It’s no wonder artists and writers hole up in Monhegan. The entire island could fittingly be called “land that time forgot.” Weathered gray shingled houses, grass growing through piles of lobster traps, dirt paths proud to be left alone — it all adds up to the lure of a scene you can’t make up nor one that you can quickly forget. Not that you’d want to.
A day spent on Monhegan, even a week, may not be long enough. But if you visit in October — after Columbus Day — you don’t have to fight crowds or residents or anyone, for that matter. You almost have the island to yourself.
The owner of Shining Sails graciously rented a room to us after tourist season, adding sage advice: “Bring everything you need. Nothing is open. No restaurants, no coffee shops, not even the lighthouse museum or the library. Everyone’s shut for the season. Pack it in. Pack it out. No public trash cans on the island.” And we believed her, packing the basics for dinner in our room.
But even with the promise of an almost-deserted island, we found five great places to see on Monhegan in 24 hours.
1. The Dock at Monhegan
Silently monitoring the comings and goings of the island, the dock at Monhegan has seen its share of activity. What with the Laura B bringing somewhat sea-weary travelers to shore and then taking them back to Port Clyde, the dock would seem busy enough with three trips daily during high tourist season. (Only one trip in October.)
But tourists aren’t the only thing landing here. Think food, furniture, fishing gear — well, you get the picture. Everything that comes in or goes out moves across this hard-working dock, the unequivocal hub for loading/unloading and checking up on what — and who — is new.
Monhegan Dock can be a welcome center, but it also doubles as a place for teary send-offs like this one when year-round residents put the summer museum curator on the boat to winter-over at home. She promised to return when the lighthouse re-opens.
2. Monhegan Architecture
Ten miles out of Monhegan, we leaned over the rail of the Laura B to get our first glimpse of homes on Monhegan. They were different, of course. And nothing like what we expected. Stiff-legged houses balanced on stilts lined the shore. And up the hill, firmly planted, gray-shingled homes blended in with the landscape.
Some homes were unadorned. Plain, in fact. Others looked abandoned with their cast-aside-til-another-day traps and chains and unpretentious boats piled up in yards that rarely get mowed. But some had the New England charm you might see on Cape Cod or Martha’s Vineyard.
Blending in yet standing out, The Island Inn caught our attention right as we landed. The 32-room hotel revamped in 1910 was hard to miss.
3. Lobster Cove
Visiting Monhegan without hiking to Lobster Cove would be like touring Maine without seeing a lighthouse. Two-thirds of the 700-acre island is conservation land with 12 miles of walking trails. The trek to Lobster Cove is only half a mile with one relatively steep climb up Wharf Hill Road (not marked, by the way). Located at the south end of the island, Lobster Cove is home to a shipwreck, a site well-marked with a wooden cross adorned with a ring of coiled rope. According to “1-Minute Hike: Lobster Cove on Monhegan Island,” the 110-foot tug D.T. Sheridan was declared a loss by Coast Guard authorities after grounding at Lobster Point on November 8, 1948.
Photographers and birders love Lobster Cove for its completely natural state, but tourists are warned not to swim since undertow and high waters can be quite hazardous.
Aside from staring at the untouched landscape and listening to the dash of the waves against rocks, we were struck by the beauty of this house standing alone facing the sea. Although there was not a single other human at the cove the day we were there, we later asked a resident hiking in town, “Who lives in that house?”
His answer: artist Jamie Wyeth. But he quickly added: “He’s hardly ever here anymore.”
4. Downtown Monhegan
As we strolled the dirt paths and gazed at remnants of lobster buoys and traps leaning against unoccupied homes, we wondered if there even was a Downtown Monhegan. But collectively the little buildings form a downtown like no other. At one end of the “main street,” a solitary white schoolhouse stood calmly on a hill, proud to house its five students, soon to be four.
Nearby was the library whose inside belies the feeling that this is a mere small structure. It’s not. Tomes both new and old line the walls from floor to ceiling.
Then there was the general store. (Thank goodness!) We can be “packers” on an island, but oh, how we missed morning coffee! The owner of L. Brackett & Son Provisions greeted us, handed over a mug of steamy goodness and welcomed us to Monhegan. Never has a breakfast tasted better: fried egg on English muffin eaten while perched on stools at a two-seater counter.
Other downtown establishments were closed for the season except for the U. S. Post Office. Now, if only we could have found a postcard to buy . . .
5. Monhegan Island Light
At the pinnacle (literally and figuratively) of the island stands the last creation of architect Alexander Parris, the 1850 structure known as Monhegan Island Light. And we, standing among the buildings that comprise this hilltop assemblage, felt that we had been incorporated into an Edward Hopper painting: stark white boxy shapes topped with reddish roofs casting long shadows at both sunrise and sunset.
Beside the buildings, an empty boat sits idle, reminiscent of busier times.
And the buildings themselves, now operated as a museum, form a complex made up of the the lighthouse keeper’s house, a storage building, and oil house.
The 47-foot circular tower built of granite blocks stands tall against the sun while light streams through the lantern house. At sundown — at least during October — you can catch a stark silhouette of the tower against an orange sky.
For us, being alone atop lighthouse hill at sunrise watching daybreak over Monhegan remains one of our fondest travel memories. And seeing the tiny village below bathed in waves of sunlight and shadows was an experience we will never forget.
Of course, there are more good times to be had in Monhegan, ones that can only occur during busy times when people fill the inns and pack the trails and capture unspoiled scenery at every turn. But we were content with our solitary, yet brief, sojourn when we relished the quiet life on this heavenly isle.
For us, Monhegan was magical — a land perhaps that time has forgotten.
But we never will.
— Rusha and Bert Sams
For more photos and posts on our month in Maine, check out Autumn Down East in the Travel Series bar at the top.