With a map and a mission: 500 miles, 10 days, 1 bike

By Rebecca Dalzell
Globe Correspondent / August 29, 2010

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PORTLAND, Maine — From inside a car, the landscape rushes by in a blur of rocky water views and clapboard churches. On a bike, the Pine Tree State takes on texture — roads bumpy with frost heaves, air thick with the smell of scorched hay. You feel the land dip into harborside towns and the salty gusts at the crests of hills.

Last August, when I loaded up my mountain bike, got a ride to Portland, and set off to explore the state, I knew it only from drives up the coast, remembering dramatic beaches and blueberry stands. But by taking a 10-day, 500-mile route to Bar Harbor that looped inland before returning along the ocean, Maine felt wild and remote to me, especially when the next flush toilet was dozens of farms away.

It was my first solo bike trip. I spent the summer training so that I could ride 60 miles comfortably, and took a repair class to learn how to fix a flat and a broken chain. The Adventure Cycling Association’s touring resources online said to budget 55 miles a day, so I plotted stops accordingly on Google Maps and used DeLorme’s topographical atlas to get a sense of the terrain. But in other ways I treated it like any road trip, planning visits to lighthouses and blueberry farms, expecting to wander and explore.

It took only a few hours to learn that detours are risky on a bike. Portland’s streets quickly dissolved into countryside. When I saw a hand-painted sign promising fresh fruit just off the highway, I followed it. The back roads were peaceful, with gardens and picket fences, but they were also unmarked, and soon I was lost and consulting a compass. By the time I found someone to ask directions, the farm stand didn’t matter, but the setting sun did. I stuck to main roads after that.

The lakes region is within a day’s ride of Portland. Had I not gotten lost it would have been a gentle start. I spent my first night in Winthrop, a faded resort town that straddles Annabessacook and Maranacook lakes, a good jumping-off point for the area. Serious bike tourers camp out, but I was glad to sink into a mattress every night and start the day with a feast. Friendly Annabessacook Farm Bed and Breakfast served a particularly fresh spread: homemade goats’ milk yogurt, granola, and just-laid eggs. Another way that cycling beats driving: You can eat all you want.

Riding through the lakes region is like passing one summer camp after another. In forested clusters, cottages sit in storybook idleness. Roads often run along the lakes near sleepy villages like Fayette and Mount Vernon, so you can still appreciate the scene from a bike and dip your toes when you take a break. Everything moves so slowly here that it’s a surprise to find to-go iced coffee at the Lazy Lab Café in Belgrade Lakes, a genteel hamlet amid a seven-lake chain, and a good lunch stop.

The lakes region invites meandering. A whole trip could be spent winding around its many glassy inlets. East of Waterville, the land dries up, so this was a stretch I was happy to zip through. Only 20 miles inland from the coast, tiny farm towns are scruffier: Beat-up trucks park on overgrown lawns and barns flake with paint.

After a night in Winterport, I rode down the reedy banks of the Penobscot River and was soon on the gleaming Penobscot Narrows Bridge, gateway to Downeast. When I crossed onto Mount Desert Island, the state more than lived up to its promise of rugged magnificence.

I gave myself a day of easy hiking and relative rest in Acadia but could have cycled the 45 miles of carriage roads for hours, especially with my 30 pounds of luggage left at the motel. Riding the packed-gravel paths felt like drifting along a stream, coursing through cool woods or on cliffs above kettle lakes. Eagle Lake was mystically still just after sunrise, tufts of long reeds waving in clear water, the air smelling of moss. Emerging into the bustle of Bar Harbor for breakfast was something of a shock.

Leaving the island on Route 102 the next day was almost as beautiful, with Echo Lake and Somesville tranquil in the morning light. But it was almost 90 degrees when I reached Ellsworth, and the kindly harbormaster there ordered me to get wet, recommending a nearby swimming cove off Route 172. It was a spectacular spot, with Mount Desert Island rising above boats in the distance.

With time to visit only one of the many peninsulas along the coast, I chose Blue Hill, largely because it inspired two favorite authors, Robert McCloskey and E.B. White. It was obvious why they settled here. Lightly-traveled Route 175 hugs Blue Hill Bay, cresting and curving by water-splashed inlets. This was the best, if most challenging, cycling of the trip. White lived near the peninsula’s tip in tiny Brooklin, whose library, red-shingled general store, and boatbuilding workshop make it the picture of New England civility.

The next morning the ride to Belfast offered stunning sights, even when I picked up Route 1. I had been dreading this clogged highway, but the wide shoulder and vistas east of Belfast made up for all the horns. Farther south, though, the road narrows and the ride gets hairy. That’s the cyclist’s midcoast quandary: white-knuckle riding and gorgeous scenery, or lighter traffic and farmland. I chose the latter, taking the interior Route 52 that approaches Camden from lakeside roads behind its hills.

Later inland roads were less scenic, and I wished I had risked the highway to see Rockland and Wiscasset. Walking around the pretty harbors of Camden and Rockport and taking in the panoramic view from atop Mount Battie at least gave me a taste of midcoast splendor.

My final night in Freeport I stayed at no charge with Rachel and Pete, total strangers whom I had found through, a network for touring cyclists. The family gave me a comfortable bedroom and cooked a steak dinner, and we sat around their table talking easily about Maine and biking. By the blackberry crisp, it felt like we were friends.

It’s hard to imagine such hospitality, but in Maine it felt natural. People struck up conversations everywhere, checking if I was all right traveling alone or if I needed directions. They asked why I had chosen to ride through the state in the first place, and I answered that I wanted wild blueberries and some time by the sea.

But those, I realized, had been road-trip expectations. On my bike, I hadn’t just seen Maine, but absorbed it over every hill and pothole. Sure, every night my legs felt weak and I crashed early. But in the morning I wanted nothing but the road ahead.

Rebecca Dalzell can be reached at

If You Go

Bicycles are allowed on most buses and trains (Amtrak requires reservations), space permitting. Concord Coach Lines makes 14 daily trips from South Station.
Where to stay
Annabessacook Farm Bed and Breakfast
192 Annabessacook Road
Winthrop, Maine
Stylish main bedrooms and excellent breakfast on a working farm. Doubles $75-$135.
Harbor View Motel and Cottages
11 Ocean Way, Southwest Harbor
Basic rooms, some with decks, near the town center. Doubles $55-$128.
Penobscot Bay Inn
192 Northport Ave., Belfast
Far from the center of town, but these modern rooms are a good value. Doubles $49-$144.
Where to eat
Ralph’s Café
12 Purple Heart Highway, Brooks
Booths, retro decor, and a great cranberry-blue cheese chicken wrap. Closed Mon-Tue $4-$8.
Blue Hill Co-Op Community Market and Café
4 Ellsworth Road, Blue Hill
Breakfast and lunch, fresh soups and sandwiches made from local ingredients. $5-$8.
Chase’s Daily
96 Main St., Belfast
Popular vegetarian breakfast and lunch stop for berry scones or farm salads. $8-$11.