Portland, Maine

Portland Portland, Maine

I had the impression that Portland was a big city by the water but as I drove down Commercial Street I realised that it is actually a quaint harbour city/town. The city itself has a population of only 65K. It doesn’t take long to drive around the main street area that consists of three to four story red-bricked buildings. I initially thought I might only spend two to three days there before moving on.

I booked myself into St Johns Inn which is a small (US) period building dating back 110 years. There was a guesthouse feel to the place. The lobby kept its old world antique feel and the bedroom had an endearing character as the walls were lined with paper you might find in your grandmother’s house. And even better, the water (or heating) pipes were also covered with the same wallpaper. Bygone days indeed and at USD55 per night the place had more soul than any Marriott.

Portland is famous for it’s seafood and being a harbour town I headed there to try the catch of the day. I could smell the harbour before I could see it. Must have been low tide. The city’s activity be it food, shops or bars are all concentrated around Commercial Street, Fore Street and Wharf Street. I spent the first day rambling and found the Portland Lobster Company and ate my first Lobster burger. A must try place which sits on the harbour, relaxed atmosphere and jazz bands during the evening. Later on I had three random encounters that made my day and actually set up the rest of my time in Portland.

I met a family on the Portland tour boat trip who I later joined for dinner. Good fun and they gave me a great tip to visit Bar Harbour. Marcus, who runs a pub, threw me a beer and gave me the excellent tip to go to Peak Island for Reggae Sunday. Morgan (strange name for a girl) and her boyfriend later that night in one of the many live music bars. She had just come back from a three-week holiday in Ireland. Good holiday stories and she drank as much beer as any Irishman or woman.

Portland is quite a musical town where everyone seems to be a musician or a groupie. For such a small town I was surprised to see so many bars that play live music. Good stuff too. However all bars close at 1.00am and are cleared by 1.30am. I felt somewhat disappointed initially as I’m normally coming into full stride then. As I waited for a taxi the only sound of life was that of the seagulls overhead. No bad thing in the end, entices people out earlier and to go home at a reasonable time.

As a lover of seafood, I was in my element in this port town. I eat fish and crustaceans all week. This is one of the few places where I’d believe that catch of the day meant so. So fresh you could almost taste the seawater.

On Sunday, I went to the weekly Reggae jamming sessions, which plays on Peak Island. Moved out to the Island a couple of years ago as it was getting to rowdy I’m told. In the queue, I picked up on a song a girl close by was singing, ‘Come out ye Black and Tans’ which is an old Irish Republican song and a favourite of my Aunt Cathleen (God rest her soul). Not sure if the song was a coincidence or a well time plant but regardless we started chatting and she couldn’t have had a more Irish name if she was born on the Dingle Peninsula. Glad I met her in the queue, as she knew the doorman, which helped as I had forgotten my ID again. Initially it’s flattering to be “carded” but after a few times it’s just absurd and annoying to ask anyone over thirty for ID. We had a great day together and it’s a pity shit happened and we didn’t go for that swim. But the reggae day was cool from start to finish and filled with meeting all sorts of characters. I met four chunky girls who all had some Irish in them. Michelle, who was clearly a great storyteller, delighted in telling of her neighbours wedding ceremony on one of the Aran Islands (west of Ireland). She did so with such great hand gestures it would make any Italian proud. In fact as she described the panoramic view with outstretched arms and wrists at 90-degree angles I thought she was going to point to the emergency exits. I was then introduced to one of the girl’s boyfriends – Andrew. Who despite his dark appearance was also part Irish. True, he was part Jamaican, African and Doyle’s of Ireland no less. Said he was a Smoked Irishman!!! First time I heard this one. Classic.

The girls, like many other people that day, complimented me on my rosary beads. An acquisition I made two years ago while in Cartagena, Colombia. I told them there were three reasons for wearing them: that I was a Roman Catholic and as a fashion accessory. Taking the bait they asked the third reason. To mixed reaction – I informed them that they were also anal beads. Love to provoke a reaction. Michelle and her friend laughed and the former whose wry smile gave away her saucy side and momentary absence of mind implied she was thinking of the action. Good girl. As for the other pair – they didn’t laugh. Prudes. The day finished with some great music, a little sunburn, a lobster roll and me having to dodge an old crugger on the prowl.

The next two days where spent in Bar Harbour (see separate blog) and finishing off my stint with a morning kayaking which despite the heat I was glad I did. Nice group of people, Aussie couple, Frenchman and his wife and me tandeming with Veronica while her teenage son and his buddy took the last kayak. A large water fight between our two boats helped to amuse and cool at the same time. Both instructors (Kevin and Paul) where good guys too. Kevin’s father is Irish and it was good to hear his stories of a six-week visit home a couple of years ago.

Other minor but memorable events included: a trip to Becky’s diner – I gave the Wharf breakfast my best shot, visit to Orchard Road Beach and the first time I’ve personally been asked if I knew relatives in the old country! To the O’Gara family in Roscommon – your cousin (never the first cousin) says “hi”.

In the end I spent almost a week in Portland and appreciate why it’s such a popular summer destination. Great food, easygoing people, good nightlife and just a fun chilled out place. I can see why so many Bostonians and New Yorkers like to come here.

Al Dempsey

5 September 2010.