Maine

Three Magical Islands in MidCoast Maine

Once you discover your favorite MidCoast Maine island, you may never want to leave…

By Yankee Magazine

Aug 13 2019

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Reborn in 1968 as the Monhegan Museum, this 19th-century lighthouse station holds some of the island’s most prized art and artifacts.

Photo Credit : Mark Fleming
Sponsored by Maine’s MidCoast Where once there were dozens of year-round island communities off Maine’s coast, only 15 remain today. But the beauty of the sea, pine-lined paths, meadows, and sweet cottages on bluffs has never ceased inspiring us. Come summer, like clockwork, day-trippers with backpacks and vacationers with suitcases flock to these magical islands. Here, summer cottages that have been in well-to-do families for generations lie tucked behind lush garden hedges and winding dirt driveways. These islands are where they find normalcy, where fishermen and boatbuilders and carpenters have known them children simply as neighbors, even if for only a few months a year. This was the landscape, both physical and social, that photographer Mark Fleming explored last summer on visits to three MidCoast Maine islands, each one proud of its individual identity and its particular hold on the imagination.
Fishing boats on their moorings in Carver’s Harbor, on the south side of Vinalhaven.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

A dozen miles out in Muscongus Bay lies Monhegan, which for more than a century has been an inspiration for artists ranging from Rockwell Kent to Jamie Wyeth. Cliffs tower over the sea, and paths lead to meadows where hundreds of varieties of wildflowers grow.

The two Fox Islands — North Haven and Vinalhaven — are separated by only a narrow thoroughfare, yet they have distinct personalities that reflect divergent histories. North Haven has long been home to the bluest of New England’s blue bloods, as well as artists and writers, while Vinalhaven once teemed with quarry workers, who carved out massive chunks of rock used in the grandest buildings in the land. Today, Vinalhaven’s lobstering fleet is one of the largest on the Atlantic seaboard.

Below you’ll discover portraits of these three MidCoast islands, each described by a longtime resident. The islanders’ words reflect a deep-seated pride and love for their unique slice of Maine — and the moments that Mark framed with his camera show why. —Mel Allen

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An Islander’sMonhegan

By Matt Weber | Lobsterman and co-owner of the Monhegan Brewing Company

The thing with Monhegan is, when you’re out here, you’re out here. You have to disconnect. It’s not like going to Cadillac Mountain or Sand Beach in Bar Harbor, where you can be back at your car in five minutes. Here you’re at least an hour by boat from anything.

It’s a little more rugged. Think sneakers, not flip-flops. Bring a sweatshirt. Pack it in, pack it out. There are public restrooms, but if you’re on the back side of the island, you’re going to have to walk a little ways to get to them.

A resting place for Monhegan’s visitors for more than a century, the Island Inn is situated on a bluff that provides a commanding view of the harbor and a front-row seat for sunsets.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

No bike trails, but lots of places to walk. Cathedral Woods is a big forest — dark and quiet and cool — and feels like you’re in a storybook. About 15 minutes from the road, you’ll start to see all these little branches and pine needles and pine cones that people have put together to make fairy houses. I take my niece and nephew out there every year, and they play around in there for hours.

On the very south end of the island, at Lobster Cove, there’s an old tugboat that went ashore in the late ’40s. The hull is still mostly intact, and you can sit right on it and look out to sea. There’s almost always a nice sea breeze, and it’s not uncommon to see whales or porpoises or seals from that spot. All of a sudden, you think, Where in the heck is this place?

The Monhegan Museum is also pretty amazing — artwork by Edward Hopper, all three generations of Wyeths, to name a few — but it’s a museum of art and history, so it’s all about the island, too. You can get a tour to the top of the lighthouse, and the view from up there is the Gulf of Maine on one side, the coast on the other, and all the islands in between. It’s a really cool thing.

Reborn in 1968 as the Monhegan Museum, this 19th-century lighthouse station holds some of the island’s most prized art and artifacts.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

At 2 o’clock you can go down to the dock and hop on the ferry from Boothbay Harbor, the Balmy Days II, which does a little guided trip around the island and out to the Duck Rocks and back. I’m not sure a lot of people know about it. It’s a great way to see the back of the island from the water, which I get to do all the time when I’m lobstering. When I was first out here, the trip cost a dollar, and now it’s like four or five. Can’t beat it for that.

Even in summer the water seems pretty cold to me, but you know how it is when you’re a kid — it doesn’t seem to matter. The bigger kids jump off the dock, the smaller kids are at Swim Beach, and now everyone’s got kayaks and paddleboards, so there’s always a little fleet roaring around the harbor.

