I’m on the top deck of a ferry heading back to the Portland mainland, and the sun is setting behind the skyline. Beside me, 5-year-old Meredith Tierney-Fife is watching the boats come and go in Casco Bay. She is returning from a day on Peaks Island with her mother, Josie, and her sisters, 9-year-old twins Elinor and Anna. The Tierney-Fifes live in Portland, but they visit the island at least a few times a year, says Josie. Today, the girls are excited to show off their collection of sea glass, their prize after a daylong search. “We’ve got around 20 pieces,” Anna says, and Elinor explains that, along with biking, searching for sea glass is her favorite thing to do on Peaks Island.
It surprises me that, at the end of a long day, the girls are still energetic and excited as they describe their time on Peaks. They show an appreciation of simple pleasures — walking the four-mile loop around the island, biking, beach combing — that continue to be the main attractions for visitors to this quiet island, three miles east of downtown Portland.
What doesn’t surprise me is that the Tierney-Fifes have chosen to come out to Peaks: The kids are out of school and the temperatures are nearing the triple digits, so there’s no better time for a day trip to someplace cool and quiet.
Located 15 minutes east of the Portland mainland by public ferry, Peaks Island remains a relatively sleepy place; a small but intimate community of year-round islanders who accommodate thousands of summer visitors staying, by and large, in rental properties or making day trips. There are roughly 1,000 year-round residents on Peaks, with the summer number swelling to around 6,000.
At the turn of the 20th century, Peaks Island was referred to as “the Coney Island of Maine.” The small community was home to three theaters, shops, hotels and even a small amusement park. By the end of World War II, after part of the island had been requisitioned for use by the military, the island’s renown and the number of visitors had declined.
Today, tourists are still an integral part of the island’s economy, as the folks who run Maine Island Kayak or Peaks Cafe near the ferry landing will likely tell you. However, a tightly knit community exists among year-round residents, and the island is home to a Portland Public Library branch, an island police station, an elementary school, a health center and churches.
Peaks Island is accessible by ferry service from Casco Bay Lines, running hourly from the wharf at Commercial Street and Franklin Avenue. At Peaks, the ferry docks at the bottom of Welch Street, and it is difficult to go far without wanting to stop and eat once you arrive, since the handful of eateries on the island are all within view of the top of Welch Street, where it runs into Island Avenue.
So naturally my first order of business is to find some grub. I’m faced with a dilemma as I reach the top of Welch Street. Heading north (left) on Island Avenue, I can go to Hannigan’s Market, the island grocer, and buy provisions or get a freshly made sandwich. On the other hand, I’m tempted to head south (right) to The Peaks Island House and have lunch on its deck overlooking the ferry landing. This temptation wins out and I’m not disappointed. The food is good and reasonably priced (lunch comes to about $12) and the view of Casco Bay makes me nearly forget the scorching temperatures. The fare at Peaks’ other lunch/dinner restaurants — The Cockeyed Gull and The Inn at Peaks — will run you a bit more, but these establishments also come highly recommended by visitors and residents.
“Things to do on Peaks?” Ella Shaw muses. “I like to walk the back shore of the island, along Sea Shore Ave.”
Shaw, a student at the University of Maine at Orono, who grew up on the island and works here during the summer, is characteristic of many true islanders. She is sometimes overwhelmed by the influx of people during the summer, especially during the busy season, from the end of June to the end of August. But she also depends on the tourism as a source of work.
After lunch, I head to Take a Peak, one of the few shops on the island. The small, inviting boutique near the corner of Welch Street and Island Avenue sells crafts, toys, books, clothing, art and more. Deborah, a year-round islander who works at Take a Peak, suggests that I head to Sandy Beach, at the southwest tip of the island, for some swimming. Cooling off has never sounded better. A short quarter-mile walk (to New Island Avenue and then down Greenwood Street to the end) takes you to a small sand beach accessed by a long wooden ramp. Small pieces of sea glass are guaranteed, there’s some sweet shade near trees and it’s the closest shot for a swim to nearby Catnip Island.
But I walk a little farther down New Island Avenue to Whitehead Street, eventually coming to a small path beyond which I can see the ocean. I am at the southernmost tip of the island, where a jutting peninsula separates two coves. I make my way down to the right, to Hadlock Cove, where half a dozen small sailboats are moored. The beach here is made of smooth rocks and pebbles, and at both ends the water washes up on large shelves of rock, perfect for sunbathing.
Not surprisingly, the only people I see swimming are under the age of 10. And although I myself dive into the frigid waters, I am out again, shivering, in a few seconds. I meet a few other beachgoers. Sitting on a broad rock ledge, John Folsom points to Catnip Island, about 50 yards off shore. “The kids love to swim out there. I usually go out with them once during our vacation.” It’s not the distance so much as the temperature of the water that makes the feat impressive. Folsom, who is visiting with his family from Califon, N.J., calls to his son, who is playing with several kids by the shoreline.
“It’s just so nice,” says Folsom’s wife, Maureen, who grew up in Portland. “We can just let the kids play and not worry about it.” The Folsoms tell me that they normally visit Peaks for two weeks out of the year.
“We love it,” John tells me, leaning back on the rock to catch the rays of the setting sun. “It’s beautiful.”
