Monhegan Island - daytrip report

Old Jun 9th, 2010, 04:55 PM
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Monhegan Island - daytrip report

During our quick trip to Maine (which coincided nicely with a huge need to escape reality - see my "floored" post), we decided at the last minute to take a day trip to Monhegan Island. It's such a weird little place - of great beauty but odd zeitgeist - that I thought I'd write up a few notes.

Getting there: There are ferries from more than one place in Maine, but we took the one from Port Clyde. It's about $36 round trip plus $5 parking. And be aware that getting to Port Clyde is itself a small adventure so allow enough time to get there 1/2 hr. early. There are 3 ferries a day ( 7 am, 10:30 and 3pm) but there's only about a 1/2 hr. turnaround at the other end, so it makes most sense to take the 10:30 am and aim at the 4:30 return. It's about an hour ride in a smallish boat (no cars, just pedestrians), and with any wind at all, it can be a little exciting. We had a following sea coming home, and the engine had to be stopped when a lobster-pot line got fouled in the propeller, leaving us temporarily lurching toward a rocky shoal.

Being there: Stunning vistas and impossibly quaint houses dotting the island, surrounded by sumptuous flowers - lupine, peonies, and a bunch of others whose names I don't know. Best appreciated by those with good shoes, good cameras and/or good joints. A trail map will set you back a very worthwhile $1, and even then, you'll be confused about distances and which path goes where. But finding your way up and down the steep grades amid some lovely houses, gardens, meadows, trees, etc., is the whole point: you get some incredible, unforgettable sea/cliff vistas. That's why you're there.

You are not there, I'm afraid, to eat well, find good local crafts, or - and NOTE THIS WELL - go to the bathroom! Today when we went (pre-season, but still), the only public toilet on the entire island (behind the Monhegan House) was not ready for use, so the only option was to use the single restroom in the Monhegan House dining room - with the kind generosity of the Monhegan House owner/manager. A thousand blessings on him.

Otherwise, not one - NOT ONE - little shop, cafe, studio, public building, gallery, or anywhere else (esp. not on the dock when you arrive after an exciting ferry ride) has a loo available to non-resident tourists. The shop owners say even they go home to pee. (I understand that waste on an island is an issue, but where do they intend we leave our "waste"?)

Now about those shops, cafes, etc. They are oddly duplicative, in 2 categories: small deli-food shops offering very casual food or "gourmet groceries" (cheese chunks and domestic wine or beer) to eat on premises (or maybe take to one's rental cottage) - of which there are at least 3; or a little gift-plus shop, which offers some nominally Maine-ish tourist gewgaws and otherwise a lot of crap stuff from China or India - at least 3 of these. A true local-craft cooperative would be a stand-out here, but no . . .

The Inn and the Monhegan House do serve breakfast and reputedly good dinner but not lunch. Daytrippers are therefore s.o.o.l if they don't really fancy a wrap or sandwich (or, kid you not, a slice of generic pizza - offered at the snack shop behind the Monhegan House where the restrooms aren't but soon should be -- btw that shop does have good ice cream). Inexplicably, when those heading back on the 4:30 ferry gathered to rest and recoop from the somewhat strenuous trail-trekking at the Barnacle snack shop by the dock (run by the Inn), there was almost no food left -- none of the advertised soups, chowders, sandwiches, salads, etc. - only a few muffins and pastries.

The island belongs to the artists (who may want as much $1000 for their work if you buy it from the Lupine Gallery), the gardeners, and perhaps the summer cottage dwellers - who arrive on the ferry encumbered with multiple coolers, boxes of groceries, and leashed or crated dogs. It's a very doggy place, altho most seem to be of the littler breeds.

It's as if the island will tolerate short-stay tourists and want them to spend there, but they are somewhat contemptuous of them at the same time and don't want them to like it too much or be too comfortable.

I've read that people think the inns/B&Bs there are overpriced for what you get. I would certainly believe that, except that the setting IS pricelessly pretty in that spare, white and gray and ocean blue Maine palette, splashed with gorgeous greens and purples and yellows of the trees and gardens at this time of year.

