ONBOARD THE INDEPENDENCE –– Melinda and I are happily aboard American Cruise Lines’ Independence for a 7-day cruise along the Maine coast but I must first backtrack a bit to recap our pre-cruise visit to Portland, July 3-4, which unfortunately was accompanied by Tropical Storm Arthur.
We didn’t let the foul weather derail our plans to explore Maine’s largest and most dynamic city, showing up at the Old Port ticket office of Portland Discovery Tours at 9:30 a.m. sharp on the 4th for the first segment of our Land and Sea tour – a 1.5 hour trolley-bus tour of the city.
Our driver/guide was an engaging and quite knowledgeable fellow — a retired Portland area educator — who loaded us down with local lore as we made the rounds of the city’s leading attractions, including the home of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the 1850s Victoria Mansion, which is a National Historic Landmark often cited as the nation’s most magnificently ornamented dwelling of its style, and the sprawling Portland Museum of Art, Maine’s oldest (1852) and finest art museum.
Our tour ended with a drive to nearby Cape Elizabeth for a visit to Maine’s oldest and they say most photographed lighthouse — the Portland Head Light — commissioned by no less than President George Washington back in 1791. Dramatically situated on a rocky headland, the stout old light seemed to us iconic of Maine and the rugged, granite-bound coast we are about to visit.
We also got a preview of the city’s Old Port waterfront district where cobblestone streets and sidewalks lead to tony shops and galleries and highly acclaimed restaurants. This is a district once filled with derelict buildings and ridden by crime, but that has emerged like the proverbial Phoenix bird to become the city’s touristic showcase.
The land segment of our combination tour dovetailed conveniently with a 12:30 p.m. departure of Portland Discovery Tours’ Lighthouse Lovers Cruise around Casco Bay. Portland’s busy bay is dotted with dozens of islands. Six of them are inhabited and serviced by a fleet of ferries operated by Casco Bay Lines, the nation’s oldest continuously operating ferry system (since the early 1920s).
Similar to the ferries in size and design, our tour boat boarded about 50 passengers, comprised largely of a group of visitors from Poland. Viewing Portland from the bay revealed the diversity of the city’s waterfront — with its fishing and lobster fleet and seafood packing operations – but also its extensive oil and cargo terminals. As the northernmost ice-free port in North America, it has always been of strategic commercial and military importance.
We cruised past several inhabited islands, including Peaks, Chebeague and Great Diamond, continuing on through a pouring rain for what nonetheless was the highlight of the cruise – a mariner’s view of Portland Head Light.
We’ll soon share our first couple of day’s experiences (and photos) from Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park — and the towns of Castine and Belfast.
July 7, 2014