Image: Portland Head Lighthouse
© Royalty-Free/Corbis
Portland Head Lighthouse on Cape Elizabeth is a popular attraction and spectacular landmark along the shores of Fort Williams Park.
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updated 4/9/2007 11:45:39 AM ET 2007-04-09T15:45:39

Like its namesake on the left coast, Portland is nothing if not civilized and livable (well, ignoring the weather, that is … visit in the late spring, summer or early fall). A university town with an important teaching hospital, it takes brainy matters seriously; but it also will surprise sybarites with its panoply of darn fine restaurants. And outdoorsy folks know it as a gateway to some of the loveliest beaches and lakes in the northeast. So, grab a lobster roll, breathe in that sharp salt air, and head out when the weather’s balmy—ayuh, you’ll have a wicked good time, as they say up in Maine.

9 a.m. - 10 a.m.: Follow the bumper stickers to Becky’s Diner . “Becky’s Diner, Nothin’ Finah” they say, and they’re plastered on the cars of the local fishermen and other wharf employees who’ve made this their 5 a.m. clubhouse (who knew breakfast could be such a social event, especially at that hour?). But even if you come after the pre-dawn rush, you’ll enjoy the monumental fresh baked muffins, the buttery eggs and pancakes and the fact that even if you’ve never been there before, they’re going to call you “hon” and treat you like a regular.

10 a.m. - 1 p.m.: Museum hop. Portland has a number of bite-sized to a bit bigger museums, each of which can be fruitfully toured in about an hour, so go with the ones that best match up with your interests. Cutting edge architecture by I. M. Pei gives a dash of pizzazz to the Portland Art Museum , as does its topnotch collection of Eastern seaboard masters such as Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, N.C. Wyeth, Reginald Marsh, Andy Warhol and Winslow Homer. Started by a Nigerian immigrant, Oscar Mokeme, The Museum of African Culture , is a very personal effort to introduce his new neighbors to the art and artifacts of Sub-Saharan Africa. One thousand years of mask making, sculpture and other art works are represented, in this, the only New England museum devoted entirely to African culture. To learn a bit about where you are head to the Wadsworth Longfellow House and Center for Maine History , housed partly in the preserved home of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s father.

Morning Alternative
Pay your respects to Robert E. Peary, the first man—probably--to reach the North Pole (it’s a controversial topic) with a visit to his home on Eagle Island . A remote, absurdly scenic 17-acre dot of land, it’s accessible only by boat, but that’s a large part of the fun as the guides onboard will narrate while you zip through the waters, past adorable fishing villages and deserted coves. Once on the island, you’ll tour the house and have time to wander a bit on the grounds.  This is a summer-only activity, unfortunately. 

1 p.m. - 2 p.m.: Here’s time for that promised lobster roll at the famous Gilbert’s Chowder House . The chowder’s pretty nifty, too. Down both and you can say you’ve truly experienced Maine’s good life.

2 p.m. - 6 p.m.: Gawk and walk the afternoon away in the scenic Old Port area. Victorian warehouses, chi chi boutiques, dozens of bars (the most per capita in New England), and lovely restaurants make up the cityscape. Be sure to stop by the First Parish Church where the austere interior has changed very little since it was built in 1826; also head to Portland’s City Hall, which is modeled after the Big Apple’s. Just before sunset, make your way to the Eastern Prom Pathway for a postcard perfect view of the harbor and islands.

Afternoon Alternative
Head out of the center of the city to visit the 1794 Portland Head Light and Museum . One of the oldest and arguably the prettiest lighthouse in the nation, the former keeper’s home has been converted to a small museum. You can’t go inside the lighthouse itself as it’s still in use, though now completely automated.

6 p.m. - 8 p.m.: Pick up the phone and call now for your dinner reservation at Fore Street . Even in the deepest winter, when only those with Eskimo blood in their veins are out for meals this far north, this gourmet powerhouse is booked (often with folks who drive two hours from Boston for a meal)---and with reason. One of the most celebrated restaurants in New England, its fare is exquisite--almost entirely locally produced and expertly cooked, whether you order the famous smoked mussels, or something from the daily changing menu (hey, you’re in Maine so see what they do with lobster that day—you won’t be disappointed).

8 p.m. - 10 p.m.: If you’re in town during its season (late September-May), the hottest ticket in town will likely be the Portland Stage Company . A thoroughly professional enterprise (using union Actors), it presents polished, challenging plays, by contemporary authors. A first-rate theater.

10 p.m. on …There’s nothing “old” about the Old Port area after dark. If you’re looking to party, head there to troll its dozens of lively pubs.

Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommerguides in bookstores now. Her book, Pauline Frommer's New York, was named Best Guidebook of the Year by the North American Travel Journalists Association.

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Becky’s Diner, 390 Commercial Street; 207-773-7070.

Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, phone 207/775-6148; Open Tuesdays through Thursdays and Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. year round (in summer the museum is also open on Mondays). Admission is $8 adults, $6 seniors and students.

The Museum of African Culture, 122 Spring Street, phone 207/871-7188. Open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., free admission.

Wadsworth Longfellow House and Center for Maine History, 489 Congress Street, phone 207/879-0427; Admission is $7 to both the gallery and the house, $4 if you decide to skip the house. The house is closed from November through May, but the gallery is open during that period from Wednesdays through Saturdays from noon to 4pm. The rest of the year, the gallery is open from 10am-5:30 daily and the house from 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. daily.

The Eagle Island Tourtakes four hours total and is only available in the summer months. For more information or to book, go to

Gilbert’s Chowder House, 92 Commercial Street, phone 207/871-5636.

Portland Head Light and Museum, 1000 Shore Road at Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth, phone 207/799-2661; The park surrounding the lighthouse is open from dawn to dusk each day, but the museum is only open daily from 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. Museum admission is $2.

Fore Street, 288 Fore Street, phone 207/775-2717.

Portland Stage Company performs at the Portland Performing Arts Center, 25A Forest Avenue, phone 207/774-0465;

Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommerguides in bookstores now. Her book, Pauline Frommer's New York, was named Best Guidebook of the Year by the North American Travel Journalists Association.

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