Robert and I spent two nights on Monhegan Island, one of the hundreds of islands off the Maine coast. Monhegan is a little unusual in a couple of respects. First, it's a fair distance off the coast, about 10 miles out. It's not the farthest island out there -- I think Matanicus Island takes that honor -- but it does mean that it takes some work to get to it. In this case, you take a ferry that crosses the Gulf of Maine for about an hour.
Second, and more important, it's been an artist's colony for the last century or so, which means it has an unusual social mix of fishermen, lobstermen, artists, remote islanders, and all the usual hangers-on that this mix would imply. On the community bulletin boards that front many of the island businesses, there are flyers for fresh oysters, yard sales to benefit the island's public library, invitations to classes in yoga, and ads for massage therapists. It's a strange mix, but it all works.
The island's population swells in the summer months with daytrippers and overnighters, but in the winter it must be a bleak place indeed. Only about 70 residents stay year-'round, and there's ample evidence that the island has a very small population: a Lilliputian public library, a schoolhouse that rarely has more than 10 stuents, and of course an oral history tradition that lays out how everybody is related to everybody else. It must be a badge of honor to stay the winter on this rocky granite outpost of the mainland.
Artists started arriving in the nineteenth century after they had discovered the beauty of Acadia. Though Acadia is farther away from art centers like Boston and New York, Monhegan, though closer, is actually harder to get to, and must have been more so in the nineteenth century. The artists came for a natural beauty, of course, and also for the quality of light. Robert explained this to me: the ocean just reflects all of the light, and even more so when you're on an island that is far from the mainland. Everything on the island is bathed in a thin, clear light that makes it all seem as if you're looking at an unusually sharp photograph. Things look clearer on Monhegan; colors seem far crisper. Artists still live here -- Jamie Wyeth maintains a house here, as did his father Andrew, I believe -- and there are galleries and painters everywhere, taking it all in.
Much of the island is taken up with trails that lead to the east side of the island, away from the mainland and facing the open sea. This side of the island is all rock faces, bluffs, and cliffs down to the ocean. It's spectacular in the same way that Acadia is: I'm always taken at how the combination of rock, sea, and pines can be so seductive. The side of the island facing the mainland is more genteel, with little gravel paths that serve for roads, all overlooked by a lighthouse on the hill above, likely the highest point on island. There don't seem to be a lot of cars on island, and people just walk up and down the hills. If you lived here for any time, you would develop your quads. This part of the island is Monhegan village proper, with genteel hotels, bed and breakfasts, galleries, and restaurants. It's undeniably touristy, but all tourism should be like this: low-key, locally owned, and not devoted to screaming about how it's the place to be.
We stayed at Monhegan House, an old hotel with charming rooms that have no locks, a big rambling lobby with sofas for lounging about in, a big rambling porch with Adirondack chairs for more lounging about in, and a breakfast room for having blueberry pancakes and excellent coffee in the morning. It's opposite the village church where we attended a hymn sing because it was Sunday evening, after all. (It seemed that losts of visitors were Baptists, juding by the hymn choices.) We had dinner that night at one of the local seafood houses. I cannot believe that I disliked oysters at one point in my life, for the ones I had there were superb: briny, clean-tasting, and seriously fresh. We got up in the mornings and had our breakfast, greeting my friends Sheila and Don from Augusta in the dining room, who were visiting for a week, as they had done for decades.
The rooms are simplicity itself: a bed, a small antique dresser, and chair, and white beadboard walls. The rooms were small but generally cool. Like older hotels and B&Bs, baths were shared. I found Monhegan House to be most restful.
We hiked the trails and enjoyed the exhibit of nineteenth-century Monhegan paintings in the small but choice museum on island and observed the many cottages, deciding which one we would like to own. Robert would like to have one, and as a working artist, it would make sense for him to do so. I support this decision for obvious and self-serving reasons. Most of the cottages are summer places. Few of them are winterized, and most folks come out in June and stay till September or something like that. It would be a cool experience to winter on the island, though I bet February must be pretty bleak. And the cost would be high in many ways. Electric rates, for example, are three times what they are on the mainland, though for me I think that the social costs would be even higher. If you had to deal with 70 people on an island that you can't easily get off, you better be on good terms with all of them. That would take some doing.
There's a small beach for swimming, though "beach" is a term I use advisedly in this context; Monhegan is little more than a granite rock with poor, thin topsoil. But swim we did, enjoying the salt water on two of Maine's hottest summer days, where the temperature hit the 90s. The water was pretty cold, though having swum in Lake Superior, I wasn't that bothered by that. And this is Maine, after all, where the water is always pretty cold. A daily dip was bracing, to say the least.
Our last evening, we had dinner at one of the inns where you're seating family style, and we had a very nice family from Connecticut and an artist and her companion for dinner company. It turns out that the Connecticut family know an old friend of mine from grad school who attends their Quaker meeting house. Small world! The artist was a charmer -- elderly, gracious, with the windswept hair you'd expect an artist to have and a wealth of information about old Monhegan.
I spent time in the little library on island, which is officially called Edward and Jackie's Library. I love that; the library was perhaps the personal collection of two islanders in the beginning, and the name seems to have stuck. It's a tiny clapboard cottage crammed with books and one lone computer for those daytrippers who can't be without internet access for more than six hours. Good luck with that on Monhegan. It seems to me that the purpose of being here is not worry about email.
We also tooled about the island's historical museum, which is really more like the attic of a particularly well-organized elderly uncle. There's all sorts of stuff in it from various storage spaces and attics of Monheganers, and it's all labeled and described intelligently, so you can spend hours just reading things and thinking about how they fit in the larger scheme of island life. There were ship bells and antiques and old iceboxes (ice harvesting was a major part of the local economy at the turn of the last century) and stuffed birds and old photos and lobster traps and farm tools. Lots of nautical stuff, which isn't a surprise.
This is pretty much what one does on Monhegan. One putters about. As an artist, I expect that one works here, and I did see artists in the woods capturing the perfect moment. But the rest of us just wander about enjoying the views and reading. Lots of readers; I saw people reading everywhere. It strikes me that a perfect vacation is one in which you don't have to constantly be seeing sights and doing things; a perfect vacation is one in which you truly "vacate" in mind and in body. It's a wonderful place.