Bottom line: definitely worth the trip, but requires stamina and good planning re: food and toilet issues.

PS: Should you stay the night instead of making it a daytrip? It'll cost you, and you might be at the mercy of Maine's changeable weather - and you may run out of things to do once you've "done" the walkabouts around the island. But at least you'll get a decent breakfast and dinner, perhaps seen sunset and sunrise, and I'd guess a clear night would bring you right close to heaven itself.
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Old Jun 9th, 2010, 05:20 PM
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Thanks for the report. I was there for a day in the 60's and there was even less for creature comforts then, thank goodness the woods were thick! It is very beautiful tho.
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Old Jun 9th, 2010, 06:54 PM
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Thanks for the good info, Cyanna!
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Old Jun 9th, 2010, 08:06 PM
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I read your wonderful trip report with much wistfulness.

A few years ago, I had planned on going to the island myself, in the midst of an extensive New England trip (ME, NH, VT, CT, RI, MA), which began and ended in Boston. Unfortunately, my employer's (at that time) father suffered a severe heart attack and my travels were cut down to only the first long weekend in Boston, as it was uncertain if he was going to make it at that time.

I greatly enjoyed what little time I did have in Boston. A wonderful destination.

I've never yet had the opportunity (timewise) to make that trip, although I still have the itinerary here and contemplate it from time to time. Thanks for the wonderful daydream.
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Old Jun 10th, 2010, 01:27 AM
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Our visit was during the official tourist season and it may have been August or late July. I don't recall any toilet issues. The island may have been more ready for day trippers. There was a tiny but interesting museum that we enjoyed. We also had one of those small world experiences, the docent we talked with was the dept head of the school where my niece teaches and he had hired her.

We took a picnic lunch with us and enjoyed finding a comfortable place on the cliffs to eat and watch young birds. Bring binnoculars.

My take is that there are some places that are not easily accessible nor comfortable because if they were, more people would come and then the original place would no longer be what it was.
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Old Jun 10th, 2010, 02:23 AM
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We intended to go out once, during one of our several stays on the coast, but that day was very foggy, so we called it off.

Just curious: How many people actually LIVE there -- either in the summer or year 'round? Must be an experience!
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Old Jun 10th, 2010, 03:54 AM
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I'm told there are 60 year-rounders. A very rough estimate of the number of houses would be another 50-60. Had an interesting discussion with the Monhegan House owner re: arguments about wind vs. solar power and how the island is "governed" (a mix of local, state and federal).

I understand the idea of not making a place more "comfortable" to discourage an influx they can't or don't want to handle. An obvious "gate" or funnel for control is a small boat that only runs 3 times a day. What's inexplicable is if they are trying to discourage over-influx by limiting sanitary and food facilities and, in particular, offering inauthentic crap for sale.

As for the issue of toilet facilities - only young men or those actually staying overnight on the island will find this no problem. If you can go from 11:30 to 5:30 without needing a loo or only needing one once, well - bless you.

It really is a beautiful place and it's easy for mainlander visitors to imagine they know how an island should be run, I know. I wrote this mainly as a heads-up for those who will be lucky enough to go there for the first time.
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Old Jun 10th, 2010, 03:55 AM
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I think I overestimated the number of houses. Next person there, please count them!
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Old Jun 10th, 2010, 06:02 AM
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I've made two or three day trips to Monhegan, and one overnight, but always during July or August, when things are *slightly* more user friendly.

We take the Hardy boat over from New Harbor, and they always warn you to use the head before disembarking. There's usually a restaurant or two open which will allow customers to use the toilet.

As you noted, the level of the restaurants is not very high, however, there's a little fish store near one of the beaches which will put together a creditable lobster roll and cup of chowder. We stayed overnight at the Island Inn, which is indeed overpriced for what you get, but had a spectacular view over Manana Island towards the Pemaquid peninsula. Dinner was okay, but remember this is Maine, which until recently prided itself on pretty basic fare.

