Riding the Laura B mailboat to Monhegan Island, Me., is like taking a trip back in time. The converted Army transport, built in 1943, carries food and supplies on its front deck, and on chilly days, passengers in the stern cabin are warmed by a wood stove. In just over an hour, the Laura B makes the 10-mile trip from the fishing village of Port Clyde to one of Maine's most remarkable island treasures.
For more than 100 years, Monhegan has been a haven for artists, writers, and fishermen. Jamie Wyeth calls it his summer home. Robert Henri, Rockwell Kent, and Edward Hopper painted there, as did George Bellows, whose painting of the island's Blackhead cliff was sold at a Maine auction last year for $277,500.
Monhegan's sheer beauty and charming, yesteryear atmosphere make for an enchanting vacation. It's a magnet for summer tourists. Four boats from three ports ferry hundreds of day-trippers and overnight guests each day from June through September. At peak season in July and August, nearly every hotel room is booked. Lodgings on Monhegan are simple, if not rustic. Most island rooms have shared baths, no televisions, and access to one public phone on the premises.
Barely more than one square mile, the island rises out of the Atlantic like a beached whale. Menacing 200-foot cliffs front the ocean and slope down to a flat tail near a small harbor. There are no paved roads. Only a few locally owned pickup trucks are allowed on the island. The year-round population of about 70, mostly lobstermen and their families, swells to 500 in the summer.
About 100 houses are clustered on the mainland side of the island, along with one store, five restaurants, six hotels, and a dozen or so artists' studios that are open to the public in the summer. A museum in the lighthouse--open July through September--is the main cultural attraction and holds a collection of historical artifacts. Captain John Smith, of Pocahontas fame, is said to have visited the island in 1614, and there are tales that Norsemen discovered it around 1000 A.D.
SHIPWRECK. Hiking is by necessity a popular activity. Outside the main village, the island consists of spruce and fir forests, scrubland, and moss, all pounded by the sea wind. The only access to outlying areas is by foot on 17 miles of moderately rugged trails. These take you to the cliffs and to rocky Lobster Cove, where sit the remains of the shipwrecked coal barge D.T. Sheridan. One hiking trail leads you through the Cathedral Woods, an ethereal cluster of tall, mossy spruce trees, under which children like to build tiny "fairy houses" from twigs, bark, and leaves.
Birders flock to Monhegan in the spring and fall because it's on the Atlantic flyway, and 100 or more species can be seen. Bring your Peterson's guide and binoculars. The Audubon Society has an organized trip to Monhegan for members on Memorial Day weekend. Call 207 781-2330 for information.
Among places to stay, the Island Inn (207 596-0371) and the Monhegan House (207 594-7983) are the two largest hotels. One inn, the Trailing Yew (207 596-0440), has no heat and limited electricity. Shining Sails (207 596-0041) offers efficiency apartments year-round. Most hotels don't open until May 23. Room rates for two range from $50 to $125. Most hotels offer some dining, but it's best to inquire about the availability of food when making reservations.
Access to Monhegan is by boat from three harbors. The Laura B out of Port Clyde is the preferred mode of transportation among islanders because it is closest to Monhegan and leaves the most frequently. A round-trip ticket costs $25, and reservations are advised (207 372-8848). Other ferry operators are Balmy Days Cruises out of Boothbay Harbor ($29, 207 633-2284) and Hardy Boat Cruises out of New Harbor ($26, 207 677-2026). For information on the island's local affairs, check out www.monhegan.com.
Remember to pack light, wear sturdy shoes--and if you get seasick easily, be sure to bring along some pills. The seas can get choppy under those changeable Maine skies.