Tag Archives: Portland


Maine HighwayAlmost exactly five years after my first visit to New England I landed in Boston again. Logan airport hadn’t changed at all so I experienced a strange feeling of déjà vu. Fortunately it quickly ended when I got my rental car and drove straight towards the beautiful state of Maine.

Why Maine? Well, it was one of the last two states among the lower 48 which I haven’t visited yet. More importantly, it is also the state with the lowest population density east of the Mississippi and one of the most heavily forested and wildest corners of the eastern United States ( it is called The Pine Tree State for a reason). Add a jagged coastline full of bays, rocky headlands and lighthouses, many wild rivers and lakes, small fishing towns and some of the oldest settlements in the US, and you have a recipe for a truly great holiday.

But I started my tour of the state from the least wild southern part of it. My first proper stops (not counting the cheap motel on the New Hampshire border) were the lighthouses around Portland. I was heading towards the Portland Head Light (according to guidebooks one of the most accessible and convenient to visit lighthouses) when, totally accidentally, I came across two lighthouses at Cape Elizabeth. At first I thought I was in the right place but then one of the locals told me that Portland Head was actually located a couple more miles along the road. In the end it didn’t really matter as all three photogenic lighthouses are scenically located along the short stretch of coast. Portland Head is apparently one of the most photographed lighthouses in the world while those at Cape Elizabeth are portrayed in several of Edward Hopper’s paintings.Portland Head Lighthouse

Portland itself is the largest metropolis in Maine. The word “metropolis” is actually a massive exaggeration in this case. Sure, its metropolitan area is home to a third of the state population but it is still less than a half a million souls, and only less than 70 thousand of them live in the city proper. There is a nice walkable downtown, offering some good shopping, eating and drinking options but, to be brutally honest, it will never be a major attraction of New England.

Acadia National Park, on the other hand, is one of the gems of this region. Located about 160 miles north of Portland, it is the only national park in New England. You can drive there in 3.5 hours or you can stop in countless gentrified, touristy towns and villages along the coast. In which case it might take you a week. I chose the fast straight route as I was eager to hit the trail.

The first hike I chose is called the Precipice Trail and it is more of a climb than just a hike. There is even a warning notice at the beginning saying that it is a “non technical climbing route” not a hiking trail. Whatever you call it, it is a great fun. In fact, it is one of the best trails I have done in many years. It ascends only about 300 metres but it often does it via a near vertical route, especially near the top. As I said, it is great fun but not for the faint-hearted nor those who are scared of heights. In many places you will scale exposed rock faces, traverse narrow ledges (luckily with the help of metal bars in the most challenging spots) or climb metal steps fixed to the vertical cliff faces. It definitely shouldn’t be tackled in bad weather or taken lightly. People have died on this trail. What it does offer, apart from thrill and adrenaline rush, are absolutely amazing views along the way and from the top. For me it is out there, together with Angels Landing trail in Zion NP and Orla Perc trail in the Polish High Tatras, with my best outdoor experiences.Precipice Trail

After the climb I chilled out by simply catching some sun and getting lazy on the rocky coast of the Acadia, which is scenic, rough and beautiful.

Acadia NP is very varied and has a lot to offer. Apart from the hikes there are also great cycling routes, running mostly along the car-free carriage roads which you can also tour by the horse carriage instead of the bicycle if you are feeling lazy. There are also lakes, woodlands and even a sandy beach. It is a really great national park, especially during the peak foliage season as during my visit.

My time in Acadia was limited but I couldn’t leave before getting to the highest point in the park, the 470 metres tall Cadillac Mountain. Apparently, it is also the tallest spot on the whole Atlantic coast of the US. Fortunately for those who, like me, are short of time, and for lazy folks as well, you can drive right to the top of it. It might be sort of cheating but the amazing panorama from the top will kill your guilt in no time.

