Islands are some of the most beautiful, serene places in Maine. They’re also hard to get to — not just logistically — lots of islands don’t have affordable places to stay. Sure, if you want to drop $1,000 you can stay in a lighthouse off North Haven. Or a mere $350 to get you a room on Cuckolds Island, $199 for Peaks Island or $195 for Monhegan if it’s August and you want to see the ocean from your room.
If you don’t want to/can’t drop a full month’s rent on your island stay, here are three great places to stay for free to $38 (upgrade options up to $60). Thus list includes one of the most magical places I’ve ever seen. And yeah, that one is hard to get to. And I’m glad it is.
This one is easy to get to, but can get sardine-packed in tourist season. Let’s start with the basics:
Price: $38-60 summer, $35 off-season
Type of camping: Tenting, tent trailers and pick-up trucks with slide-on campers (no RVs).
Where: Phippsburg, 1 hour from Portland
Best feature: Sandy, isolated beaches
Worst feature: Value. The tent sites are clustered close together, check out is at 10 a.m.
Other stuff: Cash only. No pets. Two adults per site. One car per site. No visitors.
More info: hermitisland.com
This is an easy escape to get to, which is why it’s No. 1 on the list. Hermit Island Campground is at the end of the road in Phippsburg over a sandbar of a road on its own peninsula off the peninsula. The campground is a sandy oasis with lots of low shrubs and a ton of birds. In fact, my birder friend made my last reservation to this campground and she was not disappointed. We watched a little Gray Catbird mimic all the seabird songs while we ate campfire french toast one morning. The beaches are great – sandy with climbable rocky ledges. If those don’t do it for you, it’s 15 minutes from Popham Beach, one of the best sandy spots in the state.
Now for the less-pretty side: $60 is a lot for an ocean view from a tent. My friend paid the cash for an ocean view site, then realized it was an OK view, but we were surrounded by lots of other people and the bushes were not tall enough to buffer their noise (not the point of going to an island). So we downgraded to two lesser sites that were in a private circle (38 and 39 Dune Way). Also, only two people and only one car per site and you must leave the campground by 10 a.m. (including beaches and trails).
The campground has a store with beer, maple syrup and tons of candy. It also has a shed with a pool table, games and a fireplace.
My advice would be to wait to go here until after Sept. 1, when rates for all sites go down to $35. Call them and make sure it’s not too busy the days you want to go, then wait to pick a site until you’re there. It’s impossible to tell the quality of each site even though there are photos of each place on the website. If I go in the off-season, I’ll reserve a site on Joe’s Head Road (12 or 11) or I’ll try my luck at Osprey Point (1, 2 or 4), which I heard is great, but have not been to. It’s a beautiful piece of Maine and a perfect place to watch a sunset over the ocean.
Anyone can stay on Deer Isle: Non-campers, campers, kayakers …
Price: $25-60 a night
Type of camping: Either in a hostel or at a campground (tent and RV)
Where: Deer Isle, 3 hours from Portland (but 80 minutes from Bar Harbor, a good in-between spot)
Best feature: Small town-iness
Worst feature: 3-hour drive
More info: Either Old Quarry Campground’s site oldquarry.com or Deer Isle Hostel’s at https://sites.google.com/a/deerislehostel.com/deerislehostel/.
You have two options for a cheap stay on Deer Isle — a bridge island you can get to with your car: A hostel or a campground.
Deer Isle is a great place for hiking (Maineiac Outdoors recently wrote about his favorite hikes on the island) because it has a bunch of conservation lands with easy trails that give you ocean views, pink granite to climb and clam-mud to drench your sneakers in. Or not. For literary nerd cred, bring along a Steinbeck paperback — he once visited the island for two nights and wrote about it.
Deer Isle Hostel is a novel little place. It’s all off-the-grid (compost-heated shower, farm-gorwn communal dinners) and rates start at $25 per person for a twin bed in a room with other people. You can get your own cabin for $60 (fits two people). We wrote a whole story about it here: http://mainetoday.com/maine-travel/stay-deer-isle-hostel-cheap-sustainable-stay-coast-maine/.
Down the road is a campground with sea kayak rentals. I can’t personally vouch for it, but rates start at $28 for an “overflow” site (no fire ring, no platform, no table) or $54 for an oceanside tent site. This place has wifi, electricity and allows dogs. The bonus of this place is the kayak rentals, which start at $30 for two hours.
Maybe you’re mad at me for mentioning this. Or maybe you’ve never heard of the place. I’m sure it’s one of the two.
Price: Free, but meant for use by Maine Island Trail Association members ($45 minimum for membership)
Type of camping: Tenting or on-boat sleeping
Where: Casco Bay, 8 miles from Portland
Best feature: Abandoned buildings on trails
Worst feature: You need your own boat to get there
More info: Maine Island Trail Association members have access to a full guide. Aside from that, you’ll just have to get a boat, find it and see for yourself.
Portland Press Herald archive photo by Gregory Rec, Friday, June 15, 2001: After spending the day hauling lumber and getting the base of his tent platform set up on Jewell Island, Gerhard Saas cools off by jumping into the frigid water of Cocktail Cove.
A chimney still stands from a home. We climbed it.
The Punchbowl is a nearly perfect circle of rocks and beach, protecting a cold saltwater pool. Perfect for swimming.
A WWII tower is climbable. Enter (with a flashlight) and you'll find stairs leading up to a windowed top with a 360-view of the ocean and surrounding islands.
