48 Hours in…Deer Isle

48-hoursAugust 2011 | By Melissa Coleman | Illustration by Josh Brill

48 hours of our favorite places to explore, view, eat, and stay


My first encounters with Deer Isle still define for me this enigmatic island located off the Blue Hill Peninsula in Penobscot Bay. There’s the early memory of paddling toward the coast in a canoe with my mother and sister. We were lost in the fog and had bumped into Deer Isle. That view of the forested shoreline emerging from the mist was as mysterious and welcome to us as it must have been to James Rosier, who arrived by ship from England in 1605 to explore the Maine coastline and for whom nearby Cape Rosier is named. My second memory is of a visit to Haystack Mountain School of Crafts (my mother was taking a class there) and the creative and communal atmosphere that infused the experience. To this day, the vibrant and creative community, coupled with the area’s natural beauty, are what make the island such desirable a place to visit. If you decide to undertake an excursion to Deer Isle, you may find that “we do not take a trip, a trip takes us,” as John Steinbeck wrote in Travels with Charley, which details his own experiences on the island. Here are some highlights from a more recent tour.

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While much has changed since Steinbeck’s visit in 1960, getting to Deer Isle has not. After becoming lost near Bangor and again in Ellsworth (a proclivity I share with the great writer), Steinbeck finally had to ask for directions from a taciturn cop, who pointed the way. “First there was a very high iron bridge, as high arched as a rainbow,” he wrote, “and after a bit of low stone bridge built in the shape of an S-curve, and I was on Deer Isle.” That 1,000-foot suspension bridge crossing Eggemoggin Reach, built in 1939, is still one of the highlights of the trip, especially if you know that, before engineering adjustments were made, the bridge used to roll and sway when you drove over it on a windy day.

The stone S-curve bridge that Steinbeck references still transports you from Little Deer Isle, at the northernmost tip of the island where it nearly touches the mainland, to Deer Isle proper. You’ll pass a lovely open beach, which is a fine place to put a toe into the crisp waters of Penobscot Bay after a long drive. The next stop you’ll want to make is Scott’s Landing, a historic farmstead maintained by the Island Heritage Trust that offers nature walks and bird watching. While you are there, make sure to pick up maps for the Trust’s 12 conservancies and put together a plan to explore them. You’ll want to check out the Barred Island Preserve, which can be accessed at low tide from Goose Cove Road and is a great spot for eagle sightings. There’s also Crockett Cove Woods off Whitman Road in Stonington, known for its fog forest and incredible mosses, and the shoreline walks and historic cellar holes at Edgar M. Tennis Preserve on Sunshine Road near Haystack. The summer schedule of walks and tours includes an expedition to search for migrating shorebirds on August 3, a mushroom walk on August 18, and an exploration of the rocky shore at Scott’s Landing on August 29.

From Scott’s Landing, you can continue on Route 15 or the more meandering Reach Road down to Deer Isle Village. From there, follow Route 15 to Stonington, which sits on an exceptionally picturesque harbor at the very southern tip of the 24,000-acre island. There you’ll find many options for touring the historic working harbor, including Bert & I Charters with Captain Steve. You can also catch a ride with Isle au Haut Boat Services to nearby Isle au Haut, 2,700 acres of which is part of Acadia National Park. Heading back by land on Route 15A brings you to the Island Country Club, which is open to the public for nine holes of golf and lunch in the clubhouse.

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There’s no shortage of arresting, quintessentially Maine views along Deer Isle’s 112 miles of shoreline. The area’s beauty left even Steinbeck at a loss for fresh metaphors: “I can’t describe Deer Isle. There is something about it that opens no door to words.”

In addition to its natural splendor, Deer Isle also offers abundant opportunities for viewing both art and performance. It was in 1961, the year following Steinbeck’s visit, that the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts moved to its current location at the end of the Sunshine peninsula, and opened its doors to artists. The distinctive shingled buildings, designed by the famous architect Edward Larrabee Barnes, were built in 1969 and have since won the coveted Twenty-five Year Award from the American Institute of Architects, a distinction shared with such architectural icons as the Rockefeller Center and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Celebrating its 50th anniversary on the island this year, and its 23rd under the stalwart leadership of Stuart Kestenbaum, Haystack offers a robust schedule of classes in a variety of mediums—all of which are taught by renowned visiting artists from around the world. Haystack’s two-week workshops are open to anyone, and admission comes with the simple but much-loved lodging on campus and includes some of the best meals you’ll ever eat in a school dining hall. The public is invited to Haystack every Wednesday to learn about the school, visit studios featuring work by students and teachers, and attend performances by jazz pianist Matthew Shipp, this summer’s visiting musician.

