The Best of Both Worlds

On a sunny afternoon, Fort Williams is full of groups grilling, playing pickup soccer games, and flying kites on the grassy slopes looking out over Casco Bay. You’ll also find bikers and runners pausing to take in the view. In warm weather, the park is also home to the Bite Into Maine food cart, which serves famously delicious lobster rolls.
On a drive through Cape Elizabeth, you’ll spot handsome Capes and contemporary and Colonial-style homes like this.

Proximity to Portland and a wide variety of natural landscapes set Cape Elizabeth apart.

Having traveled all over the state and explored just about every nook and cranny of the coast, Cape Elizabeth, just south of where I live in Portland, remains one of the most dynamic landscapes I’ve seen. Rolling hills, rocky cliffs, sandy beaches, snaking rivers, marshland, dense woods—all of this can be found on the 45-square-mile promontory, home to about 10,000 people. The population swells in the summertime, but the town feels and functions like a year-round community of people who have chosen to raise families in Maine, who love its beauty and the low-key lifestyle it affords them.

Many folks who live in Cape regularly commute to work in Portland, but the 10- to 15-minute drive disqualifies the town from bedroom-community status. Working parents can make it home in time for dinner and kids’ soccer games and find space on either side of the day to connect with family and the greater Cape Elizabeth community. Another important part of Cape’s appeal to families is the public school system, which U.S. News and World Report ranks among the best in the state. “I’ve been so impressed not just with the quality of the curriculum, but also with the messages being sent to the kids, the values being taught, the teaching, the rigor, but also the humor,” says Bronwyn Huffard, who has four kids in the school system.

Huffard grew up in Cape Elizabeth, and then lived in Boston, Manhattan, Westchester County, and Vail, Colorado, before her husband finished his medical residency and they were able to put down roots. “I was really clear that my first choice was to raise our family in Maine, specifically in Cape Elizabeth,” says Huffard, an interior designer. “I love that there are still people in this town farming and fishing for a living. I love the access to the woods and that the water is, at any given point, less than two miles away from you.”

Cape Elizabeth has the longest growing season in Maine and for centuries was primarily a farming community; in fact, a prominent regional grocery store chain grew up out of the Hannaford family’s Cape Elizabeth farm. Today, several farms remain, including Jordan’s Farm on Wells Road, where chef Jason Williams also operates a popular locavore restaurant, the Well at Jordan’s Farm; Green Spark Farm on Fowler Road; and Alewive’s Brook Farm on Old Ocean House Road. Residents can purchase fresh produce and seafood at roadside stands and at farmers’ markets in Portland. In the summertime, Maxwell’s Farm’s strawberry fields in the Two Lights area swarm with families picking berries, their hands and happy faces bearing telltale red stains.

Evidence of Cape Elizabeth’s midcentury growth can be seen in its neighborhoods of split-level homes, where playtime spills out into the streets, and along rural inland roads, where centuries-old farmhouses mingle with new construction. The town retains much of its rural character through the concerted efforts of residents and the local land trust, which has protected and stewards 650 acres accessible to the public. Crescent Beach State Park encompasses a mile-long sandy swath edged in dune grass and woods, and Two Lights State Park offers 42 acres of rocky headlands and views of the tower immortalized in Edward Hopper’s painting The Lighthouse at Two Lights. Cape Elizabeth’s other lighthouse, Portland Head Light at Fort Williams Park, a dramatic 90-acre tract on the ocean’s edge, is the oldest in Maine and arguably the state’s most famous, welcoming nearly a million visitors per year. All told, the town has more parkland and dedicated open space than any other community in Cumberland County.

The wealth of natural beauty attracts plenty of summer tourists, but the town’s distance from any major thoroughfare keeps traffic to a minimum. From Portland, Cape Elizabeth is accessed by the Casco Bay Bridge, which is typically raised a couple of times a day to allow tankers to pass through. “You don’t drive through here to get anywhere else, which means everyone who comes here wants to be here,” says Huffard. “You feel like you’re in your own little corner of the world.”

Residents frequent the Cookie Jar, a pastry shop that has been around since the 1950s and has signage befitting the era, as well as the Good Table, Rudy’s, and the upscale restaurant Sea Glass overlooking the water at the Inn by the Sea, which all offer seafood and classic American fare. There is also a new gourmet market called C Salt, which is conveniently located near the schools. Nearby South Portland seems to welcome a new eatery every few months, and Portland offers too many delicious dining and diverse shopping options to tally. On weekends when the weather is nice, Huffard often runs the three miles into the Old Port. Her husband and children motor up in the family’s Boston Whaler to explore downtown and get a bite to eat before they all return home together on the water.

Architecturally, Cape Elizabeth is a treasure trove, with gracious homes studding its coastline. Shore Road is particularly grand, with sprawling residences fronted by elegant circular driveways, and lush, mature vegetation softening and obscuring the hard edge of the horizon. The 60-year-old shingle-style St. Alban’s Episcopal Church is a cultural anchor in this seaside neighborhood, which is—to the surprise of some—primarily a year-round community. While some of the homes located down private drives and in developments like Delano Park are vacation residences, “there’s a misconception that buyers along Shore Road are from away,” says Chris Lynch of Legacy Properties Sotheby’s International Realty. “These are, by and large, people who want to live here and work here.”

Lynch was living in New Canaan, Connecticut, and working in Manhattan when he and his wife, Laura Vastine Lynch, started considering their next move. They were looking for a dynamic coastal community that would suit their family of six. Marblehead, Massachusetts; Annapolis, Maryland; and Sydney, Australia were high on their list, but ultimately Cape Elizabeth’s “natural beauty, convenience, schools, and connectivity to the rest of Maine and the world”—as well as the property and real estate values—swayed them to move here. “We wanted our kids to grow up in a kinder, gentler, slower-paced environment—and it has been even better than we imagined,” he says.

Volunteerism is a way of life in Cape Elizabeth, and the town’s generosity is on full display during the annual TD Beach to Beacon 10K founded by Cape native and Olympic gold medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson. Community members come out in full force every August to help set up the course, man water and food tents, host runners from out of town, and cheer on the over 6,500 participants, including some of the fastest runners in the world, as they dash from Crescent Beach to Portland Head Light. “I’ve always wanted to create a race that brings runners to some of my most favorite training grounds, so that they can enjoy the same beautiful environment, sense of community, and rich history that have played such an important role in my life,” Benoit Samuelson has said of the event.

By now, thousands of runners have left Cape Elizabeth a little bit in love with the place and in awe of the lives that people have carved out for themselves on the coast of Maine. “Why do people live in Cape?” Lynch repeats my question and answers without a second’s pause: “Because you can.”