Maine islands - up the coast without a car

I’d like to step back and explain some of the evolution in my perspectives on travel backpacking. One of my big “ah hah” moments occurred the evening I considered the coast of Maine. That’s because in all my 60+ years of going there, a car seemed essential for everyday life and enjoyment. For the most part, a car was needed to get to many beautiful stretches of the Maine coast. But, after I worked out how to do a backpack traveling trip along coastal Maine, and that it could be a better trip when you leave your car at home, I figured: if doable here, then maybe anywhere.


As can be illustrated by this nice plastic nautical chart (NOT for navigation) placemat conveniently sitting on my dining room table, the difficult thing about seeing the Maine coast is that much of it is a series of close-by “necks” or peninsulas and bridge-connected large islands that stick out into the Gulf of Maine 10 miles, sometimes more


Driving up the coast to see water can sometimes require driving a few miles up Route 1, making a right turn to go down some wooded peninsula road to the end where you will eventually enjoy a great sea vista and maybe a restaurant or lobster pound serving fresh local seafood.

To get to the terminus of the next peninsula over, that actually may only be a mile away, you have to drive back up to Route 1, head up coast a few more miles and then drive back another 10 to 15 miles to that next point. You might have to drive 25 or 30 miles to go only one mile, but driving is the only way to get there without having a boat. With very few exceptions, there are no public transport options taking you to the water. 

Near the point in So Harpswell. A ferry used to come in here from Portland but no longer. I think this photo was taken with an old iPhone 6, not good quality, but I liked the composition

Near the point in So Harpswell. A ferry used to come in here from Portland but no longer. I think this photo was taken with an old iPhone 6, not good quality, but I liked the composition

This wasn’t always the case. Maine and it’s small peninsular and island communities were once linked primarily by the sea and were then well served by local ferries. That was because there may not have been many roads at all, or there weren’t yet cars on them. And there were far fewer bridges or causeways connecting the mainland to islands. As the automobile took over the US transportation system, islands were connected to the mainland, roads were improved, and ferries practically disappeared.

There aren’t many ferries left. They still exist mainly to service a handful of far flung island communities too far offshore for bridges. But, when looking at these islands and their ferries from the vantage of the car-bound, mainland visitor, they simply look like the end-point of yet another long round-trip excursion. You drive to the embarkation point, leave your car parked, take the ferry out and then eventually return again to rejoin your car where you had left it.

But what if we didn’t need to return to our parked cars at all? What if we didn’t even bring a car? What if we looked at these islands not as the end-points of a round trip, but as nodes of transport themselves? Could these islands and the ferries that still serve them become a path along the coast?

I had that insight a few years ago, and then spent an evening online collecting ferry information and mapping out where they still went. I was looking for islands that were served by different ferries arriving from different points along the coast. This might permit me to link together a zig zag trip up the coast without setting foot or gas pedal on Route 1.

It turns out that, aside from a few missing links, you can do this. A trip along a good portion of the most popular sections of the Maine coast can be cobbled together without your car. Many of the publicly available ferries that make this trip possible are shown on the plastic nautical chart pictured at the beginning of this post. I’ve marked the location and route of each ferry using a red marker. Only two water segments are missing and so these need to be augmented. (The largest segment not covered by ferry is from Casco Bay up to either New Harbor or Boothbay, and a taxi and a bus is the only ways to do this if on your own. If you have no access to friendly siblings or cousins to drive you, then take a Concord Coach bus to Wiscasset, get a lobster roll if you must and then a taxi to Boothbay, it isn’t that far. If you have someone driving you then go to New Harbor for the ferry there, less traffic and congestion than Boothbay, but a slightly longer ride.)

And in fact a car would be a hinderence, something you would have to return to and worry about. Finally, it would be a much better trip because you will be on or near the water all the time. And not on traffic choked Route 1. 

Thus far I have had opportunity to do only part of this trip, somewhere about half. But I have worked out the logistics for the whole thing and where needed talked to private boat captains to see if they would take me where public ferries don’t run.

To start, I caught a direct Concord Coach regional bus to Portland (excellent and reasonable service, first class seats) with just my backpack and then hitched a ride up to New Harbor with some of my cousins and siblings. My (our) immediate destination was Monhegan Island, by way of New Harbor and it’s ferry, the Hardy Boat.  New Harbor is on the Pemaquid Peninsula (Boothbay Harbor also has ferry service to Monhegan). We were planning an overnight stay on the island together. (We have since made this Monhegan trip a yearly tradition; currently we spend two nights out there each visit.)

