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 adult-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.
More places for beer tastings in Maine where you can take the kids.
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!
If you’re traveling to Maine with kids in summer, check out this article on things to do in Maine with kids from a local mom.
Click here for more things to do and places to stay in Portland.
Living in Maine has its benefits. There are the things you immediately think about when you think of Maine, like access to fresh seafood, lots of fresh air, and surprisingly, some fresh ideas.
For some folks traveling to Maine, the ride is a long one. While the grownups know the hours are worth it, to the little ones in the car, it can be a torturous prospect. Aside from rest areas and the off ramp convenience store, wouldn’t it be great to find a place you can release the kids for a little stretch and rejuvenate your own energy levels? Sometimes the network of parenthood works its magic. Here are some recommendations from a mom in Maine for some things to do on your way to wherever you’re going.
The beaches of Southern Maine are beautiful. The whole region is a destination on its own. But if the end point is somewhere up the coast, and you need a little break, stop in Perkins Cove in Ogunquit. Marginal Way, a paved public shoreline footpath, runs about a mile, stretching to Ogunquit Beach. The views are wonderful and refreshing. It’s stroller friendly and there are benches along the way to stop and enjoy the salt air and sunshine.
- In southern Maine, you can spend days at amusement parks like Funtown, Splashtown and Aquaboggen. You know the drill; everyone needs the day pass and you’re pretty much committed to immersion. As a theme park and roller coaster fan myself, I get it – it’s a lot of fun but can be exhausting and expensive. An alternative, especially when the final destination is still a way down the road and you and the family just need a fun little break, try Palace Playland at Old Orchard Beach .
- The whole scene in high summertime at Old Orchard Beach is that classic beachfront amusement park experience that’s been happening here for decades. Ferris Wheel, kiddie rides, games, gift shops, pizza, French fries (try Pier Fries with vinegar), ice cream, and that hot summer vibe that – well, for me anyway, brings you back to your youth. As a parent, the best thing is that the kids can ride a bunch of rides or just a few, depending on how much time you have and the age of the kids. You just buy as many tickets as you need for each ride. You’re not signing up for the day. You can ride the carousel, have a bite to eat, walk out on the beach and dig your toes in the sand and then get back on the road.
Macworth Island, just off of Route 1 in Falmouth is home to a permanent and ever-changing collection of Fairy Houses. Macworth Island is also home to the Baxter School for the Deaf and was donated to the state by Gov. Percival Baxter in 1946. It’s a day-use only island in Casco Bay that’s accessible by a causeway. There are hiking trails with benches and swings along the way. Let the kids scramble to the beaches and run! Collect shells and leaves, twigs and rocks along the way for building your fairy house. The view of Casco Bay is incredible, making you feel miles away from Portland after only a short drive.
- Maine Coastal Botanical Gardens, Boothbay: Gorgeous extensive gardens with places kids can hide out and be surprised. There’s a kitchen garden and a children’s area with a small pond, storytelling, vegetable garden and some woodland paths that inspire exploration. Off of Route 27 if you’re headed to Boothbay Harbor, it’s relatively easy to find. Directions are on the website. Be sure to check the events calendar. We visited the gardens in early August a few years ago for their Fairy Festival. Great experience – bubble machines, stories, costumes, ice cream, and extensive Fairy Houses built by little kids and big kids. Lots of fun. There is a permanent, yet ever-changing Fairy Village at the Gardens.
- Playland Adventure, Brewer: Think bounce house for older kids, teens and even adults. Tucked at the back of the parking lot between Lumber Liquidators and TD Bank on Wilson Street in Brewer, is Playland Adventure. Picture a big box type space filled with inflated, climbable, bounceable, structures, like a bouncy boxing ring with huge inflated gloves, inflated bowling pins with a clear inflated ball that you can put your brother in and roll him down the lane to knock down the pins. If you’re at the end of a long road trip and the kids have been squawking for the past 200 miles, take a break and give them a couple of hours of running, bouncing, and unbelievable fun. DQ is right across the street. Go over and get a tray load of Blizzards and relax for a bit. In the summer months, they add to the fun by setting up inflatable water slides in the parking lot. A good stop on your way to Bar Harbor and the Downeast Region.
