Leigh Rush Olson, center, leads Zach Vincent, left, and Karen Vincent through a workout near the Our Lady of Victories sculpture in Monument Square in early July. Rush Olson has been leading historic tours in Portland that incorporate a workout for three years. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

It’s not every day people passing by see a group of people doing tricep dips on the steps of Portland City Hall.

But it may be a more common sight if Leigh Rush Olson continues to expand her tour business in the Old Port.

Rush Olson’s business – Historic Workouts – is just one of a dozen Portland walking tour options that have sprung up over the last 10 years as the city has attracted more tourists who want to experience local history and flavor, and get a little exercise at the same time.  

While the tours also attract curious locals, the tourist market is potentially huge: The Maine Office of Tourism said approximately 5.3 million tourists made Portland their primary destination in 2018, compared to 5.1 million visitors in 2008.

People who want to explore Portland on foot can find walking tours that focus on food, shopping, history and exercise, among other things. The walkabouts vary, but generally are one to three hours long and cover about a mile of walking. Most are located in Portland’s Old Port, but both the West End and East End have tours, too.

“It’s learning, it’s sightseeing, it’s getting a little moderate exercise, all at once, regardless of the type of tour,” said Pam Laskey, owner of Maine Foodie Tours.

When Maine Foodie Tours started 10 years ago, there were only a few walking tours, according to Robert Witkowski, creative director and media relations manager for Visit Portland, a group that promotes tourism in the region.

The growing popularity of such tours reflects tourists’ desire to exercise and immerse themselves in local culture, he said. Tourists get to see things they’d otherwise pass by, as well as get a chance to engage with locals walking their dog in the West End or occupying a stool at a beloved Portland bar.

“We find the tour guides are knowledgeable and give a flavor of the city we won’t get walking around,” Boston resident Mike Rose said as he sat on a park bench after a historic tour of the Old Port. “They also give tips on restaurants and places to go.”

Alessa Wylie, manager of education programs at Greater Portland Landmarks, says that about half of the group’s tour-goers are locals. She believes walking tours are becoming popular among locals because of the rise of so-called “stay-cations.”

Westbrook resident Mary Gavin, 65, took a Greater Portland Landmarks tour. She said she liked how knowledgeable the tour guides were about different architectural styles and she learned details about buildings she regularly passes. “I was thinking about how many times I’ve driven down State Street and never stopped to really look,” Gavin said.

Tour companies or organizations generally incorporate history into the tours, even if they focus on food or shopping. Many guides have completed the Portland History Docent Program, which covers Portland’s history.

Although individual tour operators did not provide financial details, most tour businesses offer supplemental income to guides and are not full-time jobs. Unlike most, Maine Foodie Tours has paid tour guides in addition to the owner.

Along with guided walking tours, there is also an interest in self-guided walking experiences. Greater Portland Landmarks offers a self-guided brochure that is kid-friendly. The brochure features four different routes that tourists and locals alike can walk at their own pace.

Other self-guided tours are also available online, including some that cater to more unconventional tastes.

Zombie Scavengers, a digital app-based augmented reality experience, takes participants through the streets of Portland to complete different tasks such as picking up augmented food in Monument Square. Zombie Scavengers is not Portland-specific – it is available in over 100 locations – and the app’s headquarters is located in Charleston, South Carolina.

MAINE FOODIE TOURS

When Bon Appetit named Portland  “America’s foodiest small town” in 2009, some Portlanders were surprised. Pam Laskey, however, was not.

Laskey moved to Portland in 2008, was impressed by the city’s restaurant scene and saw Portland’s potential to become a foodie destination. In July 2009, just a month before the magazine’s award, Laskey launched “Maine Foodie Tours” – a walking food tour business that gives tour-goers a taste of Portland’s celebrated cuisine.

Laskey said Maine Foodie Tours was one of four foodie tours in the United States at the time, but she has since seen walking tours, and specifically food tours, grow in popularity among tourists nationwide.

At first, Maine Foodie Tours offered one option: the Old Port Culinary walking tour. Although the first three years were slow, sales have grown exponentially over the last 10 years and the company now employs more than 30 seasonal and year-round employees to meet the demands of its customers.

