The High Island Lowdown


Like its neighbor Mount Desert Island, much of Ile au Haut -- over half -- is dedicated to Acadia National Park. Yet very few park visitors make it over to this other Penobscot Bay island, well south of the main park territory. Mount Desert has a nice solid causeway linking it to the Maine shore; Ile au Haut depends on a little mail boat, which chugs back and forth across 6 miles (9.7km) of water to the mainland. Only about 75 people, many of them lobstermen and their families, live here year-round; the population doubles (to a whopping 150 or so) in summer. There is a school on the island, but only about half a dozen kids go there, and for high school they have to commute by boat to the mainland.

That fancy French name -- "high island" -- came from explorer Samuel Champlain on his 1604 voyage up the Maine coast, and considering the mini-mountain range that cuts across this 6-mile-long (9.7km) island, it certainly fits. But fancy French names seem at odds with the laid-back small-town quality of Ile au Haut; say it like the islanders do, "Eye-la-Ho" (rhymes with "Idaho") and you're much more in tune with the place. The island was the last community in the U.S. to stop using crank telephones -- that tells you all you need to know about the time warp quality of the place.

If you don't have your own bike, you can rent one on the boat, and that's a good idea, because you'll want to explore beyond the quaint fishing village -- for a start, head south of town to check out the Ile au Haut Lighthouse, less than a mile south of town, on Robinson's Point. Built in 1907, this stout little brick lighthouse was the last traditional-style lighthouse built along this coast, and though it's now automated -- the keeper's house has been turned into a bed-and-breakfast inn -- it's still a working light.

A park ranger meets every mail boat run in summer to give hikers bound for the park all the maps and advice they need. There are 18 miles (29km) of walking trails roaming around the park's wooded hills, marshes, and rocky coves. The Long Pond trail loop heads to narrow mile-long Long Pond, a freshwater pond that's great for swimming. The Goat trail is rewarding for bird-watchers, leading from the salt marshes to Squeaker Cove, where harlequin ducks bob on the water. The Western Head trail loops around the south tip of the island, where seals flop around the granite boulders and gulls circle overhead. Outside of the park on the eastern shore, Boom Beach is more smooth rocks than sand, but it's a lovely place nonetheless; the Thunder Gulch trail is great on a hot summer day, shaded by spruce forest until it emerges on an ocean's-edge rock ledge continually spritzed with sea spray. The word "picturesque" doesn't even begin to cover it.

Information: www.isleauhaut.com. From Stonington Maine to the town landing (45 min.); summers only, from Acadia National Park to Duck Harbor (1 hr., 15 min.). The Mail Boat (tel. 207/367-5193).

Where to Stay: Acadia National Park campground (tel. 207/288-3338; www.nps.gov/acad). Inn at Ile au Haut (tel. 207/335-5141; www.innatileauhaut.com).