A small town for big appetites

There are many things for which the state of Maine has long been famous: low-tide beaches, lighthouses, lobstermen. But in recent years its capital, Portland, has become the East Coast’s must-visit foodie city, with a farm-to-fork philosophy that’s the envy of New England. Here’s a glimpse behind the scenes of this growing gourmet destination.

‘Rails opened, lines dropped, davit poised – and the trap is hooked!’ declares Captain Brian Rapp, as he hauls up a mottled green rope to reveal a wire-mesh cage, once 29 feet deep, now packed with glossy orange- and black-speckled lobsters. He takes stock of the crustaceans, gauging their size for harvest, and a smile cracks across the lobsterman’s bearded face. A bumper payday.

In Portland, those in the know call it lobstah, not lobster. That’s the first thing you need to learn before boarding the Lucky Catch trawler, a fishing boat that casts off each morning across the grey waters of Casco Bay from the quays on Commercial Street. At the wharf where the boat often rests at anchor, a concrete plaque is inscribed with a nautical blessing: ‘May you have fair winds and following seas.’ But the way things are going in Portland these days, they should add the pleasure of having a lobster roll in your stomach to the benediction.

Though many have long thought of Portland as a place steeped in little more than coastal fog and shuttered World War II canneries, today this small city can hold its own with any of the foodie capitals in North America. You could call it a Napa Valley with bivalves – a mix of kindred-spirit seafood restaurants, organic food champions and, the most prevalent of all, lobster shacks.

 

Lobsterpalooza and American pies

Above everything, Portland is a seafood valhalla. More lobster is caught and sold off Maine’s ragged coastline than in any other state in the United States, and it has such a mad crush on lobster rolls, it harvests 130 million pounds of the meat each year.

But the city is much more than that. Portland can do lip-smacking blueberry pies (out of every 100 US lowbush berries, 99 come from Maine). It invented the ‘healthy’ Holy Donut (made of more nutritious potato flour, but still gilded with frosting). It was ahead of the craft beer bell-curve in New England: the state’s pioneer, D.L. Geary, began brewing in 1983 as the first post-prohibition brewery east of the Mississippi, and opened their first brewpub in 1986. And its food heroes are permanently conscious of shrinking the distance between product and plate.

‘Portland is hands-down the foodiest small town in North America,’ says Maine Foodie Tours guide Mike Liff, a Californian drawn to the city by his stomach. ‘It’s not just the restaurants or the street food. It’s everything from the local produce to the maverick attitudes. People here don’t do chain restaurants. Instead of Dunkin’ Donuts, we choose local fair-trade independent micro-roasters like Coffee by Design or Arabica. And don’t get me started on the cheese. It’s so good here, it’s hard not to bust past the deli counter.’

Australian Outback adventure

Taking its complete circuit-of-the-country, Highway 1, in its Great Northern Highway guise, skirts along the southern boundary of the Kimberley region. Between Derby and Kununurra the road runs through Fitzroy Crossing and Halls Creek, but if you want to really get to grips with what is arguably the country’s most authentically ‘Australian’ region then you have to abandon that comfortably smooth thoroughfare and tackle the Gibb River Road.

It runs through the heart of the Kimberley and is 125 miles (200km) shorter, but way slower. It can be a car-breaker. Tackle the Gibb River Road in wet conditions and you can be stuck there waiting for a river to subside. Tackle it in the dry after a long spell without a grader coming through and the notorious corrugations can shake the fillings out of your teeth and rattle your car down to its component parts.

Assorted early explorers touched on the convoluted, inlet-cut, island-dotted coastline of the Kimberley, and today a convoy of adventure travel boats shuttle along this spectacular shoreline. Inland, the Kimberley is something of an open-air gallery of amazing Aboriginal rock art, whether it’s the comparatively recent Wandjina paintings or the much older and still puzzling Bradshaw works. The English name comes from Joseph Bradshaw, a late-1800s pastoralist turned rock-art hunter who first categorised and labelled the paintings.

Today they’re called Gwion Gwion paintings, but it’s uncertain how old they are or even who did them – today’s Aboriginals sometimes comment that they’re ‘not by our mob’. Bradshaw paintings are usually in ‘galleries’, often rock faces protected by overhangs, while the Wandjina works may be in everyday living areas. The later Wandjina figures are more varied in their subject matter, their design and their colours, but lack the subdued, calm elegance of the Bradshaw figures.