Shermie, one of our older fishermen, he’s been here for five generations now. He runs the Fish House, and you go in and you order food and it gets cooked up right there. The seating is outside, basically on the beach, and you’re right at the harbor, and it’s perfect.

Fifth-generation lobsterman Shermie Stanley, who also serves as Monhegan’s harbormaster and runs a popular seafood shack.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming
Our brewery does bring over a band from the mainland for our July Fourth birthday party, when we have live music and stay open a bit later, and we have a couple of special “secret” beers that we pour that night. At the same time there’s a group of musicians on the island — fiddles, violins, a big bass — and about once a week they’ll have an impromptu jam session right on the front deck at the brewery, and that’s pretty fun too. We never know when — they just show up, have a few beers, and start playing.

The thing that we all talk about here more than anything else — and our favorite thing to talk about — is Monhegan. What has happened to me and most of the people who live here, I think, is you may never have really planned on spending your life here, and then you realize you couldn’t live anywhere else. Monhegan just sneaks up on you and shows you something about life that you might never have seen or understood before. —As told to Jenn Johnson

Signs and fliers crowd onto the wall of the Rope Shed, aka Monhegan’s community bulletin board.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

Monhegan Trip Planner

Food & Drink

  • The Fish HouseSeafood-shack classics with the bonus of beach access and a harbor view.
  • Monhegan Brewing CompanyIsland-crafted beer and soda, plus occasional food truck fare and live music.

Lodging

  • The Island InnCentury-old summer hotel on the harbor; perks include an upscale restaurant and the Barnacle, a popular café.
  • Shining SailsComprising a B&B with seven rooms and suites, an inn with four suites, and weekly cottage rentals.
  • Monhegan House1870s inn with ocean views, a formal dining room, and a café called the Novelty, serving pizza and ice cream.
  • The Trailing YewFriendly and simply furnished guest rooms (some lit only by oil lamps) scattered in vintage buildings.

Getting There

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An Islander’s North Haven

By Eva Hopkins | Manager, North Haven Gift Shop

work in a building with a lot of personal history. It was once the W.S. Hopkins General Store, owned by my great-great-grandparents. Now my uncle David owns the shop, and also the Hopkins Wharf Gallery, which sells island art including paintings by my dad [nationally renowned artist Eric Hopkins].

As a kid on North Haven, I wasn’t afraid to talk to anyone. On an island there are new people coming every day in the summer. You’re not stuck in little cliques of age groups or interests. I’m proud that I can relate to people from a lot of different angles.

North Haven is seen as the goody-goody island, and Vinalhaven as more rough. But we’re not the rich person’s island at all. We’re still pretty rustic and unpolished, in a good way. We’re real.

North Haven native Eva Hopkins at her family’s art gallery, which showcases the work of island artists. She’s the daughter of Eric Hopkins, who’s among the most celebrated Maine artists working today.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming
Formerly a clam and lobster processing plant, Brown’s Boatyard opened in 1888 and is still keeping islanders and visitors supplied with essentials such as fuel, moorings, and the latest local news.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

I’m most proud of our theater and music. We’ve had world-quality performers and artists here [at Waterman’s Community Center]to teach us, and we’ve put on shows that are pretty good, I’d say. We’re the smallest K–12 school in the state, but we took our musical, Islands, to off-Broadway [in 2001]. It was about what it’s like to live on North Haven. Our performance was on PBS, too, and a lot of people kind of know of us through that.

We have a great historical society, which does talks all through the summer. And to really get a feel for the island, go to Brown’s Boatyard. It’s been in the same family since 1888, and it’s so visually rich. It’s where the old-timers would gather around the big old stove — that was the place to be.

My favorite place for food is Calderwood Hall.It’s where we go to visit with everybody. At night there’s a restaurant serving really top-quality artisan pizza; in the daytime the market sells sandwiches and fresh pastries and bread—the focaccia is to die for. Right below is North Haven Brewing Co., whose beer is really, really good. A destination for the fancy or upscale is Nebo Lodge, which is very pretty. Something special to do is a round trip on theEquinox, which takes you from Rockland to Nebo Lodge, and you have dinner and a few hours to walk around before going back. It’s an exquisite date night.

To get lobster, you want to talk to a fisherman. April Brown is an island EMT, but she has a boat, and with her father she’ll do your lobster. You order it, and they deliver it live or cooked.

North Haven is an island playground for Everett Bartovics, 3, and his twin, Russell [not shown], who are the sons of North Haven Brewing Co. cofounder Liz Lovell.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

This is a great place for walking. For one of the best views, go to Ames Knob on the north shore. It’s all open, with a 360-degree view of the bay and the Camden Hills, and sunsets are amazing. This is the view I grew up with, just sitting there looking out at the water and the boats. My favorite walk, though, is Sage Woods. The vista is really different: Usually you’re looking toward Camden, but here you look out to Isle au Haut and Eagle, maybe, and Stonington. It feels a lot more remote. Burnt Island is also worth going to. It’s an island you can walk to at low tide, and it feels familiar and foreign at the same time.

