By Sandy Lang
Photographs by Peter Frank Edwards
FOR A FEW DAYS, THE STATION WAGON IS GOING TO STAY IN PARK. THIS MIDCOAST TRIP IS ALL ABOUT TWO WHEELS.
The group is gathering at the inn's parking lot in Camden, and most of us are clad in padded bicycle shorts and performance-fabric shirts and jackets. We've all just met, and we're ready to perform—to pedal—on a bicycle tour of Maine's rocky, rise-and-fall topography along the midcoast. Cycling guides Heather Chandler and Norman "Big Toe" Patry are matching each person to a bicycle. The summer day is breezy, almost chilly. While everybody inspects their bikes, I'm sizing up my fellow pedalers for the two-night, three-day tour led by Portland-based outfitter Summer Feet Cycling.
We have already checked into the Inns at Blackberry Common, two side-by-side early-1800s buildings located just a few blocks from the sailboat-filled Camden Harbor. Eight people are part of our group: six are women, two are sisters, and five happen to be from the South (Alabama, Virginia, and South Carolina). I would estimate late 30s to be the average age. Photographer Peter Frank Edwards is along, and I'm the one in a day-glow yellow windbreaker—so I'll be visible to the drivers of passing cars. (I'm big on bike safety, so I don't mind glowing.)
Norman explains that the first leg of the tour will include "the prettiest six miles in Maine" along a round-trip route through Rockport. Peter Frank brought his own road bicycle, and the rest of us have been outfitted with "hybrids"—a combination of road bike and mountain bike that features a cushioned seat, a water bottle, and a comfortable, straight handlebar. As soon as everyone straps on his or her helmet, we're off.
ROCKPORT FARMS, OCEAN VIEWS
The opening ride that afternoon takes us through some of Camden's charming neighborhoods and under the "Welcome to Rockport" roadway arch. I've been riding bikes since I was a kid, and although I don't get on the road enough, it always feels good to pedal and coast again. We signed on for this trip for the scenic beauty and the hilly challenges—I like how Maine is always testing me somehow. (I'll never forget my first ride on the thigh-burning climbs and handlebar-gripping descents in the mountains of Acadia National Park.) In Rockport, we get views of the narrow Rockport Harbor near the town landing before continuing out to where Beauchamp Point juts into Penobscot Bay. Along the way, the pavement ends, and all that's left is the gravel road, our line of bicyclists, woods, and seaside views—no motor noise at all. The ride is a complete diversion from the computer, phone, and car, and I'm loving it.
Our stop at the Vesper Hill Children's Chapel, a garden and open-air chapel on a hilltop with incredible water views, is even more peaceful. A plaque informs us that the park was built on the site of a hotel that burned down in 1954, and that it was created for "young people who come here for spiritual and mental refreshment." That Friday, the chapel overlooking blue water and boats is filled with teenagers and twentysomethings when we walk up—a wedding party rehearsing for a ceremony. We sit down to watch as a young bride-to-be in very high-heeled yellow pumps tries not to wobble while walking across the uneven stone floor.
Over the rest of the day's ride, we pass cornfields, pastures of Belted Galloway cows at Aldermere Farm, and stop at a terrific overlook with an unobstructed view of Curtis Island Light and the red-roofed keeper's house at the head of Camden harbor. We take our time in the fresh ocean breezes, and pull over for a closer look at the scenery whenever we want. By the time we return to the inn, it feels like cause for a celebration and we get ready for our first non-cycling outing. Norman and Heather ask if anyone would like to try some local wine at Cellardoor Winery in Lincolnville. Everyone wants to go, so we hop in the tour company's van for a ride along Megunticook Lake, where Norman says he spent childhood summers with his five brothers and sisters and his father, who loved the outdoors. The native Mainer explains that he was an investment marketer "who sat in a cubicle" until he realized what he really wanted to do was ride a bicycle. He founded Summer Feet a dozen years ago. Throughout the trip, I learned that Norman is a proponent of local foods and exploring the state's lesser-known places. He even has a golden retriever called Rumford, which he named after the rural Maine town.
Cellardoor Winery is housed in a massive 1790s-era dairy barn that has been beautifully restored, and during the tasting a few of us agree on some favorites, including the Trilogy Blanc, Barbera, and Petite Sirah. That evening, we've changed out of our biking clothes by the time we all sit down for dinner at 40 Paper in Camden, which opened last year in a hip urban renovation of a historic mill space. The Italian bistro menu is full of handmade pasta, short ribs, and other comfort food that I'm thinking will help sustain us for the weekend rides. We dig in and share stories and plenty of laughs. The women from Alabama—one is married to a professional rodeo cowboy—explain that this is their first visit to Maine. They have already tried lobster rolls and stopped at L.L.Bean on the drive up to Camden. Heather, who grew up in Maine and has a small publishing company in addition to guiding bike tours, recalls that, as a teenager, she used to sneak out after midnight and meet friends in Freeport at L.L.Bean's flagship store, since it is open 24 hours a day.
