An Accidental Tourist
Portlander Elizabeth Peavey decides it’s high time to “visit” her own city as a sightseer.
- By: Elizabeth Peavey
- Illustrations by: Dean MacAdam
The photographer gently nudges me and my husband, John, close together at the base of the metal stairs. “Take her in your arms like you’re going to sweep her off her feet,” she urges him. We eye each other warily. Someone has just been a little cranky while trying to find coffee before this tour’s 10 a.m. departure, and neither of us are in a particularly sweeping mood. (Okay, I confess it was me, but my nerves get jangled when I’m out of my element.)
John and I inch closer, and I give the photographer a tight-lipped smile. This is not a Kodak moment I’m anxious to preserve. Despite the fact we’ve stowed our day packs and water bottles in the car, we — sporting gym shoes and sun hats — still look like typical tourists. Hurry up and take the stupid picture, I all but say through clenched teeth, gazing back at the Down East Duck Adventures Duck boat, (94 Commercial St. 207-774-3825. www.downeastducktours.com) towering behind me. Before anyone I know sees us.
Now, understand, John and I are not above indulging in kitsch while on holiday. We’ve thrown coins in the Trevi Fountain in Rome, played the slots in Vegas, and tingled with anticipation waiting to see “The Thing” in New Mexico. This Duck boat ride is no more touristy than any of these activities, but this particular case is different. That’s because we’re doing it in downtown Portland.
Why? Because I’ve lived in Portland for more than thirty years, and I realized that like those New Yorkers who’ve never been to the top of the Empire State Building, a number of my mainstay hometown attractions have, for one reason or another, eluded me. Why, I wondered, should visitors know more about my city than I do? I decided it was high time to fill in some missing gaps.
The morning of our “visit” — a balmy late summer day — was perfect for sightseeing. John and I piled into the car and headed into town, keeping in mind we were to do everything as though this were our first time in Portland. That meant no local-resident benefits (like biking in, as we often do) or insider info (knowing where we can stash our car, meter-free, on the peninsula and stroll to the Old Port). We arrived downtown at 9 a.m. with an hour to park the car, get our boarding passes, and grab a cup of coffee and a quick bite to eat. Seemed like ample time.
We wandered the Old Port until we found a place on Exchange Street we hadn’t tried under its current ownership. That counted as new, I decided. The customary first-time coffee-joint confusion reigned: Where does the line start? Do we pour our own coffee, or do they do it for us? Would it be safe to order a bagel? Where’s the cream? We jostled our way forward and jostled our way out. When we finally made it to the street, I discovered there was only one croissant in the bag, when I was sure I’d ordered two — okay, pretty sure. The line stretched out the door, and the clock was ticking. We opted to split the one and hold out for brunch.
We staked out a small piece of real estate on the wall in front of the Evie Cianchette Block on Fore Street, where, I can assure you, I’ve never sat before. As the ten-o’clock hour approached, I shoved the last of my half-croissant in my mouth, decided we needed to go stow our gear in the car, and encouraged my husband to get moving. By the time we arrived (with a last-minute dash back to the car to add a couple more quarters to the meter), we were both mildly frazzled and not really in the mood to look cheerful for the camera.
But here we are, smiling (sort of), and ready to embark on our adventure. The odd thing is, something happens when we turn to board the boat. As we crest the top of the metal stairs, the air seems to change. We look at each other and really smile. How many times have we seen this amphibious bus circling Portland? And now we’re joining its ranks. This can mean only one thing: We are officially on vacation.
As we’re waiting to set sail, our able tour guide, Derek, makes pleasant chitchat with his passengers and inquires where we’re all from. Besides me and John, there’s only a family from New Jersey and a couple from Connecticut on board. (The same 10 a.m. boat sold out the day before, Derek informs us.) When it’s our turn, we say we’re visiting town for the day (pause, two, three, four) — from East Deering. Derek feigns distress — Avast! Ringers on board! — that he isn’t going to be able to make up his commentary as he usually does.
Although his “wicked” Maine accent slips from time to time and his patter is as cornball as it can be (many “lame Duck” and “Duck struck” jokes), Derek is a riot. In one breath he tells us we’re entering Portland’s financial district — we pass by One Monument Square and Key Bank — and that we’re exiting it. He encourages us to quack at gawkers, and we do. We wend our way up to the West End to have a look at the Longfellow Statue, some bricky architecture, and the Victoria Mansion. As we traverse the city, I learn that chewing gum was invented in the Hub furniture building, that the Longfellow statue was funded by schoolchildren donations, and that there’s a keg perched atop a pole high above the Shipyard brewery. I laugh at Derek’s jokes and buy into everything he tells us. And despite the fact I’ve traveled this town in every conveyance from a shopping cart (ah, youth) to a limo, my head swivels as though I’ve never seen any of these streets before.
We weave through the Old Port and up toward the Eastern Prom for the aquatic part of our tour. When we plummet with a giant splash into Casco Bay from the landing at East End Beach, we all quack. As we make our brief turn around the harbor, more sights — Bug and Spring Point lights, Fort Gorges, and various islands — are highlighted. And when we return and make the steep climb back out of the water, we all flap our “wings” to “help” the boat up and out over the ramp. By the end of the tour, I am quacking at passersby without prodding. I can now count myself among the Duck struck.
