CAMDEN — The particular beauty of a Maine island is unmistakable and rewarding whether the island is many miles out to sea or looming right in the harbor. There are over 4,000 islands in Maine, and almost all of them are covered in moss, fog, berries, and birds. Some are remote and tough to visit. Others are fastened to the land by bridge or causeway. Here are four island adventures that are close to shore but feel like a world away.
CURTIS ISLAND — A PADDLE AND A PICNIC
Curtis is a seven-acre refuge in the mouth of yacht-choked Camden Harbor. It is a perfect destination for a late summer picnic.
First, grab sandwiches and provisions at The Market Basket (223 Commercial St., Rockport, 207-236-4371, sandwiches under $10). If you don’t have a boat, rent one at Maine Sport Outfitters (115 Commercial St., Rockport, 207-236-7120, www.mainesport.com, sea kayaks $50 a day).
Start at Laite Memorial Beach Park on Bayview Street in Camden. From the gentle shore it is a short paddle through rockweeds and over the violet-colored mussel beds to the northwestern tip of the island.
Scramble up the rocks, through a thick hedge of bayberry and Japanese rose, and emerge on a mowed path of soft grass under mature oaks. The path leads to a lighthouse and caretaker’s cottage.
Originally called Negro Island, the rock was renamed in 1934 after Cyrus Curtis, a local philanthropist and publisher of magazines and newspapers including Ladies’ Home Journal and The Saturday Evening Post.
The original lighthouse was completed in 1836. In those days, to make a signal, the light from eight oil amps was bounced against 14-inch reflectors to produce a fixed white light. The keeper lived on the island where he kept a garden and animals and cut trees for firewood.
The current 25-foot-tall lighthouse tower was built in 1896. If the caretaker is around he might open the door. Climb the iron stairs to the top and you can see east all the way to Cadillac Mountain.
From the lighthouse, wander the path around the perimeter of the island. The trail winds under the shade of spruce and fir, through a carpet of blueberry bushes, over wintergreen and reindeer moss, bunchberry and clintonia.
When you’re ready for a break there are plenty of cedar benches that face either out to sea or back toward the harbor and Mount Megunticook in the Camden Hills.
DEER ISLE — A DRIVE TO THE END OF THE EARTH
The village of Stonington on the southern tip of Deer Isle is strategically placed for a world of sailboats and steamer ships. The town was built on granite and cod but then came industrialization and the automobile, and all of a sudden Stonington was at the end of the road instead of right in the middle of it. The graceful village is built into a steep hillside facing the sea. It is best approached from the shore, but these days most people get there on the blacktop.
First, for ballast, stop at El El Frijoles (41 Caterpillar Hill Road, Sargentville, 207-359-2486, www.elelfrijoles.com, all menu items under $10) and dig into a Maine take on homemade burritos, tacos, salsas, agua fresca, and horchata.
When you have loaded up, head for the dramatic, 75-year-old suspension bridge that spans Eggemoggin Reach from Sedgewick to Deer Isle. Drive over the bridge, then over a causeway, drive and drive, and eventually the road ends in Stonington. It feels like the end of the earth. Just because a person drives here does not make Deer Isle any less an island.
Wander around Stonington, then head out along the western shore of Deer Isle to Barred Island Preserve for a ramble.
Drive along the shore, past Allen, Crockett, and Burnt coves, past wharves and towers of lobster traps, past lily ponds and hayfields. Turn down Goose Cove Road, and drive on dirt, cruising past stone walls, old apple trees, and meadows of goldenrod and New England aster. Park on the side of the road and head into the forest and down to the ocean.
Barred Island is a 2-acre island once owned by Frederick Law Olmsted and donated to the Nature Conservancy by his grandniece. It is accessible at low tide by a sandbar.
The trail from the road to the island winds through spruce and fir, the ground a thick carpet of lichens, mosses, and mushrooms. After walking for about an hour through the rain and the mosquitoes, you will reach the shore. At low tide you can stroll over the sandbar. Stand on Barred Island’s dome of pink granite. The sea breeze keeps the bugs away. Harbor seals play in the rockweeds.
ISLESBORO — A PARADISE FOR BICYCLISTS
Islesboro is 14 miles long and in most places about a mile wide. The Native Americans called it Pitaubegwimenahanuk, which means “the island that lies between two channels.” It is a sweet and gentle place, old farmland really, hardly the dramatic cliffs and crashing waves of the outer seaward islands.
Ride the state ferry (www.maine.gov/mdot/msfs/islesboro.html, 207-789-5611, $10 per trip) or water taxi (Quicksilver Maine, 207-557-0197, www.quicksilvermaine.com) from Lincolnville Beach to the island.
Bring your bike or rent one from Maine Sport Outfitters (information above, bikes $20 per day). The ferry ride is just 20 minutes and three miles, but on a foggy day it feels like a journey to a far away place.
The island is nearly flat. Get off the ferry and ride toward the summer colony at Dark Harbor and the town beach at Pendleton Point on the southern tip of the island. Go for a swim, then cruise along East Shore Drive and up island to the more remote northern tip. The Islesboro land trust protects 800 acres and 55,000 feet of shoreline. Look out for sheep grazing and apples ripening, lobster bakes along the shore, and Sunday drivers in their ancient island cars.
If you want to stay out in the bay you can camp just across from the ferry at Warren Island State Park (Lincolnville, 800-332-1501, www.state.me.us/doc/parks/parksinfo/warrenisland/index.html), a 70-acre island with 12 campsites on the shore.
Back on the mainland, reward yourself with a lobster feed at The Lobster Pound Restaurant (2521 Atlantic Highway, 207-789-5550, lobsterpoundmaine.com, $54 per person for the shore dinner).
MALAGA — LIVING HISTORY
The island of Malaga sits at the mouth of the New Meadows River about 300 yards offshore from the village of Sebasco in eastern Casco Bay. On the northern tip of the wild 42-acre island there is a sign of settlement — a heap of shells — a midden bleached pure white from the sun and salt. Beyond that there is a meadow of tall grasses, old apple trees, and overgrown lilac. Beyond the field it is primeval woodland, a dense darkness of spruce, fir, and moss. There are no people, no cottages, no bait shacks, no country churches.
But Malaga was not always a wild place. For 50 years, beginning in the 1860s, Malaga was home to a racially diverse fishing community of about 45 people. The islanders caught groundfish and trapped lobster, picked berries, dug clams, grew vegetables, and kept animals. Malaga was one of the last refuges for poor fishing families around rapidly developing Casco Bay.
The sad condition of the island homes and general squalor of subsistence offended the residents of nearby Sebasco, a burgeoning summer colony. In 1912 the state took over the island, evicted its inhabitants, and threatened to burn any structures that were not removed. The remains of the dead were exhumed and re-interred at the Pineland Cemetery in New Gloucester.
All that remains of the community are the middens, some stone-lined wells, and a handful of artifacts at the Maine State Museum in Augusta: a fragment of a pipe, an iron door hinge, an Indian head penny, a knife handle, a blue ceramic bead.
The island now belongs to Maine Coast Heritage Trust and is maintained as a public preserve. For tours of the island contact Peg Adams (firstname.lastname@example.org or call 207-729-7366).
The exhibit “Malaga Island, Fragmented Lives” runs through next May 26 at the museum (83 State House Station, 207-287-2301, www.mainestatemuseum.org).
Jonathan Levitt can be reached at www.jonathanlevitt.com.