For years we’ve visited Portland, Maine in summer and relished its crisp salt air, blue skies, coastal charm and delicious food. Every time, we like it so much that we pore over real estate websites and catalogs to see if some perfect house might entice us to move there. And every time, we remember that Maine gets very cold and snowy in winter, and that we do not like cold. The cute clapboard houses that look so delightfully airy in summer seem like they would let the cold winter sea air blow right through. The cold was a deal-breaker. Or so we thought.
This year we challenged ourselves to try Portland in winter to see just how tough it would be on our tender southern temperaments. And to be honest, we were charmed. Granted, we happened to choose a weekend when the temperature eased above the freezing point, but the city was just as lively and lovely as in summertime. We just had to add a few layers of clothing.
In the city center by the old port, young art students mix with old salts, new bohemians with old money, classic New England style with the sharp modern lines of new construction. That fellow with the plaid shirt and bushy beard might be a lobsterman, an urban farmer, an art student, or a stock broker.
Shopping in Portland
For a fan of quirky, vintage clothing and cute modern design, Portland is a wonderland.
Pinecone and Chickadee began as a place for husband and wife team of Noah DeFilippis and Amy Teh to sell their adorable silkscreened products, and has blossomed into a showcase for local designers and a tightly curated collection of vintage pieces. We probably spent an hour there soaking it all in. 6 Free Street. Open Monday to Saturday 10 to 6, and Sunday 11 to 5. You might also want to try Little Ghost at 477 Congress Street, or Find at 16 Free Street.
If you want more, and we did, Portland Flea-for-All located just a few blocks away at 125 Kennebec Street is open Fridays from 12 to 5, and Saturdays and Sundays from 10 to 5, with four floors of vendors of curated collections. Dinnerware to dinner wear, shabby chic to mid-century modern, and plenty of vintage L.L. Bean.
Portland Architectural Salvage is in the same building, and takes it up a notch or three. Massive architectural salvage and furniture source. Need doorknobs or light switches for your traditional Maine home (or wannabe?). Or maybe a vintage leather suitcase? How about a farm table, or a set of vintage metal lockers. They’ve got you covered.
Eating in Portland
My goodness, Portland has some delicious food. We knew we wanted some oysters, but we learned an interesting lesson on our last trip to Portland. When locals eat oysters, the oysters aren’t local. We had gone in search of an old-style local oyster bar, and J’s Oyster at the pier fit the bill. A definite divy departure from the upscale joints in the city center, J’s offers oysters, lobster, clams, and cold beer, and little else. What surprised us was that when we ordered a dozen oysters, they came from our home river in Virginia, not the local Maine waters, because the Maine oysters are too expensive for their regulars, they said.
If you do want to sample Maine oysters, and not just the Maine oyster bar tradition, Eventide Oyster Co. is the place to go. They also focus on the oyster, but not to the exclusion of everything else. Our teenagers were not so interested in the raw oyster experience we craved, but the lobster roll was a perfect option for them. The chick pea fries and house made potato chips even brought a smile to their sullen teen lips. As the cold local beer did to ours.
Duckfat, named for the perfect vehicle for frying potatoes, bills itself as a small sandwich shop, but that doesn’t seem like quite the right description. If I say that french fries and milkshakes are a big part of the menu, you might get the wrong idea. We are talking poutine, gelato floats, roasted pork belly panini… just take a look at this menu and tell me you don’t want to just move in and eat your way through it. It is truly a den of deliciousness, and it is the perfect spot for a family with teenagers. Or at least this one.
If duckfat and oysters get a big thumbs down from your crew, let’s head on over to the pizza and ice cream category. Flatbread Pizza Company is one of the few places you can eat right on the waterfront, and its pizzas and beer are simply scrumptious. The pizza oven is a centerpiece of the dining room, warming and entertaining the diners all around. Watch the pizza makers toss the dough in the air and guess which one is yours. Ingredients are locally sourced wherever possible, and servers are attentive.
As for ice cream, even in winter there’s room for this. Gelato Fiasco, just a block up from Flatbread Pizza Company, is a friendly spot, offering tastes of any of their creamy gelati before you order. Be sure to try the Sweet Resurgam flavor, made from burnt sugar and roasted almond gelato. The flavor is based on the motto of the city, which means “I Shall Rise Again,” adopted by the city after numerous fires destroyed much of the port city. I highly recommend the affogato, a scoop of gelato with a shot of espresso poured over it. Resurgam, indeed, with a caffeine and sugar buzz.