The secret of a successful foray along the Gibb River Road is to take your time, not to hurry. Drive too fast and those corrugations, loose stones, unexpected potholes and sharp edges can shred a tyre in seconds. This is a route where a second spare can be a very good idea. It’s not just travelling slowly that can stretch the time, lots of the Gibb River Road attractions are excursions off the main route. You can add days to the trip if you plan to turn off south to the Mornington Camp, or if you head north up the road towards Kalumburu and then decide to divert to the Mitchell Falls.

Close to the Kununurra end of the road is El Questro, with its magnificent gorges and places to stay that range all the way from budget campsites to the luxurious Homestead, which is dramatically perched on a cliff edge above the Chamberlain Gorge. El Questro started out as a Kimberley cattle station and although today it’s the best example of combining four-legged and two-legged business, for a number of the Gibb River Road cattle stations tourists are today just as important as ‘beasts’.

Road tripping Norways west coast

Norway means ‘narrow way through the straits’, rather apt, given the mighty glacial fjords that lacerate its western coast. Admittedly there’s not much that’s spellbinding as I roll north out of Bergen. The majesty comes later; for now I’m passing the engineering workshops and other small factories serving the oil and gas industry that has made the city rich – again.

The charming buildings that surround the harbour are a reminder that Bergen was a successful business centre for many centuries, going back to its days as a Hanseatic port.

I’m riding out in the wonderful, slightly watery, sunshine typical of Norway. As I follow the fjord first east and then north before turning inland again to Voss, the rugged, often vertical countryside begins to work on me, raising thoughts of Vikings and moody gods.

Norway’s roads, bridges and tunnels are sparkling examples of their builders’ skill and tenacity, but they shrink to scratches on the mile-high cliffs if you look up a little. Whoops! Not enough attention on the road and a long frost break is trying to turn my front wheel into oncoming traffic. Norway’s main roads are excellent, but not all back roads survive the brutal winters unscathed.

I turn north at Voss and then take Stalheimskleiva, the loop of road which runs between two waterfalls and offers 13 hairpins on its mile-long 20-degree climb to the eponymous hotel. It took seven years to build the whole 6 miles (10km) of road, finishing in 1849. The view towards Gudvangen from the hotel is spectacular, with near-vertical cliffs boxing in the narrow green valley bottom.

Not far past Flåm, I face a decision. Carry on straight ahead through the world’s longest road tunnel, a 16 mile (28km) marvel, or take the old road across the top? I’ve ridden through the tunnel before, so the choice is easy. I don’t regret it. There are deep snow banks alongside the 30 mile (48km) stretch of narrow, steep and twisting road but its surface is clear and tempts my inner boy racer.

Back at sea level I am speeding along one of the tentacles of Sognefjord. I cross it on a ferry and turn west along its shore before another ferry takes me across to Dragsvik and on to the E39 main road. It’s an intoxicating run north and east from here, always either alongside a fjord or crossing a rocky range by hairpins, smooth, long curves and regular blinks of tunnels.

A classic Cuban road trip

The Malecon comes alive at sunset. This broad ribbon of cement curves around Havana’s waterfront, and as the sun wanes, the sky turns pink and the road is washed in coppery gold light. Orderly rows of fishermen perch on the sea wall, chatting as they cast their lines and hoping for a haul of bonito tuna or red snapper. Locals sit in pairs, laughing and occasionally canoodling, while the sea breeze brings with it the sound of a three-piece jazz ensemble that’s just started up along the way.

This stretch is considered the classic drive of Havana, tracing over four miles (7km) along the coast from the colonial centre of the Old Town to the business district of Vedado via a stately lineup of weather-faded houses from the 19th century and brutish Russian-style architecture.

It’s here that the city meets the surging ocean. When a strong cold front hits this coast as it often does, waves hurl themselves against the sea wall and over, spraying dozens of feet in the air and flooding the road, but today the sea is calm and mild, lapping innocently at the dark rocks of the shore.

Unlike most great drives, where the highlight of the journey is glorious scenery passing by the windows, the best sights on the Malecon are on the road itself. Vintage 1950s American cars of all colours and kinds parade along its length. One second there is a dreamy round-nosed Buick in duck-egg blue; the next, a Chevrolet Bel Air convertible in brilliant red with silver fins followed by a royal purple Cadillac. They are so numerous and so perfect-looking, it could be a city-wide classic car rally.

