From art trails to the Zephyr ledges, we’ve put together a guide (with a little help from our islander friends) that’s as freewheeling and eclectic as the islands themselves.
Monhegan is synonymous with art: easel-toting summertime tourists have gathered there since the mid-19th century to paint its jagged cliffs and gray-shingled cottages. Ed Hopper and Rockwell Kent cut their teeth there, and Jamie Wyeth (who owns Kent’s former home on Lobster Cove) has painted there since the 1950s. Some 20 island artists welcome visitors today. Visit artmonhegan.com for a map and a list of open studio hours.
“Boom Beach on Isle au Haut is usually studded with precarious stacks of rocks and sculptures made from driftwood, buoys, and jetsam. There are good tide pools to explore at low tide, and always gulls and cormorants perched on the big rock outcropping near the tide pools. Boom Beach, which is named for the sound of its boulders shifting in heavy seas, is everyone’s favorite place to watch a storm. The waves, unhindered by islands, crash in from the open Atlantic. On any day you might see harbor seals patrolling the shore, loons diving for food, and sea ducks riding the waves.” — Kathie Fiveash, Isle au Haut, author of Island Naturalist
Boom Beach is a bit rough for swimming, so if you want to take a dip, Fiveash suggests heading over to Long Pond, a freshwater lake on Isle au Haut’s southeast side. If sandy beaches are more your style, the islands have those too. Two of our favorites are on Long Island in Casco Bay: South Beach, aka Sandy Beach or Andrews Beach, is a rare (for Maine) white-sand beach on the south end of the island, and sunsets are spectacular from Fowler’s Beach on the island’s west side.[separator type=”space”]
Peaks Island welcomes bicyclists. Its mostly flat, four-mile perimeter road crosses through residential neighborhoods and skirts the beach. There are even benches along the route, making for a leisurely ride with outstanding views of Casco Bay. Take your own bike or rent one from Brad’s Bike Rental (207-766-5631), located just three blocks from the ferry terminal.
North Haven discourages bicyclists. That’s one reason why the Maine State Ferry charges passengers with bikes $16.50 on top of their $17.50 round-trip ticket, a rate set by the islanders and mainlanders on the ferry advisory board. Islanders will be unhappy with us for saying so, but we think the fee is worth it: the roads on North Haven are that gorgeous and traffic-free. Electric bikes may be rented from Savin’ the Haven Bike Rentals, located just steps from the ferry terminal (847-921-9394, savinthehavenbikerentals.com).[separator type=”space”]
Maine islands are littered with corpses — or the memories of them, anyway, according to the Dictionary of Maine Place-Names by Phillip R. Rutherford. The Coastal Maine Island Registry includes two rocky islands named for corpses that washed up in the 19th century: Deadman Point Ledge just off Great Cranberry Island and Deadman Ledge near Vinalhaven. Monhegan has a Deadman’s Cove, so named for two bodies that were found there long ago.
Some islands lie on the edge of state and international borders, giving them ambiguous identities. The most confused of these is Machias Seal Island, located about 10 miles southeast of Cutler. The roughly 20-acre barren piece of rock and about 210 nautical square miles of surrounding waters have been claimed by both the United States and Canada ever since the island was overlooked in the Treaty of Ghent, which settled boundaries after the War of 1812. It would seem Canada has the upper hand: its Coast Guard staffs the island’s lighthouse and flies the Canadian flag. But American and Canadian researchers amicably study the island’s puffin colony side by side, and tour boats from Maine and New Brunswick land passengers there — no passport required. Less harmonious are the lobster-rich waters, which are fished by the territorial lobstermen from both countries.
Other edgy islands include the Isles of Shoals, an archipelago on the Maine-New Hampshire border. Poet and author Celia Thaxter’s restored garden is on Appledore, which is in Maine, but the Celia Thaxter Museum is on nearby Star Island, which is in New Hampshire. Finally, there is Franklin D. Roosevelt’s beloved Campobello, without question a Canadian island, but home to the Roosevelt Campobello International Park and attached to the mainland by bridge in Lubec.
Four Thousand Six Hundred and Thirteen
That’s how many islands are scattered along the Maine coast from Kittery to Eastport. Wait, make that 3,168 islands. Then again, it might be something in between. Excuse our confusion, but it all depends on who is doing the counting — and what they are counting.
The larger number, which is used by the Maine State Planning Office in its reports, includes islands and ledges that are over an acre in size. But many of those ledges are submerged at high tide, so calling them islands is a stretch, says Jason Mann of the Island Institute.