I climbed out the watchtower windows and sat on the deck to take in the view.
This is part of the 360-degree view.
Portland Press Herald file photo by Gordon Chibroski, Friday, July 12, 2002: Kayakers from Venture Crew, a senior scouting group, enjoy a few days on Jewell Island with their kayaks. Rules for usage of the trails on Jewell Island are being developed with the assistance of Maine Island Trails Association.
We also found underground bunkers from WWII. They were cold, dark and scary.
This is a photo of inside the underground bunker. I had my flashlight on when I took this. That's how dark it is.
Schooner ALERT is pretty at sunset off Jewell.
It’s cliche to even say it, but I’ll go there: Jewell Island is a gem. It’s true. I heard about it when my friends Bethany Mcnelly-Davis and Perry Davis brought me out for a daysail on their boat Schooner ALERT. I’d jumped on one of their regular tours where Bethany talked about all the islands in Casco Bay as we sailed by. When she pointed to Jewell she sort of whispered that it was, essentially, Narnia and therefore her favorite place in the world (and she’s been places). She told me about the abandoned WWII towers, bunkers, trails and the Punchbowl cove to swim in. We went back to it a few weeks later.
The island has quite a history. There are legends of pirates, buried treasure, counterfeit salt businesses, liquor smuggling. Pilots crashed off the island and died. One time, locals found a bunch of deer on the island so they got in a line and chased them from one end of the narrow island to the other. When the deer slid into the ocean, they slaughtered them and stuffed their freezers for the winter. Legend has it an attorney once was brought to the island, tied to a tree by his companions and beaten all night. There are lots of ghost stories. Picnickers have visited the island since at least the late 1800s. The Army overtook the island during WWII and built a station there with two tall towers (one U boat was spotted) on Jewell, which is the outermost Casco Bay island.
There are several foundations, a stand-alone chimney and some falling-apart cement buildings left over from WWII, which you can climb in. During the course of WWII the U.S. government requisitioned all of Jewell from its owners, who had homes, a farm and cabins there. It caused tension, obviously. For a while locals lived on the island while the Army built their 24 or so buildings. I needed to tell you all of that because one of the most interesting buildings “is a jail,” my friends said. It looks like a jail and I was told by many people it was. Ivy crawls up its barred windows. It’s floor is rotted out in most places. But it’s not a jail. According to “History of Jewell Island, Maine” by historian Peter Benoit, the Army was worried about the locals stealing or vandalizing the buildings, so it put the barred windows and barbed wire fences around a couple buildings. There was never a jail on the island (there was: a firehouse, recreation hall, post office, the 80-foot tower, the 50-foot tower, the battery with two 6″ guns, a radar tower …).
All of this history and skeletons of that history, which are scattered all over the island in the form of these abandoned buildings, make for a great hike of about three miles. You can climb up one of the outlook towers for an amazing, near-360 view of the island and the surrounding ocean and islands. The battery is a massive concrete underground building. If you want to go inside, bring a great flashlight because the floor in parts was wood and is collapsing. There are cold, damp corridors with rooms off them — one with a painting of a grim reaper. Yes, it’s a scary and awesome place.
Camping on the island is all tent sites. If you’re going on a weekend, show up early because the island can become busy during the summer. There are picnic tables, fire rings and outhouses on Jewell. A Maine Island Trail Association keeper is on a nearby island, which explains why the campsites are pristine.
To get to the island you’ll need to get a boat. You can charter one. You could kayak there from Portland. Or you could take the ferry to nearby Cliff Island and paddle from there. There are no moorings, so bring your best anchor. Or, if you have money to burn, there’s an Airbnb listing out of South Portland, where for $1,100 a man will sail you to Jewell and will set you up with an air mattress and a lobster bake. Yikes.
–Isle au Haut: I tried for it this year and did not get a reservation. Isle au Haut is half it’s own island and half owned by Acadia National Park. That means you can hike the two little mountains on the park side, then head into town to see the few shops, the pretty town hall and meet some lobstermen … and maybe meet their catch too. Duck Harbor Campground is in Acadia. To get a lean-to (one of five), you mail in an application with $25, which will cover the cost of your stay, up to 3 days in tourist season and five days otherwise. You request your dates (in my case I wrote “any weekend in July or August, and it was all full up by May) and send it in in early April. For more information visit nps.gov.
–Little Chebeague: Sand beaches, gravel beaches, abandoned houses (I like abandoned things!), trails, but best of all: You can get there by ferry and a hike. There’s a sandbar from Great Chebeague, so if you can time your ferry ride just right, you can ride over for about $11, then walk the sandbar to one of two tent sites. There’s a kiosk, an outhouse and two sites on a dune (if you go, try not to crush the grass).
–Warren Island State Park: Islesboro is quaint and beautiful, so I imagine the tiny island off of it would be fun. You take a ferry to Islesboro, but then you need your own boat to get the quarter-mile to Warren Island, which is its own state park with three lean-tos and eight reservable tent sites, plus one first-come-first-pitched site. The island has a pier and courtesy moorings. Bring lots of bug spray to this one. Lots of ticks. Lots.
– Stephen Phillips Memorial Preserve Trust: 2.5 hours north of Portland, this campground has lake islands you can canoe to and camp on. It’s $16 a night and you can reserve your own small, freshwater island.
–Whaleboat: Full story here.
There are more than 450 islands in Maine, including lake islands. Which great ones did I miss? Add your tips in the comments.