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Maine’s Cushing Island delivers a whole lot of wonderful nothing

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Staring down through the light jade Atlantic Ocean at its rippled sandy bottom, I could see a multitude of hermit crabs trekking across the miniature dunes. They looked like nomads carrying their domed homes on undersea journeys. After hesitating for a moment — could they pinch me? — I plunged my hand into the chilly waters and gingerly plucked one up.

Bringing it out of the depths, I opened my hand so the dark shell rolled to the center of my palm. It was smaller than I’d thought; the ocean had magnified its size. A moment later, its beady eyes popped out, peering around to get a sense of its new surroundings. It didn’t end up nipping me, though its tiny legs tickled when they curled out of the shell to find footing.

“Whoa,” said my 2-year-old son, Zephyr, his eyes bright with curiosity. 

“Want to hold it?” I asked, extending my hand. 

He shook his head, furrowing his brow. “No, Poppa.” 

However, he didn’t want me to put it back into the ocean. So I filled his red plastic pail with water and some slick strands of seaweed and gently deposited the hermit crab in it so Zephyr could examine it from a safe distance. Then I returned to the shallows to find more crustaceans to add to my son’s makeshift aquarium. 

It was our first morning of our summer vacation, an intensely sunny late July day mellowed by the briny breeze. Our family was at Little Beach, on the northwest shore of Cushing Island, looking across Casco Bay at the wharfs and docks of Portland, Maine, about three miles away. There are so many islands here that explorers dubbed them the Calendar Islands, believing there was one for every day of the year. However, it turned out there are only 136, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Coast Survey. They vary in size from blink-and-you’ll-miss-it blips to larger landmasses, such as Peaks Island a mile to the north, with year-round communities. Casco Bay Lines services the bigger islands, but most are accessible only by private boat. A separate ferry service runs intermittently out to Cushing Island from Long Wharf, in Portland, or a water taxi can be rented.

The roughly triangular Cushing is only a mile and a quarter wide. The rocky isle is well forested, pleasantly underdeveloped and mostly inhabited solely for the summer season. Because there are no hotels on the island and the houses here are privately owned, most visitors must rent a property from one of the homeowners. We stayed in a cottage owned by relatives.

Although several modest roads loop across the small isle for the few vehicles on hand to help transport large goods and equipment, you generally walk everywhere. There are no stores, either, so all your groceries and other goods must be brought over from the mainland. Generally, Cushing is the kind of place where you come to relax, enjoy the quiet and make your own fun. If you feel the need for a little excitement, you can head into Portland.

After spending the morning at Little Beach, where the sea air sharpened our appetites, we took a private boat into town for lunch at Central Provisions. Located a block away from the docks in the Old Port neighborhood, it’s a bi-level eatery/bar where chef-owner Chris Gould specializes in sophisticated small plates. 

Mustard-kissed tuna crudo dressed with a hint of sesame oil included micro matchsticks of radish and crispy shallots for crunch. A slate plate bore richer-than-rich lobster hush puppies with saffron aioli. The raw-beef salad was enlivened with cilantro and plenty of Sriracha. And a radiant red layer of rhubarb gelee topped the delicious foie gras parfait, which had the texture and sweetness of creme brulee and could have been dessert.

To perk up afterwards, I stopped in at Arabica Coffee (this one on Commercial Street) by the waterfront. The high-ceilinged, warehouse-style space with hardwood floors echoed with Beach Boys classics. Although I normally pass on flavored beverages, I couldn’t resist an iced latte amped up with real maple syrup. The dark sweetness complemented the dark roast without turning the whole drink into a liquid sugar bomb. 

There was also a lobster roll on my itinerary, since eating one is a practically a duty when you’re in Maine. Not that I’m complaining. The much-ballyhooed version at the tourist-besieged Portland Lobster Co. down on the wharf wasn’t cheap — market price was $17 the day I was there — but the simple New England-style hot dog bun was amply filled with lobster. Lightly dressed with melted butter, the meat was cradled in a single lettuce leaf. The lobster was sweet and juicy, with a hint of the deep, but the sandwich lacked. The roll needed butter and further toasting, and I’ve always preferred chefs who add a touch — a dash of mayo, maybe a tad of tarragon, perhaps some finely diced celery for crunch. Purists, you can shoot me now. 

The next morning, back on Cushing, we strolled over to the World War II-era concrete observation tower in the northeastern corner of the island known as Whitehead. The imposing structure rises out of the dense forest, a forgotten monolith of industrial gray. You climb four steep sets of steps and three sharply angled ladders to get to the top floor, but it’s worth it. Holding my son up to the seaside window slit, we had a gorgeous view of Ram Island Lighthouse off to our right. Above us and below us was dusky baby blue — it looked as if the ocean was melting into a sky streaked with ribbons of cloud. 

Just a short ways away is what’s left of Fort Levett, built in the late 19th century and manned during both world wars when Americans feared a coastal attack. The concrete battlements are covered in lichen and crawling with bramble but still generally intact. We walked down one of its tunnels, its ceiling beaded with condensation, to one of the former gun emplacements, a large roofed room with an open front. The weaponry is long gone, and the view of the sea is obscured with overgrowth. Now the island’s residents use the space to store a few small boats that have all seen better days.

This eastern side of Cushing is heavily wooded, but there are plenty of trails wending their way through the trees and along the rocky shoreline. I’ve been coming to the island for sporadic summer vacations since I was a teenager, so I know the pathways pretty well. They’re perfect for relaxing runs, but they’re impassible if you’re pushing a stroller, so we skipped them this time.

Instead, we walked over to Big Beach, on the southern end of the island. There’s plenty of space here for sunbathing or playing in the sand, and the water is refreshingly cold. I dived in but didn’t linger. I wanted to head back to the house, find a comfortable nook and jump into the novel I was reading. For me, it’s not a successful summer vacation unless I enjoy a book or two. It’s even nicer when I can do that with an island draft keeping me cool and nothing but the sounds of the sea in the background.

By Nevin Martell August 20, 2015

Martell is a Washington writer and the author of several books, including “Freak Show Without a Tent: Swimming With Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations .” On Twitter: @nevinmartell. 

Where to stay

There are no hotels on the island. Various private properties are available to rent on Cushing via VRBO.com, HomeAway.com and other Web sites — $2,500 and up per week; most require a seven-night-minimum stay.

Where to eat

Central Provisions
414 Fore St., Portland
207-805-1085

Beautifully presented, inventive small plates borrowing from a variety of culinary traditions. Small plates from $4 to $24.

Duckfat
43 Middle St., Portland
207-774-8080

Frites, artful house-made sodas, indulgent milkshakes and hearty panini. Sandwiches from $11.

Arabica Coffee
9 Commercial St., Portland
207-210-6473

On-site roasted coffees and espresso along with sandwiches, snacks and baked goods.

Portland Lobster
180 Commercial St., Portland
207-775-2112

Lobster rolls, seafood sandwiches and platters, plus a bevvy of deep-fried sides and starters. Market price for lobster rolls.

Information

www.cushingisland.org

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