By Wayne Curtis and Christina Tree
The Tidewater Motel, Vinalhaven
Finding a motel on an island an hour’s ferry ride offshore is an odd thing. Weren’t motels designed for cars, and islands for boats? Anyway, there it is, and what makes it even more appealing, and unusual, is that the name “Tidewater” is no flight of fancy. In fact, it’s pretty literal: The Tidewater is built on the pilings of an old bridge that once crossed an inlet to the harbor. The tides come and go, twice a day. So you’re not imagining the harbor’s dark waters swirling and eddying beneath your balcony — they are.
The rooms are basic; they won’t be appearing anytime soon in your favorite home decor magazine. But in the still of the night you can hear the restless tides slurping and sloshing as they build to a strong flow, then back around and set off in the other direction. And then there are the other harbor sounds come morning: gulls and lobster boats and lobstermen shouting ribaldries at one another in the dawn light.
The Maine Windjammer Fleet, Rockland and Camden
Aboard one of these schooners based in Maine — and Penobscot Bay is the Grand Central Terminal of the fleet — you hear this: the creaking of the hull, the whistling of the wind in the rigging, the clang of the pots and pans as the day begins. It’s a centuries-old symphony of the sea, and it’s a small marvel that you can still find it alive and well and performed every summer day.
The Maine Windjammer Fleet consists of 12 ships, and while all are different, they all follow the same schedule, one dictated by the tides and the breezes. Once you pull away from the dock, it’s up to the captain, the wind, and the weather to set your destination.
Accommodations vary from ship to ship — from nearly luxurious and private to a youth-hostel-like spareness. But the operative word among all is “cozy”; you awaken as if in a cocoon, rocked by the sea. And it doesn’t take long before you’re unmoored from everyday time and place.
Hermit Island, Small Point
For those who object to even a pane of glass getting between themselves and the sound of the surf, Hermit Island is the place to be. It’s one of Maine’s most striking campgrounds, with 275 sites spread across 255 acres of island, which is connected to the mainland by a causeway.
This campground, which is privately owned, has always been managed with tent campers in mind. RVs aren’t allowed (small pickup campers are permitted). You’re very close to the elements here, with some sites right amid the dunes overlooking the ocean. When the surf’s up, pounding along the white sand beaches and headlands, you’ll know in advance because your tent will be shaking and rattling in the wind. And when your tent is quiet and warmed with summer’s morning rays, you’ll know it’s a day to sun on the beach or kayak around the island’s many coves. Even in late summer, when the sky darkens before 8:00, you can sit at a picnic table for a candlelit game of hearts and let the murmurs of the sea keep score.
Keeper’s House Inn, Isle au Haut
Sadly, lighthouses have been sentenced to live out their days on calendars, placemats, and postcards. Most have been automated, many sold off by the government and relegated to the category of camp icon — something to emblazon on all things touristy. They once meant so much more: a way of life, a sense of both independence and vulnerability. Lighthouse keepers were the cowboys of the ocean — dependent on their own wits and wiles, keepers of their own time.
You can recapture that sensibility at the Keeper’s House, adjacent to a lovely lighthouse, with just one guest room and two cottages. The owners note they have “no television, no fax, no e-mail, no Internet” — a list that falls somewhere between disclaimer and boast. The main house, built in 1907, is decorated mostly with natural light, which seems to bounce in from the ocean at every angle. (Solar and wind power provides the evening light and hot water.) The meals, which are included in the rate, are delicious, simple fare. And the soundtrack, always on, is that of the ocean persistently coaxing the island into sand.
Inn by the Sea, Cape Elizabeth
These 43 spacious suites, cottages, and beach houses all have ocean views (some better than others), kitchens, and porches (some shared), letting you wrap yourself in a blanket of salty air and simply stay put. This inn, unlike most others listed here, isn’t smack on the water — you can’t fish from your window. In some ways, that makes it all the more inviting; you have to stroll a couple hundred yards down a boardwalk to reach a lovely sandy beach. It’s more like Cape Cod than the rocky Maine coast — more sand, more salt in the air, more rustling dune grasses. The rush of the surf filters up to the guest rooms. So the first sound you hear each day is the sea calling you down.
Eighth Maine Guest House, Peaks Island
The sound of water mingles with history at this quirky, old-fashioned coastal guest house. It was established in 1891 as a place where members of the 8th Maine Volunteer Regiment, veterans of the Civil War, could hold reunions. With its rockers and timeworn wood, it clearly predates the era when “summer” became an industry.
Rooms here are furnished — although “furnished” seems a bit fancy. “Accreted” might be more accurate — like Grandmother’s house, if you had the sort of grandmother who never threw anything away. In fact, this guest house is run much the same way many grandmothers still run things: When you check out, “rooms must be cleaned, trash emptied and linens stripped,” according to the house rules.
Some guest rooms sit right along the rocky shore; expect the early sunrise to come glinting into your room before you’re ready. That’s OK, since there’s plenty to do on a long island day. Start with a walk along the road on the back shore; then spend some time reading in the circle of cane-seated rocking chairs in the main hall; then ask for the Civil War museum tour; and then, of course, allow plenty of time for sitting on the porch and tending to the sea. The ocean wouldn’t know what to do without you.