Next, John and I are ready for a little culture and history at the Victoria Mansion (109 Danforth St. 207-772-4841. www.victoriamansion.org). We’ve often talked about doing this tour (Let’s wait until it’s decorated for Christmas) but never quite found our way there (Christmas will be too crowded) — until today. We make our way back to the West End and follow the signs to the carriage house in back of this massive brownstone Italianate structure, where we buy our tickets in the gift shop. Like any good tourist, my first question is if they have a public restroom, and I’m pointed to the rear of the shop. “I hope it’s not a chamber pot,” I quip, trying to get into the Victorian spirit. I look back at the two people at the desk, expecting them to be rolling in the lavender and lacy aisles, only to be greeted by pinched looks. “Oh,” I say. “I guess that’s not the first time you’ve heard that joke.”
John and I cool our heels in the courtyard until we are joined by our guide, Larry. This neighborhood is a familiar stomping ground — we have friends who live nearby — yet, as Larry leads us up the steep front steps, we are instantly transported. I long to scoop up a hoop skirt and (now) be swept up the stairs. We linger a moment in the hushed entryway, admiring the stained glass and great carved doors, and again in the main hallway with its painted frescos and soaring three-story open staircase. The twenty-first-century is already a world behind us.
John and I are both wowed by how intact the interiors are — a result of years of heroic preservation and restoration work. Larry informs us that 90 percent of the mansion’s contents — ranging from furnishings to dinnerware to carpets — are original, and that each room was designed with a particular motif. As we wander, he points out elaborate wood carvings, wall paintings, and light fixtures. I nose into shadows, peek into corners, and pepper poor Larry with questions. He maintains his good nature throughout.
When we emerge, squinting into the present-day sunlight, we’re starved. I am sticking to my “mainstay” criteria and insist we eat at Marcy’s Breakfast and Lunch (47 Oak St. 207-774-9713) — a downtown institution — and try their legendary chili-cheese omelet. (I am apparently the only person in Portland who has not sampled this dish.) Marcy’s is an old-time diner wedged into the corner of Free and Oak streets, with Harley-themed décor and loaves of Wonder Bread piled high. A rock station (WBLM) blares from tinny speakers, and regulars — a mix of Congress Street habitués and downtown types — hunch over the counter and fill the few booths. One thing you need to know about Marcy’s: There is a booth protocol. You may not be seated until your party is fully assembled, or you will be promptly ousted. John and I luck out and get a booth right away, and our waitress couldn’t be nicer. The omelet arrives, and it’s all that’s been promised, and then some. (Food writer and friend Michael Stern describes it as “rib-sticking Yankee chili [that] is blended with creamy melted cheese inside an envelope of egg that is thin as a crepe.”) The thing is huge, but I somehow manage to power my way through it. It will be many hours before our next feeding.
Next on the agenda is the Portland Observatory (138 Congress St. 207-774-5561. portlandlandmarks.org/observatory) on Munjoy Hill, an 1807 signal tour that offers views that span from New Hampshire’s White Mountains to the open Atlantic. We arrive just in time to tag along with a couple from Michigan for our tour. Inside, the octagonal structure feels more like a ship than a building — with floors that slant toward the center, giving a sense of vertigo as one makes the circular climb. Our companion couple is fascinated when we tell them we’re locals and that this is our first time in the observatory. At the top, we point between two cell-phone towers and show them where we live. It’s a sunny day, but milky clouds soften the edges of the Presidential Range, making Mount Washington look washed out. We lean back and take in the view of this very pretty city by the sea. Aren’t people lucky to live here?
Our next stop is the ferry. When boarding is called for our 5:45 Casco Bay Lines (56 Commercial St. 207-774-7871. www.cascobaylines.com) “Sunset Run,” we are in good jostling position at the front of the line for one of the limited bow seats. (Yes, I insisted we get there extra early. No, it is not relaxing to go on vacation with me.) The two-and-a-half hour cruise stops at several islands and offers picturesque sunsets, as well as seal and waterfowl sightings. Yet, while the idea of this cruise sounded novel and appealing on paper to me, the truth is these are familiar waters to both me and John, and our ride starts to feel more like public transportation (Are we there yet?) than a tour. When we hit the mainland, we’re ready for dinner and strong grog.
We have countless dining options before us — after all, the national press has dubbed Portland a foodie mecca — but new trends do not interest me at the moment. To my mind, there is only one way to conclude our Portland adventure, and that is with a twin-lobster dinner at DiMillo’s Floating Restaurant (25 Long Wharf. 207-772-2216. dimillos.com/restaurant). Now, every Mainer worth her Bean boots knows a lobster feed is an outdoor, picnic-table activity, but neither John nor I have ever eaten lobster inside a restaurant before. I decide if we want the full feel of being tourists in our own town, it is time to tackle the task atop white linen and china. The most obvious place to do so is at DiMillo’s, which has been a hotspot on the city’s waterfront with both visitors and townies since 1982.
It is nearing 9 p.m. when we are ushered to the upper deck of this converted ferry-boat-cum-restaurant, where a nautical motif reigns. Our table happens to be located across from a bridal-shower party of squealing twenty-somethings. Ordinarily, I’d request to be moved, but their presence only adds to the circus-like spirit of our day. Despite the fact that it’s nearing the end of a busy Saturday night, our server, Amy, is as fresh and efficient as though we were her first party. John and I each order a grown-up cocktail, which is swiftly whisked to our table. When our lobsters arrive a short while later (accompanied by a foil-wrapped baked potato, served with butter and sour cream), I complete the picture by donning my plastic lobster bib. My husband opts not to join me in this sartorial choice, but I don’t care. I even consider for a moment going at the critters with a knife and fork just for sport, but my appetite supersedes my tourist guise. I rend the tail from the body with a quick twist — the practiced hand of an old pro — and think, This is so much fun, I could quack.
- By: Elizabeth Peavey
- Illustrations by: Dean MacAdam