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Walking through the 19th Century: Monhegan Island, Maine

(The view from The Island Inn on Monhegan Island, courtesy Island Inn)


I love islands, and I love the state of Maine, so the combination is pretty much guaranteed to satisfy. That’s why I was a happy sailor when the Elizabeth Ann pulled out of Port Clyde, Maine and navigated the cobalt blue waters of Penobscot Bay toward Monhegan Island, the most famous island in a state that boasts thousands of them.
    A painterly ensemble of granite, evergreens and stony beaches, Monhegan Island is shaped like a whale, its dominant feature being 160 foot headlands sloping down to sandy flats. Ten miles off the Maine coast, a mere one and a half miles long and a little more than half a mile wide, it boasts some 400 species of wildflowers and embraced electricity within living memory. About 75 people live here year-round, but its raw beauty has drawn many to it, number two brushes in hand.


(Monhegan Island by Rockwell Kent, courtesy of Colby College)

If you know Monhegan at all, you undoubtably paid attention in art history class. Monhegan has been the part-time home of such American painters as Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, George Bellows and Robert Henri, all of whom immortalized it. Jamie Wyeth, the youngest of the celebrated Wyeth clan, owns a shingle-clad home on the island’s southern shore that was originally Rockwell Kent’s. Legions of Sunday painters make a summertime hejira to Monhegan, to study with resident artists and set up their easels on the magnificent and remote shoreline.

    We sailed past Burnt Island, Allen Island and Benner Island, all owned by the Wyeth clan, and then around a grandly named rock called Manana Island to enter Monhegan’s harbor, where a few lobster boats and sailboats bobbed at anchor.
    At a rough and ready dock were three flatbed trucks, about half the island’s motley fleet. They haul lobster pots or the duffel bags of visitors like me to one of a handful of inns on the island. There’s but one road, it’s gravel, and it extends no more than a mile.
    What greeted me as I stepped ashore was as fine a collection of weather-beaten shingled houses as you’re likely to see in New England. Not Sturbridge Village respectable, mind you, but houses with shutters that needed painting, grass that needed mowing and lilacs that needed pruning. Real houses lived in by fishermen, artists and summer people. Once the three trucks rumbled off, silence prevailed. The wind tossed about fields of wild purple lupines, seagulls wheeled overhead and my feet crunched on gravel as I walked a winding path past a couple of wooden houses, a pond and a cottage garden filled with yellow columbines. It was like walking back into 19th century New England.


A Monhegan lane, courtesy of The Island Inn

That notion lingered as I continued up to Monhegan House, a shingle-style hotel dating from 1870, complete with a flower garden decorated with seashells.  My room, which was cream and pale blue, had no closets, just a shelf and hooks on the wall. Very 19th century. So were the oak dressers and washstand, lace curtains, oak floors, and the quilt on my double bed. There was no phone, no television and no locks on the door. As simple as my great grandmother’s house, in fact. The bathrooms were communal and down the hall. On the hotel’s lawn, guests sat reading or snoozing in white Adirondack chairs.
    Those are two honorable activities on this storied island. You don’t come to Monhegan to swim unless you’re a puffin. Nor can you mountain bike, due to the delicate and fragile ecology of this Atlantic outpost. Instead, bring a stack of books, a sketchpad and your hiking boots.
    That first day, I set off to circumnavigate the island. I set out, past the tiny town library, the one-room schoolhouse and the lighthouse that serves as the island museum. In front of a lobsterman’s untidy shack, I came across my first sighting of a classic Monhegan species, a woman in a sun hat earnestly working on a canvas placed on a portable easel.
    I carried on and felt like I was walking through a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel, leaving this primitive village and immediately engulfed by the thick Maine woods. According to my map, I had 17 miles of footpaths to choose from. Oddly enough, the map was essential, even though the island encompasses only about 700 acres. That’s because it’s relatively easy to get lost on the miles of sometimes difficulty and occasionally treacherous footpaths, especially when the fog rolls in. Which it can, with a vengeance.

Monhegan cliffs

(The cliffs of Monhegan Island, courtesy of Island Inn)

At Pebble Beach, I heard barking from the colony of seals that lay like fat cigars on the rocks known as Seal Ledges. I walked through beach grass that grew as high as my waist. The path took me into dark, mossy woods, Grimm’s fairy tale kinds of woods. And then I came out of the woods and onto Blackhead. The dark mass on the eastern horizon was Matinicus, the most remote island in Maine. To the northeast, I could see Cadillac Mountain on Mt. Desert Island. And below me, far below me, the sea boiled. I was on the highest cliffs on the Atlantic coast of America.
    This is a wild, rocky, primeval coastline, shaped by storms, and it’s easy to imagine the Pilgrims sailing past it 400 years ago. I watched a small colony of eider ducks ride the swells, keeping company with cormorants fanning their wings. I climbed down to Squeaker Cove and up to Little Whitehead and spotted a finback whale. When he disappeared, I pressed on, to the southern shore, where a vast rocky beach was punctuated by the rusty wreck of a ship called the Sheridan. Clumps of wild irises grew from the stones, watched by Jamie Wyeth’s silent house.


(The Island Inn, courtesy of The Island Inn)

I dined at the Island Inn that night, the largest hotel on the island, which has a spectacular location overlooking the harbor. I lingered over a classic boiled lobster, and managed to put down some strawberry-rhubarb crumble to follow. Then I slept a 19th century sleep at Monhegan House and awoke to the sound of footsteps crunching on gravel.
    Another day meant more wandering, past the tidy little houses, a couple of  shops, the shed plastered with hand written notices. I visited a couple of galleries, and noted that on select days, you can visit the studios of local painters. After another day on the trails, and countless sea views, I dined by kerosene light at Monhegan House on steamers, baked scallops, and new potatoes. Another deep sleep 10 miles at sea and I awoke to a foghorn telling me it was time to go.
    As I boarded the Elizabeth Ann that morning, I noticed a rugged-looking man clutching a bouquet of lupines and day lilies. It was, the captain explained to me, a parting gift, an old island tradition. Then, like a scene from a Herman Melville novel, a young woman waved to him from shore as we pulled away and the island disappeared into the fog. I had visited the 19th century for the weekend. And I knew I could come back anytime. 


    Port Clyde lies about two hours drive north of Portland. From here, the Monhegan Boat Line operates the Laura B. and the Elizabeth Ann, which take about one hour to make the trip. Fares are $32 round-trip. Closer to Portland, Balmy Days Cruises sails from Boothbay Harbor for $32 roundtrip.
    Accommodations are limited on Monhegan Island and are heavily booked in summer and fall, prime birdwatching season. The Monhegan House has 28 rooms. Most have shared baths and doubles start at $115. A two-room suite with private bath starts at $185. These prices include a full breakfast. The Island Inn has doubles with shared bath from $130 and rooms with private bath from $170. They include breakfast.  The Trailing Yew and  Shining Sails also offer accommodations.


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