Portland, Maine: Arts, Architecture and Amtrak, or the Downeaster on One's Keister

Portland Museum of Art's Estes Exhibition
The romance of the rails beckoned, as did the Boston-to-Portland half price senior fare on Amtrak’s relatively new “Downeaster”. (Only one of several discounts currently available, including a military fare, for retired or current personnel, of $11 each way on the 11th of each month). The prospect of traveling by train was alluring, as were the many possible attractions of this walkable city. The train was due to depart North Station at 9:05am, and it did precisely that, a promising sign for wished-for efficiency (but be careful what you wish for). Due to arrive in Portland at 11:45am, it almost succeeded, but delays enroute led to a half-hour late arrival at the Portland Transportation Center, where one could rent a bike for the day or take the convenient Metrobus to downtown (Amtrak, at this writing, even provides a free one-way ticket for the bus, at the Café on board the train).

With a well-received exhibition of the work of photorealist Richard Estes on view, the Portland Museum of Art was the obvious first stop (to be reviewed here, in a subsequent dedicated posting). A few blocks away, the incomparable Victoria Mansion (also to be a posting here) beckoned, but there are other nearby choices depending on the ages and tastes of one’s group (the Children’s Museum, the free Institute of Contemporary Art at the Maine College of Art, and the like). Some of the city’s attractions include the Observatory; the Tate and Longfellow Houses; the Narrow Gauge Railroad, Maine Lighthouse and Jewish Museums; and the waterfront Eastern Promenade walking/biking trail.
There’s a huge and helpful waterfront Visitor Information Center as well. Shopping abounds along the cobblestoned streets, from Ten Thousand Villages arts and crafts, to the Country Noel holiday store, to outlets for Cabot cheeses and Stonewall Kitchen (182 Middle St.). Dinner can range from the quick and easy at Five Guys Burgers and Fries to Gorgeous Gelato, to Holy Donut (renowned for its coconut and ginger sweet potato donuts), to Standard Bakery (equally famous for its raspberry scones). There’s no end to the enticements, as long as you keep the train’s schedule in mind.

The last train for Boston was scheduled to depart Portland at 6:50pm, which it more or less did. It was supposed to arrive in North Station at 9:20pm, which it more and more didn’t. It’s about that romance of the rails. It undoubtedly still exists, for a price (for example, the Orient Express, the Trans-Canadian-Rockies route, the Red Line from Boston to Braintree). Here the romance (as many do) faded. For what seemed like an eternity (and very nearly was), the train inched along at about five miles an hour for over ninety minutes, without any intercom or in person announcements, and in fact no sign of either of the two conductors. There never was a public message or apology, only a last-minute appearance to answer individual complaints. Most people, yours truly included, were justifiably astonished at the total lack of communication. In this day of instant contact and connectedness, it was an inexcusable omission and truly bad public relations. By the time compensatory coupons for a free future ride (one way, and unreserved at that) were meekly distributed, the damage had already been done. Communicating what the problem or problems were, even if temporarily irresolvable, is one of the first dicta in dealing with the traveling consumer…at least, if you ever want to see her or him agin.

Would one recommend a daytripping jaunt on the Downeaster? Yes, with reservations (no pun intended). Take along a lightweight book. Otherwise, should service problems recur, you just might well end up all a-bored.

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