ISLESBORO GLIDE, CAMDEN SAILBOAT RIDE
After breakfast at the inn, it's time to ride again. Today we don't pedal out from the parking lot, but rather we pile into the van with our cycles on top. Our first stop is the ferry landing at Lincolnville, where we catch a ride on the Islesboro Ferry. Other cyclists are also on board for the three-mile trip across Penobscot Bay. On the way, Norman gives us a verbal tour of the narrow, 14-square-mile island and its one primary road. He says that as Islesboro has become a biking destination in recent years, the 600 or so residents have become increasingly aware and tolerant of cyclists. But he cautions us to be careful on the two-lane roads. Islanders, he says, "have their drives to the ferry landing timed down to the minute," and they may not be patient with cyclists who slow them. With our maps and his advice, we start out for a full day on the island, riding from one end to the other and back—about 29 miles in all. We step off the bikes here and there to wander out on a dock or take a sip from our water bottles in the shade of trees. We stop at Artisan Books and Bindery, one of the few retail operations that's open. For the most part, though, we take in roadside views of the houses, farms, and hand-made signs, including one for a community barn dance. Traffic and people are sparse on this sunny day on Islesboro, and the drivers passing by never give us a hint of trouble.
The highlight of the day's island ride is lunch. We had divided up to explore Islesboro in the morning, but we regroup on the island's southernmost tip, a rocky beach at Pendleton Point, at midday. Norman and Heather assemble a spread of local fare—including turkey and brie sandwiches with Maine mustard and apple slices alongside homemade pickled garlic scapes. We make a picnic on the secluded beach—the only other person is someone sunbathing in the distance—and most of us (me included) end up testing our skill at skipping flat stones across this calm curve of Penobscot Bay.
By late afternoon, we take the ferry back to the mainland and the inn, where we bundle up in jackets and hats to ready ourselves for a sunset sail before dinner. With kids returning to school, the remaining tourists are most often young couples in love and retirees. Sure enough, as we sail from the harbor on the 1927 yacht Olad, the other guests onboard are a lively group of retirees from Dallas who say they've come to Camden to escape the fiery Texas summer. Along the docks, we pass another bridal party—this one wearing tuxedoes and formal gowns and gathered around a large schooner. The bride and groom, and all of us, are bathed in the end-of-the-day amber sunlight.
ROCKLAND TO THE BEACH
The next morning, we wake again at our comfortable Camden inn and walk to the harbor to see the boats on the glassy water once more before we set out for a final group ride. This time, we're pedaling west from the inn, then south through West Rockport, and on to Rockland and the parks and beaches beyond. We see a bit more car traffic on this route, and somewhere along the way my bike develops a jarring clicking noise. I'm not typically one who participates in guided group tours, but at that moment I realize that one of the greatest benefits of such a travel arrangement is the on-hand support. All I do is let the guides know that my bike has an issue, and within minutes they fit me with a different cycle. I'm soon back with the group, cruising along Main Street in Rockland. Our line of cyclists continues out on the rolling hills to Owls Head Light—our tallest climb of the trip. Our reward is that the lighthouse is open that day for tours, so we park the bikes for a while and climb to the top. Looking out from glass windows that surround the rotating light—you can't stay long because it quickly gets uncomfortably hot standing so close to the light—we catch glimpses of the coastline we've been exploring.
Back on our bikes, in another five miles or so, we stop at Birch Point State Park and its beautiful, sheltered beach on the Atlantic. By this time, I can definitely feel the effects of the days of riding in my legs. A few of us pull off our shoes and socks to cool ourselves in the shallow, calm water at the shoreline. Everyone rests for a few minutes and reclines on the sun-warmed rocks. We agree that we're hungry, and Norman suggests we continue a few miles farther to a country store in South Thomaston that has a lunch counter and outdoor picnic tables overlooking the Weskeag River. We make our way, and I find that final stretch of the ride is bittersweet. Something good is ending. At the Keag Store, the bikes go back atop the van (Heather's driving that day and meets us there). In the old-fashioned, wood-floored grocery, we buy lobster rolls served on hamburger buns—just the right thing for this rider. Our amiable guides soon drive us back to the inn, where we retrieve our luggage and cars. After a round of hugs in the parking lot where we started, the two-wheeled weekend comes full circle.