ISLAND, Maine — Eleven miles off central Maine, a duck
bobs in shallow water near a rocky island shore. A 19th
century lighthouse rises nearby. Three painters drag their
easels onto the beach. A lobsterman tinkers in his shack.
Monhegan Island, cherished throughout New England for its
scant size and population, weather-beaten buoys and
wayward stacks of lobster traps. These are landscapes
you’d expect a Wyeth or Edward Hopper to paint, and
indeed they have. The place looks today largely as it did
a century ago: no cars, no paved roads.
that duck in the shallows, Monhegan is always churning
beneath the surface. This makes it not only a gorgeous
destination but also a fascinating one, especially if
you’re accustomed to California coastlines and bigger
by ferry on a Tuesday morning in June, eager to see
Monhegan stem to stern, a little worried I might finish
before lunchtime. The island is less than two miles long
and less than a mile wide, with no airport, police, doctor
or bank, but plenty of well-worn Boston Red Sox caps.
Population drops to 65 or fewer in winter, when snow falls
and the few remaining lobstermen set out their traps.
warmer months are different. In spring and fall, birders
show up, eager to catch song birds mid-migration. The
island is fully awake June through September, when the
population increases to perhaps 250 seasonal residents,
joined by scores of day-trippers and short-term visitors.
tourist tide is enough to sustain three summer-only inns,
a handful of summer-only restaurants, one or two bed and
breakfasts and assorted rental homes. In other words,
it’s Brigadoon with shellfish and costume design by L.L.
people everywhere, these visitors hike, read, eat outside,
huddle over jigsaw puzzles and dawdle by the water. But by
long Monhegan tradition, many also paint. On any day,
you’re bound to find a dozen or more artists with their
easels and nearly as many tripod-lugging photographers.
More than a dozen painters and sculptors keep island
studios with regular summer visitors’ hours.
to do only portraits,” said Alison Hill, who moved to
the island full time in 2002. “Then I started doing
landscapes because you have to. It’s so beautiful
this mist, this atmosphere, that intensifies the
colors,” said Jack Hobbs, who had come from
Massachusetts to set up his easel at water’s edge.
you’ve never heard of Monhegan, there’s a good chance
you’ve seen it on a museum wall. Artists have been
visiting since the 1850s, including a great burst between
1895 and 1920 when Robert Henri, George Bellows, Alice A.
Swett, Maud Briggs Knowlton, Edward Hopper and Rockwell
Kent, among others, came to paint.
BACK IN THE
that delivered me, the Laura B, a 65-foot wooden boat, has
been carrying mail, passengers and freight from Port Clyde
since 1954. The dock doesn’t look much different from
what it did when Robert Van Vorst Sewell captured it on
canvas in 1916. The same goes for the nearby red house on
the rocks, which Jamie Wyeth put front and center in an
early 1970s watercolor.
century lighthouse and keeper’s residence dominates the
landscape just as they did when Hopper painted them during
his four island summers, 1916 through 1919. Those
buildings now house the deeply engaging Monhegan Museum of
Art & History.
village’s centerpiece is the Island Inn, where I stayed.
It was built in the early 19th century, expanded in the
early 20th and renovated in the early 21st by new owners
who were wise enough to keep telephones and televisions
out of its 32 guest rooms. (In another sign of the
island’s rustic leanings, several of those rooms still
share bathrooms down the hall.)
for a few minutes on its porch full of white rocking
chairs, then dined at the inn’s restaurant, where I had
seared scallops, the tastiest meal of my visit. Lobster
scramble was for breakfast the next morning.
as I wandered widely, the ghosts of painters past followed
me like a faithful retriever.
Beach, the gulls swooped and shrieked just as they surely
did when Bellows painted it in 1913.
Lobster Cove, the battered bow of the tug boat D.T.
