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Drawn to the quiet

To hear winter's tides and marvel at the splendor of snow and ice

Email|Print| Text size + By Nancy English
Globe Correspondent / January 1, 2006

STONINGTON, Maine -- The sense that the sea is a living thing is never stronger than in winter. Watching nightfall descend through a picture window; seeing the shivering surface of the water turn silver; looking up at massive clouds pulling across the sky. These are the winter pleasures of a stay in Stonington.

With most shops closed, this town tucked into the south end of Deer Isle, an hour's drive from Coastal Route 1, feels as quiet as the abandoned quarries that made its first fame. But all winter, the Inn on the Harbor welcomes visitors, who find a room with an unequaled view and the kind of quiet that makes you hear again.

Inn owner Christina Shipps spent 25 years working in the high-end jewelry trade, traveling often to Asia from a home in New York, before moving to Maine.

''I used to come here when there was a blizzard, to watch the snow," she said. In the years she suffered from jet lag from all her worldwide travel, Shipps came often to Stonington, where she stocked up on crabmeat, lemons, and cold wine, built a fire in the fireplace -- and sat still.

''The harbor is constantly moving, tides changing and ice forming, snow falling," she said. ''It was just the antidote I needed to come back to myself." In June 2001, she stayed put.

If you know how to love being quiet, Stonington will match your mood. Perhaps all the granite underneath its humpbacked hills, some of which was used to build Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, helps keep the atmosphere here so tranquil.

In my room, called ''The Heritage" after a schooner that sails into Stonington, a chaise lounge covered in faded, flowered cotton made a primo seat for the spectacle of the harbor.

After the curtain of dark turned me away from the landscape, I turned another easy chair to face a fireplace made of small granite bricks. A basket of newspaper and kindling was ready for my fire-making, and logs were stacked to burn through a few hours of the night.

First, though, I had an appointment at a tiny white house a five-minute walk down the street. Charlotte Davis operates her massage business here summer and winter. A fisherman's wife, Davis was a cook at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, which holds workshops and seminars throughout summer, when she found herself working on the sore hands of all those crafters. She got her start in massage getting paid with their work. A stained glass piece hangs in her massage studio, with red hands meant to illustrate how warm her hands are.

Davis has traveled to Hawaii in the years since, training in Tahitian massage and adopting hot stone techniques with handy Stonington granite, smooth as silk from its years on the beach. Her fingers are strong and warm; what the silence started she made deeper.

Leaving her house in the dark, I encountered small groups converging at the Harbor Cafe, where the Friday night fish fry was well underway. Although on this particular night, one seat was available for a visitor who had no reservation, a reservation is preferable.

Last fall, residents voted to end a half-century ban on serving liquor. The Harbor Cafe expects to receive a liquor license early this month, but call to confirm; if the process is held up, you can bring your own.

Fried fish ($9) and shrimp ($11) come with free seconds -- but the white board warns, ''No doggie bags on seconds." Fried clams are $15, hot and crunchy with fine sea flavor, and scallops are $17, but there are no free seconds on these because, the waitress said, ''They're so high we're losing money selling them."

The seafood is fresh, and a cruet of white vinegar sharpens the taste.

On Wednesday and Thursday nights, you can dine simply and well at Lily's Cafe, a short drive out of town on Route 15. This is also the place to head for fine breakfasts or a good lunch, but it is not open on weekends.

Luckily, I had brought along a bottle of Pindar late harvest Gewürztraminer, from Long Island, N.Y., and a wedge of Gorgonzola with crusty bread; supplies from home are a good idea. After I had the fire crackling back in my room, I enjoyed my dessert of cheese and wine, buoyant with all the relaxing I had done.

Supplies for simple meals can be found near the inn at the newly opened Harbor View Store on Atlantic Avenue. The crabmeat and lemons Shipps favored are here, as are sandwiches, pizza, soups, and a modest selection of wine that won't improve until the summer folks return. It's open daily 4 a.m.-9 p.m. in winter.

For a more elegant dinner, Blue Hill, a 40-minute drive north on Route 15, offers two good restaurants. The Wescott Forge serves lunch upstairs and dinner downstairs, where some tables hover over an icy river. Pan-crisped duck breast with cider-braised cabbage and ricotta mashed potatoes for $19 was one temptation on a winter menu. Arborvine, which is open Friday-Sunday evenings only in winter, makes a rack of lamb crusted with basil and pine nuts for $29, and seared diver's scallops, favored by the chef for their large size and sweet taste, in season. Both places have good wine lists.

Most of the stores on Stonington's short Main Street close for winter, but a few galleries keep regular winter hours, like D Mortenson Gallery, where you can see colorful fanciful art by Debi Mortenson. Other artists are willing to open a gallery to a visitor who calls in advance.

Nervous Nellie's Jams and Jellies (Sunshine Road, 800-777-6845 or 207-348-6182) will accommodate a visitor with a ''mutually acceptable time," when you can purchase some of their blueberry-ginger conserve and take a look at large metal sculptures of animals in the yard and studio made by Peter Beerits.

But another kind of gallery is open to anyone who looks out the window of the car. Among the lichen-wrapped tree trunks stand the simple farmhouses that are the gold standard of rural Maine architecture, some embellished with columns to create a Greek Revival look, but all wearing steep roofs that shed the snow.

The noisiest part of the drive to Stonington is over the metal bridge at Eggemoggin Reach, which connects Little Deer Isle to the mainland. There, before you reach the causeway that connects Little Deer Isle to Deer Isle, where Stonington lies at the end of Route 15, you pass Harbor Farm Store, which carries gorgeous tiles, some delicately etched with ferns and one with a bas relief of leaping hares. If you aren't interested in retiling your bathroom, the store also sells velvet ribbon for academic robes, and charming ''rescued" piano ivories that have been turned into bookmarks, with a simple drawing of a flower, or a few choice words inscribed on the smooth creamy slice of tusk that was once headed for the dump.

Contact Nancy English, a freelance writer in Maine, at nenglish@maine.rr.com.

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