On a hot day, if you want to swim — and you have a car — go to Big Beach at Mullins Head Park, or Smelt Brook, which is a mud-flat cove, so it’s warm. Or you can be like us, and just jump off the town dock.

A few things to remember: Don’t walk in the middle of the road, and get your ferry schedules straight. Unlike Vinalhaven, we have only one boat to the mainland. Know there is no ferry after 3:45. If you forget that, you’ll be spending the night here! —As told to Mel Allen

Organic-produce mecca Turner Farm, which up until 1984 had been run by six generations of the same North Haven family.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

North Haven Trip Planner

Food & Drink

  • Calderwood HallHomemade pizzas, salads, and other casual noshes, plus a full bar. Note: Hours vary for market/bakery and restaurant/bar.
  • North Haven Brewing Co.: Three-year-old locally owned brewery with a taproom in Calderwood Hall.

Lodging

  • Nebo LodgeCozy-chic inn with decor by North Haven’s own Angela Adams; on-site restaurant serving elegant dinners that spotlight in-season ingredients. 

Getting There

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An Islander’s Vinalhaven

By Phil Crossman | Co-owner, The Tidewater

The most well-known part of Vinalhaven’s history is the granite quarrying. Two of the old quarries are now town parks and probably the best swimming spots on the island. The Vinalhaven Historical Societyhas an exhaustive quarrying display that’s quite spectacular.

This was a quarrying town, but it’s now a lobster-fishing or seasonal-resident town. We have one of the biggest lobster-fishing fleets and probably the largest population of people who make their living on the sea.

It’s funny the way people generalize — they often come to Vinalhaven with preconceived notions about islanders, or visitors, or fishermen. Another misconception is that our summer residents don’t do much for the island. But they do, and we need them.

A relic of Vinalhaven’s past as a granite producer, Lawson’s Quarry is today a swimming hole.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming
A shot of Vinalhaven Harbor, home to the second-largest lobstering fleet in Maine.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

There’s a wide range of people that contribute to the character of Vinalhaven. Many come from surprising backgrounds. For example, I belong to a men’s book group, and among the people we’ve invited to speak are Sonia Sotomayor and Senator George Mitchell. [Chief Justice] John Roberts was here in the motel once — I took him and his family up to Booth’s Quarry for a swim.

Many people enjoy kayaking on island waterways. You can see baby seals following kayakers around right now [early July]; it’s just magical. Some people come to look at the lighthouses, or to learn about or swim in the quarries. There are some great hiking trails in the woods, although most of them eventually lead back to the coast. It’s like the coast is the treasure at the end of the trail.

I’ve walked the entire coastline. The views from the shore are extraordinary.

Lane’s Island, connected to Vinalhaven by a causeway, is a nature conservancy. It’s beautiful, a great place for kids. I lived on Lane’s Island when I was young, and I walked to school on a plank [bridge]. Workmen told me there was a troll down below … I’m still recovering from that!

One of the island’s two female lobster boat captains, Yvonne “Beba” Rosen.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming
Captain Bobby Warren hauls in lobsters for his guests’ dinner aboard the F/V Seabreeze.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

The Haven and Salt, which were two favorite restaurants here, closed recently, but I’m optimistic we’ll have great options this summer. The Nightingale is returning for its second year, Dot & Millie’sis opening, and — perhaps most anticipated — we’re getting a Scandinavian speakeasy called Skål that will look out onto Carver’s Pond.

I don’t know quite how to describe it, but a few times each year, the island has a particular smell … a combination of salt water and fog and breeze that’s so profound. I just stand there until it passes, which it usually does in a few minutes. I haven’t experienced that anywhere else.

The best mementos to bring home from the island? Your memories. —As told to Joe Bills

Vinalhaven Trip Planner

Food & Drink

  • The SurfsideA breakfast hub for fishermen that’s renowned for its fish cakes.
  • Greet’s EatsFood truck serving top-notch burgers, sandwiches, and a cult-favorite lobster roll.
  • The NightingaleCasual, seafood-heavy menu and cocktails crafted with homemade syrups and island-grown herbs.

Lodging

  • The TidewaterLandmark lodging situated right on the water and offering 20 clean and attractive rooms and suites.

Getting There

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This post is a sponsored except of the July/August 2019 Yankee feature, “Maine’s Magical Islands.”