Pro tip: try to time your ferry rides counter to the normal flow of day-trippers to the island. If going out in AM or returning mainland in PM get advanced reservations. Other times and directions it’s probably not needed to reserve way ahead if not taking a car on a car ferry.

The main street on Monhegan Island

The main street on Monhegan Island

Monhegan is a remote and beautiful rocky island a few miles around and about 10 or 12 miles out to sea. It is mostly a wooded preserve and the ocean side is accessible by hiking trails only. There you will enjoy magnificent vistas atop tall sea cliffs filled with sea birds. A small lobstering community lives there year-round (in fact they only lobster in winter, the only such community to do that in Maine) and three ferry companies provide daily access; importantly, each from different mainland harbors.  


We stayed at the Trailing Yew Inn, a short walk up from the ferry pier, and if you want they will carry your bags up to the inn from the ferry. Staying here is like being in an old cottage: comfortable, no frills, nice people and fresh clean ocean air coming through the windows all night.

There are three inns at different price points, some serving meals to guests and non-guests alike, and several cottages for rental on a weekly basis. I believe the inns all provide breakfast included, ours did. A store, a seafood take-away stand, and some coffee shops fill out the services, while a number of art shops and even an excellent small art museum by the lighthouse are worth a look. Monhegan has been an artists’ colony for many years.

Monheagan Island ferry pier at sunset from the veranda at the Island Inn (courtesy of Bryan Abbott)

Monheagan Island ferry pier at sunset from the veranda at the Island Inn (courtesy of Bryan Abbott)

After our overnight stay, the others would return to their cars in New Harbor, while I planned to head further up the coast. One way tickets on these ferries are available, though you may need to be very clear about that since it isn’t a commonly purchased ticket.

So I took a ferry on to Port Clyde on the St George Peninsula, two peninsulas further up from Pemaquid and across Muscongus Bay. (Hollywood tip: as you enter the harbor at Port Clyde, the Marshall Point Lighthouse on the right is the one Forest Gump ran to for one of his runs across America, it’s a short walk back out there from the ferry dock.)

Changeable fog at Port Clyde by the ferry terminal

Changeable fog at Port Clyde by the ferry terminal

It is a short taxi ride from Port Clyde to the nice port town of Rockland (called ahead, no Uber yet along the Maine coast outside Portland). Rockland is a good stopover, worth several days. It has a great arts scene anchored by the Farnsworth Museum (wonderful Wyeth collection), good restaurants and a nice downtown. Airbnb was good and very close to downtown and museum. Bikes can be rented and there are a number of good bike paths near water in the region.

From Rockland I took a ferry about 10 miles out to Vinalhaven Island for a couple of days. The state run car ferry to Vinalhaven is a set price whether going only one way or a round trip. But it is so cheap it doesn’t matter that you pay for both trips and use only one. If not taking a car, reservations are not needed. The ferry out passes through Hurricane Sound, one of the prettiest boat rides in Maine.

Zig zagging through islands and channels in Hurricane Sound south of Vinalhaven, Camden Hills in the background

Zig zagging through islands and channels in Hurricane Sound south of Vinalhaven, Camden Hills in the background

I stayed at the Libby House Inn on Vinalhaven, and after some pleasant conversation with Phil, the proprietor, he treated me to an afternoon tour of the island in his truck in exchange for just some gas money. You can use the kitchen for making meals, but there is so much good seafood nearby it is a shame to miss out on that. Phil will recommend places. There is also a motel right in the middle of the village which appears popular.

Vinalhaven is a large island with a nice downtown area only a short walk (half mile at most) from the ferry pier. It is served by some fresh water swimming holes, good restaurants, seafood diners, bakeries, a hotel and my B&B right on the edge of the village. Bikes can be rented. The day I arrived was the 4th of July and the town had just finished its Independence Day celebrations.


From there the routing for the islands trip becomes more complicated due to a lack of public ferries for two of these segments. The first task is to arrange passage from Vinalhaven to Stonington. I found a couple of private captains willing to take me from Vinalhaven to nearby Isle au Haut. From there another privately run island ferry could take me to Stonington. Another possible route goes through North Haven Island. (It is even conceivable that a route could be arranged through Matinicus Island some 20 miles offshore from Rockland.) By and large people were excited to hear about my trip, they had never heard of anyone doing this, and wanted to help. 

