Ride the Maine Ferries to the Islands

It's one of Maine's better kept secrets, but those who know the Maine ferries have ready access to the special world of Maine's unique island communities.Realizing that the continued viability and survival of secluded island communities required a year-round ferry service, the state of Maine created a system of boats and routes that carries cars, trucks and passengers to and from island destinations inexpensively and dependably. 

The best place from which to begin exploring the islands is the ferry terminal in downtown Rockland, which is the mainland gateway to three of these special places: Vinalhaven, North Haven and Matinicus.

Vinalhaven is the largest of Maine's 14 year-round island towns. Fifteen miles off the coast, in a way it's like Maine's own Bermuda: mopeds are available for rental to visitors, meaning that you don't need to bring your car with you to explore this large island. Keep in mind safety, of course. Stop and pull off the road to admire the scenery. The village of Vinalhaven itself is located on the southern shore of the island, and this is where the ferry docks after making a passage through classic Pine Tree State scenery of evergreen islands and lobster buoys. Despite its ready accessibility to tourists, lobstering is the most important part of Vinalhaven's economy. A K-12 school means that island students don't have to leave the island to complete a high school education, as is necessary in some other towns on the coast.

Close to the northern shore of Vinalhaven Island, yet quite separate from it, lies the island of North Haven. This picturesque spot has fewer than 400 year round residents, growing to more than 2,000 in the summer. Traveling aboard the Captain Neal Burgess, many of the summer residents have been coming here for generations and bringing their wealth with them. There are many large and beautiful cottages in the grand style to be found here.

And then there's Matinicus. Life in most of coastal Maine is firmly in tune with the 21st century, but Matinicus is the most remote community in the state. From here you can see what once was an even more remote village, Criehaven on Ragged Island, but it wasn't able to survive as a year-round entity as Matinicus did. Matinicus is tough and rugged, firmly focused on its lobstering. The ferry from North Haven is a lifeline, but it doesn't run daily. Instead, it makes the 23 mile, two and a quarter hour passage several times a month, so this is one island visit that definitely requires preplanning.

The next ferry, 15 miles up the coast from Rockland at Lincolnville Beach, is just the opposite. The Margaret Chase Smith only takes 20 minutes for each three mile crossing to the 12 mile long island of Islesboro and runs hourly, so a casual trip over and back can be a spur of the moment decision. You can take a vehicle over and explore the extended length of the island, or just walk on board for the ferry ride itself. The pier at Islesboro is at beautiful Gilkey Harbor, flanked by Grindle Point Lighthouse, which offers a marine museum in the keeper's house. Today, celebrities like John Travolta and Kirstie Alley summer on Islesboro, but it was once the homeport of Maine's largest merchant sailing fleet.

The final two islands serviced by state ferries are Swan's Island and Frenchboro. The same boat, the Captain Henry Lee, visits both places from its base at Bass Harbor on the southwestern corner of Mount Desert Island. To take this ferry, you first need to be on an island. But Mount Desert is connected to the mainland by a two-lane bridge, which you'll cross with the hordes of people driving to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park. After crossing the bridge, though, you'll be striking off down the quiet side of Mt. Desert to Bass Harbor.

Swan's Island, six miles and 40 minutes out, is the larger of the final two destinations. The first known European visitor was Captain John Smith in 1614, although Native Americans summered here for centuries. The island's 7,065 acres are nearly split asunder by Back Cove and the intriguingly named Toothacher Cove, which are separated only by a narrow neck you can cross. There are 327 year-round residents, but the statistics indicate change. In 1980, there were 185 year-round homes and 157 seasonal residences, but in 2000 there were 161 year-round homes and 260 seasonal residences. This is a common pattern on much of the coast, but it hasn't overwhelmed the look and feel of Swan's Island the way it has in parts of southern Maine. Bring a bicycle over to explore the convoluted shoreline and the winding island roads.

Finally, there's Frenchboro, 8 ¼ miles and 50 minutes out of Bass Harbor. This is a fishing community, pure and simple, on Long Island. It has struggled for decades to survive as a community, focusing effort on maintaining enough children to keep its one room schoolhouse operational. Only the Friday passenger-only ferry makes the round trip to and from on the same day, so if you want to visit, do it on Friday. There's a bed and breakfast on the island but no general store, so bring your own supplies and don't expect tourist entertainment. Instead, enjoy the rare opportunity to soak in the look and feel of a Maine island community, imagine the hardiness required to live here, and be glad that Maine provides a way, through its ferry service, for you to see places as rare and beautiful as these.

Article provided by Homesteader

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