A FEW weeks ago, I sat with a handful of other passengers in the stern of a small mail boat surrounded by packages, mail and other cargo all of us bound from Stonington, Me., to Isle au Haut, a pristine 6,900-acre island some seven miles off the coast of Deer Isle. As we pulled out of Stonington's picturesque harbor, one small island after another drifted by, each covered in the dark spruce forests and granite ledges so distinctive of Down East Maine. While the late afternoon sun hovered in the sky, the haze turned the distant islands of Merchant's Row into dark, shimmering mirages.
Some 45 minutes later the mail boat rounded the northeastern tip of Kimball Island and we slowly headed toward the tiny town dock of Isle au Haut. A stunned silence hung over the boat as we took in our first glimpse of this beautiful and utterly tranquil island. The island's fir-tipped landscape is dotted with a combination of grand old shingled cottages, battered lobster shacks and prim, neatly painted Cape Cod houses set into verdant green meadows rolling down to the ocean.
With about half the island some 3,000 acres owned and operated by Acadia National Park, Isle au Haut is part national park, part wealthy summer community and part working-class fishing village (with approximately 40 year-round residents). In these ways it is not unlike its larger and more populous sibling island to the north, Mount Desert Island, but that is where the similarities end; Isle au Hauters are fiercely protective of their privacy and make no bones about the fact that they do perfectly well without hordes of tourists. Even the name they call their island is assertively independent: islanders pronounce it "eye-la-HOE," to differentiate themselves from visitors who often use the "EEL-a-hoe." As the author Linda Greenlaw, the fishing-boat captain portrayed in Sebastian Junger's "The Perfect Storm" and perhaps the island's most famous resident, says in "The Lobster Chronicles," her recent book about Isle au Haut, "If by any chance, in the course of reading this book, you should fall in love with, or become consumed with curiosity about Maine island life, I promise you that visiting Mount Desert Island, Bailey Island, or Monhegan will surely satisfy both lust and curiosity. People there welcome tourism. They have hotels and restaurants. We have nothing."
Nothing, that is, except Ms. Greenlaw's own childhood summer home, now an inn known as the Keeper's House, and Bel's Inn, a smaller bed-and-breakfast. The mail deposited safely at the town dock, we moved on to the boat's last stop, the dock at the Keeper's House. Again a collective hush fell over the boat as first the spare, white-washed lighthouse and then the inn, a large Victorian house behind the lighthouse, sprang into view atop a cliff.
Within the first five minutes of checking into the Keeper's House (which really was the lighthouse keeper's home several generations ago), I was reminded by the innkeeper, Judi Burke, a thin, middle-aged woman with a kindly, weather-beaten face, that there were no electricity or telephones in the bedrooms, no locks on the door, no private bathrooms and, oh yes, the water was brown. "It's fine for brushing your teeth," Ms. Burke said cheerfully as she led me upstairs to my pretty, simply furnished pink bedroom. "But just don't drink it."
I had known the inn lacked telephones and electricity. Ms. Burke and her husband, Jeff, the couple who bought the keeper's house in 1986 from Linda Greenlaw's family and turned it into an inn, are careful to mention it when reservations are booked. But now the inescapable reality that I was alone on a remote island with strangers, in an unlocked room with no light or phone, threatened to erase all the good island karma I had soaked up on my boat ride over.
Yet one look out the window at the wide open, glimmering ocean just below me and a surge of something was it hysteria? perhaps elation? propelled me down the stairs and out the inn's door. Hopping on one of the inn's bicycles, I rode down the hilly dirt drive through silent spruce woods, onto the island's lone road, which runs for 12 miles around its perimeter. I saw a wild turkey and swerved to avoid two deer, but I didn't see any people. I found the "town," which mainly consists of its dock, a small general store, a Congregational church, a stone town hall and library, and a tiny shed that serves as the post office, deserted but for a lone lobsterman tinkering with his traps on the dock.
Somewhat nonplused by the lack of crowds this is, after all, part of a popular national park I ditched my bike by the side of the road and wandered down into an inviting meadow containing an ancient cemetery and farther on, to a tiny sand beach covered with mussels and seaweed. Two weathered benches sat just above the beach facing Kimball Island, and I fell into one.
What happened next is a bit hard to describe because for a full hour and a half I sat perfectly still and did well nothing. Oh, I listened to the wind brush through the firs. And I watched the waves lap the shore of my little beach. I saw gulls bearing mussels in their beaks drop them on rocks to smash them open, and I marveled as a seal gamboled about in the water right in front of me. With the exception of an occasional "island car," usually a beat-up pickup truck without license plates, passing slowly on the road behind me, I heard nothing but the wondrous, hypnotic sounds of island life. For me, a mother of two wildly boisterous young children (home with their father in Portland), it was like being given an opiate, only the drug was solitude and the more I got, the more I craved.