Driving from the south to the park you will encounter many B&Bs, good restaurants, art galleries and other businesses clearly geared towards the rich folks from Boston or New York City. North of the Acadia the coast of Maine turns much wilder. Gone are the gentrified cute towns and villages as well as (more importantly) most of the cars. Especially the slow moving ones with the Massachusetts and New York plates. This is the coast of hard working fishing communities, down to earth locals driving pick-up trucks, gas stations selling hunting gear and lobster along the fuel and even some blue collar industrial towns like Bath with its shipyards building destroyers for the US Navy. And crucially, it is also the land of wide and empty roads running along the coast.Town ofLubec

Being a geographer I couldn’t resist the pull of West Quoddy Head which is the easternmost point in the US mainland as well as the closet place to Europe (and Africa) in the contiguous 50 states. There is a lighthouse (one of only two in the US painted, like in Canada, in red and white stripes to be better visible in snowy conditions), but apart from that there is not much else to see or do. It didn’t matter. I just like such extreme points where you are aware of your location on the map. Usually you can look towards the distant horizon and imagine far lands on the other side of the ocean. A bit disappointingly, from West Quaddy Head you can’t stare towards the horizon as, just off the coast, there is an island blocking any romantic vistas. But that’s Canada, so it didn’t spoil my experience too much. I was still standing on the easternmost bit of the Yankee soil.

West QuoddyAccordingly I spent the night in the easternmost town of the US, small community of Lubec (incorporated in 1811). With a population of less than fourteen hundred it was a small place indeed but luckily it still had a decent motel. It was one of the small privately run establishments which you can find all across America in places too small, or too out of the way, for the big corporate chain hotels. I could skip mentioning it altogether if not for the absolutely fantastic home baked blueberry muffins offered by the owner for breakfast.

Lubec MEObviously there was only one way from Lubec, west. This time I skipped the coast and headed inland towards the capital of Maine, Augusta. If the coastal road was already quiet it was still nothing comparing to the emptiness of the inland Maine. It was almost four hours of relaxing driving. Especially as the two lane highways cutting through the endless forests were practically deserted. But even the interstate highway from Bangor to Augusta was one of the emptiest motorways I have ever driven.

Augusta is a small place but after wandering in the under-populated east of the state for a while it felt much bigger than it actually is. However, the Maine State House was a let-down. It was one of the least impressive state capitols I have seen so far. And believe me, I have visited a fair share of them. But still, I couldn’t resist even just a brief visit inside.

From Augusta I headed towards the next state, New Hampshire, where I got in no time via some small local roads for which my map reading skills were really helpful as New England doesn’t really follow a grid system like other parts of the US do. No, I still don’t use sat-navs. They dumb the journey down and I’m also too stingy to pay for their rental. Besides, map reading is fun (even if you have to do it on a steering wheel) and I wouldn’t change it to listening some annoying voice leading you like a child instead, no way.

I might have visited Maine just because it was on my list of not yet visited states but I’m glad I did. It as it is a truly fascinating place and I can recommend it to anyone who likes travelling on the slightly more wild and unusual side. 

Portland and surroundings.

Portland is my favorite American city. Why? There are many reasons but lets start from the beginning. With population of just over 2 millions it is the largest city in Oregon and the third largest in the Pacific Northwest (after Seattle and Vancouver). It makes it just about the right size, not too big, not too small. You still have plenty of city attractions and general urban feel but you don’t have to fight the concrete jungle like in the LA, New York or Chicago. It lies on the banks of river Willamette just before it empties into the mighty Columbia river. Its compact downtown is located on the west side of the river and it’s surprisingly walkable. Street blocks are small and grid pattern makes it easy to navigate. If you tired of walking you can always make use of the excellent public transport network. It includes buses, light railway(MAX), streetcars, even aerial tram, and is free to ride in the central zone.

Cycling is another great option. Portland has one of the best cycling network in America and its citizens are keen cyclist. Nowhere in America I have seen so many people cycling. Portlanders are friendly bunch, keen on recycling, good beer, outdoor and, as I mentioned above, cycling. In other words all sort of activities people don’t normally associate with the United States.

Portland lacks one single major tourist attraction but there are some sights worth visiting. Being an infrastructure geek, the first thing I went to visit was Portland Aerial Tram. It is commuter tramway which connects south waterfront and the major university hospital and campus. It costs $4 for return journey and climbs over 150 meters in about 3 minutes. From the top station you can see an amazing panorama of eastern Portland and surrounding mountains. Another great attraction worth some time to explore is Powell’s City of Books. The largest independent bookstore in the United States. It occupies the full city block and offers 6300m² (almost 68000 square feet) of the floor space, full of new and used books stored side by side. It is a real labyrinth where color coded maps, available at the front desk, are essential. Great fun for anyone who likes books.

