PORTLAND, MAINE - History reigns in Maine's largest city.
Often, Portland is just the launching pad for travel adventures along Maine's rugged coast or to the state's beautiful wooded lakes -- a stop along the way to tony destinations like Bar Harbor or eco-wonders such as Acadia National Park.
Even cruise ships that dock at the city's historic port bundle their passengers directly off to the L.L. Bean outlet megastore in nearby Freeport.
But in a state where tourism is a leading industry (Maine is also the No. 1 exporter of blueberries), Portland might just be its best-kept secret, fully worth a visit all its own and fully worth exploring past the curio shops and tourist-oriented restaurants that line the city's waterfront edge along Commercial Street.
Situated on a peninsula that juts into Casco Bay along Maine's southern coast, Portland boasts a historic urban core rich with fascinating architecture.
Though English colonists settled the area by the 1630s, much of the city's historic architecture is from the Victorian era. That's because in 1866, while the city was celebrating the first July 4th after the Civil War, a raging fire broke out and destroyed most of Portland's commercial buildings, many of its churches and countless homes. Remarkably, only two people died during the blaze that left thousands homeless.
One building that did survive the fire was the Portland Observatory. Built in 1807 on Munjoy Hill east of the city center by Capt. Lemuel Moody, the octagonal, 86-foot-high, seven-story tower served as a communication station for Portland's bustling harbor during the heyday of commercial sailing.
With its bird's-eye views of Casco Bay to the east and the White Mountains and Mount Washington to the west, the observatory has been a tourist destination since it opened. Today it makes a great first stop for a historic crawl through Portland. Catching views as you climb the steep wooden tower floor by floor, you'll get a sense of Portland's unusual coastal topography.
After getting the lay of the land, head a mile and a half across town to Portland's West End for a self-guided walking tour of one the best-preserved Victorian neighborhoods in the country.
But first, make sure you've visited the website of the nonprofit organization Greater Portland Landmarks (portlandlandmarks.org). The agency offers downloadable maps and guides for four self-guided tours of Portland's architectural landmarks, worth collecting before you hit the sidewalks in search of historic buildings. (The group also operates the Portland Observatory.)
With its leafy streets and grand homes, the West End -- also called Western Promenade for the main boulevard that defines the neighborhood's western edge -- reads like a beautifully illustrated textbook on American Victorian architecture.
After the 1866 fire, Portland's prosperous citizens -- whose fortunes were typically fueled by the shipping industry -- began rapidly building homes in the then-underdeveloped section of the city. Almost overnight, some of the United States' best residential architects of the time became the authors of West End homes.
Today, most are private residences (a few bed-and-breakfast establishments dot the neighborhood) and are not open for tours. But with 37 homes identified on the Portland Landmarks tour map, a leisurely summertime stroll through the reasonably compact neighborhood is an architecture aficionado's reverie.
From dramatic High Victorian Gothic to the eclectic, asymmetrical Queen Anne style; from the nostalgia-fueled Stick Style characterized by simple shingles and shakes to the cubical Italianate villas topped with a central cupola -- the houses of the West End are wonderfully preserved architectural examples.
Still can't get enough Victorian architecture? In Portland, you can sleep in it.
Built in 1897 as accommodations for train passengers passing through Portland's Union Station, which was located a block away (it was demolished in 1964), the Inn at St. John, just a little west of the West End, boasts of being the city's oldest continuously operating historic Victorian hotel. Steep narrow staircases (sorry, there's no elevator) remind of the lack of modern convenience and erase any fantasies of true Victorian-era living. But the comfortable rooms with period architectural detail are an affordable option in a tourist-oriented city where hotels can get pricey.
Yes, it's fun to fantasize about life in Victorian yesteryear -- and Portland offers plenty of fodder for those fantasies. But modern conveniences like air conditioning and wireless Internet access make even the most charming historic inn a more modern comfort.
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin writes for the Austin American-Statesman. E-mail: email@example.com.