Drinking in Portland
Because this just wouldn’t be All Over the Map if we didn’t mention the healthy craft beer culture in Portland, here are a few beverage-related outings you can take with your kids.
There are quite a few local breweries offering tours, but the most family friendly, and also the most central, is the Shipyard Brewery, located at 86 Newbury Street in Portland. They offer free tours (really, a video tour and a peek at the bottling line) daily on the hour, and include tastings not only of their beers, but Capt’n Eli’s sodas for kids.
The Urban Farm Fermentory, tucked into the back of an industrial park, offers tastings of its many flavors of cider and kombucha, the fermented tea drink, at its small bar. The brews (only slightly alcoholic, at 1.5% for most) are infused with locally sourced flavorings, like basil, ginger, and chaga, a fungus found on the birch tree in Maine. The bartender is very knowledgable about the brewing process and the health benefits of her products. You can also purchase quart jars full of the stuff to take home. Under the same roof you’ll find several other food offerings on some days (check websites for current hours): Bomb Diggity Bakery, Swallowtail Farm Creamery & Apothecary, Pure Pops, and Maine Pie Line.
Working off the calories
The natives have no problem with playing outdoors in winter. In fact, they celebrate it with the Great Maine Outdoor Weekend in mid-February, right in the thick of the coldest season. We spent some of the calories we ingested at all the places listed above with some outdoor and indoor activities.
Willard Beach is a sweet beach on a quiet bay in South Portland, with a playground right on the beach. There is a public parking lot on Willow Street. You absolutely must stop by Scratch Bakery for the best, chewiest, bagels on earth. No joke. Note that Willard Beach is open to off-leash dogs in the morning and evenings in summer and all day in winter, which might be a plus or a minus for you.
Candlepin Bowling is unique to New England and Eastern Canada, and a perfect activity for families that include younger children. The balls are small and lightweight, and the pins are, too. And you can still ask for bumpers. Big 20 Bowling Center is located at 382 U.S. Rte. 1 in Scarborough, just a 20-minute drive from downtown Portland. Bumper bowling is $20 per hour. Regular games are $3.25 per game.
Outdoor ice-skating was a surprise for us, mostly because it was not a manicured rink, but simply a flooded and frozen field in a local park. We borrowed ice skates and hockey sticks from our hosts and spent a glorious hour pretending to be Olympians. If you don’t have a local source, a new resource in Portland is the Portland Gear Hub, which lends out equipment to members. An $80 family membership might be steep for a weekend, but it might also be worth it for the fun you’ll have. Payson Park on Baxter Boulevard, where we skated, also has a hill for sledding, snowboarding and even skiing.
So what’s the secret to surviving a winter weekend in Portland? Just go and do what the Portlanders do: eat, drink, and be merry, without the summer crowds!
Click here for more things to do and places to stay in Portland.
This week, we’ve asked one of our new favorite bloggers, Erin Sarro, from the parenting blog Mommy Beerest, to discus the finer points of toddlers in restaurants.
For my husband and me, trying new restaurants has always been our thing. I wouldn’t call us foodies, but we do know great food doesn’t exist in the presence of animatronic mice and fake wall antiques. When our son came along two years ago, we were determined to bring him to these adult-oriented restaurants for as long as we could. And I’m happy to report we haven’t been kicked out of anywhere yet.
Look, I get why families go to chains: the food is always consistent and they’re noisy. Statistically you have a good shot of getting your child to eat and there’s some comfort in knowing you don’t have the only little ticking time bomb in a booster seat. I’m not saying my family will never eat at a chain (because hello Red Lobster cheese biscuits), but why limit ourselves when there are so many awesome independently owned restaurants to be explored? The trick is to plan ahead and find the ones both you and your kids will feel comfortable in. Here are a few more tips to help your family enjoy a nice meal together:
Do your one-minute research. A quick search on Yelp or Google will clue you in to whether or not this is the kind of place you should bring kids. Better yet, get all 20th century and call the restaurant with any menu and seating questions.
Bring distractions. Even some adult restaurants have coloring books and crayons. But if your child is under 4, those crayons will be on the floor faster than you can yell, “Don’t!” We bring a couple of paper-thin books in the diaper bag or big purse, along with my son’s favorite pocket-sized toy. Flatbread crackers make excellent train tracks, by the way.
Eat when other families are eating. At 5:30 you’re either eating with other families or you’ll have the whole place to yourselves. Roll in after 7:00 and you’re asking for eye rolls.
