• Travel

    Day 12. Portland. Walk Duck Clam.

    In which we take a walking tour, eat excellent rolls for lunch, ride in a mighty duck, and tread in the footsteps of Bourdain.

    Walking around Portland

    Yes, I’m standing in the middle of Commercial St, the main harbour road of Portland, and there are like three cars moving. It’s 9:30 on a Sunday morning, give them a break!

    So up we rose and wandered down the hill again. Portland is the most populous city in Maine, with about 66,000 residents in the city proper, and a total of about 250,000 in its metropolitan area. It was founded as a fishing town, and then grew as a trade port for goods from northern New England and, for a time, from Canada. But more of that later.

    We had some time before our walking tour and we strolled around looking at odds and ends that caught our fancy.

    Portland has been a properous town through most of its existence and there are lovely houses, in that simple but elegant New England manner, to be seen all around.

    Directly across the street was a less lovely example. With some … exciting electrical wiring going on.

    Portland is still a working port, with fishing boats going out daily. Sunday looks to have been a day off for at least some of the fishermen though.

    I am a sucker for a fresh market. I love to look around and see what is similar to what we get at home, and what is different. Harbour Fish Market called out to me, and Doreen was so kind, as always, to indulge me.

    Sparkling fresh fish with their source proudly displayed.

    Clams and oysters with very specific source locations. I wish we were staying somewhere where I could buy some and cook them for myself. Well, ourselves. I would share, obviously.

    I don’t know what this building is or was when it was constructed. A warehouse? An office building, or a workshop of some kind? Its simple, handsome lines caught my eye.

    Just in time we made it to our walking tour. A Walk in Time takes you around Portland, talking through the history and geography of the town over more than three centuries.

    Charmingly cobbled Wharf Street was once the first street from the harbour. The buildings here were warehouses and chandlers for the working ships that fished and traded from the port. Now the harbour has been partly filled in and the waterfront is a block away; and the lane is filled with chic bistros for tourists to eat in. Which is progress, I guess.

    The Maine Lobsterman is a semi-famous statue, originally cast as part of Maine’s exhibition for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. The original was bronze paint over plaster (there was a Great Depression happening and funds were short) and was damaged beyond repair in the 1950’s. Gladly there was money available by then for real bronzes to be recast from the original; one is now in Washington DC and the other sits in a square at the corner of Temple and Middle Streets in Portland.

    The Time and Temperature Building is a rather lovely early deco skyscraper near the commercial centre of the city. It is a Portland icon, recently in decline as an office building, but now there are plans to redevelop it as a lxury hotel.

    Next to the T&T is the Fidelity Trust Building, a 1910 Gothic revival skyscraper. It’s also being considered for conversion from offices, this time to a residential building.

    And can I just take a moment to point out the sky? No photoshopping going on here. From this day on we had almost continuous clear blue skies for the rest of our time in the US. A little haze now and then, some fog one morning driving to Albany, but apart from that it was mid-20s during the day and mid-high teens at night – celsius, obviously. Pretty much perfect holiday weather.

    Portland City Hall is the fourth one the city has had. The first one was on a different site in the town’s old market square, and this one – built in 1909-12 in the Renaissance revival style – is the third on this site, the previous two having been destroyed by fires.

    This seems like a good time to mention Portland and fires. They’ve had a few of them. Large parts of the city have been destroyed by fire on several separate occasions.

    The settlement of Falmouth (as Portland was then known) was destroyed in 1676 in the course of King Philip’s War, a conflict between native Americans and English settlers. I haven’t found a definitive account but it is mentioned in some sources that the town was burnt out, or at least heavily damaged by fire.

    In 1775, at the start of the American Revolution, Falmouth (it was not renamed until 1786) was bombarded by Royal Navy ships under the command of Captain Henry Mowat. Captain Mowat had been captured briefly by American militia earlier in the year and, considering himself to have been mistreated, took to his orders to “chastize” Falmouth (and several other ports in the area) with a great deal of gusto. Much of the town was burned in fires caused by the bombardment.

    In 1866 on July 4th, the first Independence Day after the end of the Civil War, another fire broke out. Allegedly started by celebratory fireworks (or possibly a dropped cigar), it spread from Commercial Street by the waterfront though the town. 1,800 buildings were destroyed, including the new City Hall that had only been completed in 1863, and 10,000 people were left homeless. The intermittent band of parks and cemeteries that runs through downtown function now in part as natural firebreaks. And a nice place to sit and eat lunch.

    In 1908 the replacement City Hall was itself destroyed by fire, fortunately limited to just that building. The new one is going okay, so far at least.

    Diametrically across from the City Hall is the Portland Fire Department Downtown station. I like to think they have one fireman watching the City Hall at all times of the day and night. Especially when there are fireworks on.

