It was late August. Summer was quickly coming to an end, Paul’s decision to go back to teaching was final, and we wanted one last getaway before heading back to work. Originally, we looked into heading to New Orleans. While hotel prices were low, airline prices were high. Aside from the steep price to fly, we weren’t sure we wanted to explore a new city in extreme southern summer temperatures. We wanted to relax before heading back to begin our busy life again and while New Orleans sounded fun, it didn’t sound relaxing.
So, instead of going south, we changed our plans and went north, to Portland, Maine. Why Maine? Well, aside from wanting to see the rugged and rocky coastlines and learn about a new city, I wanted a lobster roll. I will not lie, I went for the lobster, the clams, the oysters, and the chowder. I felt it was my duty to see if the lobster roll was really deserving of all the hype it receives, while also taste testing a few other famous New England items. While my husband was envisioning the photo opportunities that only a New England adventure could provide, I was envisioning the seafood. Maine would make us both happy-photos+ food = happy husband, happy wife.
The doomed trip to Maine began like this: We planned to leave early on a Saturday and return late the following Tuesday, the day before school started for teachers. On that Friday, I received a phone call for a job interview that would take place on the following Monday. Paul had booked our hotel on Priceline and had used the “name your own price” feature which meant that if we canceled the trip, we wouldn’t get our money back. After a lengthy discussion over whether the seven hour drive was worth the short amount of time we would be staying, we finally made the decision just to go and make the most of it. We looked back at this decision with some frustration on the ride home that Monday, but who knew it would all turn out the way it did.
We decided to take my well traveled and most reliable two door Honda Civic, instead of his much roomier and newer Honda Accord. He leases, and according to him, I drive his car around too much and accumulate too many miles, and if I don’t watch it we will be over our monthly allowance. Quite an accusation when I barely get to drive the car but to the grocery store. On the other hand, I own my red 2004 civic, all 115,000 miles of it. It knows the Jersey to Baltimore route by heart and has been cross country twice. I would say my car is quite the little vehicle and despite my unrealistic dreams of trading it in for a Lexus, I plan to keep her for as long as she runs, or until we hit the lottery, whichever comes first.
Early Saturday morning, we packed up the civ, stopped for some much needed coffee, and began making our way north. We made it as far as New York when traffic stopped us from moving any further. When I say stopped, I mean stopped. Literally. In fact, due to an accident ahead of us, we, along with hundreds of other people, got out of our cars and stretched our legs on the highway…for about an hour and a half. If we were feeling more social that morning, we probably could have made some new friends.
Once we were back in the car, we drove for a few more hours and made our way into New Hampshire. Did you know there is a famous air show in Portsmouth, New Hampshire every August? Did you know it was the same weekend we were going to Maine? No? You didn’t know that?? No, we didn’t either. If we had, we could have avoided sitting in several more hours of halted traffic. Not knowing an air show was the cause for the traffic jam made for some interesting sites out the window. Holy moly!! What was that?!?!
I’ve never seen so much traffic in my life. By this point, we had been in the car for a total of seven hours and still, we weren’t in Maine. I was getting hungry and tired of shifting (the civic’s a stick shift) and Paul was getting grumpy. It was a “grump fest” all around.
We finally reached Maine a full three hours later. Instead of heading straight to Portland, we took a little side trip to Kennebunkport. What a sweet little place! If we had more time, we would have stopped and walked around. But time was limited so I pulled over and asked the nearest local where I could find the best lobster roll. She directed us to this little gas station-like place that, according to her, had the best lobster rolls around. Considering the place looked and smelled like a gas station, yet it wasn’t, I questioned if this was a place you could even buy food, let alone lobster. But hey, a local said this was the best so, I took her word for it. I ordered up two lobster rolls and, $28 later, headed to the nearest picnic table to indulge. While I will say, the lobster pieces were fresh and enormous, the lobster roll was tasteless. Paul agreed. So this is what I drove ten hours for? What a disappointment!
Now we were back in the car, food in our bellies, heading for Portland. About a half hour later, we pulled into the parking lot of the lovely Holiday Inn Portland West. Oh and lovely it was. Have you ever noticed that just outside almost every city in America is the same scene? A highway, an exit, a hotel, a McDonalds, a Burger King, a gas station. Keep driving. A highway, an exit, a hotel, a McDonalds, a Burger King, a gas station. Keep driving. Get my drift? Well the Holiday Inn Portland West was one of those hotels. When we booked it, we thought it was in the western part of the city of Portland. We didn’t realize it was, west of Portland entirely. We would have to drive everywhere. What’s the fun of that? Isn’t the best part of being in a city the fact that you can do the old fashioned thing and actually walk to places?