But for this particular trip, I turned back from Vinalhaven due to time constraints I had then. One might rush this trip but I figured that it was much better to see places well than just tick off the islands one by one. I headed back to Rockland. Then boarded a Concord Coach bus from there down to Portland (an easy 2 hours, picks up at the ferry terminal) which connects to other busses going further south, or a train.

However, on another trip I stayed about 4 days in Stonington, and confirmed those arrangements and also found potential rides to go on from there to Swan’s Island. Stonington is a great little town with a working harbor, mostly lobster boats, not pleasure craft. It is well worth a few days stay, if not a week.

Just outside its harbor is an archipelago of granite-slabbed islands that can be accessed by kayak rentals, local excursion boats or small ferries for day use, hikes, beach time and picnics. There is an old opera house showing movies, concerts and plays. I saw there a memorable concert by the nearly retired Gordon Bok, who has a remarkable repertoire of Maine folk songs from quarry, fishing and lumbermen days’ past.  And the local seafood is great, reasonable and usually served with a view. A range of accommodations are available.

Lighthouse on Isle au Haut, ferry runs between here and Stonington, can explore Isle au Haut by bike or by foot, a large portion of the island is in Acadia NP.

Lighthouse on Isle au Haut, ferry runs between here and Stonington, can explore Isle au Haut by bike or by foot, a large portion of the island is in Acadia NP.

There are no ferries from Stonington to Swan’s, but once again I found a local excursion boat captain that assured me we could work something out to get me there. In a pinch a lobster boat captain can probably drop you off there as well. It’s not that far away.

To continue the island zig zag trip, after finding transport from Stonington to Swan’s Island, a public ferry runs from Swan’s to Bass Harbor on Mt Desert Island and Acadia National Park. A free shuttle bus system then runs all over Mt Desert, where you can see virtually the whole of Acadia by using the free bus.

Those busses also will take you into Bar Harbor. You will generally be glad not to have to find a place to park a car in busy Bar Harbor. From there a ferry will cross Frenchman Bay to Winter Harbor, where more of Acadia NP sits. There a short taxi and then a local bus (I think only one a day so check schedule) can take you north to Bangor where regional bus connections on Concord Coach can be made for heading home again.

Altogether, one can go from Boothbay or New Harbor to Winter Harbor almost entirely by boat, without owning, chartering or operating one of your own. This trip directly along Route 1 would take close to 3 hours if there were no traffic. And you would see practically nothing. To make all these stops by car, and as needed take ferries out and back, would take something like a few days and it would be frustrating work. The boat route in contrast will take you along some of the most stunning parts of the Maine coast.

Once I got to thinking about travel like this, where leaving your at car home might give you more freedom rather than less, I worked out that a series of ferries, an occasional local or regional bus and one or two taxis actually could take someone from the New Jersey shore all the way up to Maine, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and even Labrador, incorporating the Maine Island route I’ve already described here. [As of summer 2019, the CAT ferry from Maine to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia will run out of Bar Harbor, making a Canadian addition to this island hopping trip all the more easy.]

And once I started investigating further, I discovered that a trip from Key West in Florida all the way up the Atlantic coast is possible as well, admittedly with some greater reliance on trains, more busses and occasionally ferries like those connecting the islands of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Indeed, by using a one way Pacific-to-Gulf cruise ship through the Panama Canal, someone could start this trip in Los Angeles. And, by using the Alaska State and British Columbia ferry systems and some more trains, someone could even start up in Anchorage. Or they might begin the trip in Japan using a once-a-year Springtime point-to-point repositioning cruise from there to Alaska, Vancouver or Seattle.

In fact, once I warmed up to the possibilities, I discovered that someone could fly from the States to Reykjavik, Iceland and buy a Swiss Army knife at the airport gift shop because they could then make it around the world and back home from there without ever again going through an airport security screen.*

And, except for a taxi here and there, not in a car either.


* There is a ferry from Iceland to the Faroe Islands and then to Denmark, trains around and across Europe and Asia, and a ferry from Kamchatka to South Korea and then on to Japan; with ample train detours to India, Southeast Asia and China possible.




©️ 2019 D Abbott