It winks at you as you pull into the dock. Built in 1824, the gray granite lighthouse serves Monhegan Island, a rocky scrap of land where 60 or so residents hunker down year round.
To the artists and day-trippers who visit there in summer, the Maine island is an idyllic throwback to a slower past. Just over one square mile in area, Monhegan is a place of natural extremes, with formidable 160-foot headlands sloping down to a fishing village and quiet coves.
Boats set sail for Monhegan from Port Clyde, a village at the tip of a peninsula 100 miles northeast of Portland. White farmhouses, artists’ galleries and lobster pots dot Port Clyde’s landscape. You might see some hardy mariners loading traps or bait onto their boats at the docks behind the Port Clyde General Store. Be sure to stop into this wonderful old purveyor of staples, sundries, and homemade treats.
Travelers climb aboard the Laura B, a 65-foot converted Army transport that has carried mail and freight, as well as passengers, for the one-hour trip to Monhegan for half a century. Hundreds of buoys mark lobster traps in the frigid waters of the Gulf of Maine, where the lobster season runs from October through early June. Each marker is painted with a distinctive color scheme, a sort of lobsterman’s coat of arms identifying its owner.
As you approach Monhegan, an American flag whips atop the cupola of the Island Inn, an old-fashioned summer hotel. It dominates a village with impossibly quaint houses surrounded by colorful flowers. The village takes up less than 20 percent of the island; the rest is left in a wild and natural state. A mile and a half long and three-quarters of a mile wide, Monhegan has no cars, just a few fenderless trucks. All visitors must hoof it.
The tiny island’s name comes from Algonquian for “island out at sea.” It was known to Basque and Portuguese fishermen before the English cruised these waters, but came into its own as a summer resort in the early 19th century. When the cities of the eastern seaboard were sweltering in the heat, sea breezes cooled Monhegan and those fortunate enough to have taken refuge here.
Monhegan’s economy is still ruled by those who make their living from the sea, fishing and pulling in lobsters. Gorgeous vistas of space abound over a car-free 550 acres. There is a natural rhythm to life on the island, an ancient one ruled by sun and tide and influenced by wind and storm.
The island’s stunning natural beauty and tranquility has inspired generations of painters for more than a century, icons such as Jamie Wyeth, Edward Hopper, George Bellows and Rockwell Kent, who 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.”
There are only a handful of places to stay on Monhegan, most open mid-May through October. Just up the hill from the dock, the cedar-shake, much-painted Island Inn offers 26 rooms, plus six more in neighboring Pierce Cottage. The original parts of the building were constructed in 1816. The porch and lawn are sprinkled with Adirondack chairs overlooking the harbor. The cozy library and fireplaced sitting room are favorite spots in the Inn.
When you get hungry, stop by Fish House Fish. Overlooking the harbor on Fish Beach, it serves a bonanza of fresh fish, lobsters, lobster rolls, homemade stews and thick, creamy chowders. The Monhegan House Cafe provides a relaxed, light-filled atmosphere with a menu that spotlights oven-poached haddock with fingerling potatoes and lemon butter. Breakfasts are a treat, including house-made granola and thick French toast or pancakes.
Seventeen miles of trails ring or crisscross the island, leading to rocky cliffs and a shipwreck, through towering woods along the remote backside. Seal Ledge lives up to its name with a pack of seals that watch arriving visitors. One of the most spectacular views is along the cliffs on the southeast side facing the ocean. “Warning,” says a sign. “Because of many visitors that have drowned off Monhegan’s shores, we ask you to beware of sudden waves, shifting tides and slippery slime-covered rocks. Rescue is impossible.”
Invest a buck in a trail map, and find your way up and down the steep grades amid some lovely houses, gardens, meadows and forests. You’ll experience some incredible, unforgettable sea-cliff vistas. A wildlife sanctuary is populated with more than 600 varieties of wildflowers and 200 species of birds—including peregrine falcons, ospreys, and northern harriers (marsh hawks). It leads to a peaceful stretch of spruce and moss called Cathedral Woods.
Keep your eyes peeled for the unique “fairy houses” hidden within the forests at Cathedral Woods. Construction of these tiny houses, built from moss, branches, rocks and other objects, has been a long standing tradition among local children and adults. However, so as to better preserve the Monhegan forests, their construction is now discouraged.
The painters have 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. Many of the artists’ studios and galleries open their doors to visitors. You can usually find a listing of gallery hours posted on the Rope Shed and other bulletin boards around the island.
Back in 1968 Jamie Wyeth purchased the former Monhegan home of artist Rockwell Kent and now spends much of his time each year on the isolated island.
“The ocean is so enormous, such a force,” Wyeth related. “It changes every day. I’m up there in the winter as well, and honestly, I almost prefer it. It’s so stark and the storms that roll through and the seas and winds…it’s fantastic.”
For more information visit www.monheganwelcome.com.