We're queuing up on the docks of the village of Port Clyde ready to climb aboard a 65-foot vessel, the Elizabeth Ann. With the passengers, mail and freight loaded, we steam out of the harbor past Marshall Point lighthouse and a series of pine and spruce-clad islands before reaching the open sea to ply our way toward Monhegan Island.
Navigating among the schooners and other boats that traverse the Gulf of Maine, Capt. John Haines points out puffins winging across the water on their northern migratory route. We get up-close views of porpoises, and families of brown seals frolicking in the sea or basking in the sun on Seal Rock. Hundreds of buoys mark lobster traps, each marker color coded to identify its owner. Lobstermen are allowed a maximum of 475 traps during the season that stretches from November through May.
After an hour ferry ride, my wife Jane and I step off onto Monhegan and hike up past the Island Inn that sports an American flag whipping atop its cupola. The tidy village boasts impossibly quaint houses surrounded by colorful flowers. There are no cars, and no paved roads, just narrow lanes and footpaths. A handful of tailgate-less work trucks haul pallets of building materials, propane, produce and food, beer, wine and other cargo from the docks to businesses operating on the island.
Barely a square mile in area, Monhegan is a down to earth and hard working culture, where fishing and lobstering families still live and work by the tide clock. The summer resident population hovers around 200, but day-trippers can add another 600 or 700 to the mix. Winter is a quiet and lonely time; the island shrinks to its bedrock population of 65.
Three quarters of the land is protected in its pristine and wild state by Monhegan Associates, a land trust formed in 1954 by Ted Edison, the inventor's son, who had a summer cottage near the lighthouse. Ringed by high dark cliffs, the island's interior mixes meadows, marshes, and spruce groves so dense that light doesn't filter through, forcing trees to grow ever taller to meet the sun.
Seventeen miles of natural trails work their way throughout the island ‘wildlands’-- through the forests and meadows, out to the headlands and along the coves and ledges. On our first day we invested a buck in a trail map and headed to the island's eastern side. After walking for 30 minutes through the island’s lush interior, we came upon the stunning clifftop views of White Head. Some of the highest cliffs on the coast of New England, White Head offers a magnificent panorama of the Atlantic.
There is a wildlife sanctuary populated with more than 600 varieties of wildflowers and 200 species of birds, including peregrine falcons, ospreys, and northern harriers, also known as marsh hawks. The Monhegan Historical and Cultural Museum, established in 1960, is housed in the old lighthouse keepers cottage which together with the adjacent lighthouse provides a record of the art, history, and the achievements of the island.
On our second morning we were off to the Cliff Walk where quiet forest aisles are carpeted with deep-piled needles, adorned with ferns, wildflowers, tiny new trees, and mosses. But beware: the going gets steep and the footing rough. Your reward is a series of dazzling ocean vistas as you weave your way around the south side of the island. You’ll come across coves with pools lined with periwinkles and, when the trail veers inland, blackberries aplenty. You eventually come to Lobster Cove where the rusted-out wreck of the D.T. Sheridan lies scattered across the rocks. Harbor seals can be seen on the Duck Rocks near Pebble Beach, migrating birds use the island as a resting place on their various journeys, and on occasion whales can be seen in their movements north and south.
The island’s stunning natural beauty and tranquility has inspired generations of painters for more than a century, icons such as Edward Hopper, George Bellows, Rockwell Kent and three generations of Wyeths: N. C., Andrew, and Jamie. Kent first set out for Monhegan in 1905 at the urging of his New York painting teacher, Robert Henri. Kent later built a house and studio on "this wonder island," as he called it, and wrote in his autobiography that Monhegan "was enough to start me off to such feverish activity in painting as I have never known."
But each summer painters resolutely become part of the island's landscape. Craggy hills, byways and rocky perches are dotted with artists squinting into the middle distance and dabbing paint on canvas. Joan Brady, of Annapolis, Md., arrived on the island four years ago for a one week "en plein-aire" workshop. A classical realist painter, this year she has rented a cottage for the summer season. Brady was painting a handsome red-sided cottage that faced the harbor.
"There is a vibrant energy that is translated through the light," Brady explains. "The light is unlike anything I've ever seen. You can stand in one place and rotate 360 degrees and paint everything you see. There is a bond you feel with the other artists here."
Many artists hold viewing hours in their studios; locations and times are posted on a bulletin board in the village. You can follow a map showing the location of the island’s artist studios, housed in sea cottages and cedar-shingled homes scattered around the island, many with water and wood vistas, and walls decorated floor to ceiling with paintings and drawings of Monhegan sites.
Don't miss the Fish House. Overlooking the harbor on Fish Beach, it serves a bonanza of fresh fish, lobsters, lobster rolls, homemade stews and thick, creamy chowders. We enjoyed an impressive lobster roll (brimming with lobster meat) and a haddock sandwich at a picnic table while watching a pair of women brave the frigid waters kayaking out of the cove.
The Island Inn is a handsome turn-of-the-20th century cedar shingled building with third floor dormer windows. The Inn offers 26 rooms and six more in neighboring Pierce Cottage. The porch and lawn are sprinkled with Adirondack chairs overlooking the harbor, other favorite spots include the Inn's cozy library and fire-placed sitting room.
The Inn's menu focuses on the locally abundant fresh fare, spotlighting haddock and tuna, lobster, scallops and mussels as well as grilled and roasted meats. Soups, chowders and salads, and home baked desserts add to a delightful dining experience. On your island wanderings, remember to pick up a bottle of wine for dinner from one of several little island stores. Inn guests store wine and beer in the Inn's refrigerator until needed.
After dining on lobster bisque, steamed mussels and a pound and a half lobster, we moved out to the sweeping veranda that overlooks the harbor. We settled in with a glass of wine and conversation with a pair of couples who were also making their first visit.
We talked about the beauty of Monhegan's wilderness areas, its quiet relaxed atmosphere, and its unhurried pace. As the sun slowly sets behind nearby Manana Island we reveled in the sky-- a brilliant canvas of light purple, orange and blue. The water sparkling like diamonds in the light. The rhythmic sound of waves crashing against each other. A perfect sunset on this remarkable island.