2000s Archive

To The Lighthouse

Originally Published April 2001
If you’re looking for breathtaking scenery and rustic seclusion, follow the guiding light to the rugged coast of Maine.

I have been to the Hamptons, where the Range Rovers clog the parking lot of the gourmet grocery store. I have been to Malibu, where the waves roll to the shore wearing a tight crust of surfers. I have been to Cape Cod, where in July one could more easily hand-split an atom than find a parking space. With all due respect to my fellow man, this summer I wanted a different experience with the ocean. I thought of the lonely lighthouse keepers, how all they had to worry about was making sure the lantern was lit, not whether or not their towel was touching someone else’s. I wanted privacy, though not complete privacy. I asked my friend Karl to come with me to the lighthouse.

Maine operates on a very simple algebraic equation: The harder a place is to get to, the less likely people will be to go there. I suppose on some level I must have understood this when I reviewed my itinerary. The layover in Boston was long enough to take a taxi into the city, have crab cakes at the Ritz-Carlton, and do some fast but ambitious shopping. Back at the airport, we were loaded into a bus and driven across the tarmac for so long that the bus driver said, “Surprise! I’m driving you to Bangor!” He was joking, of course, but the plane, when we finally reached it, was smaller than the bus.

Wherever your plane lands in Maine, chances are good it will not be anywhere near the place you actually want to be. Make peace with the map. The job of the average road in Maine is not to provide the shortest distance between two points. The road twists and coils back around on itself, to give you one quick glimpse of the ocean and then send you careening back into the mossy woods, to take you over every tiny stone bridge so that you might have the chance to see a flock of loons settling in on the bay. It’s this kind of beautiful, mysterious driving that reminds us that the point of life is not the destination but the journey itself. By the time we arrived, I felt incredibly grateful for all the unobtrusive and completely clear road signs.

One look at the Maine coastline told me I’d found the combination of ocean and isolation I’d been craving. Every cove I saw seemed dreamier and more deserted than the last. Often the only signs of life were the brightly colored buoys from lobster traps that settled over the water like a plus-size Easter-egg hunt.

The ferry—really the mail boat—to Isle au Haut didn’t leave from Stonington until four-thirty the next day. As luck would have it, our free day coincided with the Eggemoggin Reach Regatta, a wooden sailboat race which starts from Brooklin. Brooklin is a 45-minute drive from Stonington, but if you stood on the shoreline of one it looks as though you could just about hit the shoreline of the other by throwing a rock.

The writer E.B. White, who gave up New York for Maine, once wrote in an essay, “If a man must be obsessed by something, I suppose a boat is as good as anything, perhaps a bit better than most.” He sailed around these islands for most of his life, as did his son. Now his grandson, Steve White, runs the Brooklin Boat Yard.

My friend Karl is as obsessed with boats as anyone in Maine, and so he had made arrangements through a friend for us to sail that day on a 1932 wooden Phillip Rhodes sloop. Fortunately, our host was a painter who wanted to photograph the race instead of compete in it, so for those of us who would rather lie across the deck like a dead flounder instead of manically yank halyards, it was a perfect day of sailing. The rest of the people on board seemed intimately acquainted with every boat in the race, and so the day became a giant floating cocktail party. We waved as the other boats slid past us. “Oh, look,” one woman said, “there’s Wild Horses. Isn’t she beautiful? I love the W class. And there’s Kristina; and see that other boat over there? I dyed her sails.” This was not the America’s Cup: no shouting, no fiberglass, no Ted Turner types. These are the classics, the dream boats. If there is anyplace better to sail than the islands off the coast of Brooklin, Maine, I can’t imagine it.

While we were out, we came so close to Isle au Haut that if we’d thought to put our luggage in the boat we could have swum to shore. Except, of course, that this is Maine, where the ocean is there for looking and not for touching. Our host, a phenomenon of grace and generosity, turned his boat around and sailed us back to the bay so that we could catch a water taxi (one of Dick Pulsifer’s dazzling little Hampton boats that came to us with a corgi named Hudson balanced on the bow) to cover the 100 feet to the dock. Then we drove the 45 minutes back to Stonington to catch the hour-long ferry to take us to exactly where we had just been. Thus is the nature of Maine.

There are five guest rooms at The Keeper’s House, which, as the name suggests, is the house where the lighthouse keeper lived with his family. In 1907, the lighthouse was inaugurated by Esther Robinson (née Hollbrook), who was lifted up by her father on Christmas Eve to light the lamp that kept the boats from crashing into the rocky shore or brought them safely back from sea. The lighthouse is solar now, but it’s still doing its job, flashing every night of every year.

The inn has no electricity, no phones. And there are no other hotels. One was built in 1880 but was later turned into a private home. As it happens, 1880 was the year of peak population on the island—a whopping 274 residents. Half of the island, which is six miles long and three miles wide, is the property of Acadia National Park. About 70 people live there year-round, and the number swells to 400 in the summer. Just to put this in perspective, consider the island of Manhattan, which at 13 miles long and around 2 miles wide packs on an ambitious 1.5 million people. If what you’re looking for is privacy, choose Isle au Haut.

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