Visiting Portland, Maine, at the height of tourist season is a worthwhile challenge, but a challenge nonetheless — which is why taking an off-season day trip to Vacationland is so appealing. The onset of colder weather can mean more limited hours at top restaurants, but it also means shorter lines and ideal conditions for harvesting oysters and brewing spontaneously fermented beer. Here’s a guide for a short yet sweet off-season adventure in and around Portland.
Greet the sun at Cape Elizabeth’s Fort Williams Park. A 20-minute drive from downtown Portland, this park houses military installations dating back to the 1800s and Portland Head Light, said to be America’s most-photographed lighthouse — for obvious reasons. To stock up for a cliff walk and gorgeous ocean views in advance, swing by Tandem Coffee and Bakery in Portland’s West End for whole-bean coffees, egg and cheese biscuits generously smeared with paprika mayo, and slices of seasonal pie like plum and black pepper. Or, if it’s more convenient to stop en route, South Portland’s Scratch Baking Co. serves unique, craveable bagels slathered in rich herb cream cheese.
Next, head 15 miles north of downtown Portland to the upper reaches of Cumberland County for the ultimate in wholesome farm magic. Snuggle the highly sociable, YouTube-famous Nigerian Dwarf goats of Sunflower Farm Creamery, whose shop sells chevre and Maine sea salt vanilla caramel snacks made with milk from the adorable goats. Then peep leaves, pick apples, and munch fresh cider doughnuts at Thompson’s Apple Orchard.
Fall in New England means it’s open-fermentation season at Allagash Brewing, which offers an in-depth coolship tour to show off its Belgian-inspired spontaneous fermentation techniques. Even if you can’t score a spot on the elusive tour, though, you can still enjoy the results by ordering a draft of Coolship Resurgam — an elegant blend of one-, two-, and three-year-old beers fermented solely with wild yeasts. And since good things come in threes, try a flight of mini lobster rolls from Bite into Maine, parked outside the brewery; you’ll taste three distinct styles, including Maine (mayo and chives), Connecticut (warm butter), and picnic (coleslaw, butter, and celery salt).
Then head down the street to New England Distilling, where Allagash’s original head brewer, Ned Wight, now makes award-winning spirits like Eight Bells Rum, a molasses-based ode to an iconic Maine painting by Winslow Homer, and distillery-only Rack IV Saison Whiskey, a small-batch collaboration with Allagash.
Portland’s walkable peninsula hosts a beverage for every palate, and Washington Avenue embodies this axiom beautifully. Along just a few short blocks, you can sip spicy ginger kombucha accented with lemon and cayenne at Root Wild; swirl a glass of low-intervention wine — such as Morphos pét-nat from Warren, Maine’s Oyster River Winegrowers — at Maine & Loire; quaff farmhouse beers like mixed-fermentation Cletus at Oxbow; and sample Lincolnville, Maine’s Whaleback Farm Forager’s Blend at cider bar Anoche. Luckily, good drinking snacks also abound, including Duckfat’s Frites Shack sandwiched between Oxbow and Anoche and Tu Casa’s cheesy pupusas served with bright and tangy curtido. For later, stock up on fermented treats at Onggi.
Rejuvenate with a hot lunch of house chicken pho at CÔNG TỬ BỘT on Washington Avenue, kung pao chicken dumplings at BaoBao Dumpling House on Spring Street, or short rib and kimchi ramen at Pai Men Miyake in Longfellow Square. If you’re ambitious enough, you could hit up all three, pausing to browse local maker shops and museums along the walk, from Ferdinand, Maine Craft Portland, and the Merchant Company to the Maine Jewish Museum and Portland Museum of Art.
Frigid waters are the ideal oyster habitat, which means these bivalves are best enjoyed during Maine’s slow season. If there’s a line at perpetual darling Eventide, it’ll at least be shorter than normal, granting you quicker access to an excellent selection of local oysters plus a cheaper, sleeper-hit sibling of the restaurant’s famous brown butter lobster roll: the fried oyster bun. The Maine Oyster Company cultivates a more DIY experience with an oyster shucking class, which may give you the skill and confidence to take home a bag of fresh shellfish souvenirs.
Speaking of local aquaculture, warm up at Dobra Tea with a pot of sailor’s cure-all, an herbal blend of ginger, turmeric, and Maine bladderwrack seaweed. Or try Portland Hunt & Alpine Club’s smoky-tart bonecrusher cocktail for a different kind of restoration before heading to dinner.
Thankfully, a reservation at top seafood-focused spots like Scales, Central Provisions, and Street & Co. isn’t as hard to come by in the colder months, but you can also consider slightly deeper cuts like Baharat, with its menu inspired by Middle Eastern street food; izakaya-style Mami; or homestyle German gem Schulte & Herr (which only offers takeout at the moment).
Finally, take a nightcap to go from the Jewel Box’s walk-up window. Try the potent bouquet carré — a floral take on New Orleans’s classic Vieux Carré — or go non-alcoholic with an orange, ginger, and cardamom cordial.