Portland is a rare city. It is a major shipping port, the terminus of an oil pipeline to Montreal, a center of law and banking, and a cultural center. It is Maine’s largest city. Yet, somehow, Portland retains the feeling of a small village with eclectic restaurants, concerts, theaters both mainstream and avant-garde, museums for all ages and interests, a local baseball team, and historic buildings. You will probably bump into friends on the street.
The city is surrounded by water. To the west, below the elegant homes of the Western Promenade, flows the Fore River. Casco Bay, dotted with islands large and small, lies to the east. Back Cove fills to the north. And the mouth of the Fore River forms the harbor to the south. The wharves, the very roots of the city, jam Commercial Street and comb the tides. The harbor bustles with an active fishing fleet, oil tankers, navy ships, tugs, island ferries, water taxis, excursion boats, yachts, and cruise ships.
The face of Portland, however, is changing. A cruise ship terminal on the city’s eastern shore attracts ships in increasing numbers and size, and developers of high-end condominiums are following in lockstep. The city has been discovered by Hilton, Marriot, and Westin. Blue-collar businesses are fleeing for cheaper pastures, and natural foods supermarkets are sprouting in the last industrial neighborhoods. This may be economic progress, but many who live and work here fear that the city could be well on its way to becoming someplace else.
Portland Harbor is easy to enter under any conditions. The main approach is from the south. This is also the primary shipping lane.
From offshore, pick up the red-and-white Portland buoy “P” (43° 31.60’N070° 05.49’W) off Cape Elizabeth. Pass between flashing green bell “3” and flashing red whistle “4.” The Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse (Fl (4) 15s 15M mrass) will be to port. Proceed to flashing gong “7” off Willard Rock and then to the brown-and-red “D” bell off Portland Head Light (Fl 4s 24M mrass). Follow the channel northward past the lighthouse on Spring Point in South Portland and bear left into the harbor.
In fog, keep an ear glued to the radio, and don’t hesitate to place a securité call. Keep an especially good lookout ahead and astern for commercial traffic and frequent ferries. The fog signals at each of the lighthouses on Cape Elizabeth, Portland Head, and Spring Point are all mariner radio activated sound signals (MRASS: key Ch. 83A five times).
Most harbor amenities are east of the large Casco Bay Bridge, which spans the Fore River between Portland and South Portland. The inner harbor, past the State Pier, is a no-wake zone.
Anchoring is not allowed in the inner harbor, west of the State Pier, so you should try to reserve a slip or mooring in advance. You can choose whether to stay on the Portland or the South Portland side.
On the north side of the harbor, DiMillo’s Marina has a prime location at the foot of Portland’s restored waterfront area, with city conveniences nearby. The disadvantages are the absence of moorings and the fact that you are amid the hurly-burly of downtown Portland. Portland Yacht Services has moorings and dockage at the eastern end of the harbor.
Two public floats allow exceptionally limited docking space for brief periods, one at the end of the State Pier, just east of the Casco Bay Lines ferry terminal and their yellow-and-red ferries, and another deep in the slip just to the west of the terminal. Neither is ideal. The east float is longer and has more depth, but it is exposed to wake from passing boats and very narrow. The inner float also has very little maneuvering room and shoal water at low tide. It is in constant use by water taxis and should be used for pick-ups and drop-offs only.
On the South Portland side of the harbor several marinas and a yacht club squeeze among oil tanks and commercial docks, and the city has a float just to the west of the bridge. Here you can view Portland in peace and quiet. The disadvantage here, though, is that you are somewhat removed from the city of Portland and will have to take a cab. Taking a dinghy across the harbor is not recommended. As noted sailor Dodge Morgan put it, “A dinghy ride across the harbor channel is like making your way across an active airport runway on a tricycle.”
A third option, Maine Yacht Center, lies outside the Fore River at the mouth of Back Cove, north of the Portland peninsula. Like the marinas in South Portland, these slips offer access to the city without being right downtown.
For the boat
PORTLAND (from east to west)
Harbormaster (Ch. 09, 16; 207-772-8121, 207-831-6962; portlandharbor.org). In season, the harbormaster operates a patrol boat with large identifying lettering. His office is located in the Marine Trade Center on the Portland Fish Pier.