Of course there are some museums and galleries but I didn’t bother with exploring them. Instead I decided to soak the city simply by exploring some of the nice neighborhoods. One of the best of them is North West Portland. It is in a walking distance from the downtown and is full of the old houses, restaurants, pubs, bars, shops and trees lining the streets. You can feel great communal spirit there. For example hostel where I was staying had agreement with the local pizzeria so any unsold pizza, at the end of day, was offered for free to the hostel guests. In the same way we got free bread rolls from the local bakery. All we had to do was to find a volunteer who wants to walk about 5 minutes to collect them. Portlanders just seems to hate waste.

HI-Portland Hostel, Northwest, is well worth recommending. Located in the old wooden house it is very clean, quiet and well run. It is great place if you are looking for good sleep and good company but not necessarily for party atmosphere. If you want some party, or at least some drink, there are plenty of options alongside NW 21st Avenue which is just few minutes away from the hostel. Speaking of drinking, it is worth remembering that with 28 breweries Portland has more breweries than any other city in the United States. It is in fact place where in the 1980s microbreweries craze started.

Short walk or MAX ride west from NW Portland lies Washington Park. It covers over 50 hectares of mostly steep and wooded hills ranging in elevation from 60 to 260 meters. Somewhere there are major tourist attractions like Oregon Zoo, International Rose Test Garden (one of the Portland nicknames is in fact The Rose City), Portland Japanese Garden and few others but I didn’t find them. Here I have to admit that I got a bit lost while exploring the park. I simply underestimated its size, complicated terrain and how densely wooded it is. But I still had nice afternoon just walking around trying to find my way back and escape coming rain. Washington Park is just smaller brother of the Forest Park which covers over 2000 hectares and is one of the largest urban wilderness parks in the United States.

But I left the best aspect of this amazing city for the end. It is its location. And what a great location it is. If you look from any high point in the city (like Aerial Tram top station) you can see not one, not two, but three massive, snow covered volcanoes. They are Mt Hood, Mt Adams and Mt Rainier. On a sunny they they look absolutely spectacular.

About two hours drive in opposite direction you can reach Pacific coast. With some spectacular wild beaches it offers great options for weekend getaways. One of the closest and the best places for one day visit is Canon Beach with landmark rock formation called Haystack Rock and adjoining Ecola State Park which offers great hiking and coastal views. South of Portland rural Willamette Valley is one of the best vine growing regions in the United States.

But in my opinion the best approach to Portland leads from the east. I was driving all the way from Idaho and for the last 200km road hugged the mighty Columbia river. Initially the landscape is wild, bleak and open but as road approaches Cascade Mountains the river valley narrows and Columbia River Gorge begins. It is absolutely fantastic place. I left the main interstate highway which follows the river at the bottom of the gorge and choose the Historic Columbia River Highway instead, which traverses and climbs high cliffs of the gorge. It is twisty and narrow route which is popular among cyclist and motorized tourists. Some sections are closed for cars altogether and open only for cyclist and walkers. One of these closed sections includes narrow tunnels, drilled in the basalt cliffs, which contain windows offering view of the valley.

One of the best views along the route are from the Crown Point. But the great vistas are not the only attractions of the gorge. As river cuts its way through the Cascade Range you can notice change of the vegetation. Bleak dry vegetation of the eastern Oregon is replaced with the lush vegetation of the Pacific coast. It happens because Coastal Range is a major watershed blocking humidity from the ocean from reaching further inland. Byproduct of that are numerous, (over 77 on the Oregon side of the gorge alone) and spectacular waterfalls. Probably the most spectacular of them (and definitely the most photographed) are Multnomah Falls. If you browsed any guidebook to Oregon the chance is you have already seen it. It is the one with bridge in front of it.

Immediately east of the gorge lies Hood River. It is a nice small town, local center of major fruit growing area. On the steep streets you can find nice cafes and restaurants serving food made of the local products. From above the town you can see massive, cone shaped, Mt Hood looming above this lovely rural idyll. It is simply small and happy town.

All these wonders are no more than two hours from the downtown Portland. It makes it perfect place for the outdoor lovers. At the end it is the city where companies like Nike or Columbia Sportswear started and are still located. It is not a coincidence. For me, it is probably the only city in the United States where I could easily relocate from London 😉

So if you are looking for relaxed and easy going place to spend some time on mixed urban – outdoor holiday, Portland is the perfect place for you. Just pack some good walking shoes and rainproof gear, leave tie and fancy clothes at home, and you ready to go. You won’t be disappointed.