    Not far from City Hall is the birthplace of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who we met in Boston in his role as the writer of the largely apocryphal but very famous poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride“.

    A little further down the street is the First Parish inPortland Unitarian Universalist church. Parishioners were coming out as our tour walked on past. Not gonna lie, I have no idea what Unitarian Universalist means in terms of dogma. It’s a nice building though.

    Like much of New England, Portland was a strong location for abolitionism. Slaves fleeing the South passed through here on the underground railroad, and the people of Portland provided moral and material support for the fight against slavery. Portland’s Freedom Trail reflects that fight, rather than the War of Indepedence of the Boston Freeedom Trail.

    Part of that support is embodied in the Abyssinian Meeting House. Built in 1828 it was a centre for worship, education and social organisation for Portland’s African-American population. It is currently in the process of restoration.

    Another stop on the Freedom Trail. Charles Eastman was a black member of the Abyssinian Church, and clearly an active one. As an aside, it’s interesting how meaning changes over time. When we think of preserving rare animals, taxidermy is not the first approach that comes to the modern mind.

    The Grand Trunk Railway building stands on the corner of India and Thames Streets, near the harbour.

    The Grand Trunk Railway was a big part of Portland’s history from the mid-19th century into the 1960s. Originally a development to enable commerce within Canada, it was expanded south into the US over time, including a branch to Portland. Portland was (and of course still is) a deepwater port that is ice-free through winter. This enabled it to function as an export point for Canadian commodities, primarily grain in those days, and an import point for, well, imports. The railway terminus was a sprawling complex over that part of town, and a key part of Portland’s economy.

    The completion of the St Lawrence Seaway in 1959 allowed ocean-going ships to access the Great Lakes from the Atlantic year-round, and sealed the doom of this part of the Grand Trunk. The railway closed, the tracks were torn up, the buildings were demolished – apart from this one, which now serves as a branch and offices for the Gorham Savings Bank.

    And while Portland is no longer a major port for trans-Atlantic shipping, the deep-water harbour and year-round access make it a good venue for a more modern type of shipping.

    The tour having taken us on a loop around town and back down to the waterside, we went looking for lunch. And as I always say, when you’re in Maine, eat lobster.

    The Highroller Lobster Co. embraces lobster rolls and plays sporty riffs on them like a jazz musician looking at the classic, simple rolls we had at Luke’s Lobster in Boston and deciding, No, I want to do something different with that. Yes they have lobster rolls, of course, with many different sauces. Also lobster tacos, lobster corn dogs, lobster salads, bacon lobster and tomato sandwiches, and many more things.

    We had … lobster rolls. And they were good, plenty of sweet meat, salad and flavoured mayo that was not so strong as to detract from the star ingredient.

    Lobster roll, roasted pepper mayo
    Lobster roll, lime and jalapeno mayo

    Duck Duck Sail

    Our activity for the afternoon was to take a Maine Duck Tour. Ducks, or more properly DUKWs, were built in World War II as amphibious trucks. A sturdy, waterproof hull with six-wheel drive and a propellor driven off the main motor via a transmission change, they were used in the European and Pacific theatres for beach landings, river crossings and for overland transport after the landings.

    Nowadays there are a few surviving examples being used for touristy fun.

    The tour takes you on a drive around parts of Portland, with an entertaining narrative provided along the way. A bit of history, a bit of geography, some local gossip and a few jokes thrown in for free.

    The Duck then takes to the water down a boat ramp, engages the propeller, and navigates in a quite liesurely way around Portland’s bay. You get some nice views of the local birdlife…

    … of parts of the city from the sea – this is Fort Allen Park …

    … and Fort Gorges, built after the War of 1812 to defend Portland from the British, and obsolete before it was completed due to advances in naval artillery technology.

    And other things too, it’s a nice ride and a good fun tour.

    After the tour we wandered around a bit more before dinner.

    Portland is a lovely tourist town, with a picturesque harbour full of pleasure cruisers.

    One dock over you can find the proper fishing boats that are for working, not pleasure. A lot less picturesque, and also kind of rickety. But perhaps more substantial in a way of its own.

    Our wandering led us to the back side of one of the docks. It presents a remarkable patchwork wall of old boards, corrugated metal, plastic sheeting and barely two windows alike. I love it!

    Clamming up for dinner

    J’s Oyster is a Portland institution, made semi-famous by Anthony Bourdain in an episode of No Reservations in 2009 or so. It was opened in 1977 by Janice Noyes as a place for the local fishermen to have a beer and oysters when they came off their boats, and is owned and run now by two of her daughters. An unpreposessing building right by the docks, the ambience is basic (I suspect unrenovated since 1977), the food is simple, based around exquisitely fresh local seafood, and the beer is cold and not too expensive. They don’t take reservations, so if you don’t want a long wait you should get there early. We got there about 5:45pm and the joint was almost completely full; gladly there was a two-top free in a corner and we actually even had a nice view of the docks rather than the parking lot.