We are not hotel snobs by any means. We’ve stayed in some pretty nice luxury hotels, but only when we’ve gotten a good deal on a price. We think of hotels as just a place to rest our heads and would rather spend our money eating and exploring than on a hefty hotel rate. However, we do have some expectations when we spend any kind of money to stay somewhere. They are probably very similar to your expectations, like say, that your room is made up daily, or that the pool isn’t a murky green color? Or perhaps that the carpet isn’t coming up in the corners to reveal dust and grime that makes you want to always keep your shoes on. Just minor details that the Holiday Inn Portland West had some trouble with. Live, learn, and don’t ever “name your own price” on Priceline again. Lesson learned.
We were only in Maine for a few hours when we were starting to come to the conclusion that we may have been better off losing out on the money for the hotel and staying home. After all, when we asked the guy at the hotel how the parking was downtown, he said it was, “Not a problem at all.” He neglected to inform us that we’d be driving around for several hours in search of a spot and that most of the parking garages would be full. Yes, this trip was doomed. We were certain of it. But then…things started to turn around for the better. All thanks to a little place called “J’s Oyster House”. Oh yes, this is what I came to Maine for.
We were advised to go to J’s Oyster House by a trustworthy source-Anthony Bourdain. Paul and I are huge fans of this man. We are frequent viewers of “No Reservations” and our dvr looks more like a Bourdain marathon than anything else. We love his edge, his humor, his love of eating and traveling, and how he’s made a profession out of exploring the world. We are a little bit envious, to tell you the truth. OK, we are extremely envious. How do we get that job?
J’s Oyster House is situated right on the water. The building looks like its been there for hundreds of years, beaten and worn overtime by crisp New England air. It’s small and dark inside, but packed with people, all competing for a place to sit and chow. When we finally got a chance to sit down, we started with fresh, raw oysters and a cup of New England clam chowder. The oysters were succulent and the chowder was chunky and delicious.
Next, we ordered a bucket of steamers. The man sitting next to us recommended we do so. A local and loyal J’s customer for some fifty years, he said the steamers were the best. So we felt we just had to have them too. I’ve never been so content. They were incredible! Not only was the seafood the very best I’ve ever had, so was the service. In fact, when Paul and I mentioned to the bartender that we’d never been to Portland before, she drew us a map and told us the best places to go. Next, the oyster man (the one whose only job was to shuck the oysters, it seemed) came over and drew us another map, this time directing us to the secret location that the locals go to get away from the tourists. It was perfect and just what we needed. By the time we left, we felt like we were locals too.
After J’s, we took a short walk down the busy street adjacent to the water. The city itself seemed quaint and the buildings resembled old factories turned into modern living and shopping spaces. The seafood restaurants were endless and on our walk, we felt the need to visit just one more. This one, Anthony Bourdain did not recommend, but there was just something about it that made us walk in. Maybe it was the crowd of people outside or the snack stand like feel to picking up your food when your number was called. Whatever it was, the Portland Lobster Company would be the place I would have my second lobster roll. This one was much tastier, but it still wasn’t all I had dreamed it to be in my mind.
The next day we visited two of the places on the hand drawn maps provided by our friends at J’s. The first place was the home to a lighthouse and was everything I had always pictured Maine to be. Rocky coast, crashing waves, beautiful view. We also visited a small local beach named after a lifeguard who protected its waters for many years. There you could bring your children, your dog, your cooler, just about everything you are not allowed to bring on a NJ beach.
Both days, Saturday and Sunday, we returned to an unmade hotel room. We weren’t even given fresh towels. We also experienced first hand the murky green pool. While we thought it would be nice to lounge by the pool for a few hours, we weren’t aware that the pool would turn greener and greener the longer we stared at it. I must say though, I was amused by the mother who asked the pool man if it was “safe to swim in the pool” only after her children had been swimming in it for most of the day.
5am Monday morning we were on the road, heading back to New Jersey for the big interview. Luckily, we hit very little traffic that day and I made it to the interview on time.
In the end, I didn’t get the job. However, I do believe that everything happens for a reason and maybe, just maybe, that interview was exactly what we needed. A good excuse to leave the Holiday Inn Portland West a day early. Who knows? You win some, you lose some, but in the end, you’ve lived.