And a periodic click ... click ... click.
That would be the sound of a bicycle being downshifted as a rider climbed yet another low hill.
What an ideal way to explore these Andrew Wyeth landscapes come to life. Astride a bike on little-used back roads, a visitor can see so much more than while sealed up in a car. There's also nothing like cresting a hill, gliding down the other side and feeling cool, sea-scented air rush past you.
This was a five-day tour of the Maine coast with Bike Riders, a Boston-based company that deftly balances intermediate bicycling with advanced creature comforts.
During the day, you might pedal 30-plus miles, but in the evening you're bedding down in first-rate inns and pairing succulent local scallops with a crackling pinot grigio from Italy.
Hard-core bicyclists probably wouldn't be satisfied with the daily mileage, while sedentary slugs would likely collapse in exhaustion before the first photo stop. But the great gulf in between - baby boomers and empty-nesters of moderate fitness levels - will find this a pleasant
That, at least, was the general composition of our tour group of nine guests and two guides last month.
"It's a pain in the neck to plan it all yourself; you don't know what you're getting," said John Bowie, a Towson, Md., physician who earlier had taken a Bike Riders tour of Ireland. "There's no one to drag your luggage to the next place for you. With this, we're staying in quaint spots. The routes are picked out for you."
"And if you've had enough," added wife Cindy, "you get in the van. In Ireland, one day we quit. I was wet. I was tired. I'd had it."
A great deal of comfort and enjoyment is to be found off the bikes, too.
One of the trip's highlights was a late-afternoon excursion on a working fishing boat with Wally Leeman, an old-salt lobsterman with a thick Maine accent. He and wife Kathy guided us among the many islands of Muscongus Bay - among them Hog, Bremen Long and Louds, as well as such tiny specks as Cow, Jims , Palmer and Crow islands.
After marveling at nesting bald eagles and a decaying wooden sailing ship sunk long ago to create a breakwater, we made stops at some of the Leemans' lobster traps, which yielded a half-dozen of Maine's signature crustaceans. These were supplemented with a few more from the Leemans' live supply, and within an hour the tour group was getting comfortable at open-air tables on the Round Pond wharf while these very lobsters simmered in a giant pot.
An astonishing feast soon came forth: two dozen oysters on the half shell, platters of steamed clams and mussels, a lobster for everyone, corn on the cob, cups of drawn butter, ice-cold Geary's Summer Ale, chilled chardonnay.
A vigorous thunderstorm had driven us off the bay, but as we created mounds of discarded shells, the rain subsided, only lightly pelting the corrugated tin overhang of the wharf. As the evening light faded, the cove became shrouded in a soft gray mist.
Yes, there had been some tough pedaling that day in the muggy summertime conditions of New England, but what a reward this was. And still more discoveries waited tomorrow.
A bicycle is well-suited to exploring this section of the Maine coast, just northeast of Portland. Here, the land drips toward the coast in long, narrow, peninsular fingers. Busy Route 1 passes farther inland, but the only way to traverse these features is on the two-lane roads that run their length. Few bridges connect the peninsulas or the many islands that abut them.
Thus, if you're in East Boothbay, it's only 3 1/2 miles as the gull flies to Pemaquid Point. But if you want to drive it, the long way around is 30 miles. For a car tourist this is maddening. For a bicyclist it is bliss.
Bike Riders also incorporates a strong independent element into the tour. There is no pack. There is no imperative to follow the leader or keep up. You're on your own, free to take in the sights at your own pace. There are even route options, so you can add an extra loop here or cut off a corner there.
"We very much want to encourage the independent spirit of the traveler - your interests rather than dictating from the top: 'We're going to do this, we're going to do that,' " said company co-founder Lorenzo De Monaco. "We want to be in the background making sure everybody is having a good time, but at the same time not be in your face."
Thus, the guides alternately "sweep" the route to make sure no one is in trouble. One rides a bike, the other drives a support van. Unless you signal them to stop - to top off your water bottle or replenish your gorp - they'll cruise on by.
We learned of this in advance, while getting a pretour briefing over wine and cheese on the broad veranda of the seaside Five Gables Inn.
"On this tour, you always have that van as a floating life raft," said Doug Harris, one of the guides.
"And if you pick up any lawn ornaments (at a shop) along the way," said the other, Darren Setlow, "we can bring them back for you."
Turned loose on our bikes over five days, we savored many sights and experiences. It's remarkable how much more you see on this mode of transportation, even when puffing and sweating against the occasional strain.
The coastal villages offered the contrast of weathered commercial buildings turned gray by the ravages of the ocean, alongside gleaming-white salt box homes with window boxes bursting with colorful flowers. One yard might have a broken-down fishing boat and stacks of lobster traps. Another might have a miniature lighthouse or a wishing well, Adirondack chairs, an American flag rippling from the porch and a brightly painted dinghy in the yard, planted with flowers.
Inland, the roads often cut through thick Maine woods, creating veritable tunnels of oak, maple and the ubiquitous pine. Here, the fishing cottages gave way to horse ranches and farms, sometimes bordered by walls of haphazardly stacked chunks of gray granite.