The island is ambivalent about day-trippers, almost grumpy, but the sea vistas from the cliffs have brought me back -- though I might be done, now. There is a small museum at the lighthouse and several of the artists open their studios, but overall I'd say it's not a place to visit if you don't want take at least a short walk to the shore.

As for longer stays, you either have to like finding a quiet spot to read, or want to sketch or photograph or paint the scenes for yourself.

A beautiful, strange place with an interesting history.

Thanks for your report.
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Old Jun 10th, 2010, 09:37 AM
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Its so beautiful that its worth it!
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Old Jun 10th, 2010, 12:16 PM
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Cyanna:

How DO they power the island, generally? Is there a sea cable from the shore? Or a local generator? Or a mix of some wind and some solar?

I would think wind OR solar could be beneficial there, or certainly a mix, except that wind would cause a lot of anger, perhaps among those who do now want their view spoiled by the turbines!

We're going through a lot of that angst here now, too. NIMBY ("Not In My Back Yard!") is very strong in Vermont!
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Old Jun 11th, 2010, 11:38 AM
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My hubby and I went for the first time last September (although we are lifelong New Englanders) and enjoyed Monhegan immensely. It is beautiful. However, unless one is prepared to do nothing but enjoy the beauty, they will have had enough after a few hours. I enjoy hiking and photography, so I was happy. Be prepared to use the head on the boat and be careful how much you drink!
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Old Jun 11th, 2010, 11:46 AM
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I adored this wonderfully honest report!!!
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Old Jun 11th, 2010, 02:12 PM
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A college classsmate used to go there in the late '50s and, at that time, so she said... there was no electricity on the island.
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Old Jun 12th, 2010, 12:24 PM
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It is currently powered by an on-island generator, although I can't tell you what powers that (though I would assume oil rather than natural gas, nevermind coal).

As many have noted, other than photographing, painting, describing or just viewing the considerable beauty of the various overlooks, there's not a lot else to do there. So added comment about traveling: when I've exhausted the usual activities of a place (and have decent command of the language, which I do in Maine), I ask questions of proprietors. The information here about power, debates, governance, toilets, etc., was culled from gabbing with the various shop owners and Mr. Monhegan House. It's a very worthwhile thing to do while traveling, assuming your "sources" aren't busy and you avoid seeming to be poking your nose into stuff instead of genuinely curious about power sources, etc. If you know there's a possible controversy and you don't take sides when you ask a question, you can get some fascinating history.

(PS: About NIMBY-ism -- it's ALL our backyard! And when people howl about "all those awful NIMBYs over there" they are usually just reflecting the same attitude but from a distance - "better their backyard than mine.")
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Old Jun 14th, 2010, 01:04 PM
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Re NIMBY: Our "backyard" concerns here include perhaps spoiling the look of the mountains that we and tourists all enjoy so much.
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Old Jun 15th, 2010, 01:23 AM
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My husband can't remember where we found a public toilet but when I said I don't recall toilet issues it's because we did find something. I keep thinking there were portapotties at the beginning of the trails but there isn't any mention of them on any websites. A google search of "generator monhegan" revealed a story that the generator runs on diesel and most residents are in favor of a wind turbine.
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Old Jun 16th, 2010, 04:13 AM
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Vermonter - you kinda make my point - it's all everyone's "backyard." But there will have to be trade-offs until and unless we want to go back to pre-electricity, pre-steam-engines, pre-central heating and cooling.

dfrostnh - interesting - did you mean the "Waterfront" story? The Monhegan House 'guy' added some further info, however, on certain tensions between those whose businesses and expenses were heaviest in the summer and the year-rounders. I've forgotten how it all shook down, but I believe he was saying that the tax burden to pay for a wind turbine would fall most heavily on seasonal businesses but primarily benefit the year-rounders. I may have that backwards, however.
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Old Jun 16th, 2010, 04:16 AM
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(ref. the "Waterfront" story - which reported a total of 107 votes, which seems to include many more than the year-round residents, but/and perhaps it should if they depend on the seasonal economy and the seasonal residents/businesses.)
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