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A world apart

Email|Print| Text size + By Judith Gaines
Globe Correspondent / July 10, 2005

BAILEY ISLAND, Maine -- Bailey Island, along with Great Island, Orr's Island, several smaller islands in Casco Bay, and the Harpswell peninsula, belongs to the town of Harpswell, which claims to have more coastal miles than any other community in the nation. Its 217 miles of shoreline sweep along dozens of coves and inlets, jut around promontories, cling to necks of land so narrow that from almost any vantage point you can see water. Among the pleasures of exploring this place are the seaside vistas that appear at almost every turn, and nearly every water view has islands in it.

Bailey is one of the northeasternmost islands in Casco Bay, which boasts more islands than any other body of water in the country. Even at high tide, at least 222 of them ''are big enough for a man to get out and stand on," state officials like to say. Bailey Island is a bit bigger than many and, unlike most of the others, is accessible by bridge. Still, it is a small island -- just 2.4 miles long, barely a half-mile wide at its widest point, with about 500 year-round residents. Roughly a 2 1/2-hour drive from Boston, it feels very much like a world apart.

Visitors should be warned that it lacks the trappings of a tourist town. In fact, it lacks the trappings of any town. Its only public buildings are a post office, a fire department, and a few churches. Other than summer lodgings and places to eat, commercial establishments here consist of some weathered fish shanties, a real estate office, a nursery, and a gift shop on the southernmost tip, called Land's End. You have to go to another island or to the mainland to buy gas or groceries. For that matter, you have to go elsewhere even to see a traffic light.

''The thing to do on Bailey Island is do nothing," says Chris Coffin, 45, a lobsterman and co-owner of the Giant Stairs Takeout. ''That's what it's famous for. Relax and breathe the sea air."

Bailey Island does have one pretty little pocket beach, several interesting trails, terrific scenery, good bird-watching and boating opportunities, and a couple of natural wonders. It's a splendid spot to spend a weekend if you're happy kicking back, looking out to sea, and getting to know a slice of bygone Americana.

It's the kind of place where locals leave their keys in the ignition when they stop to get a bite to eat, and few people lock their doors.

''It's nice to know that you're safe and wanted and part of," says Laura Evans, 39, a sixth-generation native. ''And we're good about making visitors feel that way, too."

It's the kind of place that's so small that, if a siren goes by, everyone worries.

''If I walked out into the parking lot and yelled 'Help!' I'll bet 15 trucks would show up right away," adds Sue Favreau, 54, co-owner with her husband, Neal, 51, of the Log Cabin Island Inn. ''This is the authentic Maine: safe, laid-back, homey."

Once it was Newaggin, a Native American name for the place frequented in spring by a branch of the Abenakis known as the Nequssets. Europeans began settling the area in the 1730s and '40s. Among the first of them was Timothy Bailey, a parish deacon who built a garrison to protect colonists from the Indians. The island is named for him.

On many maps, Bailey Island looks something like a lobster, and for much of its history the inhabitants have been lobstermen, fishermen, and boat builders drawn to the natural harbors and coves, along with a few teachers, preachers, farmers, and a scattering of odd but entertaining con men, artists, and visionaries.

It was the home of the fellow called the Acaraza Man, for instance, who said he could make silver coins from morning dew. He formed a corporation for that purpose in 1801. The business failed, but not before he collected fees from several naive investors and then fled with their money.

Bailey Island claims an assortment of pirates, including at least one who left a kettle of gold coins hidden in a hole by what are known today as the Cedar Ledges. The coins were discovered in 1840 by a man who sold them in Boston for $15,000, according to The Casco Bay Breeze, a local newspaper.

In 1888, a steamer out of Portland began stopping at Bailey Island, and with it came a small but significant tourist trade. By the turn of the century, there were seven summer inns or boarding houses, as well as some beach cottages. Gradually, the area became a modest summer resort, but it was a resort without electricity or running water, so outhouses served as toilets and most water had to be lugged. Still, it attracted some stellar and devoted visitors.

