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Insider: Portland's Maine Secrets

Portland is a place where plain old Maine industriousness meets the worldly tastes of the city's newest residents—ad executives, Internet entrepreneurs, Polartec-vested boatbuilders—who have left the big city for a simpler life. There are surprises here, such as the world-class Portland Museum of Art, now showing an exclusive Picasso retrospective, and cocktail lounges whose patrons look as if they could be in an L.A. club. You may need to remind yourself that this is Maine.

did you know?
Population: 64,500
Second most common language after English: Khmer
Average cost of a house: $126,690
What's on tap: a summer ale from Stone Coast, one of Portland's six microbreweries
Average summer temperature: 75 degrees
What's on the horizon: a controversial $20 million docking facility for those really big cruise ships (the QE2 already stops here)

native sons and daughters
On the eastern edge of the Old Port District, you'll find a square called Gorham Corner (a sign reads HERE SETTLED IRISH IMMIGRANTS IN 1840) with a bronze likeness of film director John Ford, a Portland native, smoking a pipe atop a mound of beach stones. Born Sean Aloysius O'Feeney in 1895, Ford went on to direct classics like The Quiet Man and The Grapes of Wrath. Across the street is the Brian Boru Public House (57 Center St.; 207/780-1506), where County Kildare native Justin O'Reilly pours a perfect pint of stout.

The intersection of Congress and State Streets downtown is dubbed Longfellow Square: a statue there shows the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow settling down with a newspaper. His poem "My Lost Youth" is about growing up in Portland, where "a boy's will is the wind's will." Nearby is Cunningham Books (188 State St.; 207/ 775-2244), which has a collection of works by Mainers. Pick up Mary C. Jane's children's tale Mystery in Longfellow Square.

food to go
Portland's newest symbol of rejuvenation is the Portland Public Market (25 Preble St.; 207/228-2000). Like a family hearth for the entire city, this indoor market's fireplace of Deer Isle granite rises to a vaulted ceiling supported by 40-foot fir beams. Merchants at the $6 million urban food mecca take the "locally made" motif to an extreme: there's Portuguese corn bread made with Maine-grown organic wheat; cheese from the Nubian dairy goats of Waldoboro, Maine; salmon sausages; even elk fillets, pitched as tasting "the way beef used to." Stop by the Harbor Fish Market (9 Custom House Wharf; 207/775-0251) for seafood, both fresh (lobsters, crabs, cherrystones, littlenecks, oysters, shark, flounder, monkfish) and smoked (whitefish, trout, mackerel, shrimp). Aurora Provisions (64 Pine St.; 207/871-9060) is stocked with well-chosen wines, breads, cheeses, take-out meals—there's even a café. It's the place to find the ultimate summer pies for a picnic (try the strawberry-rhubarb or blueberry-peach; it's wise to order a day ahead).

nightlife
The former banana storage room at the Carr Brothers' Produce Co. is now the Wine Bar (38 Wharf St., upstairs from the Café at Wharf Street; 207/773-6667). Sit in a stuffed armchair and have the country pâté with cornichons and Dijon mustard alongside a glass of St. Francis Cabernet. Úna Wine Bar & Lounge (505 Fore St.; 207/828-0300) is certainly the only cocktail lounge in Maine to have flying saucer-like stools and a bar that resembles a river of crushed green glass. The deep wine list makes it easy to complement appetizers such as sardines or spinach and Parmesan in phyllo. This is the place for Portland fashionables—say, an independent filmmaker on a date with a graphic designer—to preen; it's dark and cool and perfect for a summer cocktail. If you want something salty and brassy, stop by J's Oyster (5 Portland Pier; 207/772-4828). This local hangout is worth a visit if you can tolerate the smell of fish. A good storm draws a boisterous crowd. You might hear a bartender complaining that her husband's boat hasn't come in, or a patron inquiring as to where "Steve the Greek" is drinking tonight.

take a real look at portland documentary-style
Salt (110 Exchange St.; 207/761-0660; open Wednesday and Friday 2-6, Saturday 10-1) This center for documentary studies shows work by students who come from around the country to write about and photograph such subjects as the Portland Boxing Club or life on the Casco Bay Islands.

where to stay
Pomegranate Inn 49 Neal St.; 800/356-0408 or 207/772-1006; doubles from $145. The contemporary art collection alone would separate Isabel Smiles's Italianate house from Portland's other B&B's. Add the carriage house with its garden suite, and wine or tea served to guests upon arrival, and you have an experience that is irresistible: book several months ahead for summer or fall.
Percy Inn 15 Pine St.; 888/417-3729 or 207/871-7638; doubles from $99. Owner Dale Northrup, Portland native and travel scribe (he has written guidebook hotel reviews for two decades), did a gut renovation of this Federal-style house in the West End. Stashed in the rooms are the little touches he misses when he's on the road: fruit for midnight snacks, a trundle bed for an extra guest, Scrabble for rainy nights. Try the Longfellow Suite, with its Mexican-tiled study.
Inn on Carleton 46 Carleton St.; 800/639-1779 or 207/775-1910; doubles from $135. This restored 1869 Victorian on the Western Promenade is true Maine—claw-foot tubs, blueberry pancakes—tempered with marks of convenience: air-conditioning, a short walk to downtown. The best time of day on the promenade is sunset. That's New Hampshire's Presidential Range the sun drops behind.
The Danforth 163 Danforth St.; 800/991-6557 or 207/879-8755; doubles from $165. Whereas most of Portland's guesthouses are on the western side of the city, the Danforth is set above the Inner Harbor wharves. Rooms have working fireplaces and high ceilings with original crown moldings. Guests shoot pool in the billiard parlor, or watch their ship come in from the widow's walk on the roof.

victorian portland
Nothing on this street of Greek Revival and Federal houses prepares you for the over-the-top exuberance and grandeur of the Victoria Mansion (109 Danforth St.; 207/772-4841). Built in 1860, the Italianate brownstone palace was the summer residence of New Orleans hotelier Ruggles Morse, who grew up poor in Leeds, Maine. A pioneer in the luxury-hotel business, Morse brought his work home: French gasoliers, a Turkish smoking room with Islamic motifs, Italian frescoes painted on every wall, trompe l'oeil everywhere. Decorated by Gustave Herter of the famed Herter brothers (six pieces created for the mansion have been exhibited at the Met in New York), the house represented the best of Europe brought to the American city that's closest to the Continent.

maine cottage industry
For Maine-made pottery, such as a set of salt-glazed bowls, seek out Clay City/Monroe Salt Works (551 Congress St.; 207/761-2707) in the arts district, across from the L. L. Bean outlet. If you're looking for something less sturdy, try the Stein Gallery (195 Middle St.; 207/772-9072), which shows the work of 95 glass artists, ranging from the functional (vases, jewelry) to the purely decorative (who could resist a purple glass "exotic plant" the size of a turkey?). On Portland's trendiest shopping drag, both Gallery 7 (49 Exchange St.; 207/761-7007) and Abacus (44 Exchange St.; 207/772-4880) have Maine-made woodwork, pottery, jewelry, and textiles.

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