Ahhhh! The Artists’ Island. Take a walk about Monhegan, and it’s easy to see how it earned that moniker. Everywhere you look is a scene waiting to be painted, and indeed, it seems everywhere you look there’s also an artist painting it.
Monhegan has been attracting drifters and dreamers since the early 1600s. Year round, it’s home to about 75 hearty souls who mostly make their living off the sea, but in summer the population ebbs and flows with the daily boats that ferry passengers from Boothbay Harbor, New Harbor, and Port Clyde.
If you’re a fan of American art, you’ll recognize the scenes: the red house perched on the harbor’s edge, stark Manana Island, the soaring cliffs of White and Black Heads, a rusting ship’s hull, the light and keeper’s house at the island’s summit. Yes, they’re all familiar, painted by Robert Henri, his followers, and those who came afterward: Rockwell Kent, George Bellows, Edwawrd Hopper, James Fitzgerald, Alice Kent Stodard, Reuben Tam, William Kienbusch, and the Wyeths.
The lighthouse now doubles as The Monhegan Historical and Cultural Museum, and it’s well worth the effort to climb the hill to view the exhibits, artifacts, and paintings inside, as well as information on the hermit of Manana, lobstering, and island flora and fauna. Then to step over to the assistant keeper’s house, in which artwork by deceased Monhegan artists is displayed.
Contemporary artists can often be viewed painting all around the island, and about two dozen maintain open studios on a rotating schedule. You can pick up a schedule at the Rope Shed, the island’s version of a daily newspaper.
Beyond artists and dreamers, Monhegan also lures hikers and birders. Although only 1.7 miles long and barely a half-mile wide, the island is laced with 17 numbered and mapped trails providing about 17 miles of hiking. Trails edge the cliffs, pass over hills, cut through fields and through Cathedral Woods. The views are stunning, and for birders, especially during spring and fall flyovers, Monhegan is without par, as it’s on the Eastern Flyway migration route.
It’s easy to lose the crowds and find a place, a rock, ledge, or clifftop perch where you can meditate, gaze into the future and contemplate your existence. Or have a picnic.
Keep in mind there are no cars on the island, there’s only about a half mile of road and a fleet of old trucks owned by lobstermen and those who ferry luggage around for visitors. There are only a few stores, and a couple of galleries besides the artists studios.
Now you want to eat, and while there are plenty of places to pick up a sandwich or picnic fixings, there are only two dining rooms for dinner (Island Inn and Monhegan House) and only one lobster-doesn’t-get-much-rougher shack, Shermie’s Fish House on Fish Beach. Go in and order lobster or a lobster roll or steamers or mussels or chowder or… and take it to the picnic table on the beach. Heaven!
The two inns provide the finest accommodations, but there are other choices including efficiencies, cottages, and a few funky inns. Nothing is ultra fancy on the island, and that’s just the way folks want it to remain.