of Casco Bay and the Gulf of Maine, and I knew I would need my thesaurus.
Awesome seems best. Not awesome as in, this is an awesome lobster roll. Awesome as in “when I in awesome wonder.”
The setting for Maine’s oldest lighthouse is awesome. The North Atlantic waves crashing into the rocky cliffs of the mainland, with Portland Head Light standing above it, alongside the charming lightkeeper’s house, now a small maritime museum.
Portland Head Light is Maine’s most iconic scene, and it’s breathtaking. Trish the Dish and I were there late Friday afternoon, after seeing the lighthouse from the water during a boat tour of Casco Bay.
Tramel’s travel blog: Visiting Maine’s Old Orchard Beach is a time machine
And we capped the evening with dinner a few miles down the coast at The Lobster Shack at Two Lights, a worthy supplement to Portland Head Light. Two Lights State Park is named for two more lighthouses, which I’d estimated to be a few hundred yards apart.
A strip of non-opulent homes leads to a cliff’s edge, where the lobster shack sits. The restaurant has 12 tables inside and 31 picnic tables on a small clearing adjacent to the bluff, above the sea. I have eaten many a dinner on the beach, a few times virtually on the sand. But at Two Lights, you can eat dinner literally on the edge of an Atlantic Ocean cliff.
What a day in Portland, one of America’s most underrated tourist meccas. Portland, Oregon, is a distant No. 2 in our country’s Portland rankings.
What is population of Portland, Maine?
Portland is Maine’s largest city, but with a population of just 68,408 in the 2020 census. That makes it about 56,000 people smaller than Norman. Portland’s metro population is 556,000, making it about the size of Modesto, California, or Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Portland has undergone a downtown renaissance in recent decades, with its waterfront. Portland has its own Bricktown story, the gentrification of downtown.
Businesses and retail fled downtown Portland in the 1970s, particularly with the construction of the Maine Mall in suburban South Portland. But downtown Portland rallied in the 1990s as the old seaport was revitalized with shops and tourists, building upon Maine’s reputation as a vacation haven. Lobsters are the No. 2 industry in Maine. Tourism is No. 1.
Tramel’s travel blog: Lobster BLT & leather shopping in beautiful, rainy Camden, Maine
Portland’s waterfront is notable for its brick buildings in a state where brick rarely is used in construction. Portland four times has been virtually destroyed by fire – once during conflicts with Native Americans in the 18th century, once during the French & Indian War in the 1760s, once during the War of 1812 and once in a fireworks-to-blame blaze of 1866. After the latter, built back not with the native wood products of Maine, but with brick.
Today, the Bayside neighborhood of downtown Portland is bustling with ships and shops, restaurants and tourists. Portland remains a busy seaport, and the maritime theme draws people from both sides of the globe.
The Dish and I walked Commercial Street on Friday morning and found all kinds of cool shops, many of them related to Maine’s history. One store had an incredible collection of kerosene lamps. Danged near burned my hand.
We grabbed a light lunch of chowder at Dewey’s saloon on Commercial Street, then walked across the street to the waterfront and checked in for our boat tour.
Portland Harbor contains 136 small islands, several of which have residents, a few of them even year-round. The Casco Bay Ferry transports people back and forth on the hour, including children to and from school.
Our tour gave us an up-close look at those islands, a few military forts from previous days and a variety of stately lighthouses. It was one of the more scenic boat tours we’ve taken, and we’ve taken a bunch.
Portland’s military history is vast. The British tried to get into Casco Bay during the American Revolution and succeeded in the War of 1812. And as recently as World War II, the U.S. strung submarine nets below the water from island to island, to keep German U-boats at bay.
Tramel’s travel blog: Life-sized rocking horses & blueberry pop in Bar Harbor, Maine
And the best part of the tour was Portland Head Light, seeing the great lighthouse built in 1791, set at the entrance of the primary shipping channel into Portland Harbor.
George Washington himself directed the construction of Portland Head Light, with the U.S. government giving $1,500 for the project. Even in 1791, that wasn’t enough. The people of Maine cobbled together the resources to finish the lighthouse.
The lighthouse has been modified over the centuries; today it stands 80 feet above the ground 101 feet above the water (seems more).
Today, the grounds and keeper’s house are owned by the city of Cape Elizabeth, an affluent suburb of Portland. But the U.S. Coast Guard owns and maintains the lighthouse, which still serves as a beacon for ships at sea.
After our boat returned to port, we walked back to our hotel and watched our granddaughter’s Alcott Middle School softball game via GameChanger, which indeed is a game changer. Thanks to live streaming via a cell phone, we can watch her play softball 1,800 miles away.
Then we headed out for Portland Head Light via our rental car, about a 20-minute drive from downtown Portland.
The lighthouse is part of 90-acre Fort Williams Park, owned by the city of Cape Elizabeth and also including the decommissioned and somewhat demolished Fort Williams, which was operational during the two world wars. But a variety of buildings remain. The city also constructed a one-mile walking trail hard by the cliffs. Quite a place.
Then came dinner at Two Lights. We had lobster rolls that were good – not the best of the week, but it was difficult to even care about the food, the view was so spectacular. Beyond the picnic area are not cliffs but rock formations that allow a gradual descent to the sea. Not particularly dangerous for kids.
Tramel’s travel blog: Maritime villages in Maine’s Mid-Coast
It was sundown, which means we had time for only one more activity. We drove to Freeport, about 20 miles north of Portland, to shop at L.L. Bean.
I wrote about the famed Maine retailer on our visit two years ago. The condensed story: Leon Leonwood Bean founded a company in 1912, selling a single item, the Maine Hunting Shoe, which people today call duck boots.
From that humble beginning, L.L. Bean has become a worldwide retailer. He set up a nationwide mail-order business. Sorry, Generation Z’ers, but Amazon did not invent the notion of home delivery for goods. The likes of the Speegle Catalog, Sears & Roebuck and L.L. Bean pioneered the concept.
Today, L.L. Bean sells a variety of outdoor gear, from hunting and fishing equipment to clothes and boots to firearms and tents. Over the years, L.L. Bean has opened retail and outlet stores in a variety of places, but its anchor remains Freeport.
The massive complex is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It includes a home goods store; a bike, boat and ski store; and a huge store that is half outdoors, half clothing.
What a place. We arrived about 8:30 p.m., spent about an hour and a half there, and lots of shoppers remained when we left. An employee told us few people shop in the middle of the night, when the store is restocked and set up for the next day, but occasionally celebrities come to browse in the wee hours.
I bought a shirt and a pair of pants. I figured they would be nice reminders of a special day in Maine, when I saw Portland Head Light from the cliffs and from the sea.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected] He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.