A remote enclave on Maine's Mount Desert Island, Northeast Harbor has long been a summer retreat for some of America's most powerful families. Jeff Wise heads Down East to uncover the mysteries of this quintessential Yankee getaway
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.
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."
The elaborate social hierarchy that seems so daunting today started out a lot more simply. It began with some skinny-dipping.The year was 1879, and a new era of freedom was blossoming in the United States. Heady with the transcendentalist nature-loving prose of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, a group of Harvard students spent the summer camping out near Northeast Harbor. They called themselves the Champlain Society, and passed the time "rusticating," immersing themselves in nature—tramping the hills and nakedly braving the cold ocean currents. The boys were so taken with the place that two of them persuaded their father, Harvard president Charles W. Eliot, to build a summer house in Northeast Harbor. Eliot not only acquiesced, but proselytized. By 1890 many of New York's elite were also rusticating on Mount Desert, including J. Pierpont Morgan and John D. Rockefeller.
The Maine island where I spent my childhood summers—Macmahan, 75 miles away—was settled a little later, but in much the same way. First came the professors and the clergy, then their wealthier friends, urban Easterners drawn to the unspoiled Maine coast, whiling away the long days in amiable rectitude. As the years passed, many customs grew entrenched, including the casual mode of dress: the pink polo shirts, the embroidered belts, the boat shoes worn without socks until they fell apart. The same clothes, the same style, year after year.
A friend suggests I telephone Peggy Pierrepont, whose memories of Mount Desert go back to her childhood, for the lowdown on the island look. "I mean, it's not Southampton," she tells me. "You'd look silly wearing Prada. It's okay to be a little windblown, because everyone is extremely good-looking and in such robust good health."
On Peggy's recommendation I borrow a bicycle and pedal a half-mile down the western side of the harbor to the town's Main Street. The commercial district consists of a single block of shops and restaurants with a narrow sidewalk squeezed between parked cars and storefronts. Peggy's right: the people exude such nonchalant wellness—that wisp of sun-bleached hair pasted by sea salt to the ruddy, shining forehead—that they somehow seem glamorous in clothes that anywhere else would provoke unpleasant Official Preppy Handbook flashbacks.
Main Street is the place where everyone comes to poke around, eat, and run into friends. The locals on Mount Desert—the wage-earning year-rounders—are unfazed by the summer folks' prestige, and so here the rich and famous are at liberty to indulge in such lost pleasures as buying groceries.A five-minute stroll is enough to take in the prominent landmarks: Colonel's Restaurant & Bakery, where picnickers stock up on sandwiches and snacks; the Kimball Shop, a trove of sweaters, hats, and ensembles for the cocktail party—going matron; and the Pine Tree Market, an endearingly charm-free grocery and liquor store. There's not a single lobster plush toy in sight.
I stop into the Holmes Store, which dispenses Northeast Harbor clothing with unquestioned authority. (As Peggy put it, "They sell new clothes that look just like the old clothes.") Owner Anne Tucker, a lifelong resident of Northeast, takes a minute to chat about the sartorial preferences of her clientele. "They like the pinks, yellows, greens," she says, gesturing at displays of polo shirts, madras button-downs, and heavy wool sweaters. "Bright colors.
We sell kelly green pants embroidered with navy whales."
She holds up a particularly festive pair of men's shorts.
"Pink?" I ask.
"Actually, it's called Breton Red. I don't know how long people have been wearing this color, but it's been years. And still very popular. I bet I've sold twenty pairs in the last three weeks."
Why, I ask her, do seemingly sober people dress in such outlandish colors?
"That's the way it's always been," she says with a shrug. She thinks about it some more. "They came here as kids and saw this kind of clothing, and they just kept wearing it."
Main street notwithstanding, Northeast Harbor, unlike other summer towns, is not about shopping and eating. Ever since those first skinny-dippers, it's been about healthy outdoor activity. In the early 1900's, leading members of summer society decided that the island's rugged wilderness needed to be preserved. Over the course of decades several of them, including John D. Rockefeller, bought up parcels of land that would eventually become Acadia National Park. Part of their motivation, certainly, was to preserve the scenery for the edification of the common man. Probably another consideration was that if it weren't protected, the wilderness would soon be thickly settled with those same common men. Today, there are 30,300 acres of natural buffer between Northeast Harbor and hoi polloi in Bar Harbor to the east.
