Exploring a classic Maine fishing village
To get to Stonington, Maine, from U.S. 1, wind down the Blue Hill Peninsula to Deer Isle on two-lane roads for 38 miles, past blueberry fields, rocky pastures and spruce forests, until the road stops at a snug working harbor on the peninsula’s end, a granite thumb lapped by salty ocean waves.
Stonington, situated at the southern end of Deer Isle, is a quintessential coastal Maine village, named for its granite quarries. And like those formations, which were carved by a two-mile-thick glacier 20,000 years ago, living up north can be hard — especially during the long, cold winter.
But summer brings colorful window boxes crammed with orange impatiens and purple petunias, hydrangea blossoms the size of volleyballs, and sweet aromas of simmering seafood. Signs advertise freshly-picked blueberries, ocean-fresh haddock fillets and fishing gear at the auto store.
Summer is a time of lupines, lobster boat racing and Maine’s iconic bean “suppahs” that draw both locals and those “from aways” who gobble up traditional bean hole beans, coleslaw, pickles and pies.
Fishermen head out at first light in boats with names like Scallowag, Clueless and Wicked Weak Moment.
Stonington’s a slow-paced hamlet of fishing, boating, art and meandering, with many places for quiet reverie along the shoreline, in the woods or about town. And residents want to keep it that way. The threatened “infiltration” of a Dollar Store in nearby Blue Hill prompted vociferous protests.
Part of the fun in Stonington takes place around the town dock. Surrounding waters support a working fleet of more than 300 lobster boats. Stonington claims the title as “the state leader in pounds and dollar value of lobster landings.” You can watch the boats return, help haul out their catch, and buy a lobster fresh off the dock.
In the summer, local captains conduct narrated boat trips laced with the arcana of lobstering. For example, did you know Maine’s favorite crustacean takes five to seven years to reach the legal catch size and, during that time, sheds its shell 25 to 27 times?
On some boat tours, passengers can spot harbor seals lounging around on the granite boulders and hear lighthouse lore, such as the story of the first female lighthouse keeper on Mark Island. Captain Mike Moffett of the Isle au Haut Boat Company chuckled, “A lot of fishermen swung by to say hello. Hello? She had a 45 revolver to ward off the unruly ones.”
The Stonington Lobster Boat Races are a July highlight. High-powered diesel- and gas-powered lobster boats compete for speed, and the winner nabs the Fastest Lobstah Boat Afloat award and the Jimmy Stevens Cup.
The bedrock under Deer Isle is rose-hued granite, formed 360 million years ago. Since the late 1800s, Stonington’s quarries have supplied the stone to historic structures, including President John F. Kennedy’s memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
A statue next to the public landing honors stoneworkers who came to the area in the 1900s from Italy, Scotland, Sweden and other countries to quarry, cut and ship granite around the country.
The Deer Isle Granite Museum honors the island’s quarry workers who “built America’s cities.” In its heyday, Stonington was a “wild west town,” with 50 businesses, says the recorded narration, and the saloons hawked beer at ten cents a glass.
Finding and making art
You can easily fill a day gallery hopping for paintings, weavings, pottery and stone work.
At Marlin Spike Chandlery on West Main Street, Timothy Whitten masters fancy ropework, inspired by the sailors and fishermen who needed tough lines and knots to withstand the seas’ turbulence and vengeance. (A marlin spike is a splicing tool.)
Whitten creates bell ropes, beckets, jewelry and bags from mostly linen and hemp twine. His combo shop-studio is like a museum of nautical gear from sea chests to glass float balls.
The Opera House, also on historic Main Street, is a popular venue for concerts, dance, theater and films year-round. Originally a music and dance hall, the 1886 building has gone through several iterations, including abandonment, but was renovated in 1999.
The Deer Isle-Stonington Historical Society maintains five historic buildings on its site, including an original jail and a house built in 1830. It features exhibits of 19th century clothes and fishery and marine transportation memorabilia. It is open to the public from June 16 to September 16.
On Stinson Neck overlooking Jericho Bay is Haystack Mountain School of Crafts — an artist’s rustic haven of 40 quiet, mossy, wooded acres offering workshops in pottery, metalwork, bookmaking, weaving, ceramics, wood, blacksmithing, glass blowing and other arts. Students can have 24-hour-a-day immersion in their passion. You don’t need a watch here, staff say.
Another example of local creativity can be found at Nervous Nellie’s Jams & Jellies, “a cottage industry in a cottage,” where Anne Beerits produces 15 flavors of jam, chutney and marmalade in her small kitchen — 40,000 jars a year.
Her husband Peter gives tours of a whimsical sculptural village he has created over the past 30 years from discarded items found around the island. It’s a quirky mishmash that won Yankee magazine’s “Best of Everything” award in 2010 and 2013.
For landlubber outdoor types, several nature preserves invite quiet ambles. The Island Heritage Trust’s walker’s map has trails through the woods and along a rocky coast.
At the Barred Island Preserve, the walk “rewards mightily, especially when a storm blowing hard from the south pounds pretty respectable waves on the shore,” according to its brochure. Savvy trekkers time their visit to watch waves simultaneously cover a sandbar from both directions, known as the “zipper effect.”
Another favorite is Isle au Haut, a six-mile ferry trip from Stonington, with 18 miles of trails, rocky shorelines, cobblestone beaches, evergreen forests, marshes and a lake.
Dining and downtime
As for dining, restaurants like Aragosta serve ocean-to-table dishes such as Blue Hill Bay oysters and mussels, Gulf of Maine hake and Stonington lobster tortellini.
Restaurants also specialize in delicacies made from blueberries, the state’s famous fruit — blueberry pies, cobblers, buckles, syrup, wine, jams and ice cream toppings.
All around town, fresh lobsters are steamed, stewed, casseroled or lumped on a hot dog roll — genuine Downeast Maine cuisine.
So, what’s the best reason to visit?
There’s something about the quiet here. On most days, the tide creeps in and bathes the rocky shoreline. A cottony, gauzy fog can feel like a warm blanket.
“We have a relationship with the fog,” said Marissa Hutchinson, a staffer at Island Heritage Institute. In Maine, “it’s beautiful and low key, a slower pace. Down here, we don’t have immediate access to a lot of things, but we learn we don’t need as much.”
If you go
The closest airports are in Portland, 160 miles away, and Bangor, Maine, 58 miles away. The least expensive round-trip airfare to Bangor in April is $730 on American Airlines from D.C.-area airports.
The Deer Isle Chamber of Commerce, deerisle.com, has an online island guide, lodging options and maps.
Stonington’s Inn on the Harbor has 13 rooms with decks offering views of the bay, islands and waterfront.