Taking the "Downeaster" to Portland

 ... Yet another successful shoestring mini vacation

by Don Norris

We could have driven from Melrose to Portland faster, but then the whole two-day mini-vacation was based on taking the Amtrak "Downeaster". And we had a ball. Not a big ball, but a nice dance. Except Maine is cold and windy in winter.

But write this down as a good time. Another good time, for we have come to expect good times from our occasional mini-vacations. They could be called magic get-aways, or escaping the daily routine. The fact is that these two-day breaks are always fun, exciting, generally educational -- and since they are so short, they tend not to be very expensive.

We specialize in this habit. We've buzzed off, occasionally on the spur of the moment, to Freeport in Maine, to New York City, to the Adirondacks, Williamstown, occasionally to such exotic places as San Antonio, and once to Seattle.

You know, the airlines get uptight about flying with no passengers, so we accommodate them by buying cheap tickets. Same with the trains. You can't beat the deals.

Maybe that's part of the mini-vacation system. The deals you work out. Like the train thing, while looking for discounted senior tickets, we found that they were offering a half-off-the-second-ticket deal, and the $70 price tag suddenly became $57. Yes, I know those numbers don''t figure, but $57 was what they charged, via the internet, and I was happy to pay.

Not only did we get a break on the railroad fare, but then we discovered that the Eastland Park Hotel in downtown Portland cuts its rates dramatically on November first. Like a standard room was $120 up, and we ended up-graded to a deluxe room that cost only $69. The only qualification is that you make arrangements, via credit card, at least 72 hours in advance.

So far we saved $63.

And Portland is a great town. Like Boston, they've capitalized on their history, and instead of Faneuil Hall marketplace, they have the Waterfront. It is chock full of neat little stores, eateries, boatrides, trolley buses, and hotels. We actually did some Christmas shopping in early November!

In providing directions, the reservationist at the Eastland told us to take the Portland Special bus from the Amtrak station, which will drop us at the front door. The fare is only $3 each, she said. Instead we took the Number 5 local bus for 50 cents (senior discount) and saved five bucks, round trip. Even though the Number 5 let us off at the back door, I think we're actually making money on this trip.

But the deluxe room on the 10th floor at the Eastland was gorgeous. It was large, well-decorated -- they recently spent four million rehabbing the old lady -- warm and cozy, with a huge kingsize, sumptuous bed. Appointments were plush, lighting was marvelously subtle, and views to the north were, well, exciting. Most everything in Portland was below us, for the city peaks on a high hill behind the bay.

The menu in the hotel's "Decoupage" dining room was inviting, with prices that ran between $20 and $30, and a fine wine list. While this may be the norm in today's market, it was more than we wanted to spend, so we settled for our own "Norm's" on Congress Street. It was popular, down to earth, and had a marvelous hot pastrami sandwich and crazy fries, for $17 for two, including local beer and tip.

Nothing fancy, but tasty, wholesome food at reasonable prices -- this is Norm's, on Congress Street.

Among our first-day exploits were a visit to MECA (Maine College of Art), right downtown, where we poked our noses into several on-going classes (I augmented my classes, in the '50s, at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts), and a brief visit to the nearby Portland Art Museum -- hardly 100 steps from our hotel.

We also visited the original "State" theater, which was recuperating from four solid sell-outs for a dozen rock groups. It was old, but the lobby was preserved, and it was beautiful, in spite of  debris. One stepped back in time at the State.

Cost of space in downtown Portland is not quite as dear as Boston. A hundred feet from the top of the hill, dead-center Portland, was a barbershop, straight out of the 1950s.

We enjoyed happy hour at the Top of the Eastland, a fine, sophisticated wet-your-whistle place on the 12th floor with magnificent views for 270 degrees. One could watch airplanes landing at Portland Airport, way below us. From the menu one could actually pick one's own brand of booze for there were hundreds listed, each with its price. For instance, Beefeater gin was $5, but Bombay Sapphire was $7. Fun reading. On a Wednesday night, it wasn't crowded.

But the Eastland Park is elegant in its make-over. Service was positive and anticipated, everything was polished to brilliance, and the room was delightful. About the only negative we could find (among all this elegance) was that the television set was rather far away, and it was only a 20-inch set. On the other hand, the room was arranged so one could draw up easy-chairs for viewing -- if one did not wish to view TV from his plush king-sized bed.

Did I mention that it poured buckets all Wednesday, for our trip north? Even so, the views from the train were exciting to me -- perhaps not to the other five couples on the train, for they seemed to doze. Yes, we had a large choice of seats for the 10 a.m. Downeaster.

It rained so hard that those long marshes traversed by the railroad bed simply disappeared under the record high tide. At one place it appeared that we crossed a huge bay, and that the train was riding atop the water. It was perhaps three or four miles across. On the return trip the next day, we saw that our bay was, indeed, a salt marsh, with much colorful marshgrass showing.

Ah, but the sun came out Thursday morning. And we did a walkabout. The temperature kept dropping and was suddenly below freezing, and a relentless wind caused us to duck into whatever shelter was at hand -- nice shops, lovely hotels, the public library, Longfellow's home in the historic society ...

One stop was at the fantastic Portland Public Market, an eclectic  collection of open shops under soaring laminated beams. Flowers, a meatmarket with a beautiful display, scrumptious cheeses from worldwide, flowers in bloom, a bakery that put up the most delicious brownies, exotic foods, fancy eateries, and a warm fireplace with fake fire.

Traffic is easy in downtown Portland. Parking is something else.

About a mile later we reached the wharves, the place now dedicated to wandering visitors. The shops were fun, the people were friendly, and the choice of most everything, like any tourist place, is slightly higher, but not offensive. We did some purchasing of Christmas gifts.

At 1 p.m. -- our train leaves at 4:00 -- we found a seat in the window at J's place on an old pier. J's is mostly a bar, with seating for maybe 30 or 40 at tables. Close and comfortable, almost intimate. And the waitress was the show. She was great, and we all laughed at the banter.

This was to be THE meal of our brief journey. Anything on the menu, and ignore the cost. I started off with a bakers' dozen oysters on the halfshell, which were fresh and delicious. However, I grew up on Appalachacola oysters, and the Maine product is rather petite in comparison.

Lorry had fish chowder, which was tasty, but not thick like Turner's of Melrose. Nevertheless, she said it was very good. Next I ordered steamers -- steamed clams, which are served in a pot. Great! Nothing pretentious here. Feel free to eat with your fingers, and enjoy!  All this seafood was washed down with a local wheat beer.

Lorry's main course was sea scallops in angel hair pasta, nicely seasoned with a lemon and dill white sauce. Outstanding she pronounced. And there was enough to take some home -- a hundred miles by train, back to Melrose.

One last word. A train trip is a special way to go. It is relaxing, it is exciting if you enjoy sheer speed (the Downeaster is restricted to 60mph), and you can concentrate on the views. Even though it rained, the views as they flashed by were warm, intriguing, always interesting, and certainly changing second by second. And if you're an old hand a commuting by train, you can always doze off, or have a drink in the cafe car.

In short, it was a lovely time.

And in brief, the whole thing, two days of travel and joy, cost $258, not including Christmas gifts. That falls into the category of a good bargain.

February 7, 2003

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