ISLESFORD, Maine -- On Swans Island, a fridge at the ferry is stocked with soda, and payment is on the honor system. On Little Cranberry, dockside wheelbarrows can be borrowed to cart supplies and luggage up the hill.
Such simple courtesies have faded from more touristy Maine islands, and certainly from Mount Desert, which is technically New England's second-largest island but doesn't feel like one. Undeniably magnificent, this home to Acadia National Park is mainland-linked, not just by a bridge, but in pace and feel.
It is the little islands off Mount Desert that feel like real islands.
Swans, the biggest of those visitor-friendly isles, is at the mouth of Blue Hill Bay, six miles off Bass Harbor. It's a substantial 7 square miles with a general store (no alcohol), a library, two museums, a couple dozen summer rentals, several places to eat, two bed-and-breakfasts, and a small motel, source of kayaks and rental bikes. The 350 or so year-round residents get by lobstering and doing carpentry and odd jobs for an equal number of summer residents.
Swans Island recently gave up two of its three ZIP codes but still remains psychologically divided into three areas: Atlantic, where the ferry docks; Minturn, site of Quarry Pond and the store; and Swans Island Village, with Fine Sand Beach, picturesque Hockamock Head Light, and Burnt Coat Harbor.
Maili Bailey, who coordinates summer rentals on the island, aptly describes Swans as ''shaped like a flattened-out turkey" and advises that, while the island is served by six daily car ferries, a car isn't worth the hassle and expense unless you are staying more than a few days. A bicycle makes more sense, but only if you are coming for more than one day. The big sight to see -- the lighthouse and its adjoining shore path on the far arm of the harbor -- is more than six hilly miles from the ferry dock.
The 92-foot Gloucester fishing schooner American Eagle is one of several Maine windjammers that gather in Burnt Coat Harbor the first week of August to be serenaded at sunset by folksingers. Later in the evening, passengers join islanders for a performance of the annual Sweet Chariot Festival, a long-established happening staged in the island's high Victorian Odd Fellows Hall with prominent folksingers from throughout the country.
A century ago, Swans and dozens of nearby islands supported sizable populations with granite quarrying as well as fishing. Granite, fish, and all else was loaded aboard schooners, the 16-wheelers of their day.
That era and its decline are beautifully evoked in novels such as ''The Weir," ''Spoonhandle," and ''Speak to the Winds," by Great Gott Island native Ruth Moore (1903-89). Little more than a mile offshore, Great Gott is now strictly a summer island with no commercial enterprises.
From Bass Harbor, Kim Strauss, whose family owns Moore's houses on Gott Island, offers daily Island Cruises around Great Gott and a half-dozen islands east of Swans, to see seals, guillemots, cormorants, and gulls, putting in for lunch at the Dockside Deli in Frenchboro.
Technically encompassing 14 islands, the town of Frenchboro is generally considered the village clustering around Lunt's Harbor on Long Island, a full eight miles off Bass Harbor. A homesteading program has triggered a relative population explosion, from 38 in 2000 to more than 50 year-round residents today, and from one to five schoolchildern. ''Lunt," however, remains by far the most common surname.
Long known for its huge lobster feed on the second Saturday in August, Frenchboro is genuinely visitor friendly. Two-thirds of the island, nearly 1,000 acres, has been preserved and laced with hiking trails, and the Frenchboro Historical Society and gift shop is open most summer afternoons.
Four-hundred-acre Little Cranberry (technically the village of Islesford, Little Cranberry Island) is the smallest of the area's three islands that offer overnight lodging. Just a few miles off Mount Desert's old money resort villages of Southwest and Northeast Harbors, it once had its own hotel and enjoys frequent passenger service.
The official sight to see here is the incongruously formal, brick Islesford Historical Museum, built in 1928 with money raised by William Otis Sawtelle, a Bangor-born, Massachusetts Institute of Technology-educated summer resident, to house his local historical collection. Acadia National Park now maintains the museum, promoting Little Cranberry, population 80, as a day trip. Most visitors also find their way to the island's several excellent craft shops and Danny and Kate Furnald's Islesford Artists Gallery, showcasing Maine island artists.
Islesford Dock, steps from the museum, represents the island's other big draw. Its full frontal view of Mount Desert's magnificent rounded mountains ranks among the most spectacular views commanded by any New England restaurant. The food is fine, the atmosphere like an informal living room, which it is, for this island.
Little Cranberry's other gathering place is Islesford Market, with chairs and counter stools within easy reach of coffeepots. Here, island-bred postmistress Joy Sprague also operates the Joy of Kayaking.
Like all real islands, Little Cranberry doesn't give itself away to day-trippers. Thanks to Frances-Jo Bartlett, it does, however, offer genuine island hospitality and an unusually strong sense of place to those who stay at her Braided Rugs Inn. The inn's namesake rugs were braided by Franny-Jo's mother and the striking turn-of-the-20th-century photos of the island were taken by her grandfather Fred Morse. Recently retired after 31 years as tax collector/treasurer and five years as town clerk, Franny-Jo can tell you pretty much anything you can think to ask about Little Cranberry.
Of course, as on all islands, it takes many walks and conversations to begin to know what questions to ask. Each island has a distinct history and social mix and all real islands welcome visitors on their own terms.
Christina Tree is a freelance writer in Cambridge and coauthor with Elizabeth Roundy Richards of ''Maine, An Explorer's Guide."