A number of artists who have taught or studied at Haystack have since made the island their home, and they now contribute to the more than thirty galleries and exhibiting studios on the island. And they’re in good company: a long list of Maine artists have lived in or frequented the area, including Eliot and Fairfield Porter, who visited from nearby Great Spruce Head, and John Marin, who painted in Stonington in the 1920s. The Red Dot Gallery in Deer Isle Village boasts many Haystack connections among its collective of nine Maine artists, as does Turtle Gallery, which features works in all the mediums taught at Haystack, from painting, print, and photography to glass and clay. Pearson Legacy Gallery represents metalsmith Ronald Hayes Pearson, a former Haystack teacher and board member whose work can be found in collections at the Smithsonian Institution and the Museum of Modern Art. Isalos Fine Art is known for its distinguished selection of contemporary art, and the gWatson Gallery features abstract, figurative, and landscape paintings by artists that include Robert Motherwell, Richard Diebenkorn, and Michael Mazur. The Deer Isle Artists Association in Deer Isle Village represents more than a hundred area artists, with new shows going up every two weeks during the summer. And for a bit of local lore, the Deer Isle Granite Museum showcases Stonington’s claim to fame: it was the source of granite for the Smithsonian Institution and John F. Kennedy’s tomb in Arlington Cemetery. Finally, Marlinespike Chandlery’s rope-work crafts highlight the town’s nautical roots.

The 250-seat Stonington Opera House, which was rebuilt in 1912 and is now on the National Register of Historic Places, is the island’s year-round cultural mainstay. This year is Opera House Art’s 12th season of films, dance, theater, and music. Check out the “Live for $5” performances on Wednesday nights.

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If I were ever to become a strict locavore, Deer Isle in summer would be an easy place to eat exclusively locally grown and raised foods. A bounty of vegetables, mushrooms, dairy, and meats from farms around the area are complemented by a daily catch of lobster, shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels, sea urchins, and numerous varieties of fish. Steinbeck found the lobster, which is the island’s largest-grossing product, to be the best he had ever tried: “There are no lobsters like these—simply boiled, with no fancy sauces, only melted butter and lemon, they have no equals anywhere.”

Beginning in May and running to October at the Island Community Center, the long-standing Stonington Farmers Market is open on Fridays from 10 a.m. to noon, and the new Deer Isle Village Farmers Market sets up at the old elementary school parking lot on Wednesdays from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. The popular 250-seat Fisherman’s Friend Restaurant, with its traditional seafood menu, views of the working harbor, and sought-after event space is also open only during the summer months. That said, the strong local community supports many restaurants year-round. In downtown Stonington, you can get breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the Harbor Cafe, which features an old stone fireplace and wooden booths that look out plate-glass windows to the main street. Definitely try the fish-and-chips.

For fine dining, Graham Bolton’s Seasons of Stonington Restaurant, housed in a building with faded shingles and a large deck overlooking the harbor, features a new, casual deck menu that includes a steamed lobster and signature ribs. The dining room is also being upgraded a notch and already has a robust wine list full of Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winners. During the summer, you might also try the Whale’s Rib Tavern at the Pilgrim’s Inn in Deer Isle Village for small plates at the bar and fine entrees in the dining room. For a twist, have a strawberry mojito at the Cockatoo Portuguese Restaurant, located at Goose Cove Resort, and enjoy the views of the cove from the wide windows and deck.Grab a cappuccino and snack at the Inn on the Harbor’s espresso bar, or try Susie Q’s Sweets and Curiosities for baked goods, coffee, and free Wi-Fi. Lily’s Cafe and Wine Bar serves pastries and coffee alongside local and gourmet food and wine. Stonington Ice Cream Company, located next to the library, is the place for a cone, a coffee, or a lobster roll to go. If you’re in the mood to cook for yourself, pick up fresh lobsters, crabmeat, and shellfish at Stonington Sea Products and head to Harbor View Store in Stonington and Burnt Cove Market on Route 15A for groceries and amenities.

Located just up the street from its sister restaurant, one of my favorite stops was the Seasons of Stonington gourmet food and gift shop, which is run by the other half of the friendly English husband-and-wife team of Sue and Graham Bolton. I took home some handmade, painted placemats and a few jars of Deer Island–made Nervous Nellie’s jams. You can find the Nervous Nellie’s Jams and Jellies factory, and its Peter Beerits sculpture park and cafe, on Sunshine Road.

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While Steinbeck opted to stay in his camper Rocinante (named for Don Quixote’s horse), there are many more comfortable accommodations to be found. Pilgrim’s Inn, which has 12 rooms and three cottages in Deer Isle Village, is a lovely, higher-end option listed on the National Register of Historic Places, while the 11-room Boyce’s Motel is an affordable favorite in Stonington. Inn on the Harbor across the street features fireplaces and private decks on the water. Up island, there are 18 cabins at Goose Cove Resort, and Deer Isle Hostel, which is located in a farm setting near Haystack, has both dorms ($25 a person) and private rooms with a shared kitchen. If you would prefer to stay, like Steinbeck, in a camper or motor home, hookups can be found at Greenlaws RV and Tenting, and campers can pitch a tent at Old Quarry Ocean Adventures, an outdoor-adventure center that offers sea kayaking, eco-tours, and sailing excursions.

Call Eddie’s Island Taxi (now owned by Margo) for a ride any hour of the day from the airports on Deer Isle, Bangor, Trenton, and Portland. And in a pinch, I found the Deer Isle Chamber’s website (deerisle.com) to be a helpful listing of local businesses.

“One doesn’t have to be sensitive to feel the strangeness of Deer Isle,” Steinbeck wrote. “It is an island that nestles like a suckling against the breast of Maine, but there are many of those. The sheltered darkling water seems to suck up light, but I’ve seen that before….To put it plainly, this Isle is like Avalon; it must disappear when you are not there….But it stays with you afterward, and more than that, things you didn’t know you saw come back to you after you have left.”

All the more reason to return.

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