Inn of Modern Art in Portland

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Though small and fairly compact, Portland, ME, is a wonderful city and full of artwork-even in the local bed and breakfast, the Pomegranate Inn.

Photography by the authors

We’re still rollin’, rollin’ Down East. The sun is out and Google maps is working like a dream. One of us is using it to navigate and the other is driving and ignoring directions from the navigator.

We, nevertheless, roll along Neal Street to the Italianate house at Number 49, the Pomegranate Inn. It has parking! Not common for small hotels in large cities. Not that Portland is huge, but it is the largest city in Maine with a city population of 66,000 (the greater Portland area has more than 200,000).

Portland’s slogan is “Live. Work. Play. Yes, Life’s Good Here.” We know Portland and know this surely is a great place. Arguably, Portsmouth, NH, and Portland, ME, are the 2 best places to live in northern New England.

The season is just starting and there’s only one other guest car in the parking lot so we have privacy to explore this unique 8-room inn, which is almost a modern art museum in itself. One of us stayed here about 15 years ago, before it was bought by Lark Hotels—an acquisition that has perhaps given more visibility to the inn and increased Lark’s portfolio to 7 special inns.

49 Neal Street is easily found. The lobby shows what to expect as soon as you walk in.

When we stayed here previously, the owners were the innkeepers: Isabel Smiles and her husband, Alan, who was the great grandson of a Scottish surgeon Samuel Smiles (1812-1904). Samuel was a character, and a cartoon from Vanity Fair in 1882 captures his essence. Alan, the descendant looks a bit like his ancestor—but don’t all Scots?

This inn is full of modern art collected by Isabel Smiles. And smiles are what her guests got when they came here.

The inn’s collection has made many art critics come looking. Michael Kimmelman, the New York Times art critic, told the Smiles “the inn reminded him of a place he’d stayed at in Paris—only better.”

Another visitor, writing in the guest book, declared: “People leave, feeling upbeat and want to go home—and paint!” One guest, an art professor, wrote, “What Isabel has done with natural light, dazzling colors, private art and personal antiques is a visually aesthetic feast.”

A writer for the Boston Globe referred to his stay here as seeing “with a smile this mixed-up art [that] is wonderfully dynamic and even surprisingly comfortable, as if I'm visiting the home of some quirky art-collector friends.”

Another reporter called the collection of art “the richest palette in Portland.” Yet, another art critic said the style was “juxtapositioning the unexpected.”

Isabel once recorded in her diary that a local reporter came when they opened and was given a long detailed look at all the rooms. The reporter nodded and seemed impressed and as she left said to Isabel, “Excuse me, but could you tell me why you decorate like this?”

There are 8 bedrooms. None, as you can see, look the same.

Edmund Russell Barbour, a wealthy businessman built the house on land owned by his mother-in-law as a gift for his wife in1885. The house passed down through family members until 1988 when Smiles bought it.

Isabel, who had previously owned an antiques shop and been in the design business for 14 years, (but “with no experience in B&Bs”), started using the inn to display her life-long collection of art. A local artist, Heidi Gerquest, painted any walls of the first 7 of the 8 rooms that didn’t have wallpaper, taking her theme from the room’s bedding and rugs. (The Smiles used the eighth room as their apartment.)

Want to choose the one you want? Check the website.

One room was a bird room with walls of doves in leafy bowers; one the hydrangeas room with a triptych and tin lamps; another took its theme from a Japanese printed kimono; one has vases and a Matisse theme (Martha Stewart chose to stay in that one); and there’s an elephant room with lamps and stools. Said an artist who has made many short stays at the Pomegranate Inn: “Love it but you couldn’t live in any of those rooms for a long period of time.”

You get double the view if you chose a room with mirrors! Can you imagine that the 2 women portraits were collected by the same person?

When asked by a local reporter how she had managed to put this art collection together, Isabel replied, “We drive old cars, we don’t have fur coats, but we do like to buy art.” One of Isabel’s fondest memories was hearing a newly arrived guest calling to her companion in the front lobby: “Come on in! We’ve hit the jackpot!”

We meet the young general managers who are completing their tour of duty here: Henry Leiter and Erin Kanuckel, both from Ohio. Erin is also the cook and “produces her pastries from family recipes and her egg dishes from memory.”

During our stay, for breakfast we had orange juice, Greek yogurt, Granny Smith apples, banana, honey poached pears with shaved almonds, then a white chocolate apricot scone. Another day, French toast with a raspberry compote, a side of sausage, and baked huevos rancheros.

Most B&Bs don’t have a full restaurant so inns usually lay out a 3-ring binder with suggestions for guests. We found in it the restaurant Caiola’s on 58 Pine Street, about an 8-minute walk from the inn. That wonderful Italian restaurant smell hit us as soon as we walked in. We chose its house-made cannelloni with sweet red peppers, onions, spinach, marinara, and cream. It was the most magnificent cannelloni we’d ever enjoyed even in Italy. It was so tasty we went back and bought the same dish the second night.

Said a Maine friend to us: “Kennebunkport has the beach but Portland has the restaurants!”

Caiola’s. Possibly the best cannelloni in America.

So is Caiola’s perfect? No. Our table, the second night, was wobbly and a glass full of wine fell to the floor and shattered. The restaurant was friendly—as typically Italian restaurants are—but the waitress, although charming, couldn’t escape the stereotypical attitude of the Maine shopkeeper with the short 10-week season where tourist expenditures have to be maximized. She never thought of giving us a courtesy second glass as every restaurant would in sunny Southern California. We now realize we should have asked.

With great breakfasts and terrific Italian restaurants, how do you work off the calories? By walking, of course, and that’s easy in Portland, a small and fairly compact city.

The shop signs are fascinating. With so many lawyers in our family it was pure chance in a doctor website that we put a pirate sign beside one for attorneys in our image montage.

Attractions in Portland include strolling the waterfront to check out the day cruisers and lobster boats. (Maine lobster fishermen harvested 100 million pounds of lobster in 2011, its second best year.) Walking past the corner of Congress and State Streets will take you past Franklin Simmons’ 1888 monument to the city’s favorite son, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It was added to National Register of Historic Places in 1990. His former house is a local landmark.

Keep walking. You are very close the one of Maine’s most significant institutions, the Portland Museum of Art. Take time to explore it. It has no problems with photography and has a delightful cafeteria in the lower level.

The Portland Museum of Art is a treasure house of unpredictable art.

Art surrounds from the expected sea landscapes to dramatic narrative art such as The Great Mogul and his Court returning from the Great Mosque at Delhi, India. Edwin Lord Weeks (1849-1903) painted this about 1886. Weeks was an avid traveler and became one of America’s most important painters of oriental subjects. The Indian emperor Shah Jehan, who built this mosque in 1658, also built the Taj Mahal, which Weeks also painted.

Next door to the art museum stands the Children’s Museum.

A Children’s Museum is always great for those traveling with a family.

Kids in the Portland get to evaluate healthy foods, watch a camera obscura and do a lot of scientific stuff like driving a faux fire truck.

We didn’t spend too much time behind the wheel; we had already done plenty of driving in Maine.

For this series of articles the Andersons, resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest, drove 1,300 miles in 14 days across northern New England to review 7 B&Bs for Physician’s Money Digest.

The Andersons live in San Diego. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written 5 books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.