Portland Yacht Services (Ch. 09, 16; 207-774-1067; portlandyacht.com). PYS’s marina lies at the eastern end of the harbor, directly below the Portland Observatory up on the hill. Their large yard, sheds, and repair facilities are up the Fore River just beyond the Casco Bay Bridge. The Mmoorings and docks at the marina have considerable exposure, but they are within walking distance of downtown Portland. PYS moorings are massive, 4000-pounders. The floats, with water and spump-outs, can accommodate vessels to 120 feet with depths to 20 feet. At their yard upriver and at their sister site, Gowen Marine, PYS handles major restoration and repair projects to wood and fiberglass boats, including hull, engine, outboard, rigging, and electrical work, and they have an extensive engine parts department.
DiMillo’s Marina (Ch. 09, 71; 207-773-7632; dimillos.com). DiMillo’s is easily recognized from the water by its large blue-and-white Ffloating restaurant (772-2216) made out of an old ferry. The ferry was once the Newport, running between Newport and Jamestown and later the clubhouse and dry-sailing dock of the Pawtucket Yacht Club in Port Jefferson, New York.
The marina is right in the heart of Portland’s Old Port. It has gas, diesel, water, pump-outs, ice, Wi-Fi, television hookups, and electricity to 50 amps. Dockage is available for transients, and they can accommodate several vessels to 250 feet on the faces of their outer floats with depths to 30 feet. A marine store, showers, and laundry facilities are ashore.
Gowen Inc. (Ch. 09, 16; 207-773-1761). Portland’s Fish Pier is identifiable by a large beige metal building on the Portland side of the harbor and by all the fishing boats docked to the west of it. Gowen’s, further to the west, was once a shipyard but now is part of Portland Yacht Sevices. They haul and service everything from trawlers and Casco Bay Lines ferries to yachts of all sizes with their huge 150-ton boatlift. Hull, engine, and electrical repairs can be done by the yard or on a do-it-yourself basis.
Baykeeper II (Ch. 09; 207-776-0136). This mobile pump-out boat is operated by Friends of Casco Bay. They will come to your boat anywhere from Portland to Freeport and do your duty.
Maine Yacht Center (Ch. 09; 207-842-9000; maineyacht.com) is on the shore of Portland’s East Deering neighborhood, due north of the Portland peninsula, at the mouth of Back Cove. Their docks can handle transient boats to 150 feet, with water, 3-phase, 100 amp power, phone, cable, and internet. Laundry, a kitchenette, and a lounge are ashore. They pump gas and diesel and offer pump-outs. They haul with an 80-ton Travelift and can perform all types of repairs.
New England Fiberglass (207-773-3537; nefiberglass.com) can handle large and small glass repairs on your boat or at their shop. Their slogan: “You goon it, we glue it.”
Hamilton Marine (207-774-1772; hamiltonmarine.com). This branch of the famous Searsport chandlery carries almost everything you might need for your boat, whether it is a polished yacht or a working boat. They are within walking distance from the Old Port at 100 Fore Street.
The Chart Room at Chase Leavitt (207-772-6383; chaseleavitt.com). Chase Leavitt is one of Portland’s oldest marine businesses. They act as shipping agents for international ships visiting, they sell a worldwide array of charts and nautical publications, and they sell and service liferafts and inflatables. They are located at 144 Fore Street on the ocean side of the Hamilton Marine building, opposite Portland’s Ocean Gateway cruise-ship terminal.
Sawyer and Whitten Marine Electronics (207-879-4500; sawyerwhitten.com) at Union Wharf, off Commercial Street, can handle all your electronics sales, service, and installation needs.
West Marine (207-761-7600; westmarine. com) is a mile from Commercial Street. Follow Franklin Street north towards Route 295. Turn left on Marginal Way to number 127, on the left.
SOUTH PORTLAND (from east to west)
Spring Point Marina (Ch. 09; 207-767-3254, dock 767-3213; portharbormarine.com). This is the first marina to port as you enter Portland Harbor, just before the large oil tankers’ wharf. They have slip space for transients, but no moorings. The channel leading to the marina splits at the floats with the fuel dock to the right and slips to the left. To the left, at dead low, there is a less-than-5-foot spot just off dock “H.” The fuel dock has 9 feet at low, gas, diesel, water and ice, and a sewage pump-out, and the slips have electricity and water. The marina has a 35-ton boatlift and can perform hull, engine, rig, and electrical repairs. Ashore there is also a well-stocked ship’s store, a canvas shop, laundry facilities, and showers. FA new restaurant is planned at the head of the docks.
Spring Point also manages the Breakwater Marina, just to the west, but the slips there are private with no room for transients.
