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Area Spotlight: Portland, Maine

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[post written by Jennifer Morrissey, New Oasis Northeast Regional Director]

“The Mail Run in Portland”

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Perhaps because of its northerly perch, Portland, Maine is often not given credit for being the incredibly beautiful city that it is; a cosmopolitan niche rich with art galleries and great shopping blended with the smell of salty ocean air, the sight of fisherman returning with their catch, and the sound of the waves lapping upon the rocky shore line. A recent trip to Portland, Maine made me keenly aware of the uniqueness of this lovely Down East seaport and how it is slowly stealing my heart.

At the end of a busy work schedule in and around the Casco Bay area, I found myself with a few free hours prior to my flight home.  Locals had told me to be sure and take time to see the islands off the coast;  Peaks Island, Little Diamond, Great Diamond, Long Cliff and Chebeague. I remembered my acquaintances at Cheverus Catholic High School and North Yarmouth Academy telling me that some students commute to school from the islands each day via ferry. I found the idea of commuting by ferry to be fascinating. Fall, winter, spring; students head to the ferry dock and sail to school! Putting aside my notions of the traditional yellow school bus, I made my way through Portland to the Casco Bay Lines at the ferry terminal on Commercial Street.

The ferry terminal in Portland is a huge complex and yet everyone waiting for service to their respective island seemed to know one another well and chatter filled the air. Amidst the flats and boxes of supplies awaiting transport o the islands, students waited with their backpacks and sports equipment and men and women carried groceries home from the store. Some families arrived with their pets; all dogs need to have their own ticket to ride the ferry! People are encouraged to bring food and drink aboard and many local cafes and restaurants offer bagged lunches and dinners to be enjoyed on the trek home.

The term, “Mail Run”, is used as the ferry service is truly the only means of mail and freight delivery to the islands. A crane sits atop the ferry for quick on and off of everything from flats of flowers to ice packs. While passengers disembarked at Little Diamond, I witnessed a shed being lowered down to the new owner waiting on the dock. My timing at the ferry terminal seemed to be perfect as I quickly realized that I had arrived just in time to board the “Sunset Cruise” and would be treated to a show of the sun slowly slipping below the horizon as the ferry darted in and out of each island’s harbor.

The entire trip through Casco Bay and out to the surrounding islands takes about 3 hours. The ferry ride was smooth that evening but I tried to imagine what it must be like on the coldest of winter days when snow falls over Casco Bay and the wind stings. In all actually, I have found Portland to be a mild spot in winter. It’s location to the sea makes for a pleasant climate year round and not nearly as harsh as many people may think. Besides, the people of Portland know how to dress for winter and look great, too! LL Bean is right down the road in Freeport…

I boarded the ferry with the locals and sat down on one of the benches on the second level with my coffee in hand. People were quick to ask me if this was my first trip and inquire as to where I was from and I suddenly found any feelings of loneliness quickly fade. One gentleman in a business suit was returning from his day at work, an older lady with a wheeled basket had gone shopping for fruit, one boy was returning from his sports practice at school and a family on vacation from Norway took in every word of the group’s conversation.


A sharp blast of the horn and the ferry sailed out of Casco Harbor and past the quintessential New England scenes all of which evoked a true Down East flavor; clapboard cottages bleached by the sun and salt, a black dog retrieving a ball for its owner, the sound of children laughing as they played while waiting for mom or dad to return from work on the mainland. I felt as if an LL Bean catalog had come to life!

At each stop, items were unloaded and loaded, a flood of people, some in business suites and others in fishing gear, disembarked. A large bucket sat at each dock for mail and package delivery. The harbor was obviously where the community came to connect with the mainland. As soon as the passengers had left the dock, and the crane secured, we were off again. After several stops, I was among the last of the passengers and the ferry began its turn to return to the ferry terminal. I felt both tired and exhilarated by the trip and I could imagine easily falling asleep to the steady movement of the ferry and sound of the engine. As we set our course to the west, the sun dipped below the horizon and for one last moment it set the sea on fire.

Each time that I return to Maine I am reminded of what a wonderful place it is for our international students. This relatively small city boasts so much and yet it is only a short drive away from the bustle of Boston and the great ivy schools. I am always struck by the kindness of people in the area and have been welcomed into schools and homes and shown the New England way of life. My little gem of Portland is a place that I return to feeling as if I am going home but knowing that I will always experience something new during my visit. Like sailing the “Mail Run”, there is always a little surprise awaiting visitors Down East.