Poets Robert Tristram Coffin and Edna St. Vincent Millay spent summers in the area, as did composers Irving Berlin and R. Huntington Woodman, painter Xanthus Smith, and sculptor George Barnard. The island had its own little version of Brook Farm, a socialist utopia with a ''share and share alike" philosophy. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung even gave his first seminar in America, on dreams, here at Library Hall.

Over the years, Bailey Island has been home to George Root, who wrote ''The Battle Cry of Freedom"; lobsterman and hammer-thrower Edmund ''Rip" Black, who became the first Mainer to win an Olympic medal; and Elroy Johnson, a lobsterman who modeled for ''The Maine Fisherman," a well-known sculpture honoring the independent spirit of Maine residents, especially those who have devoted their lives to the sea. A bronze copy stands by the gift shop at Land's End.

After World War II, the number of resort hotels declined as more families opted for summer cottages or pursued vacationing opportunities elsewhere. By the 1960s, second homes exceeded year-round residences by nearly two to one. But tourism has always been held in check, even at some cost to the local economy.

In 1966, for instance, the town refused a $250,000 federal grant to create 18 public, scenic vistas and pocket parks along Route 24, which would have been dubbed ''The Shellfish Trail." Twenty years later, the town also rejected a plan for a major expansion to Mackerel Cove, including a new 120-seat restaurant, a store, and many more boat slips. In both cases, locals said they didn't mind a few tourists, but they didn't want Bailey Island ''to become another Boothbay Harbor."

Today, the island remains a lobstering center, as you can see from the piles of lobster traps sitting by many homes. More retirees are settling here. And it continues to lure tourists -- or visitors, as locals prefer to say -- in moderation. Not surprisingly, perhaps, its attractions are often not well marked, and its charms can seem quirky.

One unusual but easily visible feature is the cribstone bridge linking Bailey Island to neighboring Orr's Island. Completed in 1928, it is made from huge granite slabs fitted together without mortar or cement in an odd, cribwork style allowing tidewater to pass through. It looks something like an open, elongated, sideways checkerboard.

Part of the island's peculiarity also lies in its geography. Like all of Maine's finger peninsulas, Harpswell is characterized by long and narrow land formations, with roadways that link the peninsulas to the mainland more conveniently than to one another. Locals say they can almost call across the water to each other but must drive many miles to shake hands. Sectional loyalties within the town are fierce.

''We say that the best thing about their side is that they can see our side," quipped Dain Allen, 69, a fisherman and third-generation native who owns a fish house and outdoor eatery at Lookout Point.

The island boasts what some claim is New England's most perfectly horseshoe-shaped harbor at Mackerel Cove. There's a small, sandy beach, almost hidden on the island's northern coast. There also are several trails -- along the ledges to Giant Stairs, for instance. On a nice day, locals like to buy a bag lunch at the Giant Stairs Takeout nearby and eat it on the rocks or at a small park by the cove.

Tourists who feel like venturing off island may enjoy the Cliff Trail on Great Island, behind the town hall offices. The trail leads to some ''fairy building zones" where schoolchildren have made charming fairy homes out of bark, shells, and other natural materials. There's also an interesting, 100-year-old store -- Watson's General Store -- and an entertaining twofer, Hawkes' Lobster and Gifts, in Cundy's Harbor, at a southern tip of Great Island. Hawkes's gift shop has a lobster tank smack in the middle, with buoys, sculptures, and other gifts perched on a ledge above the lobsters.

Several companies offer cruises around Casco Bay, or sportfishing charters. You can also take a boat ride to nearby Eagle Island and visit the restored home of Arctic explorer Robert E. Peary.

But most visitors and locals seem happy just walking along island lanes. And the favorite pastime of all may be sitting on porches or decks or some other perch along the shore. Like contented seals on their favorite rocks, islanders bask in the sunshine and gaze out to sea.

Judith Gaines is a freelance writer in Boston.

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