Dockside Guest Quarters, York Harbor
First-time guests inch their way cautiously beyond the marina, down the narrow road through woods to the tip of this private, island-like peninsula. York Harbor appears finally, suddenly, spreading from the front of the inn. Usually there are fishing boats, yachts, and kayakers, always gulls, and the far view, down the outlet to Boon Island Light.
You’d expect to drive hundreds of miles farther along the Maine coast to find this kind of gracious, family-owned inn right on the water. Innkeeper Eric Lusty, a licensed sea captain, offers harbor tours to guests, many of whom also take out the inn’s Boston whaler or explore the tidal York River in kayaks.
Five rooms overlook the water from The Maine House, an 1891 home in which guests congregate for a hearty, buffet-style breakfast and plan their days. Some, sensibly, linger for hours on the lawn or porch. Five contemporary cottages, with rooms, suites, and a few full condo-style units, hug the shore.
The Cliff House Resort & Spa, Ogunquit
The Cliff House looks more like a cruise ship improbably beached on a rocky outcropping than one of the oldest family-owned resorts in the East. That’s because fourth-generation owner Kathryn Weare has replaced all the older buildings, creating weatherproofed spaces, including a glass-walled spa pool and a two-story Grand Pavilion, from which guests watch surf pluming at Bald Head.
What hasn’t changed since 1872 is the view. The ocean, stretching to and across the horizon, is center stage in all 194 rooms, each with its own balcony. Patrons vary from families and dog owners, squirreled away in the less expensive Clifftop and Ledges buildings, to spa queens and couples, massaged with hot (local) stones and soothed in the inn’s luxurious Maine Wild Rose or Blueberry Body Wrap. Spa facilities include a heated clifftop pool with a “vanishing edge,” creating the illusion that you’re swimming out to sea.
The Driftwood Inn, Bailey Island
What a perfect name for this collection of weathered, gray-shingled cottages, gathered on the tip of a skinny finger of land, pointing out to sea beyond Casco Bay. The Driftwood is “Maine rustic,” once understood to mean naturally air-conditioned, with shared living rooms heated by fireplaces (there are also electric heaters), and guest rooms with shared and half baths (some are now private). Breakfast and dinner (BYOB) are served in a pine-walled, multiwindowed dining room at time-polished tables. A saltwater pool is tucked into rocks above a sheltered cove.
Guests return year after year to the same rooms in one of the three big cottages (two facing out to sea) and six housekeeping cottages. There were a number of places like this along the Maine coast when the Conrad family bought the Driftwood some 60 years ago. Now it’s one of the last of its species.
The Gosnold Arms, New Harbor
Guests wake to the putter of fishing boats, proof that New Harbor is still a working waterfront. Originally a saltwater farm, Gosnold Arms has been an inn since 1925, rambling along the water with ample rainy-day space and 10 guest rooms upstairs, eight with water views.
Many of the 20 cottage units overlook the water; six are smack-dab on the harbor. Pilot House, our favorite, is the smallest, replacing a rehabbed trawler wheelhouse. All the essentials are there: bed, bath, fridge, microwave, wicker chairs, and sliding doors to a deck facing out beyond the harbor entrance.
There’s an informal, caring feel to this place, owned by the Phinney family for three decades. Pemaquid Beach and Pemaquid Light are an easy bike ride away. And it’s a short walk to Shaw’s Wharf, a popular lobster pound that’s also the departure point for Hardy Boat Cruises for puffin watching out by Egg Rock and daily runs to Monhegan Island. The inn’s full breakfast is served buffet-style, the better to catch a boat.
Shining Sails Bed & Breakfast, Monhegan
“Look at those shining sails!” a Monhegan woman exclaimed, peering out her window at a two-masted schooner. According to lobsterman John Murdock, that woman went on to marry the vessel’s captain — a story that’s been passed down with the house to explain its name. Shining Sails remains a prime vantage point from which to watch all comings and goings at this island harbor. John and Winnie Murdock have even improved the view for guests, adding picture windows and decks.
After a day of hiking Monhegan’s sheer cliffs, it doesn’t get better than consuming steaming lobsters, watching the sun set and the sky fill with stars, and picking out the beam from Pemaquid Lighthouse on the mainland. Admittedly, come morning on a small Maine island 10 miles out to sea, there may be no view. Then the aroma of coffee and fresh muffins, mingled with the warm smell of the woodstove, draws you to the living room, where there’s plenty to read and discuss as you watch the garden, then the sea and the rocks as they reappear.
Shore Oaks Seaside Inn, Brooksville
Shore Oaks commands the wide sweep of Eggemoggin Reach, a watery thoroughfare between Blue Hill Peninsula and Deer Isle. You’ll spy fishing boats and private yachts, windjammers, and even an occasional cruise ship. Often you’ll see dolphins and seals, best viewed from the gazebo, suspended like a bowsprit above the water. The inn is camouflaged among oaks and firs, but the long, flower-filled porch faces the entrance to the Reach, with views beyond into Penobscot Bay. The interior design is Arts and Crafts style, furnished comfortably in Mission oak. Rooms vary: Princely Room 7 has six windows and a working fireplace, but some of the longest views are from the third-floor rooms with shared baths. There’s room for everyone on the porch and around the massive stone living room hearth.