The smaller number comes from the Maine Coastal Island Register, which is administered by the Bureau of Parks and Lands and serves primarily to distinguish between public and private ownership. Even some of these islands are nothing but rocks, unable to support a weed, never mind a tree, but if someone cares enough about them to stake a claim, that’s proof enough of island-hood for us.
When is an island more than an island? When the whole thing becomes a massive miniature golf course, as Monhegan does for one Sunday every June. Would-be golfers buy a map and a scorecard at the Monhegan Museum ($10 adults, $5 kids), then wander the island putt-putting at creatively themed and often rather elaborate holes (think lots of ramps and PVC piping), hosted by locals and local businesses. The course ends at the Monhegan Brewing Company, which sure beats schlepping back to the clubhouse for a drink. Next year’s tournament benefits the Monhegan Island School field trip fund. The date’s still up in the air — check the events calendar at monheganwelcome.com.
Some of our favorite museums are on islands, and, like the islands, they are charmingly offbeat. On Eagle Island in Casco Bay, you can wander around the summer cottage of early-20th-century Arctic explorer Robert E. Peary, which is filled with artifacts like narwhal tusks and mounts of exotic birds. The beds are made, the toys are on the floor, and the player piano awaits your touch — it’s as if the Pearys have gone out for a picnic cruise and will return at any minute.
The Cranberry Isles have two fine museums dedicated to island life: The Islesford Historical Museum, operated by Acadia National Park, recently opened a community-curated exhibit on lobstering. Cranberry House, operated by the Great Cranberry Island Historical Society, has an eclectic display of island artifacts and crafts.
Far more informal is the fantastic, shrub-topped Civil War–era Fort Gorges on Hog Island Ledge at the entrance to Portland Harbor. The Friends of Fort Gorges (friendsoffortgorges.org) is raising money to restore the building.
At the turn of the 20th century, 300 of Maine’s 3,000-plus coastal islands hosted thriving year-round populations; today there are just 15. The Island Institute, founded 33 years ago by Philip Conkling and Peter Ralston, is dedicated to preserving these self-sustaining working communities. The organization has done it with a variety of programs that support economic development, education, and energy efficiency (a big issue on the islands, where fuel and electricity rates are sky high). Its work is far from over: the battle to retain residents, never mind attract new ones, is constant. While islanders themselves deserve the bulk of the credit for maintaining island life, there is little doubt that the Island Institute’s work has made that way of life better.
Junk of Pork
Junk of Pork is “a tough morsel for an old salt,” wrote author and historian Samuel Drake in The Pine-Tree Coast, his 1891 memoir about his 2,400-mile journey along the Maine coast. Tough, indeed: Junk of Pork is a 50-foot-high hulk of a rock on the outermost reaches of Casco Bay. And it’s not the only one. There is a Junk of Pork in Sorrento’s Flanders Bay, and another in Beech Hill Pond in the town of Otis. All of them look vaguely like giant roasts — or chunks (pronounced “junks”) of pork — simmering in their juices.
“In Casco Bay, where I do most of my paddling, two of the most popular Maine Island Trail islands are Jewell and Little Chebeague. Both are a mix of fun ocean paddling, beautiful ecosystems, and interesting history. Jewell has two towers used to spot U-boats during World War II, and Little Chebeague was an island resort at the turn of the 20th century. You can paddle just a few short hours from Portland, and be in a remote, unique world.” — Erin Quigley, Portland, membership manager at Maine Island Trail Association (MITA)
MITA members get the group’s annual Maine Island Trail Guide (plus full access to a mobile app) with maps and usage info for some 200 islands and mainland sites open for camping and recreation (mita.org). Portland Paddle leads overnight sea kayak trips to both Jewell and Little Chebeague islands all summer (portlandpaddle.net).[separator type=”space”]
For 10 years running, writers and artists from all across Maine’s islands have contributed short stories, essays, poetry, art, and photography to the annual Island Reader. Published by the Maine Sea Coast Mission and edited by a revolving panel of volunteers representing several islands, The Island Reader just released a best-of-the-last-decade anthology. The literary magazine isn’t for sale, but many island stores keep a few copies on hand, and you can find a copy in any island library.
