Portland equals happy feet

The old port area — bricks and cobblestones aplenty.

Before I get too ahead of myself, a little about Portland. As I mentioned in my post Tuesday, I didn't have any difficulty getting to the old port area.

Once I got there, I had a few hours to kill before one of the few appointments I've actually made for this trip. I spend my time walking the old port area, taking pictures and shopping. Think water, with the occasional whiff of fish, lots of bricks and cobblestones, and plenty of specialty and souvenir shops.

I've been to Portland before, on a cruise ship stop, and two of the most interesting stores from that time were still around — a specialty kitchen/gourmet foods shop, and one with all kinds of items for dogs. Portland itself, and all of Maine, from what I've seen, is very dog-friendly. It's not unusual to see dogs in shops (even the ones not for dogs), or sitting beside their owners at outdoor cafes. There are also any number of places to buy Maine specialty foods, particularly anything made from blueberries.

My appointment was for Soakology, and this place really made the trip. Soakology has a really lovely tea shop upstairs, with tons of loose leaf teas to choose from. But it's the downstairs that I was interested in when I ran across the place researching my trip. They offer foot soaks, and also a variety of light spa services, but the place is really about the soak.

I'd figured that by the time I got to Portland, my feet would be pretty worn out and in need of a tune-up, and I was decidedly right.

At Soakology, you start your treatment by choosing from a menu of different foot soaks (prices range from $20-$40; I went with the $30 "Piece of Mind," with essential oils and salts. Then you head down to the basement, where an attendant/masseuse seats you in a giant stuffed chair raised off of the ground. She wheels out your warm foot soak in a giant ceramic pot, also raised on a cart, and also gives you a warm neck and shoulders wrap.

And let me tell you, as soon as I stuck my feet down into the pot, the bottom covered with stones that feel lovely under toes and soles, I was feeling super-relaxed. If you're questioning the value proposition of paying $30 to soak your feet, I can only say, don't knock it 'till you've tried it. There must be something to this whole reflexology thing, or, if nothing else, coming at relaxation through your feet.

The Soakology basement setup.

My attendant also brought me down the food and tea menu, and I ended up ordering two adorable cast iron personal pots of tea during my treament — spicy peppermint and ginger. Both were very good and added to the overall experience, with my feet soaking, and soothing music playing down in the quiet, nicely furnished basement space.

By the time I got to the 20 minute head, neck, and shoulders massage I ordered to go with my soak, I was already super-relaxed. After the massage, which the attendant does mid-soak, I was ready to float out of there, and my poor beleagured feet felt the best they ever have (sorry, feet, it's all downhill from there).

This concept is amazing. Every little detail is there — the tea, the soak, the space, the mini-massages. Why is this place only in Portland? Why is there not one everywhere (but mostly, selfishly, in DC)?

After my soak, I walked around a bit more, and then did what everyone does after an amazing spa experience — I went to a dive bar.

Okay, not everyone. Not even me, in most instances, but I wanted some food before I headed back for my train, and per my research, J's Oyster was the place.

J's I found on Yelp, clearly filling a niche as the local seafood joint/bar with better prices and better food than the places all the tourists go. I was a little concerned about going to the place all of the locals went to, as if I'd walk in the door and everyone would turn, and stare, and someone would say, "You're not from around here, are ya?"

Instead, within seconds of walking in, I felt enormously comfortable. The bartender was absolutely kind to me, and it was clear she knew her regulars by name. The more time I spent there, the more I started to think that at J's, you're either a regular, a savvy tourist, or a potential regular.

J's Oyster's wonderfully divey atmosphere.

As for the food, I had half a dozen oysters and a lobster roll. The oysters were smaller than Union Oyster House, and therefore less intimidating, but also less fresh — shucked at some point during the day (I hope), and deposited on a bed of ice in the midst of the bar area. They were a little drier, too, but I do have to give J's credit for a delicious sauce, which was possibly better than Union Oyster House's.

The lobster roll — sigh — was cold. Good, fresh, but cold. By this point I was starting to believe that I had, in fact, eaten the best lobster roll in New England while in Bar Harbor, and nothing was even going to approach it. Turns out Abbott's Lobster in the Rough here in Connecticut proved me wrong.

After J's, I stopped at Gilbert's Chowder House to sample some clam chowder. It was really, really, good, with a sweet hint to it.

My trip to Portland was one day where I didn't really "do" anything. No visits to historic sites, no museums, just shopping, foot soak, and eating. That's not to say that there isn't anything to do in Portland, just that I'd already been on a tour during the cruise ship stop and seen quite a bit. If I were taking the Downeaster in for the first time, there would certainly have been time to walk over and see the lush Victoria Mansion.

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