Unplugged island life in Maine casts spell

Seclusion of Monhegan is a draw for visitors, artists looking for peace, beauty

August 12, 2007|By Kathryn Masterson | Kathryn Masterson,Chicago Tribune

MONHEGAN ISLAND, MAINE / / Just 10 miles off the coast, this island midway between Portland and Acadia National Park feels a world away from the beach and sailing towns that attract droves of tourists to the state each summer.

There are no ice cream stands, T-shirt shops or lobster pounds offering early-bird specials. Just a handful of stores to buy coffee, wine or cheese, and more than 450 acres of undisturbed nature and people in search of a place that's peaceful and quiet.

There is no traffic on this 1.7-mile-long by 0.7-mile-wide island, nor are there streetlights illuminating the night. The roads -- such as they are -- are dirt and gravel and usually wash out when it rains. Not recommended for riding a bike -- though a few people bring them over from the mainland. The only vehicles are a few golf carts and pickup trucks owned by residents and by the inns to carry luggage from the dock to their lodging.

This is an island for walking. Since most of its wide rugged landscape is protected lands, the scenery is pristine. The cliffs, bluffs and wild grasses draw people in search of the unplugged life: nature lovers, birders, hikers, families and artists. The island has a reputation as an artists colony friendly to both professionals and dabblers. When those painters, potters and photographers set up shop here each summer, the population can grow to 500 or more.

Rockwell Kent and later Jamie Wyeth painted here, capturing the landscape, wild sea and village life of the island. Painters still come by the dozens, setting up studios in homes and shacks by the side of the road, and painting outside on easels. On walks around the island, you see them working, capturing on canvas the waves crashing on the rocks at Lobster Cove or a wooden skiff pulled up on Fish Beach.

When the inns fill up, add 300 people to the mix. Another 200 or so day-trippers can come to Monhegan on the ferries that serve as the island's only method of access, but the island's dual pleasures of nature and art deserve a longer stay. With 17 miles of hiking trails and two dozen studios open at various times during the week, you can easily spend days here and not miss the busier life left on the mainland.

My husband and I came to Monhegan on our honeymoon, after a chance meeting in a bar early last year with a longtime island visitor who enchanted us with tales of hiking to a cliff with a bottle of wine and holding a secluded picnic overlooking the Atlantic, and at night taking walks with flashlights. We started researching Monhegan and the main hotel there, the Island Inn, almost immediately after.

The three days we spent hiking Monhegan, eating fish tacos and crab rolls, and sitting with a book and a bottle of wine (we never managed to hike with it) were the perfect follow-up to a week of frenetic wedding activity. We fell asleep by 9:30 p.m., sucked into a deep rest by the stillness of the night and the fluffy duvet in our hotel room.

From our room at the Island Inn, we had a view of Manana, the smaller, nearly deserted island across from Monhegan that appears in many of the paintings set here. The inn has a restaurant on the first floor, and we ate breakfast there, filling up on lobster-spiked eggs before heading out for a day of hiking. One night, we had dinner there, too, and watched the sun set over the ocean as we waited for our table.

Painter Alison Hill, who lives on Monhegan year-round with her husband, says right before sunset is her favorite time to go outside and work because the light is ideal. "That's what draws most artists here. It's cleaner. It's something about being surrounded by ocean."

The isolation of the island is also a draw.

"You're really away from everything -- the cars, the stores, craziness," Hill said. "It's its own little world. Plus, it's beautiful -- the surf, cliffs, water and the little shacks. Everywhere you look there's something you can paint."

You can find Hill and her husband, Theodore Tihansky, painting in the mornings. Typically, Hill said, they'll meet other artists, including painter Don Stone, at the Carina (a pink-trimmed store and community gathering place) around 9 a.m. and decide where to paint that day. Hill and Tihansky will work until about 11:30, and then they'll go to their home in Lobster Cove and prepare to open their studio to the public.

Hill says many of the questions she gets from visitors are about life on Monhegan -- especially in the winter. It's an understandable curiosity -- the island has a small village of about 100 buildings, including a library, church and a one-room schoolhouse. Mostly it's only the lobstermen and their families -- about 70 or so -- who stay here year-round. There is no police station, no hospital or doctor's office (the Island Inn sent us a letter before we came warning us to bring all medications and to reconsider making the trip if we were not in good medical condition).

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