Today, Maine Foodie Tours offers seven year-around food tours in Portland and three additional tours, one each in Bar Harbor, Kennebunk and Boothbay. Laskey hopes to offer a tour in the Rockland-Camden area. During the tourist season, she says the company leads approximately 45 tours a week.

Most tours are $69.95 and include a dish or drink at four to seven stops. Specialty tours range from $49 to $200 depending on the tour and experience. Guests are welcome to purchase additional food or drinks at each stop, too.

“It’s a great way to see the city while experiencing the food and drink,” said Boston resident Michael Schutzer as he tasted craft beer in Urban Farm Fermentory’s eclectic tasting room in Portland.

As customers take in the atmosphere at each restaurant, exchange stories with other tour-goers and await the next dish, tour guides and restaurant staffs execute a carefully choreographed routine. In order to visit six or more restaurants in three hours, tours are planned down to the minute. Each restaurant must know exactly when the tour will arrive so it can have the food prepared and make the best possible impression in about 30 minutes.

Yet customers say tours do not feel rushed. At Bob’s Clam Hut – the second stop on a recent tour of Washington Avenue –  the customers’ chatter dies as they cautiously taste the clam-filled chowder. The silence does not last for long. After a few seconds, conversation erupts as tour-goers praise the creaminess and the blend of flavors.

Steven Schutzer of Hartford, Connecticut, tastes the clam chowder at Bob’s Clam Hut as part of a Maine Foodie Tour in Portland early this month. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Hartford, Connecticut, resident Steven Schutzer adds a one-word description: “Phenomenal.”

Laskey said she has worked with over 100 food and drink vendors in Portland and that restaurant owners like to participate, despite the added coordination.

“A lot of our guests, they go back immediately to patronize the places that they visit (on the tour),” said Laskey.

Melanie Kratovil, co-owner of Terlingua, a Tex-Mex barbecue restaurant located on Washington Avenue, says Maine Foodie tours stop in as many as five times a week. The tours bring in locals and tourists who might not otherwise hear about the restaurant, and they allow chefs to be creative outside of the normal menu, such as with tortilla soup or Maine-made chips and homemade salsa.

HISTORIC WORKOUTS

After graduating with a history degree from Brooklyn College in 1998, Leigh Rush Olson found herself torn between two seemingly disparate interests – history and fitness.

Then a friend had an idea – jog people around New York City’s financial district in front of historic sights. And for the next two years, that is what Rush Olson did.

When Rush Olson moved back to Portland from New York City in 2001, she felt Portland did not have enough of a tourist scene to sustain a historic workout tour. But in 2017, after seeing the influx of cruise ships and tourists, Rush Olson reignited the historic walking tour business. She completed the Portland History Docent Program with Portland Landmarks and did some additional research.

During the hour-and-a-half workout tour, Rush Olson and tour-goers make their way through the Old Port at a pace at which ambitious people can jog or most can speed-walk. When Rush Olson arrives at the corner near Nickelodeon Cinemas – one of 50 historic spots – tour-goers boxer-shuffle while hearing about Commodore Edward Preble’s naval accomplishments, such as calling the British navy’s bluff during the American Revolution and intimidating enemies with his tough demeanor.

Leigh Rush Olson, third from left, runs through the Old Port while leading a historic tour of Portland that also incorporates workouts. Rush Olson has been leading the historic workout tours in Portland for three years. Participants, from left, are Karen Vincent, Jennifer Vincent, Zach Vincent, Steven Mavros and Hana Shepherd. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Rush Olson initially found the workout tours were not as popular as she hoped they’d be. “It takes a special group of people to want to exercise in the outdoors and in front of people,” she says.

So she started offering a two-hour historic walking tour that took the same route as the workout tour, but without the exercise. While the walking tours draw more people, the workout tours are gaining in popularity among tourists who want to explore the city but don’t want to disrupt their exercise schedule, she said.

Rush Olson, 48, likes to keep the workout group small – a maximum of 12 participants – so she can focus on tour-goers’ form. She caps the nonexercise walking tours at 20, so all the tour-goers have the chance to ask questions.

When Rush Olson isn’t giving tours, she is teaching corporate workout classes for company team building. She also serves as the Maine State American History chairwoman for the Maine chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

After selling advertisements for 10 years at a Portland-based television station, Rush Olson is rediscovering the joys of running her own business.