Sunset Marina (Ch. 09; 207-767-4729). After passing the long oil pipeline terminal pier, can “5,” and storybook little Bug Light, you will see the slips of Sunset Marina directly across the harbor from Portland’s Old Port. If you should be so lucky, their face floats can accommodate transients to 250 feet with ample depth. Gas, diesel, water, pump-outs, ice, and 50-amp shore power are available, as well as showers and laundry facilities ashore. The Saltwater Grille (799-5400) serves excellent lunches and dinners overlooking the docks and the city.
Aspasia Marina (207-767-1914) occupies the site of the former South Portland Shipyard, due west of Sunset Marina. The shipyard was one of two in South Portland to build Liberty Ships for the war effort in the 1940s. It is now a marina for seasonal customers only, but they do have a pump-out.
Centerboard Yacht Club (Ch. 68; 207-799-7084). This friendly and unassuming yacht club has a substantial fleet of cruising boats and moorings for transients. Centerboard is on the south side of the harbor, west of the extensive docks of Sunset and Aspasia marinas. The small clubhouse has big “CYC” letters on the roof.
The club has several guest moorings and keeps track of members who are away cruising. The long finger float has water. Depth is six feet at low at the outer end. A shower and ice are ashore.
It is quite pleasant to lie at a CYC mooring, gazing across at Portland’s twinkling lights and listening to the low growl of the city in the distance, rocked occasionally by the wash of some large vessel passing. The harbor is beneath the path for jets from Portland’s airport, but pilots tend to sleep later than lobstermen.
South Port Marine (Ch. 09; 207-799-8191; southportmarine.com) is the marina farthest into the harbor on the South Portland side, just before the Casco Bay Bridge crossing into Portland. It has the advantage of being closer to Portland by land than any of the other South Portland marinas, and it is within walking distance of the supermarkets at the Mill Creek Shopping Center. If your boat draws more than 41⁄2 feet, however, enter at half-tide or better, and follow the channel markers carefully. The outside floats have 8 feet of depth at low and can accommodate boats to 135 feet, with hook-ups for water, pump-outs, electricity to 50 amps, phone and cable. The fuel dock pumps gas and diesel. Boats can be hauled with the 60-ton boatlift for repairs to hull, rig, or engine. Showers, laundry, a small chandlery, and ice are ashore.
Knightville Landing is part of the Thomas Knight Park, under and just to the west of the Casco Bay Bridge connecting Portland and South Portland. Dockage is free for up to four hours and for a fee for longer periods or overnight. Depth is 6 feet at low.
Reo Marine (207-767-5219; reomarine.com). Located a couple of blocks inland from Sunset Marina, Reo Marine specializes in powerboats. Their shop services outboards, outdrives, and inboards of all kinds, and they have a small ship’s store.
For the Crew
To provision on foot in the Old Port, start at Harbor Fish Market on the tiny, cobbled Custom House Wharf, opposite the impressive granite customs house on Commercial Street. Harbor Fish is an authentic fish market, where the fish are gutted fresh off the boats and the floors are cleaned with a hose.
Follow your nose to the Standard Baking Company across from Casco Bay Lines for fresh breads, sticky buns, and pastries. Walk east on Commercial Street and then a block north on India Street to Micucci’s Italian Market. This is the place for prosciutto, cheeses, pasta, sauces, olives by the barrel, and a great selection of wines. Browne Trading Company, at the opposite end of Commercial Street, specializes in caviars, fish spreads, wines, and other delectables.
Every Wednesday, a farmers’ market is set up right in the middle of town at Monument Square, featuring local produce and local farmers. Walk up Market Street or Exchange Street, then work your way to the left a couple of blocks.
For major provisioning, a Whole Foods natural foods supermarket is just up and over the hill on Franklin Street. A bus or cab can take you to Trader Joe’s, to the vast Hannaford supermarket on Forest Avenue, or to the Shaw’s at the Mill Creek Shopping Center in South Portland.
Restaurant choices alone could keep you here several weeks. In the immediate vicinity of the waterfront, try Fore Street (775-2717) on Fore Street above Standard Baking, or Street and Company (775-0887), on Wharf Street, for the best of the best. The Old Port Sea Grill (879-6100), on Commercial, serves 12 types of oysters in a modern setting. The Porthole and Gilbert’s Chowder House, tucked on gritty Customs House Wharf, and the Dry Dock and J’s Oyster Bar, nearby, are local favorites. Other options include Benkay (773-5555) for maki rolls and sushi, and DiMillo’s Floating Restaurant (772-2216). Becky’s (773-7070), at the west end of Commercial, is the place to be at the crack of dawn for heart-stopping eggs over easy.
