Visit Portland, Maine, at the height of the tourist season is a valid challenge, but a challenge nonetheless – which is why taking an off-season day trip to Vacationland is so appealing. The onset of colder weather can mean more limited hours at the best restaurants, but it also means shorter queues and ideal conditions for harvesting oysters and brewing spontaneously fermented beer. Here’s a guide to a short but enjoyable off-season adventure in Portland and the surrounding area.
Welcome the sun at Cape Elizabeth’s Fort Williams Park. A 20-minute drive from downtown Portland, this park is home to military installations dating back to the 1800s and Portland Head Light, considered America’s most photographed lighthouse, for obvious reasons. To fuel up ahead for a cliff walk and gorgeous ocean views, drop by Tandem Café and Bakery in Portland’s West End for whole bean coffees, egg and cheese cookies generously coated with paprika mayo, and slices of seasonal pie like plum and black pepper. Or, if it’s more convenient to stop en route, South Portland’s Scratch Baking Co. serves unique and delicious bagels coated in rich cream cheese with herbs.
Then, head 15 miles north of downtown Portland to the upper parts of Cumberland County for the ultimate in healthy farm magic. Cuddle the very sociable, YouTube-famous Nigerian dwarf goats The sunflower farm dairy, whose shop sells vanilla caramel and Maine sea salt snacks made from the milk of the adorable goats. Then take a peek at the leaves, pick apples, and munch on fresh apple cider fritters at Thompson’s apple orchard.
Autumn in New England means it’s the open fermentation season to Allagash Brewery, which offers in-depth analysis cool visit to show off his Belgian-inspired spontaneous fermentation techniques. Even if you can’t score a spot on the elusive tour, you can still reap the rewards by ordering a draft of Coolship Resurgam – an elegant blend of one, two, and three-year-old beers fermented only with wild yeasts. And since good things come in threes, try a flight of mini lobster rolls from Bite in Maine, parked in front of the brewery; you’ll taste three distinct styles including Maine (mayo and chives), Connecticut (hot butter) and picnic (coleslaw, butter and celery salt).
Then walk down the street to New England Distillation, where Allagash original brewer Ned Wight now makes award-winning spirits like Eight Bells Rum, a molasses-based ode to an iconic Maine painting by Winslow Homer, and Rack IV Saison whiskey only for the distillery , a small batch collaboration with Allagash.
Portland’s pedestrianized peninsula is home to a drink for any palate, and Washington Avenue beautifully embodies that axiom. Along a few blocks, you can sip spicy ginger kombucha enhanced with lemon and cayenne at Wild root; swirl a glass of wine with low intervention – like the pet-nat Morphos from Warren, Maine’s Oyster River Winemakers – To Maine & Loire; drink farm beers like the mixed-fermented Cletus at Oxbow; and taste Lincolnville, Maine’s Whale farm Forager’s Blend at the cider bar Reed. Fortunately, good snacks to drink abound as well, including duck fat Shack fries sandwiched between Oxbow and Anoche and the cheese pupusas from Tu Casa served with a lively and tangy curtido. For later, stock up on fermented treats at Onggi.
Rejuvenate with a hot breakfast of homemade beef pho at CONNG TỬ BỘT on Washington Avenue, kung pao chicken balls at BaoBao Dumpling House on Spring Street, or short ribs and kimchi ramen at Pai Men Miyake on Longfellow Square. If you’re ambitious enough, you can hit all three, stopping to browse local manufacturers’ shops and museums along the promenade, Ferdinand, Maine Craft Portland, and the merchant society To the Jewish museum of Maine and Portland Art Museum.
Frigid waters are the perfect habitat for oysters, which means these bivalves are best enjoyed during Maine’s low season. If there is a line to perpetual darling Eventide, it will at least be shorter than normal, giving you quicker access to a great selection of local oysters as well as a cheaper, less expensive sibling of the restaurant’s famous brown butter lobster roll: the fried oyster bun. The Maine Oyster Company cultivates a more DIY experience with a oyster shelling course, which can give you the skill and confidence to take home a bag of fresh seafood souvenirs.
Speaking of local aquaculture, warm up to Dobra tea with a jar of Sailor’s Panacea, a blend of ginger herbs, turmeric and Maine wrack seaweed. Or try Portland Hunt & Alpine Club’s smoked pie bonecrusher cocktail for a different kind of dining before heading to dinner.
Fortunately, a reservation at the best seafood-focused places like Balance, Central provisions, and Rue & Cie. is not as hard to find during the colder months, but you can also consider slightly deeper cuts like Baharat, with its menu inspired by Middle Eastern street food; izakaya style Granny; or german homestyle jewel Schulte & Herr (which only offers take-out at the moment).
Finally, have a last drink to go from Jewelry box Italian-style window. Try the powerful square bouquet – a floral take on the classic New Orleans Old Square – or opt for an alcohol-free syrup with orange, ginger and cardamom syrup.