Coastal kinship

Portland Head Light, a historic lighthouse in Cape Elizabeth, sits at the entrance of the main shipping channel into Maine's Portland Harbor, within Casco Bay.

There's a lovely town on the East Coast that's attracting a lot of attention. Its dynamic downtown is located on a peninsula that juts into the waterways by the Atlantic Ocean.

Downtown, one finds a growing number of excellent restaurants, nice shopping, pedestrian-friendly streets, access to a beautiful commercial waterfront, a hopping nightlife, several hotels (including a couple of new ones under construction), historic buildings nicely restored or preserved, residential pockets that are quickly gentrifying and numerous independent coffee shops and bakeries.

An active port has helped make this metropolitan area the economic stronghold of the state. In addition to all the commercial transport, cruise ships bring vacationers to town, docking at a rate of one big boat per week.

In October, my family and I left Charleston for this other booming port city - Portland, Maine - to visit friends and explore the far reaches of New England, a place we'd never been before.

I was struck by the uncanny similarities of the two cities. Portland has many more good coffee shops than Charleston. Charleston has many more good bars than Portland. But otherwise, things were very much in alignment.

The city has a famous lighthouse nearby, lots of boat traffic and an urban population that skews young. The area originally was populated by Native Americans, until it was settled by the British in the 1600s. Its fortunes declined significantly in the latter half of the 20th century, but it has made a remarkable comeback.

The local economy depends heavily on tourism, timber (surrounding rural areas are forested) and a smattering of other economic activity. Recently, the city has attracted entrepreneurs in the technology and design fields. Traditional businesses - insurance and finance, real estate and construction, healthcare, light manufacturing - employ the majority of working residents.

Outdoor recreation, on land and sea, is widely pursued by the people who live there. Hiking, hunting and fishing are favorite activities. Oysters are very popular.

Politically, this urban area leans left, but the rest of this mostly rural state tends to adhere to Republican or Libertarian principles.

Our friend Jim Brady, a College of Charleston graduate and medal-winning sailor, is building a $10 million boutique hotel in the heart of downtown. He and his team are refurbishing the old Portland Press Herald building, putting to use newspaper lexicon and design. The Press Hotel will open in 2015, if all goes smoothly. It's yet another sign that Portland is transforming into a real destination.

Jim also is working on a shoreline project. At the end of the peninsula, near the East End neighborhood and along the railroad tracks, a mixed-use development with water access will be built. It's one of the last in a long series of big projects that has reclaimed and protected the working waterfront, once threatened by zoning rules that permitted the construction of buildings unrelated to marine activity, such as condominium towers.

We were there as the leaves were flaming color and the cool sea air carried messages of the upcoming season across the harbor, cityscape and farmland. A diverse mix of locals walked along Congress Street, one of the main commercial arteries. The ragged homeless were visible; so were the flannel-clad Portlanders and working people.

The city center includes many late 19th- and early 20th-century structures: brick warehouses converted to offices and shops, old mills likewise transformed, the gorgeous Baxter Building, an example of Romanesque Revival style and once the Portland Public Library, now home to the VIA Agency, an advertising and marketing firm where Jim's wife, Julia Brady, works. (She gave us a tour of the very cool interior, its design maintaining a playful library theme throughout.)

The Portland Museum of Art, which houses some good Winslow Homers and special exhibitions, is just down the street. But we spent most of our time out and about, tooling around the harbor, noshing on a variety of ultra-fresh oysters at Eventide Oyster Co. and exploring the lay of the land.

Julia, an avid sportswoman who, like her husband, once sailed competitively, showed us the Bates-Morse Mountain Conservation Area, accessible by driving past Brunswick to Bath, then down the length of one of those peninsulas that characterize the Maine coast. On the way we stopped for breakfast at a rustic outpost a little past Phippsburg called North Creek Farm, its proprietors both farmers and café operators. Colorful roosters had free reign of the outside eating area. Vegetables grew in rows behind the building. The food was delicious.

A short distance farther, down Small Pointe Road, we reached a parking area and the entrance to a pleasant trail through the woods and along the Sprague River that led to one of Maine's most magnificent beaches - sandy, generous, sparkling. Ocean mist floated up the river basin. Low tide revealed graceful patterns beneath our feet. Small islands sat off shore. Only a few people milled about, breathing expansively.

This hike was relatively easy-going, but not all of them are. Maine, like South Carolina, is an outdoor adventurer's paradise. On land, there are innumerable opportunities for hiking, camping, hunting and wintertime cross-country skiing. On the water, too, choices abound. The word "rugged" comes to mind quickly when experiencing this northern state with the fractured granite coast and three main regions - lowlands, uplands and mountains. Looking for moose? Go no farther. Hungry for blueberries? Maine grows about a quarter of the country's lowbush crop. And then there are those lobsters.

One night for dinner, we prepared a feast at the Brady home in Yarmouth that included one very fresh medium-sized lobster for my wife (I shared some). When I set the creature into the hot water, it kicked hard. And once it was cooked, the flesh was the most succulent I've ever tasted.

It's wonderful that these lobsters are popular and abundant enough to export all around the world and down the east coast to Charleston. But there is really nothing like eating one just extracted from the waters of Maine.

On another afternoon we decided to go apple picking at Thompson's Orchard, near New Gloucester. The generous groves contained several apple varieties, including Red Delicious, Fuji and Cortland. We loaded wheelbarrows, collecting the fruit with clasping pickers mounted to the end of long poles.

This was an especially good day for the kids, who broke a rule by climbing into one or two of the trees, then celebrated their bounty at home by making apple pie, the dessert that followed our lobster. Thompson's doughnuts and cider deserve a shoutout: We bought plain and chocolate, washing them down with newly pressed juice. Heavenly.

Back in the city, we trolled for good coffee in the early afternoon and alcoholic beverages in the late afternoon. Jim took us to a newly opened membership bar, slick and modern, with practiced mixologists unafraid to shake things up to a tasty froth.

We ate dinner one night at a restaurant called Grace, which occupied a converted neo-gothic church building and specialized in seasonal, local fare. The open kitchen was located at the altar; a huge bar sat in the middle of the nave and another above the narthex. An enormous ventilation system dominated the chancel, its fat ducts leading up and away into the apse.

It was slightly disconcerting to sip cocktails and gorge on roasted fish and caramelized green beans in a space originally meant for worship, one ritual substituting another. But it was also kind of cool.

Portland is quite a foodie's paradise, it turns out, what with all the fresh seafood, emphasis on organic and seasonal produce and slew of excellent restaurants. Kind of like Charleston.

And that coastline is a sight to behold. No wonder Winslow Homer painted it so much. The sea crashing on the jagged granite, the foam and rush and wind, the sun's sparkle, the fog's translucent embrace, the boat horns in the distance, the energetic maritime commerce, the lobster hawkers - it's all part and parcel of 3,500 miles of tidal shoreline. That's more than California, more than North Carolina, more than Texas.

We left Maine to catch a flight out of Boston. Driving south, we stopped in Kennebunkport, a charming old fishing village positioned along the navigable part of the Kennebunk River. We meandered about, admiring the scenery and shops, before eating an early lunch at the Clam Shack .

Yum: fried clams, fresh lobster and french fries. It was a nice way to wrap up our first excursion to Maine. It left us hungry for more.

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook/aparkerwriter.