Rugged and rocky: that’s Maine, with a long coastline punctuated by islands large and small. Remote and romantic, most are accessed only by ferry – making them perfect getaways this summer!
“The real Maine begins where the roads stop.” That’s what the people who live in this rocky and rugged state will tell you. In the far northeast corner of the USA, Maine is larger than Ireland, but has a population of only 1,300,000. Here, dark pine forests wrap themselves round mountains and lakes; Atlantic waves bully the coast. Some say there are 228 miles of shoreline, others plump for 3,500 miles – to include all the indents of coves and bays. And the shorelines of islands. Maine has some 4,600 of them, with intriguing names such as Matinicus, Chebeague and Monhegan.
I’ve always loved islands. The sense of leaving the mainland behind is undeniably romantic. And, while bridges are convenient, I prefer a ferry ride. From Portland, Maine’s largest city, the Casco Bay Lines ferry has been a link to the islands since 1845, carrying people, post and goods. But, not to all of the islands; after all, there are between 150 and 250 in Casco Bay.
When we catch the morning sailing, the schedule includes six stops: Little Diamond, Grand Diamond, Diamond Cove (on the back of Grand Diamond), Long, Chebeague and Cliff. Although I stay aboard; some passengers get off. They include residents and also visitors, who can rent bicycles and explore, before catching a later boat back to Portland. Or, stay the night on an island. On another visit, we stay the night on Peaks Island, just three miles from Portland. In this village, the focal point is the Inn on Peaks Island, just steps from the ferry landing. Over drinks on the terrace before dinner, we look across the water to the city lights, but feel totally away from it all.
The Maine coast and its islands have long provided inspiration for artists. One of the best-known artists’ colonies is Monhegan Island, 11 miles from the mainland. From the hamlet of Port Clyde, we take the Monhegan Boat Line out to the square mile of pine-clad rock that has attracted painters from Edward Hopper to Jamie Wyeth. After checking out studios and galleries, we stroll through Cathedral Woods, along the 150-foot-high cliffs and down to the beach. The end of the day finds us on the porch of the 100-year-old Island Inn watching the sun set. After dinner, the sound of lapping waves lulls us to sleep.
Maine is all about seafaring. Mainers talk about ‘Downeast’, a term that comes from the sailors who sailed east and downwind from Boston to reach Maine. Locals still build boats and harvest the sea – particularly lobster. For Americans, Maine means lobster; it is that simple. Every year, some 8,000 licensed fisherfolk bring in over 60 million pounds of the yummy crustaceans.
On Vinalhaven Island, lobster fishing beats tourism as the mainstay of the economy. About the size of Manhattan, the island boasts a year-round population of 1,300. To get there, we take the Maine State Ferry Service from Rockland to Carver’s Harbor. It takes 75 minutes for the 15-mile crossing. In the little port, we pop into The Haven restaurant. Sitting elbow to elbow with local lobstermen – and lobsterwomen – we chat over the best seafood chowder ever. They tell us that catching lobsters has changed little in the past 200 years. “We just bait the traps, drop them into the cold, clean Maine water and wait a while. Then, we haul ‘em back up with lobster in ‘em.”
As for eating lobsters: “Just twist off the claws and crack them with nutcrackers. Take out the meat. Snap the tail off, use a fork to get the little bits of meat out, but don’t eat the black vein and the tomalley, the green gunk in the body,” they tell us. “Crack open all the small legs and suck out the meat. And dip the meat into the melted butter.” And all of them agree that making a mess is half the fun.
As for Maine’s largest island, that is Mount Desert - pronounced ‘dessert’, like the last course of a meal. Almost as big as the Isle of Wight, a bridge makes it easy to access. Millions of visitors arrive each year to see lively Bar Harbor, quieter Southwest Harbor and Acadia National Park. Active types, photographers and lazy bones all love the granite mountains, clear lakes and rocky shoreline. The free Island Explorer shuttle bus (seasonal) makes getting around easy.
But the island’s pride and joy are the Carriage Roads, 57 miles of car-free roads through the park. Built between 1913 and 1940, they are open for hiking, biking and riding or, in winter, cross-country skiing. The best views of all are from the top of Cadillac Mountain. In summer, hearty outdoors types love to hike to the 1,530ft summit, the highest along the east coast of the USA, to see the ‘nation’s first sunrise’. From March to September, the dawn rays actually strike Mars Hill, Maine first – 150 miles away. But why spoil a good story!
Where to stay
The Chadwick, Portland: stylish bed & breakfast in the West End district; handy for art galleries, shopping and restaurants. Innkeeper Buddy Marcum is a fount of information about the city.
The Portland Regency Hotel & Spa, Portland: what was originally an 1895 armoury is now a luxury downtown hotel and a member of Historic Hotels of America.
The Inn on Peaks Island, near Portland: a 20-minute ferry ride gets you to this small island, with only 800 year-round residents. Contemporary rooms, menu designed by Chris Gordon, Maine Chef of the Year.
The Tidewater Motel, Vinalhaven: rooms hang over the water and owner Phil Crossman always seems to have time to spin yarns about local life and times.
Island Inn, Monhegan Island: a 200-year-old inn, with 32 plain but comfortable rooms, informal dining. No telephones or televisons; Monhegan is 10 miles offshore but feels even further away.