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The Magic of Portland, Maine

Portland Maine waterfrontPortland Maine coast

by Eric Hurwitz. Page updated on 11/09/16

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Many years ago while traveling Portland, Maine, a friend commented, "This is a nice city, but they have a long way to go, a real long way to go."

Having made tremendous headway towards revitalization in the 1980s and 1990s, Portland, for a few blocks, looked like a world-class city -- what people considered a small San Francisco.

Situated on a peninsula jutting out into beautiful Casco Bay, Portland sits between rugged coastline to the east,north and south and scenic countryside and vacation-friendly Sebago Lake to the west.

With hills leading to the harbor and Casco Bay, fine old homes, tree-lined brownstone streets, 19th century red brick buildings, parks and a growing arts, entertainment, lodging and dining scene, Portland seemed, at times, like a premier urban New England travel destination. The trouble was, however, that the overall area was wildly inconsistent where it was not unusual to find a charming area juxtaposed with abandoned factory buildings and street people sitting on the sidewalks with their heads hung low. Additionally, run down parts of Congress St -- a main drag in town -- served as kind of a reality check that Portland was not all that the growing number of picture-perfect-postcard travel promotionals suggested.

With a continued push towards making the new Portland a more complete and consistent city, politicians, residents and big business types have made Portland so special that it's no longer necessary to say this city has a "long way to go." Portland's time as a New England city worth visiting has arrived. In fact, Portland can now be considered one of New England's best urban vacation destinations, along with Boston, Mass., Providence, Ri, and Burlington, VT.

The new Portland minimizes the "shady" areas, allowing Maine's largest city to express its true personality -- from the old to the new, now almost everywhere you look there's something pleasing to the eye. Old Port Exchange, a revitalized section of Portland by the bay, is one of Portland's most beloved travel attractions, that spans several blocks of incredibly attractive and colorful locally-owned stores, restaurants, brick sidewalks and overall community pride. Shopping dreams do indeed come true at Old Port Exchange given its one-of-a-kind merchandise and personality, but if that isn't enough Freeport, Maine, home of L.L. Bean and other outlets stores, will satisfy the biggest "shopaholic."

The waterfront no longer has myriad abandoned buildings, and instead, strikes an eerie resemblance to Boston Harbor -- a good thing since that is a world-class tourist destination. New specialty stores and restaurants mix with the old, like Demillo's Floating Restaurant, a local seafood landmark elegantly housed in a huge ship on the water.

The arts and entertainment scene has literally exploded with virtually hundreds of cultural and recreational opportunities and well-known travel attractions, including the Portland Museum of Art, the Arts District with many art galleries, Portland Ballet, a wonderful Children's Museum,the Portland Symphony Orchestra and minor league baseball and hockey teams for the sports enthusiast.

Although Portland may look like a city, the feel is more like a big small town where traffic isn't quite as horrific as larger cities, people all seem to know each other and large expanses of land haven't given way to the obnoxious development that many of us have experienced in our own urban and suburban backyards. In fact, the end of the waterfront brings you to a peaceful two-mile oasis called the Eastern Promenade that leads to Easter End Beach and incredible views, including the White Mountains of New Hampshire. What's more, it is a city ideal for the outdoor travel enthusiasts, in close proximity to boating, kayaking, skiing, golfing, mountain climbing, biking and more. Casco Bay, with its many islands, seems like a particularly good spot to sail. Fort William Park, 10 minutes from downtown Portland in Cape Elizabeth, is the site of Portland Head Light, one of the most photographed lighthouses in the country. Fort William Park offers stunning views of the rugged Maine coast and its expansive grounds are ideal for walking, kite flying or just having a picnic.

Portland is pleasantly walkable, memorable and distinct, not your typical cookie cutter city, by any means. It is a city is big enough to act like a complete metropolis but laid-back enough to retain its small-town charm, making it an ideal place to start your relationship with the sea in New England. The city may be a long way to go for some in terms of mileage, but, thankfully, the city no longer has a long way to go.

Editor's note: Congratulations to Portland, Maine, for being ranked #12 in the world by Frommer's in its list of Top Travel Destinations for 2007 and #6 on Relocate America'a Top 10 Places to Live in 2007.

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