Fronting one of the most beautiful anchorages on the Maine coast, Bar Harbor was once home to many of the island's elite. Then, in 1947, fire devastated the eastern side of the island, razing the town and most of the large cottages. The last of the rich evacuated to Northeast Harbor, leaving Bar Harbor to the encroaching hordes. Today some 4 million Americans visit Mount Desert each year, and most of them stay, eat, and shop (for fudge, T-shirts, and lobster-emblazoned paraphernalia) in Bar Harbor.
The real draw, though, is the park. It may lack the drama of the Grand Canyon and the scope of Denali, but Acadia has a striking beauty all its own. At the top of the tourist hit parade is a drive up Cadillac Mountain, the only peak in Acadia accessible by road (and often clogged with traffic). The highest point on the Atlantic coastline, it's said to be the first place in the continental United States to see the light of each day's sun. From there many tourists head to the Thunder Hole, a rock formation on the eastern shore that spews up geysers of salt spray during high seas.
Those who most appreciate the park's charms, however, dive headlong into the wilderness, away from the crowds: climbing its hills, hiking and biking through its forests, paddling its rocky shores. Such purposeful exertion doesn't jibe with the sporting ideals of the old guard, who are frankly bemused by Lycra, Gatorade, and PABA. They prefer cotton, cocktails, and a deep tan. As Peggy says: "On Mount Desert, we climb the hills for the views, not for exercise."
On a warm and sunny morning I drive to the edge of town and hike the nearest peak, Sargent Mountain. Pine and spruce boughs arch overhead as I follow the Maple Spring Trail up a steep gorge filled with a jumble of stream-tossed boulders. As I climb on, the rocks grow smaller, the ascent gentler, the tree cover thinner, giving way to blueberry bushes and slabs of lichen-clad rock. I rest on a rock shelf to take in the view. Forests spread below me, sweeping down toward the coast in a dark, shaggy coat. Whatever Rockefeller's motives, he made the right call.
The next day, Wes invites me for a picnic on his water taxi. On Mount Desert, as on Macmahan Island, excursions to nearby islets are a favorite pastime. I remember picnicking with my family on a windswept arc of sand called Powderhorn. No matter how hot and muggy it was everywhere else, Powderhorn was always bitterly cold. As a point of honor everyone had to swim, even if the water was so frigid that it gave you an ice cream headache.
I find Wes in the stern of his boat, Ripples, puffing on his pipe. We cruise down the coast, surveying the cottages that poke out at intervals along the seafront cliffs. The term cottage carries a certain poetic license, as each costs many millions and has been constructed to hold generations in simultaneous comfort.
It's only from the sea that one gets a sense of their scale: the turrets, the gables, the porches and balconies stacked over one another. "See that house?" Wes asks, indicating a clapboard mansion. "Dodie Ford, Walter's widow, lived there," he says. "The sightseeing boats out of Bar Harbor used to come past quite close, and one day she finally got fed up. I hear she walked outside, dropped her drawers, and mooned the whole boat." He chuckles. "This, at eighty-odd years of age."
Evenings end early in Northeast Harbor. There isn't much to do. There are no nightclubs, no bars, no revelers waiting to get past a velvet rope. The very idea of spotting a Page Six celebrity makes the gentry break out in hives. (Martha Stewart's arrival five years ago was met with tangible resistance, though the hackles have been lowered since.) The closest thing to nightlife is the Docksider Restaurant, which serves lobster and steamers on paper plates and closes at 9 p.m.
Most of the entertaining takes place at home—having friends over for drinks or dinner. A festive night might include a spirited game of charades or an evening of special entertainment. It's the same today as it was 50 years ago, when Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, famed naval historian and descendant of Charles W. Eliot, held this kind of event on the porch of his family cottage, Good Hope. His wife played piano and sang. Morison read an essay he later expanded into what is still the definitive book on the island's history, The Story of Mount Desert Island. "Mount Desert is not merely an island," he wrote. "It is a way of life to which one becomes addicted."
Through a friend I arrange a meeting with Wendy Beck, Admiral Morison's daughter, who still summers at Good Hope. Perhaps meeting is too formal a term. "Do you want to come over for a swim?" asks Wendy, now in her eighties, when I reach her on the phone. "Give me half an hour. I'm going skinny-dipping, and I don't want to subject you to that."
I give her 40 minutes, and then we sit by the pool and open a bottle of wine. "I don't mind getting blotto," she says, as we proceed to drain the bottle. The cocktail hour is a blue-blooded tradition, and as we ascend its graces Wendy becomes ever more animated, gossiping and narrating at a mile a minute. As a member of the Eliot family, Wendy has access to all the goings-on of Northeast Harbor society. She turns radiant when talking about Brooke Astor, the Queen Mother of Mount Desert, who often attended Wendy's Fourth of July parties.
