AdventureELEVATE Maine has officially begun, with delegates and media experiencing the adventure opportunities on offer across the state.
When I signed up for the “5 Lighthouse Tour” offered by Summer Feet Cycling, I knew I was going well outside my comfort zone. Riding a bike is something I’ve rarely done as an adult, and when I have it’s been on mostly flat car-free terrain, never very far, and if I’m being completely honest, almost never as a first choice of activity.
But in a state with 3,500 miles of coastline and several lighthouses that date back to the 1800’s, I was drawn to the history of the area, ability to cover more ground by bike, and lunch featuring one of the best lobster rolls in the state.
How many lighthouses are on this tour is actually up for debate. While five is the official count, one could argue that seven is a more accurate number. According to Norman Patry, the owner of Summer Feet Cycling, “it depends on what qualifies as a lighthouse and how much of the lighthouse you see.”
Summer Feet Cycling was founded by Patry in 2000, and he tells me that it started with a beer and a bike ride across the United States. Originally from Maine, Patry was working in the investment industry in Boston when he decided he could quit his job if he planned to accomplish something. This is when, over a beer, a friend of his suggested he ride a bike across America.
“I did not own a bike and had not ridden a bike in over a decade,” Patry said. “But I was intrigued by the idea, so I quit my job and did a solo 4,200 mile ride. When I moved back to Maine a few years later, I founded Summer Feet.”
Initially he operated multi-day tours in Maine, but soon added Canada and later Europe. Then the economic recession of 2008 hit. Patry told me that business was slow, and in the interest of offering a lower priced product – a day trip with a hook to capture the essence of the region in one day – the 5 Lighthouse Tour was born. It worked. Now an award-winning tour, even I was intrigued as a non-cyclist.
Our Day of Adventure group departed from Portland’s Old Port District, where our three guides matched us with bikes fitted to our height and conducted a safety briefing. Pedaling over the Casco Bay Bridge, I was just beginning to wonder if I was in over my head when the clouds cleared, the sun appeared, I figured out the gears on my bike, and just like that we were cruising toward Cape Elizabeth.
After passing through a few quiet neighborhoods, we entered the marshes en route to Kettle Cove at the cape’s southern tip where we took our first break for photos and snacks. This was fun. Really fun.
Since he is a Maine native, I asked Patry what makes Maine an ideal adventure destination. His answer? Variety. “Living in Portland I can be on the ocean in the morning and hiking or biking in the mountains in the afternoon,” he said. “We have thousands of miles of true wilderness in Northern Maine that offer limitless possibilities for outdoor exploration.”
In the days prior to AdventureELEVATE, some select media delegates had a chance to experience that wilderness on multi-day adventures that took them further afield to the far corners of the state. These included rock climbing and fishing in MidCoast Maine, cycling through Acadia National Park, and paddling Millinocket Lake in the Maine Highlands.
Lora Pope of Explore with Lora paddled part of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail as part of her Pre-Adventure, and later told me that efforts to educate visitors were a highlight of her trip.
“The Northern Forest is absolutely incredible – they call it a baby bird factory because of how many migratory birds reproduce there. We met so many conservation organizations in Rangely who are passionately working to protect and conserve the region,” Pope said. “In my mind we were going to canoe a river, but learning about how important the ecosystem is there, how climate change will impact it, and how many people are working to protect it took the experience to a more meaningful level.”
That idea of a meaningful experience struck a chord with me. As travel professionals, we often find ourselves explaining what we do to those not familiar with adventure travel. Yes, it includes zip-lining and hiking and rafting – but so often it is more about that pursuit to appreciate and understand a place more deeply. Sometimes that place is the destination itself, and sometimes it is an internal understanding of our own abilities and self-limiting beliefs.
Which takes me back to my cycling adventure. From Kettle Cove, we followed the rocky coast to Two Lights – also known as Cape Elizabeth Light – and then to Portland Head Light, built in 1791. Now about 15 miles into our 25-mile ride, I had officially cycled farther than I ever had before and it was time to stop for lunch at the award-winning Bite Into Maine food truck. In addition to six kinds of lobster rolls, their well-rounded menu offers something for everyone, including vegan and gluten-free options. We drank blueberry sodas and sat on the lee side of a hill to block the wind while we ate.
Earlier in the week, I emailed Patry to see if he could give me a local’s perspective on what makes Portland so special. “Portland is an amazing town from its history – it was founded in 1632 – to our food and brewery scene, to Casco Bay,” he wrote. “Portland is a magical place. Having ELEVATE here is a wonderful opportunity to show the global adventure travel community what an amazing place this is.”
Curious to hear an impression from a first-time visitor, I asked Meghan Doiron of Aniyami, a Brazilian DMC, what she thought of Portland. “The town is really charming, and what's really striking is how easy it is to get out of the city and into nature,” Doiron said. “There are many parks and trails, with easy access to the coast. And it’s impressive how much public space is valued and prioritized – clearly the city invests in good infrastructure from public restrooms to trash cans to bike lanes.”
After lunch, we continued cycling to Spring Point Ledge Light and Bug Light. Here, our guides shared that in addition to tending the light, historically lighthouse keepers also took care of the property, sounded the bell or foghorn, grew food, and acted as first responders to those in distress at sea. Today, all lighthouses are automated.
While I and other delegates were off exploring the region by bike, other Day of Adventure activity options included kayaking, a brewery tour, sailing on a historic schooner boat, forest immersion, birdwatching, and more, which all took place in the Greater Portland and South Coast regions.
Later that evening, I spoke with Alyssa Walker, the Copywriter and Content Manager for Hurtigruten Expeditions. She had joined Maine Audubon for a birding adventure and I asked what impressed her the most about the experience. “The group’s curiosity and desire to learn and explore coupled with our delightful expert guides left me feeling refreshed, excited, and eager to learn more – not only about birding, but about the people in my group. Bravo, ATTA, for facilitating an incredible day!”
Walker is right. In addition to an open-minded curiosity, it is the people that make all the difference. This echoed my experience, where I was lucky enough to be surrounded by cycling enthusiasts. From our incredible Summer Feet Cycling guides to ATTA delegates who own and operate their own cycling tours – everyone was kind, supportive, and excited to have me with them as a beginner.
With the right operator, group camaraderie, guides, and itinerary, it is possible to take a new-to-you activity and rediscover the joy of being a beginner.
Would I do it again? Absolutely. After all, now I’m a cyclist.
Special thank you to ATTA’s host partners Visit Portland, Visit Maine, and the Maine Office of Outdoor Recreation, who have worked with local tour operators such as Norman Patry from Summer Feet Cycling to thoughtfully curate the best adventures the Greater Portland and Southern Coast regions have to offer!