Portland has burned down no fewer than four times: twice by Indians and the French during the late 1600s, once by the British 1775, in response to colonists’ calls for independence, and again on the Fourth of July in 1866 (residents were reportedly enjoying Independence Day revelry, lit some fireworks, and one of those celebratory pyrotechnics landed in a lumber yard).
“As I always like to say, Portland is the most flammable city in America,” said Norman Patry, owner of Summer Feet Cycling, a bike tour company he started in Maine 20 years ago.
Patry’s brain is chock full of interesting local history, which he shares with the out-of-town visitors who come on his bike tours every summer. He regales his guests with tales of the molasses trade, prohibition, and Portland entrepreneur Aurelius S. Hinds, who made a good deal of money selling Hinds Honey and Almond Cream, which contained neither honey nor almonds.
The bike tours offer tourists an active and engaging way to explore the city and spy some lighthouses, all while getting an interesting education in the lesser-known portions of Portland’s past.
In typical years, most of Patry’s customers are vacationers visiting the city from other states or spilling off recently docked cruise ships. But this year, with the coronavirus inhibiting those visits, Patry decided to offer locals the opportunity to go for a bike ride and get to know their city a little better.
For the month of June, Summer Feet is offering “Tours for Tips,” free guided bike rides for locals. At the end of the ride, simply tip the guide.
“We tend to never do fun things in our own backyards,” Patry said. “And Portland is a great town for biking. We have an interesting history, and a bike ride is a good way to get out and experience Portland and help a small, local business.”
While the lack of tourists will hit many businesses hard, Patry hopes the idea will help provide some work for his guides and be another chance for locals to enjoy all the state has to offer.
After all, he said, “we’ve got the state to ourselves right now.”
In typical seasons, Summer Feet’s day-trips include a five-lighthouse tour, which takes cyclists to see lighthouses in South Portland and Cape Elizabeth, with a lunch stop at Fort Williams Park for lobster rolls from the Bite Into Maine food truck.
There are also trips to Peaks Island and Bailey Island, a bike-and-hike tour to Mackworth, and a bike-and-brews tour around Portland with pit stops at local breweries. Summer Feet leads weekend and multi-day tours, too, in the Kennebunks, Acadia, and Camden.
The free June tours will stick close to Portland and include a bike, helmet, and a wise guide. Guests can bring their own bike if they’d like, and locals who don’t have a lot of cycling experience are welcome, too. Tour distances range from eight to 12 miles over the course of a few hours, Patry said, so it’s a leisurely pace and there are lots of stops along the way.
“Our trips are meant to be a fun activity, he said, ” not an athletic challenge.”
Freelance writer Shannon Bryan lives in South Portland and is the founder of fitmaine.com, where she writes about the coolest ways to be active and get outdoors in Maine.
Tips for tours
• The around-the-peninsula tour: An eight-mile ride that follows the Eastern Prom bike path to Back Cove and on to Portland’s Deering neighborhood and the West End. Along the way, there will be stops to hear stories about the history of Casco Bay and George Cleeve, Portland’s lawsuit-happy co-founder, and how the Deering neighborhood was created in the 19th century by wealthy residents angry about Portland’s rising property taxes.
• The three-lighthouse tour: A variation of the five-lighthouse tour, with a 15-mile ride to see three lighthouses and standout views of Portland and Casco Bay, and the open ocean, with tales from Portland’s rich history. The free tour does not include lunch, but riders can purchase a lobster roll from the Bite Into Maine food truck and enjoy lunch at Fort Williams.
• The bike-and-hike tour to Mackworth Island: 12 miles of riding and one mile of walking on the island path. Along the way, learn about Fort Gorges and Casco Bay. On Mackworth, visit the cemetery where Gov. Percival Baxter buried his many Irish setters and one horse.
While the free tours end in June, locals can book a regular tour later in the season. The Portland Encyclepedia will be open on Commercial Street on July 1, renting bikes and doling out maps for self-guided rides. Norman even has a few bikes for sale – retired rides from last year’s fleet – for locals who’d like to make cycling a regular thing.
All June tours depart from the Ocean Gateway Visitor Center on Commercial Street and typically start at 10 a.m. Tours will follow Maine CDC social distancing guidelines and participants must wear masks. Guides can be tipped via cash or Venmo.
To learn more about the tours or check out a bike tour for later in the summer, go to www.summerfeet.net. To reserve a spot on a guided June ride, call Summer Feet at 866-857-9544.
— Shannon Bryan