Feature photo by shoothead. Photo above by GeneC55.
Maine’s biggest city may not have made it onto any official “green tourism” maps just yet. But for those seeking to leave no trace, Portland has plenty to offer. From the metropolitan air of Congress Street, to the clean-cut red brick of downtown and the Old Port’s quaint cobblestone…it can all be yours, o green traveler!
For most, a trip to Portland translates to hours on a turnpike clogged with New Englanders headed to “Vacationland” for the weekend. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Consider the Amtrak Downeaster, connecting Boston to Portland’s Transportation Center. Hail from elsewhere? Why not put together a longer train trip? Check out this page for all the Amtrak travel tips you’ll need.
The CAT pulls into the Portland International Ferry Terminal direct from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. It has a regular summertime schedule and is a great option if you’re coming from the Maritimes.
And, of course, Portland’s tiny International Jetport is always a last resort.
Hit the Streets!
Once you’ve arrived, the immediate area of interest is compact enough that you won’t need a car for any of it. Put your legs to work and rent a bike at Cycle Mania. Although bicycle lanes are sparse, you shouldn’t have any trouble with the city’s light traffic.
Portland’s METRO bus system can also get you where you need to go. A pass good for 10 rides goes for $11. All buses are equipped with front racks that hold up to two bicycles.
But on a breezy summer’s day, nothing beats your feet for a tour of the town.
The Green (and Blue) Outdoors
As temperatures rise, Portland residents flock outdoors to burn off all the calories accumulated during hibernation. Why not join them?
In the middle of town, tall trees, grassy knolls, sports facilities, and an attractive pond comprise Deering Oaks Park, the perfect place to while away an afternoon. For more of a workout, tackle the trails in the Fore River Sanctuary to the northwest. Though surrounded by sprawl, it’s possible to get lost from the sights and sounds of the modern world here.
A comprehensive listing of Greater Portland’s parks and paths can be found at the website of Portland Trails. If the online maps are too difficult to read, it’s only $4.95 to purchase the real thing.
Of course, the city’s coastal location is the main attraction for summertime visitors, and there are many ways to enjoy the ocean. Yes, swimming is one of them, despite the fact that average water temperatures top out at 62º. Heck, people even surf!
Whether you choose to enter the water or not, sand is essential. Willard Beach in South Portland is the closest, though you’ll probably want to journey a bit farther south to Crescent Beach State Park. Conditions here are nice, but expect crowds, especially on weekends.
Another way to take to the waves is by sea kayak. Headquartered on Peaks Island in Casco Bay, the Maine Island Sea Kayak Company offers tours to destinations near and far, as well as courses from beginner to advanced. H2Outfitters and Maine Kayak run trips starting farther up the coast, so you’ll need a car to get there.
The ferries of Casco Bay Lines make Peaks Island easily accessible from the Old Port. In addition to kayaking, the island has a great perimeter bicycle route, a couple beaches, a handful of restaurants, and a laidback atmosphere.
Arts & Culture
With nearly 400 years of history behind them, Portland’s historic districts deserve a look. Guided walking tours are your perfect low-impact choice and can be arranged at the Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Portland Museum of Art, and the Portland Observatory. Check here for self-guided itineraries.
For something a little more interactive, sign onto a sailing tour. With Maine Sailing Adventures, you’ll learn about local maritime history and witness the beauty of Casco Bay aboard an engineless, 19th-century windjammer replica. Lucky Catch Cruises, though not exactly green, gives you the chance to experience the life of a lobster fisherman.
But there’s more to Portland culture than the salty sea. Its aforementioned art museum is surprisingly chic for a city of its size, and admission is free on Friday evenings from 5 to 9. See the Portland Arts District webpage for a complete listing of museums and galleries. Each month during the First Friday Art Walk, downtown blossoms with exhibits to suit all tastes.
And don’t forget to partake of the obligatory Old Port shopping spree. When you tire of Maine knickknacks and bohemian curios, stop by Fiachre, a bright gardening shop on Fore Street, or Sea Bags, where recycled sails are crafted into attractive handbags. You’ll find this store/workshop on Custom House Wharf, off Commercial Street.
Eat (and Drink) Green
Portland’s surprisingly diverse population is reflected in its eateries. Vietnamese, Dominican, Polish, and Eritrean are among the more unusual offerings.
If local produce turns you on, make sure to hit up a farmers’ market. There’s one on Wednesdays from 7 AM -2 PM in Monument Square, while Deering Oaks Park hosts another on Saturday mornings. Both run from May through October.
Like most New England cities, Portland has its share of hometown breweries, so drinking local isn’t a problem. A rarer find, though, is Maine Distilleries, which turns Maine potatoes into the award-winning Cold River Vodka. Seek out this non-traditional attraction 15 miles to the north on Route 1.
Your greenest accommodation option lies south of Portland proper—Cape Elizabeth’s luxurious Inn by the Sea. Maine’s first carbon-neutral resort uses biofuels to heat its buildings and solar to warm its pool.
If you stay long enough to cycle through your suitcase, take your dirties to the good folks at Washboard Eco-Laundry. This environmentally conscious laundromat features energy-efficient machines, solar-heated water, and Earth-friendly services like wet cleaning. Keep clean while you go green!