A Short but Sweet Trip to Portland, Maine

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The popular Standard Baking Co. is located on Commercial Street, across from Portland’s working waterfront. The bakery’s croissants were recently named among America’s best by Food & Wine.

When my 10-year-old son broke his leg skiing in January, our trip to Utah to ski over February school vacation was put on hold. Still, we wanted to do something for a change of scenery. Traveling to a beach just seemed unfair (can’t get the cast wet) and heading to a water park was also on the “no” list (for the same reason). New York City sounded fun, but difficult to get around on crutches. We also didn’t want to spend too long in the air or car. So we drew a circle with a three-hour driving radius around Newport, and came up with Portland, Maine.

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A view from Commercial Street in the Old Port neighborhood.

The weather forecast looked fair, and driving and parking in Maine’s biggest city is relatively easy, which made it appealing. Portland has a hip, fresh vibe, with cool art galleries and urban farmhouse-chic boutiques. And with its dozens of gastropubs and local craft beers, penchant for artisanal cocktails, and farm-to-table restaurants, at least we knew we’d eat well.

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The Trailer Trash Queen burger at Nosh is served between two doughnuts.

We broke up the drive by spending an afternoon at the Museum of Science in Boston then continued north. My husband had booked us a room at the Hyatt Place Portland-Old Port, which is affordable, clean, and right in the heart of downtown, just a few blocks from the working waterfront. Importantly, it also has a pool (it’s on the small side, but gets the job done), which was high on the list for my four-year-old daughter.

We stayed for just 36 hours, but I could have padded around for days. Laid back but on-trend, Old Port is populated by mid-19th century brick buildings densely packed with shopping and eating establishments, plus tons of charm.

We arrived shortly before dinner time, and after a clever craft cocktail and local beer at the hotel bar, we headed to decadent burger joint Nosh Kitchen Bar. Made of grass-fed beef, the over-the-top options here include burgers like the Stack n’ Cheese (two squares of macaroni and cheese fried into slices of “bread”) and the Trailer Trash Queen (slathered with blueberry cream cheese and Black Forest ham and served between two glazed doughnuts). Starters like poutine and sweet potato tater tots and bacon-dusted fries round out the menu, and, yes, we ordered them all.

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The Smore’s burger, a decadent dessert, was a hit with my kids (and me, too).

Of all the dishes, dessert was by far the favorite. Bellies already beyond full, we managed to muscle down the S’mores burger, a scoop of vanilla ice cream over brulée marshmallow, dripping with Nutella, sprinkled with Maldon sea salt, and served between slices of brioche. My bleu cheese burger was tasty, but in hindsight, I would have ordered only this good mashup of textures and flavors.

Our stomachs were still bulging the next morning, so we opted for a light breakfast that was included with our lodging. Entertaining the kids was at the top of the day’s to-do list, and our first stop was the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine. With more than 20 play vignettes to choose from, my daughter found plenty of ways to use her imagination in exhibits like the emergency room, construction center, school, and fire truck. An indoor playscape with slides and climbing walls kept her busy, too.

After a coffee and snack break, we headed next door, into the Portland Museum of Art, which has a truly worthwhile collection. It’s the perfect size for budding museum-goers, especially if your kids, like mine, like to ogle art, but for no more than a couple of hours. The museum has some wonderful works by Joan Miró, Edward Hopper, and even an August Renoir, but the real highlights are its mid-19th century landscape paintings and several works by Winslow Homer, who’s studio was just 10 miles south of Portland. (Tours are held April through October.)

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A chewy chocolate-rye cookie from Standard Baking Co. was a delicious afternoon pick-me-up.

The boys returned to the hotel to rest, but we girls were ready to shop. To keep our energy up, we stopped for a buckwheat scone and chocolate chunk rye cookie from the wholesome and popular Standard Baking Co. A short walk down to the waterfront brought us to k colette, a charming home wares and gift store with darling interior brick arches and a sophisticated-rustic spirit. We imagined our house and makeup bags being filled with pretty things from this space as we browsed through the fragrances, luxurious pillows, lotions, dreamy textiles, and casual-chic furnishings.

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Cocktails are taken seriously at the chic Portland Hunt and Alpine Club.

All of that shopping wore out my tiny princess, so, after returning her to the hotel, I headed back out to peruse a couple more showrooms on my list. Furniturea features modern farmhouse styles in cheerful colors made by Maine-based designers. A few doors down, Angela Adams’ boutique is well known for her rugs, textiles, and polished furnishings with an updated Mid-Century Modern vibe.

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Pickled veggies at the Hunt and Alpine Club gave a tart start to our evening.

I later reconvened with my family at the Portland Hunt and Alpine Club, where I immediately fell in love. Wu-Tang Clan played in the background, followed by Biggie Smalls – the whole musical beat here was chill, old-school rap. Portland loves its artisan cocktails, and you won’t find a bad one here. Communal tables and a Scandinavian vibe (a small room cordoned off to one side kind of even looks like a sauna) are part of the cool décor; it’s probably not a place where most people bring their kids, but … whatever. We indulged in a couple of small bites from the menu – a plate of pickled veggies and plump local oysters with kombucha mignonette.

That proved to be an excellent warm-up before dinner at Little Tap House, where we met up with a group of local friends. The simple but satisfying gastropub menu here made it easy to meet the needs of multiple palates. It was the perfect place to meet up with a group, with friendly service, a cozy atmosphere, and (like everywhere else), an awesome craft beer list.

We finished up with a night cap at Central Provisions, located across the street from our hotel. I’d love to return here for dinner sometime; the farm-to-table menu is gorgeous. We had said no to dessert this evening, but a debate about gelato had erupted among the locals during dinner and gone on all night. Which spot was best – Gorgeous Gelato or the Gelato Fiasco? I could see them both from the door of Central Provisions, and made a promise to return to help settle the debate. I’m hoping I can do that soon, because there are about a dozen other spots in Portland that I’m still dying to check out.

Meaghan O'Neill is a writer, editor, blogger wrangler, and the founder of Puddingstone Post. She was formerly editor-in-chief of TreeHugger, Discovery Channel online, and TLC's Parentables. Her writing has appeared in numerous print and online publications, and her book, Ready, Set, Green: 8 Weeks to Modern Eco-Living (Villard/Random House) was published in 2008. She lives in Newport, RI with her family.

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