Though Wendy has many Eliot cousins, she rarely sees them. All the old families are growing, splitting, becoming strangers to one another. The money dilutes, the bonds of affection fracture. The town's clubs—swimming, tennis—hold the community together. Supreme of all is sailing. The Fleet, as the yacht club here is called, remains a bastion of continuity. Members still race the sleek International One Design yachts that were unloaded into the harbor from a Norwegian freighter in the thirties. Sailing in Maine requires a cheerful acceptance of cold and wet, but Wendy still relishes any opportunity to take to the water.
The next morning a drizzle descends. I'm now staying at the Grey Rock Inn, a summer cottage turned B&B near the center of town. It feels like a family house, with magazines piled around the living room armchairs. One can easily imagine a century's worth of days like this, cold and damp, suitable only for playing cards or chess, or leafing through yellowing volumes of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.
Restless, I take the tourist route and sign up for a kayaking excursion in nearby Southwest Harbor. Guides drive the 10 of us—the others in my group are staying in Bar Harbor—to Seal Cove, on the west coast. One by one we climb into our little boats, then paddle off together across the waves, cutting a course for a distant headland. The smell of brine fills our nostrils as we splash, splash, splash. Seaweed and bits of froth float past, but the motion doesn't seem to translate into visible progress. The sky darkens, and rain begins to fall more steadily. Ben, our guide, tells us that on previous trips they've spotted lots of seals, porpoises, ospreys, and even bald eagles. But this time, nothing. Just wheeling seagulls and the slap of waves against our plastic hulls.
I start to ruminate on how Maine gets under your skin. There's a profound comfort in the unchangingness of people and places and habits. It creates a bond that is ever-present yet hard to explain.
Sometimes that bond can hold a little too tightly. On Macmahan Island my parents have a neighbor named Franny, a reclusive, soft-spoken woman whose most notable trait is an enthusiasm for chainsawing down trees. On a visit to the island some years ago, soon after I started doing some travel writing, I ran into Franny outside her house. "If you ever write an article about this island," she warned, chain saw purring in her hands, "I'll kill you."
I never did write about the island, at least until now, which may go some way toward explaining why I'm still alive and paddling a kayak into an uninhabited cove on the south side of Bartlett Island. The rain has stopped. We're resting in our boats, getting ready for the next crossing of open water, when a dark gray whiskered head materializes.
It's gigantic, the size of a horse's head. It looks at me, and I look at it. Its expression seems to register neither surprise nor irritation, nor indeed any emotion at all, except a faint curiosity that is almost instantly dispelled. I stare back. This is as close as I'll get, I think, to uncovering a secret on Mount Desert. I float for a moment, very still. The giant gray seal, as inscrutable as a Rockefeller or a Ford, bobs tentatively on the surface between my world and a place that I can barely begin to understand. The seal blinks, then slides downward silently, back into its murky world, leaving me staring openmouthed at the spreading ripple.
Gardens of Mount Desert Island
Mount Desert's gardens are renowned throughout the Eastern seaboard for their beauty. "There's a combination of microclimates you don't find anywhere else," says landscape architect and island resident Patrick Chassé. "Within twenty miles we have meadows, uplands, hardwood forests, evergreen forests. That makes it a wonderful place to garden." Here, three of the best public gardens.
Asticou Azalea Garden
Rte. 3/198; no phone. Just across the street from the Asticou Inn, this Japanese-themed garden was built around several hundred prized azaleas (and more than 1,000 other plants) from the estate of the famed landscape architect Beatrix Farrand. Visitors stroll along a winding path to discover azaleas, mountain laurels, rhododendrons, and other native plants.
Peabody Dr., Northeast Harbor; 207/276-5130. This garden and its surrounding woods were given to the town by landscape architect Joseph Henry Curtis. The garden bursts with blossoms, its herbaceous borders brimming with meadow rue, delphinium, irises, dahlias, and some 350 other species.
Wild Gardens of Acadia
Sieur de Monts Spring, Acadia National Park; no phone. Among the many parcels of land donated to Acadia National Park by George B. Dorr was a three-quarter-acre swath of blackberry bushes near the Sieur de Monts spring, south of Bar Harbor. Today it's a garden of indigenous plants, a condensed version of the park's bounteous flora.
