Maine: Nature Beckons

The Ins and Outs of Isle au Haut

If you ask me, Isle au Haut is the most beautiful spot on earth, but it isn't that easy to get to. To make the most of your visit, you are going to have to do a little planning.

From Bar Harbor, at the heart of Acadia National Park, it is about a two-hour drive to Stonington, where you can catch the Isle au Haut mailboat. Unless you like getting up very early, you might want to head to Stonington the day before you plan to visit Isle au Haut. There is plenty to do and see in Stonington, so it is hardly a wasted day. Consider renting a kayakor going to the granite museum. One nice bed-and-breakfast right on the Stonington waterfront is the Inn on the Harbor.

First things first. Check the mailboat schedule at isleauhaut.com. The mailboat leaves every morning from a dock on the Stonington waterfront. A round-trip fare is $32 per person; parking will cost you an additional $7. Bringing a bike, a fun way to get around the island, is $16 more. (Hint: if you are just looking for a summer island cruise and do not have time to get off at Isle au Haut, you only need a one-way ticket.) Most of the boat runs go directly to the town landing. In the height of the summer, however, twice a day the mailboat runs go directly to Duck Harbor Landing, in the national park portion of Isle au Haut. From Duck Harbor Landing you can immediately start on the marvelous coastal trails. If you disembark at the town landing, you will need to make the two-hour hike through Isle au Haut's beautiful fog forest. (Keep your eyes open for blueberries in the clearings.)

Before you even get on the mailboat, you will want to grab a picnic lunch in Stonington. There are no restaurants on Isle au Haut. The Stonington grocery near the mailboat landing is under renovation in summer 2005, so that may or may not be an option. No matter: My favorite place to scrounge the makings of a picnic is Lily's Cafe, where wonderful, carryout gourmet sandwiches can be found. Lily's hours are quirky, though, so you might want to check ahead. The cafe's address and phone number are listed at deerislemaine.com/restaurants.html.

Everything you need to know about Acadia National Park on Isle au Haut you can learn from the National Park Service's. To plan your hike, take a look at the trail map here nps.gov/acad/maps.htm. (Helpful aside: Most NPS estimates of the length of time to hike a trail are way too conservative, but not on the Isle au Haut map. Don't plan to go any faster than it says.) Wayne Barter, the park ranger, will also have a map and recommendations for you at the mailboat landing. A ranger greets every boat to make sure day hikers get pointed in the right direction (and to remind them to get on the evening boat home). As you mull over which trails to tackle first, you will want to first decide where you are going to stop for the midday break. Consider eating your lunch on Duck Harbor Mountain if the day is clear. If it is a little foggy, or there has been a recent storm to rile up the ocean, your best bet for a lunchtime break might be the Cliff Trail.

If you are only spending the day, the last evening-boat leaves Duck Harbor at 5:45 p.m. The late boats leave the village landing at 4:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Remember that it will take you at least two hours to hike from the southern end of the island to the village (more if the blueberries distract you). Plan accordingly.

If you are ending your day at the town landing and need a cold drink, it is worth spinning by the village store. It is a five-minute walk north of the village landing. As you might expect on an isolated island, the grocery is a bit pricey: Gas costs $3.20 a gallon! (Cars can only get to Isle au Haut by barge, and once they are there, they stay. As a result, there are some wonderful old vehicles on Isle au Haut miraculously still running. Keep a look out for the Studebaker pickup truck.) You can also buy a postcard at the grocery and send it out from one of the nation's smallest post offices, just to the south of the town landing.

If you have made a reservation, you can spend the night on Isle au Haut either in a tent or at an inn.

There are five camping sites that in the height of the summer can be reserved for three days at a time for a cost of $25. For a reservation form go to nps.gov/acad/pdf/iahreserve.pdf. The official deadline for reserving a spot is April 1, and in the summer season the sites get snatched up fast-so there is little likelihood of getting a spot this summer. But if the weather looks threatening, there is a chance that someone might cancel. Check with the rangers.

If sleeping in a lean-to is not your style, try the two inns. I have stayed at the newer place, the Inn at Isle au Haut, run by Diana Santospago. The innis on the east side of the island, and the rooms have beautiful views of York Island. Rooms start at $250 ($268 with tax), including a full breakfast, picnic lunch, and scrumptious four-course dinner. On the western side of the island is the Keeper's House. A room and three meals at the Keeper's House starts at $310 ($378 with tax and a 15 percent service charge). Space is limited and in demand, but as of late June, there were still some dates available at both inns during July and August.

If you do stay the night at Isle au Haut, and the sky is clear, make sure you look up. Miles from the mainland, the view of the stars is spectacular.

If you want to learn more about Isle au Haut, check out isleauhaut.net. Linda Greenlaw's book The Lobster Chronicles: Life on a Very Small Island wittily describes the island culture and characters. The tastes of the island are on display in her new cookbook, Recipes from a Very Small Island. Since Greenlaw loves showing folks around Isle au Haut, she is mulling starting a charter-tour business on the side, so keep an eye on her website, fishingwithlinda.net.

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