By Joan Rattner Heilman
When I mentioned to some friends that I going to Portland, Maine, for a few days, three different people asked me “You have family there?” Nope. I was going to see a gem of a city, once known to outsiders as a place you passed through on your way to summer camp or Kennebunkport. Now it has transformed itself into a hip little city, with great restaurants, a flourishing art scene with dozens of galleries and the Portland Museum of Art. There are jazz and blues clubs, a symphony orchestra, brick sidewalks and Victorian architecture. All in addition to a stunningly walkable warehouse working waterfront—the Old Port—that’s been turned into a mecca for shoppers, strollers, residents, and tourists.
But the fact that Portland is delightful was only one reason for my visit. I‘d been invited to a preview of the restored Winslow Home Studio that officially opens in September. Homer’s small rustic studio is perched on a dramatic spit of rugged land called Prouts Neck, 15 minutes from downtown Portland. The great American artist lived here from 1883 until his death in 1910 and painted many of his masterpieces of the cliffs, the boats, and the roiling sea below. The studio has been painstakingly restored to the way it was during Homer’s time by craftsmen sponsored by the Portland Museum of Art and contains exhibitions, personal possessions, drawings, and educational displays.
Already a National Historic Landmark, it now can be visited and explored by art buffs who want to see how the famous painter lived and worked after spending many years in the sophisticated art worlds of New York and Europe.
The Portland Museum of Art offers organized tours and special packages for visitors to Homer’s hideout. The historic Black Point Inn right down the road from the Studio is a glorious place to stay, although, of course, there are plenty of hotels in town. The posh 25-room grand hotel, built in 1878, is the sole remaining rambling resort hotel of the original eight (the others burned down) that flourished at the height of the Victorian era when Prouts Neck was the summer playground for New England’s upper classes. It is still a classic. Be sure to take the spectacular two-mile Cliff Walk that starts at the hotel and circles the point overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Or stay a few minutes away at Inn by the Sea on nearby Cape Elizabeth, which offers luxe rooms overlooking Crescent Beach and has a kid-friendly and pet-friendly atmosphere.
Tickets for the tours to the Homer homestead, $55 per person, will go on sale to the public on September 4, 2012 (contact www.portlandmuseum.org or 207-775-6148 for reservations). Tours accommodate only 10 people at a time and are scheduled three times a day, Tuesday through Sunday. They leave by van from the Museum (7 Congress Square) and include a chance to take an easy walk down to the cliffs and along the craggy coast where many a boat has foundered on the rocks.
When you return to the Museum, visit its special exhibition celebrating the completion of the restoration, Weatherbeaten: Winslow Homer and Maine. It features over 30 of the famous artist’s most important oils and watercolors, works from museums throughout the country, all painted at Prouts Neck.
Now you’re back downtown, so take a walk around the Arts District, stopping in on the small boutiques, cafes, and galleries that line the streets. Wander around and see the historic architecture that’s mostly Victorian because the city, though much older, was rebuilt after the great fire of 1866. The city is surrounded by water, with the port side lined with docks and boats, and crammed with shops and eateries, most of them specializing in creamy lobster rolls and fried clams. A cruise on Casco Bay is one of the more popular activities: probably the cheapest and most scenic is on the mail ferry, a courier fleet that departs twice a day and makes the round trip to five outlying islands and back in about three hours.
Don’t forget food! This is a town crammed with great restaurants. Among the current favorites are Grace that serves luscious New American food in an 1850’s Gothic Revival-style church; El Rayo Taqueria, a Mexican café with picnic tables, converted from a former gas station; and the acclaimed Fore Street Restaurant that’s located smack in the Old Port area and serves simple local and organic dishes originated by its celebrated chef.