Lookin’ Good Laundromat (772-6676) is on Congress Street near India Street, where there is also a large Rite Aid pharmacy (774-8456).
For crew logistics, the Portland Jetport (774-7301) is a short cab ride outside of town. Most car rental agencies are at the airport, but Enterprise (772-0030, 800-736-8222) is within walking distance of the waterfront on the corner of Forest Avenue and Marginal Way. The Greyhound (800-231-2222) bus station (772-6587) is at the west end of Congress Street. The Concord Trailways (800-639-3317) and Amtrak train station is a short cab ride away on Sewell Street. Metro bus (774-0351) routes cover most of the city.
Two major grocery stores are located in South Portland near the Casco Bay Bridge along with a laundromat, a hardware store, and banks and restaurants. Snow Squall Restaurant (799-0811) is next to South Port Marine, and Foulmouthed Brewing brewpub is steps away. Saltwater Grille (799-5400) is at Sunset Marina, and a new restaurant is slated for Spring Point Marina. 158 Pickett Street Cafe serves incredible egg sandwiches around the corner.
Things to Do
This little city packs more culture than most cities twice its size. Its shops are varied and interesting, its restaurants daring and reasonable. The main shopping districts of the Old Port and the Congress Street area are all within walking distance. The free Portland Phoenix newspaper or the Portland Press Herald might help you plan your time. You may need to stay longer than you planned.
Major fires destroyed the Portland peninsula on at least two occasions. The worst, in 1866, was set by a Fourth of July firecracker. The fires gave rise to the current architecture of the city—the brick warehouse area along the waterfront now known as the Old Port, the rebuilt, workingman’s Munjoy Hill to the east, and the grand mansions of the West End, many of which were spared. Portland’s motto, Resurgam, means “I will rise again.”
Walking tour information is available at the Wadsworth-Longfellow House on Congress Street. The house where Longfellow grew up is now home to the Maine Historical Society. Their history museum is next door. Or you might explore the Victorian Mansion on Danforth Street.
On Munjoy Hill, climb all 102 steps to the top of the Portland Observatory (portlandlandmarks.org/observatory.htm). It was built in 1807 to alert merchants by a series of flag signals when their ships entered the harbor so they could be ready on the wharves. Kids might like the Portland Fire Museum on Spring Street or the Narrow Gauge Railway Museum at Portland Yacht Services’ marina.
At the heart of Portland’s art scene is the Portland Museum of Art on Congress Street, with a superb collection of Winslow Homer paintings, works by other Maine artists, Impressionist paintings, and traveling exhibits. Next door is the Children’s Museum of Maine, which features a rooftop camera obscura which projects sights of the harbor onto a viewing table. The Maine College of Art, with several galleries, is nearby.
For music or theater, investigate the Portland Performing Arts Center on Forest Avenue and the schedule of the Portland Symphony. In the summer, free lunchtime concerts are performed outside at Tommy’s Park near Exchange Street.
If you still yearn to be waterborne, numerous excursion boats leave from the Commercial Street area, among them the Casco Bay Lines ferries (774-7871), which have served the islands continuously since 1871, the oldest such ferry service in the country.
The Spring Point walkway winds along the South Portland waterfront. From Spring Point Marina it runs east to the breakwater and the Spring Point Light, the grounds and buildings of Civil War-vintage Fort Preble, and the pre-Revolutionary “Old Settlers’ Cemetery,” and it continues to Willard Beach. On the way it passes the headquarters of Friends of Casco Bay (799-8574, cascobay.org), a group dedicated to preserving the health and the beauty of Casco Bay.
Heading west, the Shoreway heads to a second lighthouse, little Bug Light, which perches on a breakwater extending into the harbor from a large public park.
From South Portland, Portland can be reached by crossing the arching span of the Casco Bay Bridge. This new bridge replaced the Million Dollar Bridge, so nicknamed by outraged taxpayers because that was the appalling sum earmarked to build it in 1913. It actually cost a little less. Measure time in dollars: the replacement bridge cost $165 million. But what that money bought was a much-needed wider opening for tankers heading up the Fore River. In 1996, navigating the squeeze under the old bridge, the Julie N struck one of the piers and gashed a hole in its hull, spilling 180,000 gallons of oil.