CHEBEAGUE ISLAND — Black clouds rolled in and the wind picked up. We dressed in our heaviest rain gear, thick yellow pants and waterproof slickers, rubber boots and hats, and followed a small group of locals to Deer Point. Located on the west end of the island, this secluded, rocky promontory overlooking Casco Bay is said to be most impressive when a storm barrels in from the south. “It’s a really cool spot for storms,” Nate Richards, a young man working at the Chebeague Island Inn, told us as we headed out.
We pedaled our bikes past an elderly woman who was walking a set of blond cocker spaniels. “The storm’s coming,” she said, with a smile and a wave of her arms. Storms on this island are famous. We’d seen numerous sketches and paintings by artists depicting the island’s stormy scenes; now we wanted to experience them for ourselves.
We parked our bikes where the dirt road ended and followed a loosely-marked trail through the forest to open ledges. We sat and watched as fast-moving, ink-hued rain clouds filled the sky and the roiling surf crashed against the rocks. “It’s like standing in the front row of the Twister ride at Universal Studios,” our traveling companion Carroll Jones remarked. Huddled between a pair of massive granite boulders, we sat mesmerized (and a bit terrorized) as the thick clouds passed overhead, dumping sheets of water.
Within minutes, the storm was gone, and the sun was back out. Fortunately, this small, friendly island, a short ferry ride from the mainland, is just as dramatic under sunny skies.
Chebeague (pronounced shuh-BEEG), the largest island in Casco Bay, has strong maritime roots. In the 19th century it was known for building stone sloopers, which carried ballast for sailing ships, and later granite from Maine’s quarries.
Today Chebeague is one of 14 remaining year-round island communities in Maine, with approximately 330 year-round residents. They are a tight-knit, friendly community with deep ties to the island and to fishing, its major industry. “It’s still very old-school, a simple way of life,” says Richards. “I’ve been coming out here all my life, and it’s pretty much the same. But I’m still blown away by the beauty of it all.”
We were, too, blown away not only by the impossibly quaint back roads, picturesque coves, easy-to-access beaches, and panoramic views, but also by the lack of crowds, and the island’s relaxed pace. This is a place to slow down and unplug.
We took the 15-minute ferry boat from Cousins Island on the mainland, landing on the northeast side of Chebeague, with views of the sweeping lawns and impressive porch and facade of the historic Chebeague Island Inn. The rambling, restored 1920s resort sits on a hill overlooking the ocean, with 21 individually decorated guest rooms. There’s also a Great Room, centered around a fieldstone fireplace, and a well-regarded restaurant and bar. What you won’t find are alarm clocks, telephones, and TVs. Guests here are more apt to be on the porch, slouched in a wicker chair, or perhaps on the front lawn snuggled in an Adirondack lounger, reading a book, sipping a cocktail, or simply taking a nap.
But, this was only the first day of our getaway and we hadn’t yet slipped into island time. “What do you recommend we do on the island?” we asked the front desk staff. They smiled, and cheerfully explained our options. We could take in a round of golf at the nine-hole, seaside course adjacent to the inn. We could spend a couple of hours on a lobster boat with a local lobsterman. (And, the inn’s chef would be happy to cook our catch.) Kayaking excursions and sunset cruises with local boat owners could also be arranged. There were lawn games, and the island’s recreation center has tennis and basketball courts. If we wanted to go sailing, the hotel staff would contact a local sailor to arrange a charter. In the end, we decided to take out a couple of bikes for a tour of the island, looking forward to poking around the beaches and coves.
The island is only about 3 ½ miles long and 1 ½ miles wide, with North Road running down one side and South Road down the other. Spur roads and dirt paths lead toward the water. “Follow just about any road to the end and you’ll reach the water,” said the attendant setting up our big-handled, old-fashioned bikes. Five minutes of downhill pedaling later, we stopped at the roadside Calder’s Clam Shack, where we shared a basket of fried clams and a side of crunchy, fresh coleslaw. Our ride was off to a fine start.
Signs along the way marked public pathways to the beach, and we took several of these, ending in small pockets of sand or rocky coves with pretty views and no other visitors. Our favorite spot was Indian Point, a spit of land on the northwest side of the island that the locals call “the hook.” At low tide, the shell-strewn beach nearly stretches to Little Chebeague Island. We walked the wide sandbar looking for sand dollars, shells, and sea glass, while an elderly pair of men dug for clams. They, too, smiled and waved. “Storm’s moving in,” one of them said, pointing to the blackening clouds. It was time to head back for rain gear.
By our second day, we too were smiling and waving at every passerby. We took a morning dip in the cold waters at Hamilton Beach, poked around the rocks at pretty Bennett Cove, and watched the fishermen bring in their catch near the docks at Chandler Cove. Afterward, we dropped into cushy porch chairs to watch the boats go by. “Have you got the Chebeague bug yet?” the waitress asked as she set down our lemon iced teas. We simply smiled back.