Portland, Maine: Coastal Diversion

The ferry ride on Casco Bay is an easy, inexpensive tour of the islands.
The ferry ride on Casco Bay is a beautiful ride and an easy, inexpensive way to tour the islands. Christopher Ludgate photos.

Portland Has Become a Top Dining Spot in New England

By Christopher Ludgate

The view in the distance after leaving the port revealed one after another. Some of the islands just small silhouettes with rustic docks jutting out, and some grand -- peppered with houses peeking between the landscapes - while others just seeming mysterious in the misty dusk, revealing a self-possessed peacefulness as our boat passed by approaching Great Diamond Island.

Casco Bay Diversion

Lots of unique sights on US Route 1 along Maine's coast.
Lots of unique sights on US Route 1 along Maine's coast.

Planning our road-trip along New England’s Coast from Boston towards Maine’s remote Lindenwood Inn on Mount Desert Island, a friend and I figured on a rest stop along the way for some deep stretches and a little respite.

The northern leg of our journey heading onto US Route 1 bestows a scenic trove of intrigues to behold. Along the highway’s stretch are the Casco Bay Islands which are part of the northeast’s archipelago of Portland, Maine which looked like a very inviting nautical diversion during the journey north.

The mass of isles extends from the Old Port of the city, tallying at around 130, but that can easily be rounded down to the more inhabited ones for a bit of island hopping, thanks to the Casco Bay Ferry Lines.

Depleted and starved for something to shake off the sedentary tension, Steve and I pulled into the back lot of Gorham Bikes, opting to ditch the driving on such a beautiful day with some outdoor sightseeing along the Promenade on the way to hitching a ride later on the ferry.

Sur-Lie mixologist, James, and his Poisedon's Wrath drink.
Sur-Lie mixologist, James, and his Poisedon's Wrath drink.

Unique Eats & Libations

Any foodie who knows anything about the restaurant scene knows Portland is well established on the map, so we were definitely geared up for some good eats. A couple of recently opened restaurants caught our eye, including Sur-Lie, in the heart of Downtown Portland.

A much buzzed about establishment helmed by Krista Cole, Tony Alvarez, and Chef Emil Rivera, Sur-Lie is about redefined wine & tapas and food inspired cocktails as much as it is about community-oriented sustainability. The idea clearly was born out of detail to menu quality and a passion for being a responsible citizen and business.

“More than anything, we wanted to give back to the community in a way that was integrated with creating a unique dining experience for every guest who comes here,” co-owner, Cole, revealed.

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Carol Mitchell's inspired restaurant, Tiqa, is a yummy blend of inspiration and passion for Pan Mediterranean food.
Carol Mitchell's and husband's inspired restaurant, Tiqa, is a yummy blend of inspiration and passion for Pan Mediterranean food.

We sat at the grand wooden bar in the elegant, classic yet rustic bistro. No garish TV here.

The menu focuses on a diverse collection of non-traditional tapas. It is not the Spanish lite-bites type one imagines when hearing ‘tapas’. The vegan and vegetarian-friendly menu options were smartly crafted and playful – not like the often predictable and unsatisfying veg offerings – even for omnivores.

The refreshing sweet pea hummus with lemon sabayon, lavash, and mint and the fried milk braised cauliflower with honey soy glaze we shared hit the right notes paired with a rye-based Poseidon’s Wrath cocktail.

The burgeoning food scene also includes Old Port’s Tiqa, a colorful Pan Mediterranean spot that pulls inspiration from cuisines hailing from the Levant region, Turkey, and Pakistan to name a few which are highlighted on a map illustrated on their menu.

Co-owner Carol Mitchell and Steve bonded over their shared part-Lebanese heritage and the savory influences of their grandmothers’ food.

Liquid Riot's brew-masters at work on summer-time ales.
Liquid Riot's brew-masters at work on summer-time ales.

“My sittoo – that’s what we called my grandmother – is my greatest influence and the food she used make for our family dinners.

I remember the smells and flavors from my childhood, and then she passed recipes on to my Irish mom, so it’s really a big part of why we were inspired to open Tiqa,” Mitchell told us of the playfully traditional menu as brunch crowds meandered in from the neighboring Saturday farmer’s market.

Not short on flair or flavor, the food is enhanced by the bread and pastries baked in-house in an open kitchen. Fragrant warm pita with Mediterranean extra-virgin olive oil and that Za'atar was just addictive. We actually stopped at their other location when returning home.

With satisfied bellies, we headed towards the ferry on our bicycles and stopped into Liquid Riot Brewery and Distillery on the waterfront to stock up on libations for our overnight stay at the Inn at Diamond Cove on Great Diamond Island. We watched in the expansive window behind the bar as brewers were at work with the tanks on the latest potions and blends while we tendered our bill for our six-pack of fresh brew.

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Tucked Away at Diamond Cove

The Inn at Diamond Cove rises from the ashes in newly restored digs.
The Inn at Diamond Cove rises from the ashes in newly restored digs.

Once the site of Fort McKinley for the U.S. Army in the early 1900’s, the island of Diamond Cove’s history can be discovered with tour guides or self-guided on bike or foot – there are no cars on this island. Once regarded as an artist’s retreat that hosted Longfellow after the war, the private community is not built up commercially, which is part of its charm, by design.

Even the sole little general store by the marina keeps it simple but offers hand-made light bites and snacks. The community hosts picnics and outdoor yoga among other activities in the nicer weather when the Inn at Diamond Cove also opens its doors.

Author and friend reach their road-trip destination: Sunrise on Cadillac Mountain.
Author and friend reach their road-trip destination: Sunrise on Cadillac Mountain.

In 2013 the historic Inn suffered severe devastation in a fire. According to one of the stewards, James, “The only remnant still remaining of the century-old structure now is the chimney by the elevator” in the recently opened $12 million rebuild.

The bonfire beside the pool and hot-tub was in full glory as guests sat around it with cocktails as we took in the view from our wide balcony’s chairs and popped open a brew and looked forward to an early start excited to continue our journey and explore Acadia State Park, tucked away, surrounded by elegant beauty in nature’s peace.

Christopher Ludgate

Contributing Editor Christopher Ludgate is a travel & culture journalist based out of his native New York City. Chris combines his multi-faceted professions and is ever drawn to adventure and creative outlets. His travel writing pursuits have lead to working with publications such as Passport Magazine, LAX in-flight, AIR Chicago, FLY Washington, and, of course, GoNOMAD.com. Chris is an award-winning filmmaker with films in distribution and screenings around the globe.