Don’t go if your kid is having a bad day. Why would you do that to yourself, your server and other patrons? WHY?!? We’ve made that mistake and paid for it dearly. (Plate-on-the-floor tantrum, anyone?) Dining out is supposed to be a pleasurable, easy experience. Rather than stress, pour everyone a bowl of cereal and yourself a glass of wine then call it a day.
Dive right into the kids’ menu. Order for them right away. We all know little ones can take forever to eat, so chances are you’ll all be chowing down together anyway.
Ask for bread. This kind of sucks if you’re low-carbing, and it might also ruin their appetite. But look at the bright side: bread keeps their mouths busy!
When all else fails, apologize to your server and those around you. “I’m so sorry; he never throws spaghetti at home.” Cough. Cough cough. Throwing in a little self-deprecating humor doesn’t hurt either. “Yep, parents of the year right here!”
Erin Sarro aka Mommy Beerest is a creative director/writer, blogger, and mother (not in order of importance). You can find her reality-bites parenting blog at mommybeerest.net. She also writes about adult and kid-friendly dining and events for Richmond.com and RVA News. Erin loves finding new cool stuff to do around Virginia’s capital city. Bonus if there’s booze involved.
As usual, fall has been hectic for our family. Jeremy started kindergarten, Julian middle school, and Jacques is finding himself at a bit of a loss with his big brother in a different school. Add after-school activities, work travel for John, my usual juggling act and budding existential crisis—not to mention a crippling case of writer’s block—and it was clear a getaway was in order.
A few weeks ago, a flyer for the second annual Belgian Beer Festival in Cambridge, MD caught my eye. As a Belgian-American (yes, there is such a thing), I couldn’t resist the call of the froth.
As if we needed further incentive to hit the road, we got the opportunity to spend the night at the nearby Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay.
Belgian Beer Festival, Cambridge, MD
Sponsored by local gastropub The High Spot, the festival was well underway when we arrived around 4:00. The band was kicking and the beer flowing. Several breweries, including Flying Dog, Resurrection, New Belgium, and Dogfish Head served their own Belgian-style beers. John and I tasted a couple but mostly, we hung out in the children’s area, where a very talented fire juggler entertained us—I mean the kids—for over an hour with tricks that amazed even our somewhat jaded 12-year-old.
My little Belgian heart was warmed when I saw stoemp, a Belgian potato and vegetable dish, and oysters on the half-shell. This last one really brought me back to Belgium, specifically the Place Sainte-Catherine in Brussels, where oysters are served at an outside bar during happy hour, attracting everyone from office workers to backpackers. True to form, Julian loved the oysters, Jacques refused to taste one, and Jeremy grabbed one, spat it out, and spent 10 minutes complaining that his mouth had been poisoned. He is fine.
The Chesapeake Hyatt Regency
Let me start by saying that checking into a hotel with three boys can be a daunting experience. Even when everyone’s on their best behavior, hotel lobbies, like airports, seem to bring out the loud and active in our boys. I worry that the person behind the desk will look up from their screen, see the mayhem the boys are causing, and assign us the worst room in the building, the one usually reserved for heavy-smoking traveling puppy-farm operators or escaped convicts.
Of late, Jeremy has added to the fun by impersonating the doorman/valet, welcoming guests, opening doors, and sometimes even trying to “help” them with their luggage. I know it’s not cute. But there you have it. And Julian seems to think there’s no better place to practice parkour than in large indoor spaces, say, hotel lobbies.
So when we pulled into the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay, I did what any good mother would do. I put on large sunglasses, mumbled “see you in there” to my husband, dashed out of the car, and raced to the check-in counter. Then, as usual, I planned to pretend I didn’t know them until I had the keys in my hand.
But this time, no one seemed to blink an eye. The doorman played along with Jeremy, and let him help open doors. And the clerk didn’t roll her eyes at Julian and Jacques’ antics. She smiled. She smiled! A few clicks later, I got three keys to our room. Clearly, this was one family-friendly resort.
The room, a Family Petite Suite, fit us perfectly. It was large, held a king-sized bed and a bunk bed, and there was still plenty of room for the extra rollaway bed. But really, we barely spent any time in the room at all.
- played tennis,
- went on a nature walk through the Blue Heron Rookery, the resorts own wildlife preserve,
- swam in the beautiful indoor pool,
- soaked in the giant indoor-outdoor hot tub,
- played miniature golf on the onsite course,
- played chess on the giant outdoor set,
- played air hockey and ping-pong in the game room,
- watched The Lion King on floats at the dive-in movie, roasted marshmallows in the outdoor fireplace, and
- hit golf balls at the driving range. (This was the only activity we had to pay extra for).