- Just off of Interstate 95 in Bangor, at Exit 187, is Bangor’s City Forest. It is home to some good walking trails and well as being the location of the Orono Bogwalk. The Bogwalk is a one-mile boardwalk loop that begins and ends at the edge of the City Forest. A wooded start opens up to the Orono Bog, a peat bog that serves as habitat to a wide variety of creatures, birds, butterflies, and plant life. It’s an easy to find location that’s great for a quick break. Area nature groups like the Audubon Society offer guided tours on many topics, such as birding and flora.
Don’t let the long drive stop you from visiting Maine. It’s a large state with a lot to offer. Make it fun. Take your time. I hope some of these stops along the way make your experience here one that creates good memories to build on and encourages you to come back for more.
And if you’re visiting Maine in winter, check out our post on surviving a winter weekend in Portland, Maine.
When they were toddlers, my children’s level of enthusiasm for a destination largely mirrored my own, whether fake or real. I don’t want to brag, but I could shamelessly promote just about any trip and make them believe it was their idea. How about an awesome long drive up the entire New Jersey Turnpike!? I promise we’ll stop at Sbarro! Yes, I had that kind of power.
Now that everyone has an idea, an opinion, and their own particular aversions, trip planning has become a bit more involved. And since their ages vary quite widely (12 ½, 10, and 5), their physical abilities are an additional challenge. But there’s nothing I like better than a travel challenge!
Oh, before I proceed, I have to share another one of my travel philosophies: if you’re traveling with your family, avoid places that are designed for families exclusively. Counter intuitive? Only if you believe that you and your spouse don’t deserve a vacation as well. In other words, I don’t plan vacations for the children, I plan them for our family. I’m also not a fan of having expensive marketing items/toys/treats thrown at us every ten steps and spending vacations saying “no.” This is why we’ve never been to Disneyworld, Disneyland, or Disney anything, for that matter. It would make my husband John and me miserable—ergo not a good family destination. Conversely, I have never taken the family on a tour of 19th century TB sanatoria, a particular interest of mine that may not resonate with the rest of the family. Hold on while I lower myself off my soapbox.
OK, so what does it take to make us all happy? These days, it comes down to this: fresh air, the opportunity for all of us to try new things, hiking trails we can all handle, clean comfortable lodgings, good food, and friendly people.
Here are two of our favorite destinations—places which have ticked off all our boxes.
We spent two weeks there a couple of summers ago and went zip lining, surfing, snorkeling, horseback ridings, sailing, swimming, hiking, and rock climbing. We spent one of those weeks at Leaves and Lizards, a fantastic small rainforest resort and working farm at the foot of Arenal Volcano. Their wonderful staff took a shine to our youngest, Jeremy, and he “helped” collect hay, feed animals, and even prepare breakfast. We had our own little two-bedroom cottage, and an outstanding view which we shared with the sloth who lived on a tree right above us. (For more on our experience at Leaves and Lizards, click here).
Yosemite National Park
John and I had camped in Yosemite several times on our own before returning with our children. The majestic views, the wildflowers, the peaks, crevices, and rock faces took our breath away. And we found plenty of hiking trails which were just their speed. They still talk about Evergreen Lodge, a chic but rustic resort with a beautiful natural themed playground complete with teepee, evening movies for the older kids, outdoor ping-pong, and fantastic food. It will always be remembered by Julian (12) as the place he ate boar.
Acadia National Park
This national park is so nice, we went there twice! Both times, we rented a lakefront house which came equipped with canoe, kayak, and fishing dock. It gave the boys a sense of freedom to be able to step right out and fish while I sipped on coffee and admired the views from the deck. The house was about a ½ hour from Acadia National Park, a favorite hiking spot for all of us for its intense sea views, hidden coves, and rock-hopping.
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.