    The oysters were an example. Huge, chilled raw local oysters with that fresh, slightly briny tang to them, accompanied by some ketchup splodged in a plastic container with a big dollop of horseradish and some chunky wedges of lemon. They were pretty much perfect.

    Oysters Rockefeller are one of Doreen’s favourite treats, baked with a sauce containing spinach, cheese and bacon and topped with breadcrumbs.

    And as I always say, when in Maine, eat clams. Steamed clams are served by the bucket, and you stick them with your little plastic fork, give them a shake in the bowl of hot water to let you shake any sand or grit off, then dunk them in some melted butter and maybe give a little squeeze of lemon or hot sauce.

    These little babies are soft-shelled clams, also known as “steamers”, because that’s how you cook them, “longnecks”, for hopefully obvious reasons, and “pisser-clams” for their endearing habit of pointing their siphon out of the sand and delivering a squirt of water when disturbed.

    And even though they look kind of like the monster in a sci-fi horror film, they are tender and delicious when cooked properly.

    This dish is listed on the menu as “raw scallops”, and it lived up to it’s name. It’s all the fixings of the oyster plate, jazzed up with a gratuitous lettuce leaf and a generous pile of fresh scallops. Maine diver scallops are perhaps the best in the world, although the Scots would disagree, and they put Australian bay scallops to shame. These were tender and sweet and exquisitely fresh.

    Our last dish was “Crabby Janice”, which is a bed of crabmeat and Rockefeller sauce, topped with mornay sauce and breadcrumbs and baked. It was a tasty, creamy, warming dish with a generous amount of crab. The slaw was nice too, with poppy seeds again which seems to be a bit of a regional thing here in the north-east states.

    And that was it for the day. We walked up the hill again to our hotel and did a bit of route planning and booked a room at a nice inn in Vermont for the next night.

    Tomorrow : we leave Portland and drive through the back roads of Maine and New Hampshire, and you get to see me go all gushy when we visit the spiritual home of the post-World War Two financial system. This will be a real treat for the finance geeks!

  • Travel

    Day 11. Swansea to Portland

    In which we see how crazy rich Vanderbilts used to live and drive through four states! in a single day.

    This morning we rose early and after a cheering breakfast – seriously, an egg and bacon toastie and a cup of coffee and I can face just about anything – we climbed into The Mighty Sentra and drove down to Newport. Too early, in fact, because we misread the opening time for The Elms and arrived an hour early.

    Ah well. We wandered down to the waterfront at Newport, summer playground of the rich and richer, and looked at shops and boats. It was about 10am on an overcast Saturday morning and surprisingly little was happening.

    Boats at Newport. I guess these are rich people’s boats?

    And we had only meant to have a quick look at The Elms, so by the time that house actually opened we needed to head off to The Breakers, where we had a tour booked to attend.

    Main gate of The Breakers

    The Breakers is the mack daddy of Gilded Age mansions. It was built in about 18 months in 1893-1895 after the previous building here burnt down in late 1892, and served as the summer house for the Vanderbilt family for about 40 years.

    The Gatehouse at The Breakers

    The Gatehouse was the residence of the property manager. Even though the family only lived here for 10-12 weeks each summer, there was a maintenance staff of a dozen or more year-round.

    The Gatehouse was also where we started our tour. Beneath the Breakers takes small groups on a guided tour downstairs to the cellars and beyond. Because the previous house had been destroyed by fire, Cornelius Vanderbilt II required the new house to be as fireproof as possible. It was built with a steel frame and the building’s boilers were located under the Gatehouse, nearly a hundred yards from the house proper. Piping carried steam and hot water from there to the house through a series of tunnels and rooms. As well as the coal storage and boilers you can see the original (and still functioning) 1899 fuse box from when the house was electrified.

    Part of the tunnel complex
    Spooooooky. No, it’s not a ghost, it’s our tour guide.
    An authentic 1899 fuse box. Huuuge copper switches, and yes, it still runs (some) power to the house.

    Also under the house was the wine cellar. The family held extravagant balls and parties frequently during their short summer stays, and brought a complete cellar full of wine each year when they came from New York. When they stopped their annual visits in the 1930s, the remaining wine was just left behind.

    Or so the story goes. Sceptical Dave thinks that at some point, the remaining maintenance staff would probably have gotten in there. “Just making sure it hasn’t spoiled, boss.” But, it’s a good story.

    The tour took less than an hour and gave some fascinating insights into the infrastructure that kept the great mansion running. Tickets are USD18 as at the time of writing and we strongly recommend it.

    The main house from the front drive

    The Breakers is just breathtaking. It is a glorious statement of excess and wealth that stands out in a period that was known for excess and wealth. The Vanderbilts in the late 1800s were among the richest people in America, with a family fortune built from shipping and railroads. Cornelius took the building of the new mansion as a challenge to create the most opulent, luxurious and modern house imaginable.