More than 40 islands of various sizes comprise the Great Wass Archipelago, creating a labyrinth of channels a few miles off the coast of Jonesport. The story goes that one sea captain seeking the passage between Steels Harbor and Knight islands found himself sailing between two other islands by mistake. He — or someone who wanted to needle him for time immemorial — named one of those islands after his error. It would be difficult to mistake Mistake for another island now: its eastern tip is occupied by Moose Peak Light, the only lighthouse in the archipelago.
A nubble is a small knob or lump. Maine’s best known nubble is Nubble Island, site of the Cape Neddick, or Nubble, Light, but there are many more. The Nubbles by the numbers:
11 Nubbles, including three that are more specifically defined as Green Nubble, Tom’s Nubble, and Jenny’s Nubble
1 Poverty Nub
1 Nublin Ledge
Off the Grid
“Matinicus could be the best place to enjoy an ‘offline’ vacation, as cell service is terrible here, 4G is nonexistent, broadcast television signal is unreliable, and there is no Internet café. It’s also an excellent place to see the northern lights, a comet, or a meteor shower, since there’s almost no light pollution.” — Eva Murray, Matinicus, island baker and author of Well Out to Sea: Year-Round on Matinicus Island
The island may not have street lamps, but natural phenomena still light up the darkness on Matinicus Isle. Murray recommends a night swim at South Sandy Beach on the “few special nights each summer” when bioluminescent plankton turn the waters phosphorescent. And to glimpse the rare optical anomaly known as the “green flash,” says Murray, look east just before sunrise on a calm morning (preferably from the deck of a lobsterboat).
Five Maine islands host Atlantic puffins colonies. The best known is Eastern Egg Rock, six miles east of New Harbor, which is managed by the National Audubon Society’s Puffin Project. Started in 1973, the Puffin Project has restored a colony that was nearly wiped out by hunters at the turn of the 20th century. Puffin Project educators narrate tours to Eastern Egg Rock offered by The Hardy Boat (hardyboat.com) and Cap’n Fish (boothbayboattrips.com). Puffin colonies can also be found on Matinicus Rock, Seal Island, Petit Manan, and Machias Seal Island. For a list of boat tours to these islands, visit the Maine Birding Trail at mainebirdingtrail.com.
“Afternoons, after working or playing hard all day, my daughter and I love swimming at the Quarry Pond on Swan’s: seagulls, jagged gray-granite cliffs, expansive views of Burnt Coat Harbor. This is where summertime and lifetime drift blamelessly out to sea.” — Gary Rainford, Swan’s Island, author of the poetry collection Salty Liquor
An island quarry is a gift that keeps on giving: Granite from Maine’s islands helped build up eastern cities a century ago. Today, they make great swimming holes. Quarry Pond is on the south end of Swan’s Island, on the Minturn side of Burnt Coat Harbor. On Vinalhaven, Lawson’s Quarry is a mile north of the village on North Haven Road, a popular, shady swimming spot with big boulders for clambering. For a very private dip, climb the ladder at the old granite wharf on the southeast side of Green Island, less than a mile’s paddle southeast of Stonington. A short trail leads to a cool, wooded quarry pond you’ll likely have to yourself.[separator type=”space”]
Ram is the most popular name for an island in the state of Maine, on account of islands are great places to raise sheep if you don’t feel like building a fence. The state has close to 40 Ram Islands, according to the Maine Coastal Island Registry (plus a few more with “ram” in the name and another 30-something Sheep Islands).
The Sunbeam V is the 75-foot vessel of the Maine Sea Coast Mission, an organization that’s been island-hopping since 1905, bringing mobile health services, nondenominational religious outreach, fellowship, and (if we’re being honest) gossip to Maine’s island communities. Starting this fall, the Sunbeam is also partnering with the nonprofit Island Readers & Writers to bring Maine writers into island schools. Even when the Sunbeam isn’t hosting one of its much-loved community suppers, a visit from the boat and its crew is a cherished social event on any island.
Some of the most spectacular hiking on the East Coast can be found on Maine islands. Eight miles south of Deer Isle lies Isle au Haut, about half of which belongs to Acadia National Park. Located at the southern end of the island, the park encompasses 2,300 acres with 18 miles of rugged trails that rise over cliffs and drop to rocky, wave-beaten beaches. Great Wass Island Preserve, maintained by The Nature Conservancy, offers a very different, but no less breathtaking experience. Instead of traversing cliffs, hikers follow a 4.5-mile hiking trail that winds through a forest of gnarled and stunted jack pines, then ventures onto vast, wide-open granite ledges that extend into the sea. Monhegan too is nearly as famous for its cliff-skirting paths as it is for its art colony.
