In Portland's Munjoy Hill, Do as the Mainers Do
Sunday, March 29, 2009
A onetime tent city and longtime blue-collar enclave, Portland's Munjoy Hill neighborhood has become a hot spot in Maine's biggest city. Taking up the eastern portion of the peninsula, the area has shops, restaurants, galleries and a theater, but it doesn't have the bustle of Old Port, the sumptuous mansions of the West End or the museums of downtown's Arts District. Translation: It's just you and the locals in a vibrant, eclectic neighborhood. And while there's snow still on the ground there, Munjoy Hill's density of sights, shops and dining spots offers plenty of opportunities to pop in someplace warm.
The first permanent European settlement in Portland was in the 1630s on Munjoy Hill. Almost since its founding, Portland had to fight to survive; it was burned down four times and only once by accident. On July 4, 1866, some kid (or so it's said) set off fireworks in a boathouse, sparking what was the biggest fire in U.S. history until Chicago ignited five years later. Roughly 10,000 people in the city lost their homes, though only two people died. The flames burned out before they ruined Munjoy Hill, and it was there, overlooking Casco Bay to the east and the charred city to the west, that thousands of homeless Portlanders lived in tents until they could rebuild.
The neighborhood, which officially starts east of the Franklin Arterial, one of the city's main north-south roads, has no Starbucks but at least four independent coffeehouses, echoing the "Shop Local: Keep Portland Independent" stickers in many of the city's shop and restaurant windows.
The main drag, Congress Street, runs east-west across the peninsula and is home to two of Munjoy Hill's landmarks. The 86-foot-tall, octagonal Portland Observatory (138 Congress St., 207-774-5561, http:/
The St. Lawrence Arts Center (76 Congress St., 207-775-5568, http:/
Another neighborhood venue is the North Star Music Cafe (225 Congress St., 207-699-2994, http:/
The cafe also serves breakfast; Portland is a breakfast town, with great bagel shops and egg-slingers and creative chefs churning out interesting, hearty breakfasts all across town. And Munjoy Hill has some winners.
For a light fuel-up, start out at the side-by-side Hilltop Coffee Shop (90 Congress St., 207-780-0025, http:/
For brunch, the Front Room (73 Congress St., 207-773-3366, http:/
Foodies love Portland for its top-notch restaurants, including Fore Street, Evangeline, 555 and Hugo's. But more budget-minded diners do just fine in Portland, too. Case in point: Hugo's chef, Rob Evans, opened the casual Duckfat (43 Middle St., 207-774-8080, http:/
At lunchtime, grab an Italian (a salami and provolone sub with peppers, pickles, onions, olives and oil) and browse the unexpected culinary delights at Colucci's Hilltop Market (135 Congress St., 207-774-2279): cookie sheets of just-baked raspberry crullers, deli cases of charcuterie, plus beer, wine and snacks.
Get your tea and entertainment, too, at Homegrown Herb & Tea (195 Congress St., 207-774-3484, http:/
The shops in Munjoy Hill are surprisingly varied. A few blocks on Congress Street house such stores as thrift shops with high-chairs on the sidewalk and establishments offering high-end housewares. Munjoy Hill has become a design mecca of sorts; textile designer Angela Adams (273 Congress St., 207-774-3523, http:/
Still locally focused but no less whimsical, the housewares, accessories, handbags and furniture at Eli Phant (253 Congress St., 207-253-8000, http:/
On the east end of Munjoy Hill, a long, grassy slope leads down to Casco Bay. On the Eastern Promenade (a.k.a. the Prom), locals romp with dogs and kids, while bikers, joggers and amblers follow the trail that hugs the shoreline on the East End of Portland and passes the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co. & Museum and a collection of decommissioned rail cars. The trail is part of a citywide network that connects the city to nature preserves and neighborhoods outside downtown Portland (Portland Trails, 207-775-2411, http:/
Visit the museums, stop in the fish markets and commune with the crowds in bustling Old Port, but don't be surprised if you feel pulled back to Munjoy Hill . . . and not just for the milkshakes.