Sheridan, wrecked in 1948, was still stranded on the
rocks, now much rustier than when Kent painted it in 1949.
cemetery just below the museum, I had a wide western view
of Monhegan’s tinier sidekick, Manana Island, which
shelters Monhegan Harbor. This being Maine, “Manana”
rhymes with “ banana.”
plenty of great paintings covering the island’s
surf-battered eastern edges too. But once I reached Gull
Rock, Burnt Head, White Head and Black Head, the actual
earth, wind, sea and sky crowded the artists out of my
150-foot cliffs. Wave-lashed boulders. Narrow, muddy paths
through dense forest. Wild strawberries demanding to be
If you end
up in the roiling water on this side of the island, I
heard a veteran hiker tell newcomers, “You’re dead.
The waves will beat you into the rocks.” I found
historical accounts from 1926 and 2011 that made clear he
Monhegan Associates, a nonprofit created in the 1950s by
Thomas Edison’s son, Ted, about 350 of the island’s
513 acres are protected as a natural reserve. That
territory, including the rugged eastern edge, is
crisscrossed by nine miles of well-labeled trails, along
which smoking, drone flying, camping and biking are
has about 12 miles of trails. In three days, I covered
most of the network, circled the island, and met many
fellow visitors, almost all repeaters, almost none from
California. (Painter Doug Andelin, from the San Francisco
Bay Area, was the exception.)
visit, you’ll want to cover the same ground. You’ll
also want to browse the art at the Lupine Gallery and the
Rockwell Kent-James Fitzgerald House & Studio run by
the Monhegan Museum.
closely at the big boulder next to the island’s one-room
schoolhouse: It commemorates a visit by Capt. John Smith
in 1614, seven years after he founded Jamestown (in what
was later Virginia), the first permanent English colony in
If the seas
are calm on the sheltered side of the island, you might
rent a kayak at Fish Beach and paddle for an hour within
the confines of the harbor.
as intrigued as I was by the island’s size and
isolation, you’ll also find yourself questioning
everyone you meet about what it takes to keep the place
they told me, the residents elect three assessors to be in
charge. A constable, also elected, keeps the peace.
community’s annual report for 2018 shows 76 registered
voters, five pupils in the one-room K-8 schoolhouse, four
marriages, two births, one death and one arrest (a
Monhegan Island Sustainable Community Association, reports
that housing costs have more than doubled since 2014, and
that over the last century, the number of Maine islands
with year-round populations has dropped from more than 300
Yet in his
book “The Lobster Coast,” Colin Woodard writes that
Monhegan remains “one of the few places in the world
where the scions of great moneyed families are socially
and politically outranked by persons who earn their living
stuffing rotten herring in nylon bags in an effort to
ensnare large bottom-feeding bugs.”
one ATM and one grocery store, traditionally left unlocked
in winter in case somebody needs something.
immaculately kept Monhegan Memorial Library, you can pull
up a chair and peruse two old National Geographic stories
on Monhegan — one from 1959, one from 2001 — or
perhaps the photo book on the hermit of Manana Island, who
kept sheep and lived in a mostly driftwood house from the
1930s into the 1970s.
biggest change since I’ve been here? The telephones,”
said longtime islander John Murdock. “We got telephones
of Hamden, Conn., who has been coming to the island with
her husband since the early 1970s, told me that when her
children were little, “They refused to go to camp in a
normal fashion. They only wanted to come to Monhegan. Now
my kids are adults and they still come.”
long-timers do fret that the island is seeing fewer
children and more retirees, and many visitors are staying
for days instead of weeks. But newcomers do turn up.
this place through Google. As soon as I got here, I got
tearful,” Sun Park, a New Jersey music therapist told me
over dinner at the Trailing Yew. “It’s magical and
amazing. Things are at peace.”
partner, Alfred Lee, also nodded. This was their fifth
year visiting, he said, and “I think we’ll be (coming)
here for the rest of our lives.”
seemed to slow with every hour I spent on Monhegan. But
for locals, it’s not always easy to keep Monhegan viable
in winter and charming in summer without surrendering a
bit of its soul.
what moved Ted Edison to warn in 1976 that “thousands of
people can’t enjoy solitude together” and what causes
the keeper of the island website to remind the world that
“Monhegan is a village, not a theme park.”
instance, lobsters have been central to the island’s
character and winter economy for more than a century, but
trapping them is becoming more difficult as fisheries
fluctuate, regulations tighten and the number of working
lobstermen on the island dwindles to about half a dozen.
might be my last year,” said Sherman Stanley, 72, as he
rigged a buoy in his workshop above the Fish House.
