It's easy to forget that only a fraction of the U.S. population have actually seen the ocean in person; even many residents of east or west coast states may have never seen salt water in their lives. For many people who venture to the easternmost shores of Maine, the vast eternity of the Atlantic Ocean is a pilgrimage every bit as mesmerizing as experiencing Niagara Falls or as humbling as standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Standing on the Maine coast puts you the closest to Europe you can be while in the United States, and in position to see the sun rise before anyone else in the country. Portland offers many unique ways to take in the ocean for the first, the hundredth, or even the millionth time.
On the Shore
Cresting Congress Street on Munjoy Hill, the streets open to the Eastern Promenade, a grassy bluff lined with historic Victorian painted homes. On the far end of the Promenade, Fort Allen Park, named after Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen who captured Fort Ticonderoga in 1775, offers a quiet vista of Portland's working harbor, fortifications, and skyline. At the base of the Prom, the East End Beach hugs the cool water of the bay. The Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad
rolls past the Eastern waterfront, turning back time as the chugging locomotive leads a train of club cars, open cars, and a caboose along three miles of oceanfront on a two-foot gauge track. The view from the top of the Portland Observatory
is hard to surpass - and should be as it was built in 1807, reaching 222 feet above sea level making it the highest point in Portland. The Observatory's sole purpose was spotting ships coming into Portland from over 30 miles out to sea, and that view still impresses today.
Try a meal at the water's edge in the Old Port (Flatbread Company
, Ri Ra's Irish Restaurant & Pub
, Dry Dock Restaurant & Tavern
, Porthole Restaurant
, DiMillo's On the Water
, Portland Lobster Company
, or Becky's Diner
, to name a few), South Portland, or Cape Elizabeth (Lobster Shack at Two Lights
, Sea Glass at Inn by the Sea
). The Eastland Park Hotel's Top of the East Restaurant
, Portland's only rooftop bar and restaurant, is proclaimed to be "more than 300 feet above sea level.” A relaxed lunch or evening nightcap while seeing the network of tributaries spill past six harbor lighthouses into the Atlantic is a memorable first, middle, or last impression of our East Coast ocean.
On the Water
The Atlantic Ocean and Portland's heritage are best experienced aboard Portland Schooner Company's Wendameen
yachts, created by famed designer John Alden, or Maine Sailing Adventures'
, which all depart from the Maine State Pier for several daily 2-hour sails, including sunset trips. If more modern transportation appeals to you, Portland Discovery Land & Sea Tours
offers larger engine-powered boats to navigate and narrate the sights of Portland's historic harbor.
Visitors can also get up-close-and-personal with Atlantic sea life on a tour with Odyssey Whale Watch & Charters
or Lucky Catch Cruises
. Odyssey's five-hour voyage out to sea brings the gentle behemoths of the deep within feet of cameras. Lucky Catch will allow you to bait, set and retrieve lobster traps, allowing passengers to purchase their prize for dinner (conveniently prepared at Portland Lobster Company
when you dock). Casco Bay Lines
also provides striking vantage points of Portland Harbor and the Atlantic as the fleet ferries you to area islands. Years after his famed explorations with Pocahontas, Captain John Smith named the islands dotting the span of blue ocean the Calendar Islands because he believed there to be an island for every day of the year. There are actually about 220 islands, many of them within Portland city limits. Casco Bay Lines' two-hour sunrise, sunset, and moonlight cruises never disappoint, but the three-hour "Mailboat Run," the longest-operating service of its kind in the country, introduces the rocky Atlantic coast in a way few get to see.
So, while folks from out west can wax poetic about the desert and Rockies, and Midwesterners are soothed by endless miles of waving grain and the grand Mississippi River, there is little to compare to the tears in the eyes of the wise, the awe in the dropped jaw of the young, and the joy in the face of the child who stands at the edge of a rocky cliff by Portland Head Light
and realizes for the first time: "That's the ocean!”
by Bob Stephens