The route passed through countless little hamlets, each with a distinct personality: Southport, Newagen, Damariscotta, Bristol, Chamberlain, Newcastle, Ocean Point.
On one stretch of country road, Setlow caught up with us on his bike and led the way to a patch of wild blueberries along the road. We picked and ate berries without any particular compulsion to press on.
An open-ended itinerary enables guests to indulge personal interests. Some were keen on getting to bustling, touristy Boothbay Harbor to shop for antiques and souvenirs. Others were on a quest to find out-of-the-way pottery studios.
Also popular were old general stores, including E.W. Pratt, a white clapboard building with flaking white paint on the waterfront in West Southport. Inside were a lunch counter, a two-lane bowling alley (for New England's popular candlepin version of the game), convenience items and a collection of vintage pop bottles, including Dr. Sweet Root Beer and Red Rock Cola. Outside, two jars of sun tea were brewing on the dock.
Lunch was being served here, but we held out for the renowned lobster rolls of the Trevett Country Store, farther up the road at the bridge that accesses Barters Island. There's nothing particularly exotic about this lunch item - chunks of lobster meat mixed with mayonnaise and served on a hot dog bun - but it is heavenly, especially when wolfed down here, on a sun deck that overlooks the Back River.
While others gravitated to shops and galleries along the route, we found ourselves drawn to ... graveyards.
Europeans first began settling in Maine more than 400 years ago, and some of that history is logged in the headstone epitaphs found in dozens of tiny cemeteries. "Burnt aboard the Alvarado" was the fate of one poor soul in the graveyard of the 1772 Harrington Meeting House. "Lost at sea," declared another marker. At a graveyard near Round Pond, we found the final resting place of a fellow named Samuel Tucker, a commodore in the Revolutionary War who was commissioned by George Washington.
The bicycling itself was made easier by the equipment - sturdy, user-friendly Cannondale hybrid bikes with mercifully soft gel saddles. Once we got the hang of employing the 24 gears to our maximum benefit on the uphill stretches - maintaining a steady pedal revolution and gradually shifting down into easier gears as the going got steeper - the riding was made more enjoyable. But as virtual novices, we still found it to be plenty of work: Some 112 miles were logged over five days, including one day of 36 miles and another of 28.
And though the cumulative muscle fatigue was noticeable late in the tour, we never could bring ourselves to skip or shorten a proscribed route. In fact, on the final day, we even extended one.
After pedaling in the early morning to Fort William Henry, a reconstruction of a 17th-century English outpost, we just couldn't resist a detour on the return to photogenic Pemaquid Light (a term preferred to lighthouse here; and who can argue with a state that has 63 of them?).
The morning sun caused the whitewashed 1827 tower to gleam. The gray ocean was dotted with colorful lobster-trap buoys. Waves beat against the shelves of tortured rock below the light tower.
We welcomed the opportunity to get off those bike saddles for a long moment of savoring this.
The parking lot was empty. Perhaps the other visitors to the area were busy packing the trunk.
Eric Noland, (818) 713-3681 firstname.lastname@example.org
IF YOU GOTHE TOUR: Bike Riders' five-day Maine Hidden Coast tour is offered five times each summer (the next trip is Sept. 18-22). The cost this year is $1,680 per person, which includes four nights' accommodation in coastal inns, three dinners, four breakfasts, one lunch, bike rental, helmet, boat tour of Muscongus Bay and airport transfers. The dinners, by the way, are in first-rate restaurants, and there is no prescribed bill of fare - you order off the menu just like the other patrons of the house.
OTHER OPTIONS: The company offers four bike tours of New England and several other options for eastern Canada and Europe. The degree of difficulty is listed as Level 1, with sub categories of A, B and C, based on terrain and number of miles traveled per day. The Maine coast trip is rated squarely in the middle - 1-B. Our guides noted that travelers desirous of easier pedaling might want to look into the tour of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket Island in Massachusetts, which is a bit flatter (rated 1-A/B). Those seeking more of a challenge should consider a tour of the northern Berkshires of Massachusetts and southern Vermont (rated 1-B/C).
PLANNING AHEAD: Unless you're accustomed to riding 20 or 30 miles a day, this tour will likely exact a physical toll as it progresses - on that fourth day, the quadriceps muscles begin to protest on the first hill of the morning. It's advisable to do a fair amount of riding ahead of time - and be sure to find some terrain that has some hills. We pedaled along a dead-flat bike path at the beach; it proved to be insufficient preparation. As for gear, consider getting some cycling shorts with extra padding, as well as an outer nylon shell - so as to be dressed more modestly when you walk into a cafe or antique store. Brightly colored tops are a good idea, too, since you do share narrow, shady roads with vehicular traffic. And consider picking up a pair of bike gloves. One woman in our group went without and was developing blisters by the second day.
INFORMATION: Bike Riders, based in Boston, produces a glossy brochure detailing all of its tours. www.bikeriderstours.com; (800) 473-7040.