For the past couple of weeks, Jess and I have been going to the beach a lot, frequently after work, and almost always on our bikes. Downtown Portland is within an easy hour's bike ride to no fewer than six beautiful public beaches on Casco Bay, and the bike routes are fairly scenic in their own right (especially if you can ignore the pretentious architectural turds that proliferated along cul-de-sacs in Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough through the boom years of the 1990s). You'll cross through pleasant inner-suburb neighborhoods, farm fields, marshlands teeming with wildlife, and undeveloped woods. You'll avoid paying parking fees. And you can re-stock on calories at several excellent ice cream places.
- KETTLE COVE and CRESCENT BEACH: 7.4 miles, about 45 minutes from downtown Portland (or 8.5 miles/50 min. via Shore Road): from downtown Portland, head down to York Street and across the Casco Bay Bridge. At the big intersection on the other side, cross diagonally onto the Greenbelt Trail, then take your first right onto Ocean Street/Route 77. From there it's a straight, 5 mile ride to Ocean House Road (right before Kettle Cove ice cream stand), which leads 1/2 a mile to the beaches. Crescent Beach is on your right, Kettle Cove is a little further on, to the left.
Route 77 isn't the prettiest road, but you could also take the more scenic Shore Road, which is about a mile longer. To take that route, follow the Greenbelt one more block through Mill Creek Park to Cottage Road, then go straight, through Cape Cottage, past Fort Williams Park, and through the historic Delano Park suburb. At the end of Shore Road, in "downtown" Cape Elizabeth, take a left onto Ocean Street/Route 77 and continue on to Kettle Cove.
- HIGGINS BEACH: 8.3 miles/50 minutes from downtown Portland via Highland Ave.: On the other side of the Casco Bay Bridge, take a right turn onto Broadway, then merge left before the traffic light to take the first left onto Anthoine Street (alternatively, take a right onto the Greenbelt Trail at the end of the bridge, follow the trail for a block, then cross straight across Broadway onto Anthoine at the light). Climb the hill on Anthoine and take a right on Highland. Follow Highland through the suburbs to the 4-way junction at Pleasant Hill in Scarborough, where there's a fire station on the opposite corner. Take a left there onto Pleasant Hill Road, pass a gorgeous old farm that's being hawked for more McMansion development, and take a right on Spurwink Road at the end. Spurwink Road is too narrow for a car to safely pass a bicycle in the same lane, so ride confidently in the center of the lane, where you're more likely to be seen on the curves, and force motorists to wait until there's a safe passing area. It's half a mile to the Higgins Beach Market, where you'll take a left turn and ride one more half mile to the beach itself. Note that the sucker motorists have to pay $10 to park here.
Alternative route via Spurwink Ave., 9 miles/1 hour: We typically return this way, since it lets us stop at Willard Scoops on the way home for salty ice cream, and it's by far the most scenic route to or from the beaches, even though it's hilly. Coming back from the beach, go straight on Spurwink instead of turning left onto Pleasant Hill Road. You'll ride along the Spurwink River for about 1.5 miles, with its marshes on your right, before crossing the river and climbing a short hill to Riverside Cemetery and Spurwink Church. There, take a left onto Spurwink Avenue and ride through gorgeous open conservation lands along the Spurwink River's headwaters. Then the road enters the woods and goes over two hills before it gets to a light at Ocean Street/Route 77. Continue straight through the light and cross the town line into South Portland, where Spurwink Road becomes Sawyer Street. Sawyer ends at a traffic light on Cottage Road, across the street from Beal's Ice Cream. But the ice cream is better at Willard Scoops: take a right on Cottage Road, then a left onto Pillsbury Street to Willard Square.
- WILLARD BEACH: 3.8 miles/20 minutes from downtown Portland: This isn't my favorite beach, since South Portlanders bring a hundred pet dogs there every evening and I don't care much for swimming in a place where half the beachgoers are carrying fecal matter around in plastic baggies. But it is close by. On the other side of the bridge, take the Greenbelt Trail to Breakwater Drive, then turn right and ride through the SMCC campus to the beach.
- SCARBOROUGH BEACH STATE PARK, 10 miles/1 hour from downtown Portland: There's an entry fee for this one, even if you're not using the parking lot, but it's worth it. Follow the directions to Higgins Beach, above, but continue past the Higgins Beach Market for 1 more mile to an intersection. Take a left on Black Point Road, then ride one more mile to the Scarborough Beach State Park entrance [see Scott's comment below for a tip on how to get to the beach for free, by using another street to bypass the park entrance gate].
- FERRY BEACH, 10.5 miles/65 minutes from downtown Portland: This beach sits at the mouth of the Scarborough Marsh, where the water's a bit warmer, and at the base of Prout's Neck. 1/2 a mile past Scarborough Beach State Park, take a right onto Ferry Road, then follow that street to the parking area at the end. Cars have to pay to park; cyclists don't.