The truth is, these vintage cars are not always a dream to drive. As I make my way along the waterfront behind the wheel of a 1955 Chevy – royal red and gold in colour – the gears show flashes of temperament, sticking and occasionally slipping, and the steering has so much give, each turn of the wheel is little more than a gentle suggestion. But there is an indefinable joy in driving one of these vehicles, and it’s not just the warm, fusty smell that evokes the old girl’s decades on the road or her soft leather bench-seats, so broad and comfortable it’s like driving a sofa.

I make my way down the Malecon and turn onto the cobbled streets of Habana Vieja, Havana’s Old Town. Left to crumble after the 1959 revolution, Havana is a time capsule, its formerly grand buildings broken and pocked with neglect. The Old Town dates back to the 16th century, and retains vestiges of its former glory. Grand, palm-filled squares are surrounded by streets with imposing churches, houses painted in cheery pastel colours, and tiny kiosks selling freshly butchered meat or piles of fruits warmed by the sun.

The heat turns up in Austrias capital

When the heat turns up in Austria’s capital, the Viennese head to the Donaukanal for refreshment, rejuvenation and relaxation. With long summer days stretching until late September, there’s plenty of opportunity to explore the energetic paths dripping with street art either side of the canal that splits the city.

From morning yoga sessions by the water, midday grazing on fresh pad Thai to sunset dancing with your toes in the sand, come for a walk through a perfect day with us.

 

Morning

Below the ornate Urania Observatory building sits Vienna’s oldest and grandest beach bar, Strandbar Herrmann. Sandy volleyball courts, waterside canvas chairs and the perfect view of Aspernbrücke await early risers who can nab a chair at the popular man-made beach, hugging the corner of the canal. Brunch buffets are available on weekends and playground areas for kids means families can relax in the summer sun too. For a zen start to a Sunday, try Hermann’s ‘yoga on the beach’ sessions at 11am.

After stretching away your morning kinks, continue your endorphin boost at the nearby Badeschiff. Loosely translated as ‘pool boat’, it is permanently moored beside Schwedenplatz. The sprawling wooden decks beckon with beach loungers and shame-free swimmers, sunning themselves before slipping into the pool. It’s the safest way to ‘swim’ on the Danube. The perfect spot for a mid-morning coffee, you’ll often rub elbows with Viennese enjoying their daily spritzer while the foot traffic crowd of the Donaukanal wanders beneath them.

Day-long access to the pool is available for just €5, so you can get in a few laps and work on your tan smack in the centre of town. For some more competitive activity, there’s a sports-cage above the pool for rounds of football.

Farther along the canal on the Schwedenplatz side, your best bet for breakfast is Motto am Fluss – hosting all day brunch and the best views across the canal from their shady terrace. Try the ‘Fresh Sailor’ with avocado, sweet potato, mushrooms and organic multi-grain bread for a filling dose of carbs to bolster your day of activities.

 

Afternoon

When the midday heat hits, stroll across the river by the Salztorbrücke bridge and seek out shady bar Adria for your first spritzer (or soft drink) of the day. The ramshackle vibe of pallet seating surrounded by street art and pop-up food stalls will have you settling in to while away the afternoon here. Our tip for quick snacks? Fast and fresh Asian fusion food from Mamamon, right next door. Spiced with authentic flavours and freshly cooked before your eyes, the family-owned stall cheerily serves some of the city’s best Thai food.

For the perfect sunset perch, move west along the canal to Tel Aviv Beach Bar, a favourite amongst the young and beautiful cocktail crowd and run by the Viennese food impresarios from Neni’s. The Israeli-inspired menu – think hummus sharing platters and street-food inspiredSabich (aubergine and egg stuffed pitas – pairs perfectly with views across to Kahlenberg hill when the summer sun dips below the horizon. Their cocktail menu is short and punchy, at €8.50 a pop you can sip on the sweet house specialty Neni’s Cocktail (Malibu, lychee, pineapple and lemon juice) – or try our favourite, the Kanalwasser with iced tea, vodka and fresh mint.

If you’re more of a wine lover, we recommend Zum Gschupftn Ferdl, a canal side pop-up bar from the urban heuriger (Viennese wine) masters, bringing a funky Pac-Man inspired twist on Vienna’s wine tavern tradition. The glowing, white-tiled box squatting by the Badeschiff has organic meat and cheese platters sourced from local farmers to pair with it’s curated local Austrian wine list.