We decided to have breakfast at the hotel so we could enjoy some more activities before hitting the road. As a fascist, I mean health-conscious mom, I was impressed with the children’s menu. No chicken nuggets here.
The kid’s menu is part of a new chain-wide effort to have healthy, organic options such as organic yoghurt fruit smoothies, to create-you-own pasta where children choose their pasta, protein, sauce, and vegetable, and even a three-course kid’s gourmet meal created by Alice Waters. They still have some of the old standbys, like grilled cheese sandwiches, but with whole wheat bread and unprocessed cheese. I loved knowing that anything they chose from the menu would be healthy. And I would imagine this would be a great relief if you were staying for, say, a week.
The Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay is a resort with kids and parents in mind. We really felt that they did more than just pay lip-service to the words family-friendly. The staff was genuinely friendly, the children’s menu was well thought out, and the activities kept us busy.
Sometimes one night can make all the difference. One afternoon of Belgian family debauchery and a night in Cambridge at the Chesapeake Hyatt left us refreshed and ready to tackle our lives again. At least until Thanksgiving.
Sometimes, when you’re on vacation with the kids, something triggers an earlier, younger, and, shall we say drinkier time and you find yourself, like we did, at a local brewery in Maine with a 5, 10, and 12-year-old. Something about a sign on the highway with the words “brewery” and a brief conversation with your spouse about how someone in the back seat needs probably needs to use the bathroom and before you know it, you’re staring at a humungous barrel of beer with a giggly guide who looks and talks like she made a quick stop at work on the way back to the dorm from a fraternity party.
We arrived at the Atlantic Brewing Company in the middle of a tour, just as Giggles was explaining the brewing process to a group of 30 or so sunburnt visitors. The boys got restless and ran around, I mean stretched their legs, outside for a bit until we moved into the tasting room. This is where we all got a very pleasant surprise. Not only do they make beer, they make root beer! My two oldest sons are root beer aficionados and were extremely excited to have their own tasting of Atlantic root beer and blueberry soda. And my youngest, who is rarely allowed to have soda, got to have a sip of the forbidden fruit. My husband enjoyed some of the more bitter ales and I loved the blueberry ale.
It was a beautiful late summer day and the food from the onsite restaurant beckoned. We’d been smelling BBQ since we arrived and the food certainly matched the mouthwatering smell. We ordered up a feast for four which only set us back $42 and included chicken, pulled pork, sausage, and ribs, with plenty of sides. Our youngest played with some new friends while we savored our meal and drinks in the lingering late afternoon sun.
Do you have a family beer? Oddly enough, we do. My father’s family is from the South of Belgium and most family occasions were marked by the sound of a cap coming off a frothy bottle of Orval, the region’s best Trappist beer. I remember my grandmother trekking off to the monastery before a big family dinner to buy not only beer but creamy Orval cheese.
The first monks settled in Orval from Italy in 1070. The abbey has lived a tumultuous existence, from a major fire in the 13th century to near collapse during the French Revolution, when it was burnt down again by French forces. What remained of the abbey lay abandoned until 1887, when the land was acquired by the Harenne family, who later donated the land to the Cistercian order. A new monastery and church were completed between 1926 and 1948. Monks first started producing beer in 1931 to help finance the reconstruction project.
The new church and abbey aren’t open to the public, but visitors can wander freely through the stunning ruins of the old abbey. There is also a museum and a garden of medicinal herbs used by the monks.
A few years ago, I went to visit my father, who was dying of cancer and had decided to spend his few remaining months in the Belgian village where he was born. One day, he was feeling a little stronger and suggested an outing. There was no question where we would go: l’Abbaye Notre Dame d’Orval. He wasn’t well enough to get out of the car but I spent a contemplative hour wandering the haunting grounds of the Orval Abbey in mid-winter.
On a more recent trip to Belgium with my own kids, we visited the abbey. As usual with three boys, we were one of the more “energetic” groups there and we played hide-and-seek in the ruins on a gorgeous
August day before heading off to visit relatives.
Today, my brother and sister and their families have all settled in the United States. We get together at least once a year for a good old Belgian dinner: mussels, frites, homemade mayonnaise, chocolate, Liege waffles, and a certain family brew.
May I present a toast of frothy Belgian Orval, to the memory of my ancestors and my father, and to future family dinners and celebrations. A votre santé!