It was with great reluctance that I dragged myself up off the bench and back onto my bike for the ride back to dinner, which Ms. Burke had told me was served promptly at 7. Dinner was a communal affair: a young couple from Boston, post-doctoral students at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology respectively, were the only other guests that night, and together in the tiny dining room, lighted by an oil lamp and overlooking the sea, we ate a delicious meal of swordfish and grilled lamb. They had stumbled on to the Keeper's House Web site when making plans last winter to tour the Deer Isle archipelago in their double kayak.
AFTER dinner we retired to our candlelit rooms. Mine, which had seemed Shaker-simple by day, with its painted floors, spartan dresser, small wood-burning stove and rather stiff settee, took on a warm glow by candlelight: the comfortable queen-sized brass bed was piled high with warm quilts and cotton blankets, and thanks to the brisk salt air and other sensory overload, I was so exhausted I fell sound asleep almost instantly. I awakened the next morning to the smell of baking oatmeal cookies and stumbled downstairs to a homemade breakfast of granola, French toast, coffee and fruit. Ms. Burke handed us all brown-bag lunches, passed out maps of the island and said goodbye for the day: she and Mr. Burke were going out to work on their boat.
I thought about going hiking. Acadia is famous for its hiking trails and Isle au Haut has some of the most spectacular of all: mossy trails winding deep into the woods and ending atop cliffs with breathtaking views of the ocean. I considered exploring the island's public campground, also part of the national park. But I was feeling lazy, so I walked up along the top of the cliffs next to the lighthouse, found a sheltered rock and sat down with a book. Again the hours flew past; I watched seals, loons and cormorants fishing in the sparkling water before me and listened to the sounds of the water and wind.
On an afternoon walk into town, I finally met an islander. She was a slim woman with gray hair swept up into a messy bun, and she was walking in the opposite direction. Unbidden, she turned around to join me without missing a beat and we walked on together like two old friends. I never knew her name it seemed intrusive and unnecessary to ask but as we walked down the road she told me all I wanted to know about Isle au Haut. I learned the island runs a one-room schoolhouse with some 10 students through the eighth grade. I heard about Isle au Haut's struggle to attract young families the lifeblood of an all-year-round island fishing community to live and work on its barren shores. I learned why there were no ugly mini-mansions: there are no big pieces of land for sale and the island is too hard to get to. I even learned where Ms. Greenlaw lives, although I swore an oath never to reveal her driveway entrance to any other tourist. Most striking of all, for this appendage of Acadia National Park, I learned that the islanders' greatest fear is that their beautiful, jagged rock of an island will one day become, in the words of my new friend, "another Monhegan," meaning yet another beautiful remote Maine island overrun by camera-toting tourists.
"Thank goodness we have the mail boat for a ferry," my new friend shuddered. "People won't come if they can't get here." Or stay here, since the island has fewer than a dozen guest rooms.
And despite my rising shame at being one of the very tourists she derided, I found myself seized by a sudden protective anxiety for the future of Isle au Haut's beauty and serenity. We said our goodbyes and I returned to the Keeper's House to catch my ferry home to Deer Isle and the mainland.
Days later, when friends asked me how my trip had been and where exactly I had gone, I was amazed to hear myself say casually, "Oh, just some inn on an island you never heard of. You wouldn't like it." You can't use a hair dryer. Or surf the Web. You have to share a bathroom. And did I mention the water's brown?
If You Go
The beauty of Isle au Haut is that it is hard to get to. And the problem with Isle au Haut is you guessed it it's hard to get to. But once you are there, you should have no trouble finding things to do. Rangers in the Acadia National Park portion of the island can offer tips on hikes as well as information on flora and fauna.
You can fly to Boston and rent a car; it is about a six-hour drive to the ferry at Stonington, Me. You can fly to Portland and drive three and a half hours to the ferry. Or you can fly to Bangor and drive an hour and a half. The schedule for the ferry, run by the Isle au Haut Boat Company, varies by season. Through Sept. 6 ferries leave Stonington for the Isle au Haut town dock and Keeper's House four times a day. From Sept. 8 through Oct. 11, ferries make three round trips a day. After that, it's two trips a day, to the town dock only. There is also direct ferry service from Stonington to an Acadia National Park campground at Duck Harbor on Isle au Haut, a few miles to the south of the main harbor, running twice a day through Sept. 6. To check, the ferry has a Web site: www.isleauhaut.com.
Where to Stay
The Keeper's House (207-460-0257; www.keepershouse.com) has five guest rooms at prices from $300 to $375. It closes on Oct. 23 this year and is to reopen in late May.
Bel's Inn (612 Seaside Harbor, 207-335-2201) is a private home beside the town landing with two rooms at $250 to $265 a night. It closes for the season on Nov. 15 and is to reopen in mid-May.
Acadia National Park allows overnight camping at its public campground in Duck Harbor on Isle au Haut; reservations must be booked in advance through the National Park lottery system.
There is no restaurant on the island.