Who is Uncle Zeke and why is a tiny bare rock at the northern end of Harpswell Sound named for him? We have some suggestions. Since the mid-18th century, Harpswell has been home to several Ezekiels, all members of the Alexander and Curtis families. The earliest record we found names Ezekiel Curtis, who was born in Hanover, Massachusetts, in 1835, and later moved to Harpswell where, with Elizabeth Alexander, he fathered four children, including a son, Ezekiel Curtis Jr. Captain Ezekiel Alexander was born in Harpswell just before the Revolutionary War. He and his wife, Margaret Curtis, named the first of their 11 children Ezekiel Jr. Junior likewise had a son named Ezekiel, who was killed by lightning in the bay in 1832 at the tender age of 13 — a bit young to be an uncle, perhaps. Which of these Zekes — if any — inspired the name Uncle Zeke’s Island is unknown, even to descendant Samuel Alexander, who knows the rock by a different name: Old Zeke.
“One of my favorite haunts on Peaks Island is Picnic Point, just off the Hadlock Cove beach on a tiny peninsula that, when the tide is high, becomes its own little island. A tall tree with a rope swing marks the path leading to the tip of this sacred spot. Push through raspberry bushes and past remnants of last night’s campfire to an overlook where you’ll feel like the only person on the planet: Views of Cushing Island and the open ocean. Empty, moored sailboats. Seagulls, cormorants, and eiders gliding overhead. Their cries in the wind mix with the scent of saltwater and seaweed. You’ll feel unbound, like you’re a part of nature. Which you are.” — Mira Ptacin, Peaks Island, author of the forthcoming memoir Poor Your Soul
The islands serve as rest stops for migrating birds — and that means they serve as must stops for birdwatchers. Maine’s biggest island, Mount Desert, is the scene of the annual five-day Acadia Birding Festival, known for the variety of species that can be seen in the island’s diverse habitats, as well as the many ways to see them: guided walks, cruises, kayak and canoe tours, and van trips. And once again, we must give a nod to Monhegan, which in spring sees a large concentration of migrating songbirds, such as warblers, thrushes, tanagers, and orioles.
X Marks the Spot
After Captain William Kidd was tried and convicted of piracy in 1701, he handed his wife a card on which he had written the numbers 4410 6818 — the approximate coordinates of Deer Isle. Or so industrialist and lawyer Franklin Harvey Head wrote in a satirical piece published in 1894. Even though the story was a joke — it described a fictional lawsuit that the architect Frederick Law Olmstead brought against the heirs of John Astor for removing Kidd’s treasure from his Deer Isle property — it has inspired treasure hunters to come to Maine in search of riches. They’ve gone not only to Deer Isle, but also to Monhegan, where legend holds Kidd buried treasure in a cave and killed the crewman whose ghost now guards it. A few years ago, a historical account of Kidd legends in the Fisherman’s Voice newspaper told of a black iron pot full of gold and silver coins recovered on Appledore in the Isles of Shoals. History Alive in ME, a website created by Gail Underwood Parker, recounts stories of Kidd treasure on Chebeague, Jewell, Mount Desert, Oak, and Squirrel islands. All we can say is, keep looking: with more than 3,000 islands to choose from, Kidd had no shortage of hiding places.
Your Own Island
Ever wonder what it’s like to have your own plot of land in the sea? Try renting. A handful of private island home rentals can be found on online, among them McGee Island (mcgeeisland.com), three miles offshore from Port Clyde. Owned by the Erickson family for than 100 years, McGee is a 110-acre island with three houses sleeping 24 people. Most renters are extended families celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, or other special occasions, says Elizabeth Erickson. With Internet connection, cell phone service, a modern kitchen, and a caretaker to transport your luggage and groceries, McGee is a luxurious escape, but there are more rustic options, like Lazy Gut Island (oldquarry.com), if you seek greater seclusion. Located just off Sunshine, the east side of Deer Isle, Lazy Gut Island has a one-room cabin with wraparound deck from which to watch the sailboats and fishing boats gliding through the Deer Island Thorofare.
Located about 20 miles offshore from Rockland, this rocky bar is named for the sea breeze (Zephyrus is the Greek god of the west wind). Lobstermen fishing out of Matinicus Isle are well familiar with the Zephyr Rock buoy, whose green light flashes every four seconds, warning them to steer clear. In January 1992, the tugboat Harkness sank near here in sub-zero weather, and three Matinicus fishermen made an against-the-odds rescue of its small crew.
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