Vacation in Cape Elizabeth … in February?

Posted Feb. 01, 2012, at 5:56 a.m.

From the window of our inn, we can see the bright sun sparkling on the ocean and the boats anchored offshore. We race to get dressed and head down to the beach, grabbing coats, gloves and hats.

It’s time to go skiing!

For the past 15 years, I’ve gone to New England each winter to meet up with my friends Adele and Sheara and to go cross-country skiing. We stay at inns or condos and have skied on trails in New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont, always looking for new adventures.

But never had we experienced anything quite like what we found in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, last winter. Skiing on the beach. And being able to walk out the back door in the morning and just start gliding.

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This was cross-country skiing as it must have begun, as it was meant to be. You walked out of your house, strapped on your skis and off you went, most likely into the woods. Perhaps you were off to shoot your dinner and bring it back to your rustic one-room cabin to cook it over the fire.

No rustic here, though. We were living in vacation luxury, thrilled to be staying in a place that offered a Nordic ski-in, ski-out arrangement. All the other years, we’d lugged our gear to the car, hoped that we hadn’t left our ski boots in the trunk (brrrr) and driven someplace where we paid for a trail pass to attach to our coat zippers.

In Cape Elizabeth, at the Inn by the Sea, there were no trail passes to pay for, no clothing racks filled with ski wear to entice and distract us, no ski center at all. More people probably stayed there for the spa offerings than for the skiing. In fact, we might have been the only people there with skis.

We walked out back that first morning raring to go. One thing we hadn’t thought about was that we might have to blaze a trail to the beach.

The back sidewalks had been shoveled after a recent big snow. But no one yet had touched the walkway down to the sea.

We were undaunted. Sheara stepped onto the hill, holding her skis, figuring she’d put them on once she was on the snow. With a little shriek, she sank in up to her thigh. That wasn’t going to work.

I tried method two. I clicked into my skis while standing on the plowed sidewalk and then stepped laterally onto the snow, one ski and then, quickly, the other. With my weight distributed across the two planks on my feet, I sank just a few inches. We had traction!

Off we went toward the water, the sharp sun reflecting off the wintry white ground.

We plowed through the snow, carving new tracks. Buried sea grasses poked through on both sides of the path. Before long, we reached the little snowy hills that had once been sand dunes. For a moment, the ocean was hidden. We had to herringbone up the small rise so as not to slip backward.

And then, there we were, on the sea side of the dune, the Atlantic stretching before us. The beach was part sand, part snow, the split demarcated by a curved line carved by high tide.

It was one of those moments when you find yourself with a silly grin on your face, not believing that you’ve been lucky enough to arrive at this place, at this moment, in this tableau.

The beach was empty of chairs, towels, pails and shovels. But there were tracks from other skiers and paw prints from their furry sidekicks.

We turned to the right and started gliding in the tracks, parallel to the ocean, hearing waves instead of rustling trees, breathing in the unmistakable ocean aroma instead of pine. The waves washed up, ran out of steam and slunk back down.

When we got to rocks, we turned inland and connected with the trails of Crescent Beach State Park. We skied among the evergreen trees before turning around and retracing our beach route home.

The next day offered yet another new cross-country adventure. This time we skied in the woods with local residents on “neighborhood” trails. The Gull Crest Trails, quiet and relatively empty, were groomed for cross-country skiing. But by whom?

We kept seeing signs for the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust. It turns out that the town maintains a collection of town and land trust trails that connect to form 7.5 miles of paths between Crescent Beach and Fort Williams Park, with its 18th-century lighthouse. The trust, started by a few residents a little more than 25 years ago, protects and maintains more than 560 acres of land for public use.

After another great day of skiing, we changed into appropriate attire for a Saturday night on the town: jeans and hiking boots.

On our way to dinner in nearby Portland, big fat flakes fell, turning the city into a storybook scene. As we stood inside the warm Street and Co. restaurant, the snow started melting from our hair and faces and coats and scarves, dripping onto the floor.

Clearly, the sight of people thawing out is not unusual in Portland restaurants. The hostess cheerfully handed us white linen napkins to blot ourselves and led us to a table, where our food arrived hot and delicious.

Which was perfect, because despite hours on the trails, we hadn’t shot a single thing of our own for supper.

Where to Stay

Inn by the Sea

40 Bowery Beach Rd.

800-888-4287

www.innbythesea.com

A boutique hotel with sun-filled rooms and two-level suites facing the sea, with a full-service spa. Rates start at $219.

Where to Eat

Street and Co.

33 Wharf St., Portland

207-775-0887

www.streetandcompany.net

Seafood restaurant with brick interior walls and an open kitchen for those who like to watch. The menu changes daily, but entrees started at $17.95 one recent January night.

The Good Table Restaurant

527 Ocean House Rd.

207-799-4663

www.thegoodtablerestaurant.net

Casual homey restaurant with chicken, beef and fish dishes starting at $11. Stop in at breakfast for intriguing omelet choices and possibly a homemade Pop-Tarts-style pastry if the baker’s making them that day.

What to Do

Cross-country skiing on free trails

www.capelandtrust.org/trails.html

The trails are free and open to anyone who arrives with gear. Maps are available on the Web site. Be sure to monitor the weather, as snow conditions depend on Mother Nature.

If the snow gods are not cooperating, these trails are nice walking trails year-round, and Portland has many unique shops to explore.

www.visitmaine.com/region/portland/cape_elizabeth

Ellen Perlman is a Washington writer who blogs at www.boldlygosolo.com.

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