Stanley, a fifth-generation islander, put out 350 traps
last winter. Next winter, “I might just set a handful of
traps. I’ve had both hips replaced and one knee is about
OF CONSTANT PUSH AND PULL
are banned, everyone who has a business on Monhegan is
allowed to have a truck. Your first view upon arrival will
probably be the back ends of half a dozen trucks,
collecting supplies and luggage. You’ll also discover
that some folks are using golf carts to navigate the dirt
and gravel paths.
people here are quick to say how much they love being
unplugged. But plenty sneak peeks at their phones, despite
seriously iffy coverage. The island’s leaders, eager to
make telecommuting easier, have been working on a boost in
broadband that could mean big changes.
is dry; no alcohol is served in restaurants, though you
can bring in store-bought bottles and cans. But in 2013,
Monhegan Brewing Co. started making beer and serving pints
on its patio on summer afternoons.
tables are surrounded by a wall of blue-wire lobster
traps, a hint that co-owner Matt Weber is a lobsterman.
(It’s also his turn as constable this year.) The
island’s lone food cart lingers nearby. Some guests
bring string instruments and launch into French Canadian
folk tunes. How did the island ever get along without this
place? It’s unclear.
at the Trailing Yew, full electrification arrived this
spring after decades of reliance on kerosene lamps.
office manager Christian Dederer was quick to add, this
progress won’t be obvious at dinner. As per longstanding
custom, the evening meal is conducted by candlelight at
what comes next in the perennial negotiations between
Monhegan Island and the outside world, Dederer said,
“That is not going to change.”
IF YOU GO
WAY TO MONHEGAN ISLAND, MAINE
Boston, catch a commuter flight to Rockland, Maine, or
drive about 200 miles to Maine’s central coast to catch
one of the three ferries that serve the island in summer.
Reservations recommended. Check websites for departure
dates and times.
Boat Line, 880 Port Clyde Road, Port Clyde, Maine; (207)
372-8848. Two vessels sail from Port Clyde up to three
times a day, $38 per adult round trip.
Cruises, 132 State Route 32, New Harbor, Maine; (207)
departures daily to Monhegan from New Harbor, $38 per
adult round trip.
Cruises, Pier 8, 42 Commercial St., Boothbay Harbor,
Maine; (207) 633-2284. One departure daily from Boothbay
Harbor, $42 per adult round trip.
Most of the
island’s lodgings, restaurants and shops are
Monhegan Island; (207) 596-0371. 32 rooms, eight with
shared baths. Rooms for two $160-$445, breakfast included.
Yew, Monhegan Island; (207) 596-0440. Several houses and
cottages with 30 rooms, three with private baths. Rooms
for two $123-$198, breakfast included.
House, Monhegan Island; (207) 594-7983. 28 guest rooms,
two with private baths. The rest share 12 bathrooms.
$150-$260, breakfast included.
Sails Bed and Breakfast, Monhegan Island; (207) 596-0041.
Open year-round, unlike other lodgings here. Includes
seven units (five with kitchens), $150-$250 a night.
Proprietors John and Winnie Murdock also manage other
apartments and many cottages on the island.
details above. Monhegan’s fanciest restaurant, with
evocative paintings of the island covering the walls.
Dinner main dishes $28-$39.
Trailing Yew, details above. Reserve in advance to join
one of the inn’s casual, communal dinners. Wednesday is
burger night. Thursday is Thanksgiving fare. The food is
fine. The atmosphere and company in the 52-seat dining
room make it special. Fixed price: $15-$31 per person,
depending on the night.
7 Horns Hill Road, Monhegan Island. This beach-adjacent
spot is a place to buy fish or grab lunch or early dinner.
It’s all patio dining at picnic tables. Main dishes
$8.50-$20.95, open 11:30 a.m. -7 p.m.