Northeast harbor is not easy to get to—intentionally, I suspect. To fly there, you connect to a regional jet service into Bangor, 48 miles north of Mount Desert, then rent a car for an hour-long slog south through summer traffic. Once you've crossed the bridge onto Mount Desert, you still have to drive the length of the island to reach Northeast Harbor, on a narrow road that winds southward along Somes Sound. A difficult trip has its advantages; physical isolation maintains exclusivity.
I start my visit at the Asticou Inn, the town's oldest hotel, overlooking the head of the cove. Opened in 1883, the Asticou looks like just the sort of place that might have been frequented by turn-of-the-century East Coast industrialists—a boxy four-story confection of shingles, low ceilings, and plushly idiosyncratic decoration. The rooms are small, the windows are off-center, and everything seems slightly askew. A few improvements have been attempted over the years, including a modest swimming pool set in the harborfront lawn, but it scarcely relieves the basic fact: nothing about the Asticou is modern, nothing is hip; nothing tells you that it's 2002 instead of 1902. The Asticou is not a wry homage to yesteryear. This is an old hotel, and proud of it.
At lunch on the gray plank deck, looking out past flower boxes of pink begonias toward the yacht-filled harbor, I am joined by Wes Shaw, a local jack-of-all-trades. With his New England brogue, thick red beard, and pipe, Wes looks every inch the Down East sea captain. Actually, he's a son of Cape Cod who moved here years ago to run a water-taxi service. As cabbie to the rich and aquatic, he knows everyone.
"The Fords and Rockefellers live there," Wes says, aiming a lobster roll at the left side of the harbor. "The Astors and the Mellons are on the other side."
Wes pulls out a map—giving tours is one of his sidelines—that shows the names of the island's cottages and their owners. "Tranquility Base": Mr. and Mrs. Zbigniew Brzezinski; "Ringing Point": Mr. David Rockefeller Sr.; "Cove End": Mrs. Vincent Astor. Wes sweeps a glance across the deck. "Cap Weinberger comes here all the time," he offers. "He lives on the island year-round."
I study the faces around me. By the railing sit three elderly gentlemen in blue blazers with sunburned bald spots. Maybe a trio of Supreme Court justices?A gaggle of media tycoons?Whoever they are, in Northeast Harbor they don't stand out. Unlike the Hamptons or Palm Beach, this is a place not for basking in your prestige, but for shedding it. Being unspecial is the spécialité de la maison.
"There are many layers of society here: the locals, the tourists, the summer people," says Wes. "Within the summer people you've got the July people, who rent, and the August people, who own. You could travel in one circle and hardly meet anyone in another."
To come from the outside and find a sense of belonging can take decades, even generations. Wes himself is still an outsider. "I'm what they call a from-away," he says. "I've only been here twenty-eight years."