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North by Northeast

Standing on a dock in Northeast Harbor, breathing in the ocean-cool air laced with pine, I feel a sense of both strangeness and recognition. Though I've never been here, everything about the place tingles with familiarity: the boats riding on their moorings, rigging gently clanging; the shaggy fringe of kelp around the murky green sea; the shingled cottages on the cove's evergreen flanks. It's pure Maine, yet not: the vessels are no ordinary boats, but elegant wooden sailing dinghies and custom-made Hinckley yachts. And those shingled cottages are, well, mansions.

Northeast Harbor is one of several small summer communities on Mount Desert (pronounced "dessert") Island. Shaped like a 14-mile-wide catcher's mitt, with high, round, granite hills streaked with deep glacial lakes, Mount Desert is separated from the central Maine coast by only a thousand yards of seawater. But psychologically, the distance is far more substantial. Northeast Harbor, on its southern shore, holds one of the most intriguingly reclusive vacation communities on the Eastern seaboard. Here, more than a century ago, the old-school Yankee summer vacation was invented, and here it has reached its well-monied zenith.

I've come to explore the origins of the traditional Maine coast summer—and to learn what I can about a secretive town reputedly oozing with money and eccentricity. I may not be an insider, but I don't expect to be completely at sea. Having grown up summering on an island not far from here, I imagine I understand the culture well enough to hold my own.

No matter what, I'll eat a lot of lobster.


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