First in a series of occasional stories highlighting lesser-known Maine towns.
What if you threw a party and no one came? Maine celebrates its bicentennial this year, and well-laid plans for its celebration have been largely scraped. But, how can we not give some attention to one of the most gorgeous states in the country? This five-part series will focus on some of the lesser-known, yet iconic towns in Maine, where there’s plenty of outdoor space and beautiful scenery. Go now, plan a future trip, or simply armchair travel with us. In the first of the series, we visit Stonington.
Life by the tides
On a recent visit to Stonington, we watched as the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries wrapped up its filming of an episode of “Ask Leroy!” The video series features one of Stonington’s favorite residents, 78-year-old Leroy Weed Sr., who was born and raised in town, and has been fishing its waters for more than six decades. Leroy, a rotund, friendly fellow with a contagious, frequent chuckle, usually sits on a lobster trap outdoors, with Stonington Harbor as a backdrop, answering call-in questions about fishing and lobstering in Maine. We’ve seen the series, and questions are all over the place: What’s the difference between soft shell and hard shell lobsters? What’s the best way to cook a lobster? How many lobsters do you catch in a day? What’s your favorite gear? (“I don’t leave the dock without my boots and lunch,” Leroy answered.) Are there any scandals on the island, like people cutting traps? And, this one: Do you have any scary fishing stories? To which Leroy answered, “I’ve been in a boat that sunk. That was pretty scary seeing as I can’t swim.”
When the filming was done, Leroy hurried off to one of his other jobs, but we stayed to watch the fishermen and women load their boats with gear and bait, and motor out of the working harbor. Fishing is the mainstay of this small town, nestled at the Downeast tip of the Deer Isle peninsula. It remains the largest lobster fishing port in Maine, with 181 commercial lobster licenses issued to its residents; more lobster is landed here than any other port in Maine, about $50.89 million’s worth in 2019.
It’s a drive to get here, 270 some miles from Boston, and 30 miles off of Route 1, on twisty two-lane roads. Most people bypass it, making a beeline to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park, or stopping in more popular, easier-to-get-to destinations, like Camden or Boothbay Harbor. That leaves Stonington relatively quiet, and blissfully less gentrified. Here, life still revolves around the tides, and the fishermen and women set the rhythm.
“Stonington — and Deer Isle — are hidden gems,” says Devin Finigan, local chef and proprietor of Aragosta at Goose Cove. “The island is unique. It’s a fishing island above anything; lobster is the economy.”
Aragosta, which means lobster in Italian, is consistently ranked as one of the top restaurants in Maine, and like Stonington, it’s a hidden gem, tucked at the end of a back road, overlooking the water. The dining room was closed on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of our recent visit, but dinner at Aragosta is on our list for another time.
Instead, we walked through the pretty village with waterfront houses on wooden stilts lining the boat-clogged harbor. The land climbs from the sea, and classic old homes, with broad porches and colorful window boxes, hug the hill. Everyone waved and nodded as we went by (keeping social distance, of course.) The village has a cluster of shops and restaurants, including the popular 44 North Café, a contemporary coffee shop that looks more SoHo than Stonington. There are also several art galleries in town, and scattered throughout the Deer Isle peninsula. The island, home to the internationally known Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, has long attracted artists from around the world, who now make their living and home here.
We lingered in town long enough to overhear snippets of conversation, about the tides, the weather, lobster boat races, and the future of lobstering in Stonington. Right now, lobstermen and women can make a living, and young people are still pursuing it as a career. The local high school, in fact, offers the Eastern Maine Skippers Program designed to teach the necessary skills to students who intend to pursue a fishing career. However, old-timers and young alike worry about global warming, which will force lobsters to migrate farther north to colder water.
“We’ve seen good times; we’ve seen bad times,” one lobsterman told us. “I tell the young ones to buy a small boat, keep costs down, and you’ll get through it. Course, they don’t listen to me.”
Stonington has had to reinvent itself a few times. In the late 1800s, it was home to several major granite quarries, and then it was a shipbuilding hub. Later, cod fishing paid the bills. When the cod bounty depleted, they turned to lobster. If they don’t have lobstering, they’ll have to reinvent themselves again. We wondered if hip 44 North Café and award-winning Aragosta were the sign of the future.
One thing that isn’t going away soon is the surrounding natural beauty. There are views everywhere, from snug coves to wide Penobscot Bay vistas, dotted with pine-studded islands and granite outcroppings. The Merchant’s Row archipelago, a cluster of more than 50 islands, stretches from Stonington out to Isle au Haut, and is a prime spot for paddling and boating. Most of the islands are within a two-hour paddle from Stonington. (Old Quarry Ocean Adventures offers kayak rentals, as well as kayak and boat tours.)
One day, we headed to Barred Island Preserve, where we hiked to Crockett Cove, along a tree-choked path, flanked by carpets of moss. It was low tide, so we walked the sandy ocean floor to Barred Island and then hiked the shoreline loop back to the parking lot, with water views galore.
When we returned, the fog had settled in like a layer of thick cotton. We listened to the fog horns blow and the churn of boat motors, and watched the tide roll in as the fishermen and women returned with their catch.
For more information, visit www.deerisle.com.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org