Now is the time to head up to Maine to catch those color-soaked leaves and mountain vistas. And if you are looking for a San Francisco Bay-area atmosphere, but on a human scale, try Portland with its craggy seascapes punctuated by working lighthouses, its old port still on a busy harbor, its active art colony and great restaurants.
Downtown Portland lies on a peninsula jutting into Casco Bay on one side and the Fore River on the other. The preservation movement caught Portland just in time. The noble 19th-century brick and granite buildings on Commercial Street, the waterfront, have been restored as upscale offices, condominiums, restaurants and boutiques. A series of wharves jut out behind, some of them still serving the wholesale fish trade and the frequent departure of ferries to the plethora of islands, as well as Nova Scotia. Others have the more dubious function of berthing floating restaurants of indifferent quality.
Congress Street once was the main shopping district, and still retains high-end jewelry stores and the inevitable L.L. Bean outlet. The Maine College of Art anchors the center of the strip with a five-story, former department-store building, and the art spills over into galleries, coffee-shops and boutiques. The Portland Museum of Art is a first-class institution for its size, with a good installation of postimpressionists. It is about to expand its collection of 19th-century antiques and decorative arts into the adjacent McClellan-Sweat House, a magnificently restored mansion built in 1800.
The boyhood home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the author of Evangeline and Hiawatha, is right in the center of town and just reopened this summer after a careful restoration that included the duplication of original carpets, textiles and wallpaper. Built by the poet's grandfather in 1796, and given to the Maine Historical Society by his aunt, who lived in it until 1901, it was here that Longfellow grew up and lived until he went off to Bowdoin College. With the publication of his poems, Longfellow became the first media superstar in U.S. history. He found inspiration in the lands and legends of America and was so successful that his ballads were memorized by generations of schoolchildren and translated into many languages. Indeed, he became so well-fixed from his writings that he was able to resign his position as professor of foreign languages at Harvard and devote himself entirely to his poetry.
Portland may be the only city in the United States that employs a city organist, Roy Cornils. The city hall, a huge baronial pile, includes the 1,900-seat Merrill Auditorium, home of the Kotzschmar Memorial Organ. When installed in 1912 the Kotzschmar, with its 98 ranks, 6,613 pipes and five manuals, was the second-largest in the world. After a period of decline, the instrument was brought back to its stupendous glory by the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ. If you're lucky to be in town on Tuesdays, you can catch the free concerts by Cornils and other first-rank organists, or perhaps you can get to one of the noontime demonstrations on other days (check the schedules). The Merrill also is the home of the Portland Symphony and the Portland Opera.
When it's time to eat, the hungry traveler has any number of sophisticated choices, ranging from the ineffably exquisite to exotic ethnic. But for a touch of old-time Portland, you can't do better than to hike down to the Custom House Wharf to Boone's, tucked in among the wholesale fishmongers. Since 1898, Boone's has been turning out baked stuffed lobster, haddock, clams and oysters in an old swaybacked warehouse that looks as though it might fall down at any moment. Inside, it's a bright, family-style place. On a recent visit, a diner overheard a 12-year-old at an adjacent table order oysters on the half-shell with aplomb, and then instruct his younger sister on the correct way to disassemble a lobster. …