I leave the beach and continue my walk southeastward, getting on to Seashore Avenue, which will take me around the island. A half-mile down the road, I come to a stone beach that looks out at the vast Gulf of Maine. Here, I’m told, amateur sculptors make free-standing structures from the thousands of stones strewn across the rock beach. From a distance down the road I can already make out waist-high grey figures standing against the blue of the sea.
I stay just long enough to create my lasting masterpiece — lasting at least until someone needs one of my stones. I decide to walk the rest of the loop around the beautiful island. As I make my way east and then north on Seashore Avenue, bird calls and the crush of the ocean make it easy to forget that I’m in Maine’s most populous city.
I pass what looks like prime swimming areas on the northeast side of the island, at Spar Cove and Elm Tree Cove. Coming around the top of the island, the road skirts inland, through marsh and forest, before heading back south on the western side, where I return to Island Avenue. On my way back to the ferry, I pass the post office, the elementary school, the library, Brad and Wyatt’s Island Bike Service — where those who don’t bring them can rent their two-wheeled island rovers — the unique Umbrella Cover Museum and Gem Gallery, which exhibits pieces by island artists.
By the time I reach the top of Welch Street, the sun is already going down and it seems a perfect time to pop into Down Front before catching the ferry. Located at the corner of Welch Street and Island Avenue, this store sells sweets and souvenirs. But what makes Down Front special? “It’s the only ice cream store on the whole island,” says 17-year-old Chrissy Raymond, who works on Peaks in the summer but lives in Stoughton, Mass.
We are nearing the end of our brief ferry ride back to downtown Portland, and for the first time, 5-year-old Meredith Tierney-Fife looks tired as she leans up against her mother, still looking out at the bay. We’re pulling up to the dock now, and twins Anna and Elinor are already getting ready to disembark. Was there anything left undone on their day’s excursion, I ask.
Anna is quick to respond. “I really, really, really want to ride a golf cart,” she says.
Next time, I think to myself.
“Oh yea, we’ll be back,” says Elinor.
For the full ferry schedule, check out the Casco Bay Lines website at http://www.cascobaylines.com/. And for a schedule of events happening on Peaks, see the community calendar at http://www.peaksisland.info/calendar_2010.htm#July.
What to do
• Walk or bike the island loop. You can get an aerial map here: http://www.trevethan.net/Peaks-Island.gif. Or go to Google maps. Alternatively, there is a map of the island located directly off the ferry landing. The route going counterclockwise (right off Welch Street) takes Island Avenue to New Island Avenue to Whitehead Street to Seashore Avenue to Trefethen Avenue to Island Avenue.
• If you’re a history buff, two Civil War Museums are located on the island. The Fifth Maine Museum is open weekends from Memorial Day through July 1, 11 a.m. – 4 p.m., then Monday through Friday noon – 4 p.m. from July 1 through Labor Day, and then weekends 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. from Labor Day through Columbus Day. FMI: http://www.fifthmainemuseum.org/. And the Eighth Maine Regiment Memorial Association is open for tours daily between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. FMI: www.8thMaine.org
• Hit the beach and swim to Catnip Island. Go to the end of Greenwood Street and head down the ramp to the small beach. This is also a great place for beach combing.
• Build your own stone monument along the seaside of Seashore Avenue on the south edge of the island.
• Grab a bite at one of the three restaurants near the ferry terminal, or grab a lunch wrap at Peaks Cafe (see next item) or buy sandwiches and/or provisions at Hannigan’s Market, also down the street from the terminal, and take a picnic for your walk/bike around the island.
• Don’t miss the coffee and many breakfast delights (including cinnamon rolls and chocolate croissants) at Peaks Cafe, at the corner of Welch Street and Island Avenue. There’s a reason why there’s always a line. Usually closes around 2 p.m.
• Kayak out to one of the several forts around the island. You won’t have trouble on certain islands, though keep in mind that some, like Fort Scammel on House Island and Fort Levett on Cushing Island, remain private property. So watch out for posted signs. Fort Gorges, now a Portland park, is a popular canoe and kayak destination. However, make sure only to kayak or canoe in good conditions, as the tides can make it dangerous.
• Visit the world’s only Umbrella Cover Museum on Island Avenue (left, from the ferry), where you can find various and unique umbrella covers (those thin sleeves that you slip your umbrella in) from more than 30 countries. A $2 donation is requested. Open summers 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 to 5 p.m. every day but Wednesday; also closed Sunday mornings. FMI: Call director Nancy Hoffman at 766-4496 or check the museum’s website: http://www.umbrellacovermuseum.org/
• Patience can be rewarding. Jose Morales, who works with his father doing landscaping on the island, suggests fishing off the little pier beside the ferry landing.
• Maria Malone, an island resident, likes walking “Indian trail,” which cuts across the northeast portion of the island.
• During World War II, Peaks Island was heavily involved in coastal defense. The giant, concrete structure known as Battery Steele, an old artillery emplacement, still remains partially hidden under foliage in the southeast of the island. Can you find it?
• If you visit the island on a Sunday and are in the mood to party and dance, visit Jones Landing from 1 to 5 p.m. for Reggae Sunday. Jones Landing is located adjacent to the ferry landing on Welch Street. FMI: http://www.joneslanding.net/index.php?view=categoryevents&id=1%3Areggae-sunday&option=com_eventlist&Itemid=58