WINTER HARBOR, Maine -- For at least its first 100 years, this community was known as "Mosquito Harbor." That tells you a lot .
Today it remains rural, eclectic, and blessed with the kind of deadpan literalness than some people have come to associate with Down East Maine.
Despite, or perhaps because of, that discouraging early name, the village has attracted a large number of unusual individuals, and even some celebrities. Its first resident was a free black man named Thomas Frazier, who built a salt works and raised nine children by the ocean's edge in the late 1700s. Others who have lived or summered here include singer Nelson Eddy, actress Margaret Sullavan , the personal physician to reclusive entrepreneur Howard Hughes, and domestic diva Martha Stewart .
My favorite is Frank J. Hammond, a native who believed he could improve the local climate -- and that in much of New England as well -- by building a huge dam and wind channel on the Gulf of St. Lawrence . He aimed to send cold Arctic currents back where they came from. He died, unsuccessful but visionary, in 1947.
The biggest change for locals occurred at the end of the 19th century, when wealthy investors decided to develop a summer colony -- including about 40 expansive "cottages," a hotel, casino, and golf course -- on Grindstone Neck , a shovel-shaped peninsula on the community's western edge. This spurred residents of Mosquito Harbor, which technically had been a village of Gouldsboro , to vote in 1895 for status as a separate town. Their hope was that increased revenue from property assessments on the Neck would decrease everyone else's tax burden. They called the new town Winter Harbor because its sheltered harbor never freezes, remaining navigable even in the worst weather.
Today, Winter Harbor boasts nearly 1,000 residents in its 66- square-mile territory. About 78 percent of this area is water, and much of the land is island. In fact, the town includes 18 islands. Among them are Yellow Island, which to many eyes has a yellowish cast (although others insist that it's red and therefore call it Red Island); Spectacle Island, which sort of resembles a pair of eyeglasses; Flat Island, with no hills; Mark Island, which marks the entrance to the harbor; and Egg Island, where locals once gathered gull eggs.
At the eastern edge of town, the only mainland section of Acadia National Park , the Schoodic Peninsula is the chief tourist attraction. Its 2,000 acres are more remote and less well known than the larger part of the park on Mount Desert Island , but to many eyes the land and seascapes are equally beautiful. One of the first proprietors, John G. Moore, (whose descendants gave most of the land to the US Department of the Interior) cherished it as one of the few places in the world "where the mountains come down to the sea."
A six-mile road loops around the edge of the peninsula, with stellar views of shore and sea, as well as some salt ponds, a rocky outcropping called Devil's Anvil , and a scenic point where waves break against granite ledges and lobsterers periodically stop to check their traps. It's a storied, romanticized region, complete with its own sea monster (who reportedly hangs out in the salt ponds), a boogie man (who allegedly lives in caves by Devil's Anvil), and a spot near Blueberry Hill that some locals believe has healing powers.
The park also includes several interesting hiking trails. One fairly strenuous 2.3-mile loop called the Anvil Trail climbs up over rocks and tree roots past the Devil's Anvil to the top of Schoodic Mountain , with several spectacular overlooks, and then drops down through a forest of birches and pines to a flat path through a pleasant field of alders.
During our visit, Diana Lu , 38, of Boston, was hiking the Anvil loop. She was staying in Bar Harbor but came to the Schoodic Peninsula because she heard that its trails were beautiful and less crowded than on Mount Desert.
On a ledge overlooking the sea near Blueberry Hill, Barbara Hadowanetz , 42, and her partner, Rae Urban, 38, were celebrating their commitment to each other in a "hand-fasting" ceremony. This is a pagan ritual, they explained, in which ribbons are placed around a couple's hands and they literally "tie the knot" symbolizing the joining together of souls. The park is a special place to them, Hadowanetz said. They love lunching on the rocks and watching the waves crash.
About a half-hour's drive from Winter Harbor is the Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge in Milbridge. Here the diverse habitat includes a coastal forest of spruce and jack pine, a cedar swamp, several beaches, and offshore islands that are nesting grounds for more than 100 species of birds, including puffins and arctic terns. Deer, fox, snow hare, and black bear also inhabit the refuge. Its trails include a gentle, 1 1/2-mile seaside loop named for artist John Hollingsworth, who spent 10 years photographing the area's beauty.
Nearby in Gouldsboro is Bartlett Winery, with attractive gardens and a popular tasting room.
Winter Harbor is a pleasant, compact town with an attractive stone library, a 5 and 10 cent store, several art galleries, an IGA grocery, a gift shop specializing in jewelry and other decorative art made from sea glass, and two very good eateries: Fisherman's Inn Restaurant, specializing in seafood that the owner smokes himself; and J.M. Gerrish Provisions and Cafe, known for its espresso, pastries, and light deli fare.
Our lodging during our visit was an old boathouse, circa 1880, at the Main Stay Cottages in Winter Harbor. The boathouse had been modestly renovated to include a small bedroom and kitchen with a sink that doubled for bathroom use. Kitchen appliances seemed a bit shaky, and the proprietor casually observed that she "had been having trouble" with the old coffee percolator. But a nice deck was perched on pilings right on the water, with interesting views of the harbor and the town, and the boathouse exuded a funky, rustic charm.
Just before leaving town, we headed to Grindstone Neck to see the cottages that were part of the 1890s summer resort. Most of the original structures remain: large, shingle-style homes of wood and stone with big fireplaces and expansive piazzas overlooking the sea or landscaped lawns.
On a rocky point at the end of the Neck, Connie Knuppel and some friends were enjoying a gourmet picnic lunch and sunny, spectacular views of the island-dotted ocean. "This is the most beautiful place," Knuppel said, sipping a glass of wine, "and no one knows about it."
Judith Gaines, a freelance writer in Maine, can be reached at email@example.com.