PORTLAND, Maine (USA TODAY/Nancy Trejos) — Michael Gale and Lynsay Erin arrive here during their road trip through New England in search of the best lobster roll, but immediately decide to abandon their car.
Instead, they hop on a ferry and head to Chebeague Island, about 10 miles off the coast of Portland in the Casco Bay.
This tiny island, just three miles long and one mile wide, is so charming that their one-night stay turns into three nights.
Embraced by locals, including a lobster fisherman who invites them into his home when the Chebeague Island Inn is sold out for the weekend, they attend a dance at the Town Hall, where I join them for a few songs.
“We were there for 12 hours, and it felt like we had been coming to that island all our lives and knew everyone,” says Erin, who lives in New York City. “Everything seemed to work at this lovely pace.”
This is island life off the coast of Maine. There’s no need for cars or frills, just a hearty appetite and a willingness to talk to anyone.
It’s hard to believe that Chebeague Island, with its 341 year-round residents, is just 10 miles from Portland.
Then again, Portland, with 66,000 residents, isn’t exactly a huge metropolis. Making things easier still, I forgo the stress of driving or flying from New York and instead opt to travel on a package deal via the Amtrak-operated Downeaster.
“We have developed (the packages) to be completely car-free for those who don't want to drive their entire itinerary,” says Steven Grasso, president and CEO of North American Traveler and Downeaster Travel Packages.
Portland in the last few years has become a foodie destination that elicits comparisons to that other Portland on the other side of the country.
“It’s become a mecca on the East Coast in terms of foodie culture,” says Christopher Harris, chef and owner of Crooners and Cocktails, a supper club near the Portland harbor. “There are so many styles and nationalities. You can find anything here.”
Chef Emil Rivera, originally from Puerto Rico, is producing interesting tapas such as zucchini cacio e pepe at Sur Lie. Chef Josh Berry at trendy Union at the Press Hotel is whipping up beautiful seared cod with lobster and clams, among other dishes.
But far from the bustle of the Old Port District, you can also find a burger pizza at Samuel’s Bar and Grill, an unfussy local sports pub. And Mike Nappi, chef at Fishermen’s Grill, a takeaway seafood shack that accepts only cash or local checks, is making fried oysters and clams as well as 10-ounce lobster rolls.
“Having this many restaurants helps you keep your game up,” Nappi says.
Beyond food, Portland is also home to some great art. The Portland Museum of Art has more than 18,000 works by such greats as Claude Monet and Andy Warhol. Downtown Portland is also where the Victoria Mansion stands, a beautiful Victorian-era house museum.
To familiarize myself with the city, I hop on a 105-minute trolley tour that takes us to the Portland Head Light, Maine's oldest lighthouse.
Narrator J.J. Jenkins shares all sorts of historic and pop culture details about Portland, such as the fact that Bette Davis had an estate in nearby Cape Elizabeth. He also quotes poetry from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who lived there as a child.
The next day, I leave the Portland Harbor Hotel in the Old Port District for its sister property, the Inn at Diamond Cove on Great Diamond Island, 3.1 miles away by a Casco Bay Lines ferry. Great Diamond Island is considered to be within the city of Portland.
Janii Laberge, from South Portland, and Miles Parker, who lives in Munich but often returns to Portland, are on their way to Long Island, another one of the about 200 islands in Casco Bay.
“It’s only an hour away, and I’m elated at the moment,” Parker says.
On Long Island, he says, the sand is white and the water is clear. “If you come here in August, you can use your imagination and be in Mykonos without the crowds.”
I bid them farewell when my ferry drops me off at Diamond Cove.
An artists’ retreat at the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. government transformed Diamond Cove into a military base during the Spanish-American War from 1898 to 1902. A fort was built there and named for President William McKinley. It was no longer needed by the end of World War II. Since then, various developers have worked to transform it back into a community that supports the arts and tourism.
The officers’ quarters and barracks have become beautiful homes. The Mule Barn has been refurbished. Another building in the fort is now a waterside restaurant called Diamond’s Edge.
David and Robin Bateman were among the developers trying to revive some of the properties, starting more than 30 years ago.
“Even in its dilapidated state, it was beautiful,” David Bateman, who’s also a painter, says while on his porch. “It was heartbreaking.”
The island is only one mile long, and about 68% of the property will be kept in its natural state, David says.
“It’s a very intimate setting,” he says.
The 44-room Inn, which includes an on-site restaurant along with Diamond’s Edge by the water, is having its first full season this year. In November 2013, just before it was nearing completion on its restoration, a fire destroyed the property. The Batemans decided to rebuild.
“It’s been a struggle,” David says. “The end result is this. Robin and I look at each other and say it was worth the struggle.”
Many of the rooms have porches, and the property has a pool. Few cars are allowed on the island, so people get around by golf cart or by foot. “You take a deep breath and take a step back here,” says Robin, who is a photographer.
That’s what I do and go for a run, where I meet Lindsay Habeeb and Fitz Schultze the night before their wedding. They and their family are planting flowers at Moon’s Garden, a popular place to see the moon rise as you sit on Adirondack chairs. It is the site of their wedding the next day.
Both are from Kentucky. But Schultze’s family bought a house in Diamond Cove many years ago. They spend the night before their wedding sipping wine and cocktails on their porch with many kids running around.
“It was an easy decision to make,” says the bride, of having her wedding in Maine.
Compared with Diamond Cove, Chebeague Island, 7.2 miles away, is huge and allows cars. But most people just bike around. Chebeague Island Inn has plenty of bikes for guests to explore the six beaches, which include the Hook. In low tide, you can walk to Little Chebeague Island from the Hook. In high tide, people are paddle-boarding.
But walking around the island works just as well, which is how I end up at Ebb and Thyme café, run by Christine Englund, who has been visiting the island for 17 years but decided to move full-time five years ago with her three children.
“It’s a real sense of a tight community,” she says. “You literally know everyone.”
At Hamilton Beach, I meet George and Linda Blough, from Connecticut. George first visited Chebeague when he was a sophomore in high school.
“That was 50-plus years ago,” he says, as he dries off from his swim.
Then he looks around nostalgically at the sandy beach and pretty homes.
“It hasn’t changed that much,” he says. "It’s amazing. It’s so pristine.”
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