“When I get a sellout tour, I’m like, this is for me now,” she said with a smile.

‘IN THE KNOW SHOPPING TOUR’

There is one thing Elisabeth Harding, 27, and her grandmother Alicia Harding, 79, have always shared – a love for fashion.

Last winter, during their annual shopping trip to New York, Elisabeth had an idea that would transform their passion for fashion into a business – a shopping walking tour in the Old Port. So began “In the Know Shopping Tour.”

Although renowned for being a foodie and craft beer destination, Portland is not nationally recognized as a shopping destination; Elisabeth hopes the shopping tours will bring Portland’s shopping scene into the spotlight.

The two believe that the city is, logistically, a perfect place for a shopping tour.

“We live in an area where stores are so close by and we feel that most of the best shopping is in the (Old Port),” Elisabeth said. “It happened to work in our favor. It is a great city to … show off and walk around.”

They recently launched their business and have been giving discounted, practice-tours to locals. They are ready for paying customers now and hope Portland’s summer tourist season will produce some.

Alicia Harding and her granddaughter Elisabeth Harding pose for a photo on Exchange Street in Portland. The two women operate the In the Know Shopping Tour. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Since February, Harding and her grandmother have curated a list of a dozen shops that offer upscale fashion options. According to the duo, the stores are located between High Street and Franklin Street – covering approximately a mile radius. They say that all the boutiques are locally owned by women and feature Maine-made items.

The two have curated six tours for different styles, including avant-garde, vintage and funk and contemporary classic, and also offer customizable tours. Each tour is approximately two hours and will take customers into six to eight stores, depending on their pace. Standard tours cost $65 and customized tours are $95.

Alicia Harding, a history professor at Southern Maine Community College, shares her knowledge of Portland’s history with customers who want to learn more about the city while they shop. Elisabeth, a South Portland native, holds a part-time job at L.L. Bean.

The different tour options reflect not only their customers’ diverse styles, but also the differences between Elisabeth’s adventurous style and Alicia’s more conservative fashion choices.

Both grandmother and granddaughter have fond memories of shopping trips in New York City.

“We always look for bargains down on Canal Street and look at the Christmas decorations,” Elisabeth said. “And charge our phones in Saks,” Alicia interjects with a chuckle.

GREATER PORTLAND LANDMARKS

Greater Portland Landmarks has offered walking tours since 1965 and had a record-high 237 paying tour-goers last year. 

Portland’s “Western Promenade in the Gilded Age” tour is new this year and takes participants through the city’s exclusive West End neighborhood.

The tour was created after Nancy Ellenberger moved into a 136-year-old home in Portland. A retired history professor at the United States Naval Academy, Ellenberger was fascinated with the lives of West End residents in the Gilded Age. With the help of Alessa Wylie, Manager of Education Programs for Greater Portland Landmarks, Ellenberger used city documents, records and literature to uncover the houses and the lives of Portland’s elite.

“It’s a small, small world of privileged people,” Ellenberger said.

Nancy Ellenberger, right, of Portland leads a walking tour through the West End along Bowdoin Street. Staff photo by Jill Brady

The tour takes a less conventional approach than other historic walking tours, de-emphasizing architecture and focusing on the lives of 1920s residents. Tour-goers might envision a horse-drawn carriage lazily rolling down the wide, tree-lined streets as Ellenberger divulges details of marriages and scandals of the 1920s residents living in the grand Italianate and Federal-style homes.

Although the tour gives a sense of the West End’s past, tour-goers also see a snapshot of present-day life in the historic neighborhood.

The Western Promenade tour is one of four Greater Portland Landmarks guided walking tours. The other tours touch on a variety of different locations, such as India Street, the Spring Street Historic District and Munjoy Hill.

One distinguishable feature of Portland Landmarks’ tours is exclusive access to the city’s historic buildings. The “Neighborhood Stories: Portland’s India Street” ends with a look inside Abyssinian Meeting House – the third oldest African-American meeting house in the United States. “Western Promenade in the Gilded Age” takes tour-goers into the exclusive Cumberland Club. The society also gives tours of the U.S. Custom House, which has been closed to the public since 2001 because of security concerns since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

All of the docents are volunteers and are certified through the Portland History Docent program — a nine-week training program.

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