    And he succeeded.

    The fun starts in the entrance hall. It stretches the height of the first and second floors, maybe fifty or sixty feet? Marble tiles, ornamental carvings as far as the eye can see. I mean, just assume I write that at the start of every paragraph, because it’s true everywhere.

    It’s a level of ornamentation that to our modern tastes seems ridiculously over the top. But it was the style at the time.

    Stairs from the entrance hall heading up to the second floor
    A small fountain evoking a Roman villa, nestled into the back of the stairs in the picture above.
    The music room
    The billiards room
    The dining room

    I have to admit, I find it almost impossible to imagine living in a place like this. The scale, the grandeur, the impracticality, are all just beyond me.

    In my internal visualisation of life here, I’m not living in the fancy bedrooms, or dancing in the fancy ballroom.

    Nope, I’m here in the kitchen, making the snacks.

    One of the bathrooms. Possibly the least ornate of the rooms (apart from the servants’ quarters of course), and even almost tasteful by modern standards. But what’s that little floor-level basin for at the right? If anyone knows, please tell us.

    The baths at The Breakers famously had multiple water sources available, and taps to match. Public health and disease were big issues in the late 19th century – two of Cornelius’s children had died very young – and the Vanderbilts didn’t really trust the Newport municipal water system of 1894 to deliver uncontaminated water to their standards. So rainwater was captured, and seawater was pumped up from the Atlantic below the cliffs, and bathers could take their pick.

    Gertrude Vanderbilt’s bedroom. Cornelius’s and Alice’s daughter, in her late teens when the house was built, she went on to a career as a respected sculptor. The bedrooms are almost on a human scale.

    A loggia at the rear of the building looks out over the Atlantic. Below the edge of the lawn are cliffs, at the base of which beat the breakers for which the house was named.

    The gardens of the house are also beautiful and well worth allowing time to look around. Interestingly little of the gardens are original; they were almost entirely destroyed in the great hurricane of 1938.

    So that’s The Breakers. The Vanderbilt family used it regularly for less then 40 years, as Cornelius died in 1899 and after his wife Alice died in 1934 the next generation were unwilling or unable to spend the time and money to maintain the house and the lifestyle associated with it. When property taxes were introduced in the 1930s the estate became a financial burden to the family, and in 1948 it was leased (and later sold) to the Preservation Society of Newport County who keep it and numerous other mansions open to the public. The family has an enduring right of residence, and a few descendants have apartments to this day on the third floor, which was originally rooms for visiting friends and servants*.

    It was a great visit; we spent probably three or four hours there and wish we had time for more.

    * The family and any guests brought their servants with them of course. The third floor had quarters for thirty servants, with the rooms double-stacked with 9-foot ceilings** compared to the 18-foot height of the floor as a whole.

    ** If that sounds pokey, it’s still higher that the 8’6″ which is the minimum height for a room these days.

    Traffic disruption in Boston. There’s a surprise.

    So it was back into The Mighty Sentra and north to Portland Maine, our destination for the night.

    Mostly we were just motoring up the I-95, which is like driving on any big modern freeway not in an actual city. Good road, smooth traffic flow, kind of boring. I will say that as a driver from Australia, the land of traffic cameras, the behaviour of American drivers was a bit of a shock. Speed limits in the US seem to be more of a guideline than a rule. Driving at the speed limit (which I, of course, unfailingly did) results in everyone else leaving you in their dust. Ten miles-per-hour over the limit seemed pretty normal, and fifteen was not unusual. Which given that some sections of the I-95 have a 75 mph limit meant that some drivers (definitely not me) were scooting along at about 90 (which is 140 kmh in Australian).

    I toyed with the idea of driving through some of the coastal towns north-east of Boston, some of which are the inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional Innsmouth, but alas time was not on our side.

    And so we passed quickly – very quickly – from Rhode Island through Massachusetts and New Hampshire to Maine, arriving in Portland a little before dusk. Four states in one day! Though they are smallish states, and honestly New Hampshire was a quick in-and-out. But I’m counting it.

    We checked into the Holiday Inn for our two nights in town, and wandered down to the main street for a quick orient and stroll. As dark fell we stopped in Gritty’s for a nice casual pub meal. Gritty’s is a brewpub and we had some fine local beers and ciders as well as tasty food.

    Fried clams with slaw and fries. When in New England, eat clams.
    Cheesesteak roll and onion rings. Okay, not a New England staple, but we weren’t going to Philadelphia so may as well have one here.

    And so back to bed. The ten minute walk uphill to the hotel was good for our character, and a handy leg-stretch after a long drive.

    Tomorrow, we get our tourist on in Portland. No, not that one. The one on the right-hand coast.