Autumn, when the summer-folk have departed, is the perfect season to play out island fantasies: to bike quiet roads and hike empty trails, watch migratory birds wing south on the avian highway, fall asleep to the whisper of waves, or simply let yourself unplug. There is room at the inn, the restaurants are unhurried, and chances are good you’ll have stretches of beach, expanses of rocky ledges all to yourself.
The magic begins when the ferry sounds its horn and departs the dock. Inhale the soft sea-scented air; listen to the cries of seagulls. There is no traffic except for the steady thrum of lobster boats passing to and fro amongst their traps. The voyage from mainland to island can take as few as 20 minutes, as long as an hour, but when you step off the boat, you’re ready to ease into the rhythms of island life, a life ruled more by tide than by time.
The more than 3,000 islands salting Maine’s 3,500-mile coastline comprise ledges visible only at low tide, causeway-connected islands that support year round communities, and offshore ones. Each has its own allure, but it’s the offshore ones that hold the most magic. Here are a few suggestions:
Just 20-minutes from Portland’s Waterfront, this Casco Bay island, packs a lot into just 720 acres. In the late-19th-century, Peaks was the Coney Island of Maine, now it’s increasingly a year-round community, with a leisurely disposition and eclectic attractions. Take a tour of island highlights; walk or pedal the roughly four-mile road circumnavigating the island; hike the trails webbing the preserves; bring a flashlight to prowl through Battery Steele, a World War II bunker; and visit the Fifth and Eighth Regiment lodges, now museums, built by Civil War veterans. Stay overnight for sigh-worthy sunset views over Portland’s skyline.
Remote and ruggedly handsome, Monhegan is renowned as an artists colony and a birding destination. Artists have come for generations, seeking inspiration from the soaring headlands, forested interior, craggy shoreline, and weather-beaten village. Birders flock here in spring and fall, following the migratory birds winging southward along the Atlantic Flyway. About a dozen marked footpaths web its 1,000-acres, skirting the shoreline, weaving through Cathedral Woods, connecting artists’ studios in the village to the historical and art museums in the hilltop lighthouse and keepers’ houses. Seasonal excursion boats depart through mid October from Boothbay Harbor and New Harbor, while the year-round Mail Boat departs from Port Clyde.
Vinalhaven and North Haven
Ferries depart Rockland for each of these two Penobscot Bay islands, yin-yang neighbors separated by the Fox Island Thorofare. Vinalhaven, home to one of the world’s largest lobster fishing fleets, is a bustling, working island with a rich granite-quarrying heritage. North Haven, far more genteel and seasonal, offers a nine-hole golf course, an organic saltwater farm, and an oyster farm. Overnight accommodations as well as restaurants, shops, galleries, and preserves are within walking distance of the ferry docks. Instead of a car, consider bringing bicycles to explore beyond the villages.
Isle au Haut
Home to a remote and rugged backcountry section of Acadia National Park, Isle au Haut has about 50 year-round residents, one general store, a couple of galleries, and a lighthouse inn. Services are concentrated around the town dock, accessed via the year-round Mail Boat. It’s about a 4-mile hike to the park, which occupies five of the island’s 12.7 square miles, all on the southern end; a seasonal park boat docks in Duck Harbor. If camping in the park’s lean-tos, expect to haul all supplies, including food. For those who truly pine to escape, Isle au Haut is heaven.
Just offshore of Mount Desert Island, the Cranberry Isles are a delightful day trip. Passenger ferries from Northeast Harbor and Southwest Harbor to-and-fro between Great Cranberry and Little Cranberry, better known as Islesford. Although both support year-round populations, they exude a classic summer vibe, although in fall, when the low-bush cranberries are ripening, it’s easy to understand how they got their name. Both are easy to explore on foot or by bicycle, with historical museums, general stores, and island magic being the lures.