Mount Desert Island lies an hour south of the Bangor airport. In July and August, temperatures can be extremely changeable, ranging from the mid forties to the mid eighties, and squalls can blow through at any time. When hiking or out on the water, always pack a rain slicker and a sweater or fleece.
WHERE TO STAY
Asticou Inn 15 Peabody Dr., Northeast Harbor; 800/258-3373 or 207/276-3344; www.asticou.com; doubles from $150. Offering high-church Yankee hospitality since 1883.
Claremont Hotel 20 Claremont Rd., Southwest Harbor; 207/244-5036; www.theclaremonthotel.com; doubles from $165. Long the Asticou's friendly rival and counterpart across the bay.
Grey Rock Inn Rte. 3/198, Northeast Harbor; 207/276-9360; www.greyrockinn.com; doubles from $185. A nine-room vacation "cottage" designed by Fred L. Savage, who built many of Mount Desert's most distinguished summer houses.
Maison Suisse Inn 144 Main St., Northeast Harbor; 800/624-7668 or 207/276-5223; www.maisonsuisse.com; doubles from $145. A 15-room shingle-style cottage at the center of Northeast Harbor's shopping street.
Knowles Co. 1 Summit Rd., Northeast Harbor; 207/276-3322. The area's most esteemed rental broker, offering cottages from $450 a week to $50,000 per month.
WHERE TO EAT
Burning Tree Restaurant 69 Otter Creek Dr., Otter Creek; 207/288-9331; dinner for two $70. Allison Martin and Elmer Beal whip up consistently outstanding vegetarian and seafood specialties at their culinary outpost between Seal Harbor and Bar Harbor.
Docksider Restaurant 14 Sea St., Northeast Harbor; 207/276-3965; dinner for two $40. If you can find this unassuming shack between Main Street and the town dock, settle in among locals for freshly boiled lobster or steamed clams.
Fiddlers' Green 411 Main St., Southwest Harbor; 207/244-9416; dinner for two $70. Chef Derek Wilbur—the son of a custom boatbuilder—serves innovative takes on Maine classics, such as crab cakes with three-chili honey-mango sauce.
Thurston's Lobster Pound Steamboat Wharf Rd., Bernard; 207/244-7600; dinner for two $60. A must for steamed lobster or a bowl of fish chowder. Don't miss the blueberry spice cake.
Islesford Dock Restaurant Islesford, Little Cranberry Island; 207/244-7494; lunch for two $30. This dockside lobster experience—wooden tables, piping hot lobster meat on a soft bun—is worth the ferry trip from Northeast Harbor.
HERE TO SHOP
Holmes Store 114 Main St., Northeast Harbor; 207/276-3273. Home base for all your green-polo and pink-khaki-shorts needs.
Kimball Shop 135 Main St., Northeast Harbor; 207/276-3300. Sweaters, hats, and ensembles to bring out your inner Barbara Bush.
Wingspread Gallery Main St., Northeast Harbor; 207/276-3910. Owner Thistle Brown has been fostering local artists such as Roxana Alger Geffen for the last 34 years.
Nancy Neale Typecraft Steamboat Wharf Rd., Bernard; 207/244-5192; www.woodtype.com. The largest private collection of antique printing memorabilia in America, with hundreds of styles of wood type for sale.
Islesford Artists Islesford, Little Cranberry Island; 207/244-3145. An astonishing gallery in a whitewashed barn, hung with the work of some 20 local artists, including owner/lobsterman Danny Fernald.
OUTFITTERS AND GUIDES
Hinckley Yacht Charters Southwest Harbor; 800/492-7245; www.hinckleycharters.com; sailboats from $2,450 per week. The finest American sailboat afloat. Only five to eight are built in Southwest Harbor each year.
Maine State Sea Kayak Guide Service 254 Main St., Southwest Harbor; 207/244-9500; www.mainestatekayak.com; half-day tours $46. Guides lead small groups of paddlers around the little-visited western shore, or backside, of Mount Desert in search of seals, porpoises, and bald eagles.
Northeast Harbor Bike Shop 118 Main St., Northeast Harbor; 207/276-5480; bicycles $17 per day. A wide variety of bikes for rent, just a few miles from Acadia National Park.
MDI Water Taxi Service 207/244-7312. Ask for Wes Shaw (also the Chamber of Commerce president), who can take you for a spin on his water taxi, rent you a sailboat, or fill you in on the latest gossip.
DON'T MISSAn hour-long horse-drawn carriage ride in Acadia with Wildwood Stables (Seal Harbor; 207/276-3622; $13.50 per person). It's an institution you can't disparage.