Maine's Deer Isle Spins a Web Of Wonder

The cool green ocean, the fresh air, the hills, the pines, the stony fingers of land have conspired for a hundred years to pull artists to this island perched just below the Blue Hill peninsula.

Those artists that don't live here year round come for the summer and stay through autumn's brilliant reds and yellows.

Writers, photographers, musicians are also drawn here. Responding to escapism or true love of the land, they leave steamier places to let this uncommercial, unpretentious jewel wrap its refreshing charms around them.

We were invited to spend a long weekend with gracious friends who have summered here for more than 20 years.

Because it's a six-hour drive from our home near Boston, my wife and I spent a day and a half driving "down East" to Maine, dipping into some small adventures on the way.

Because our hostess had said that "Maine doesn't begin until you get to Brunswick" (just above L.L. Bean in Freeport and way beyond the devotees of York, Ogunquit, and Kennebunkport), we didn't stop to see anything until we got to Wiscasset.

This antique village is a page unto itself. Ships' captains and merchants in the 19th century had made it wealthy and adorned it with substantial houses. But the War of 1812 torpedoed that wealth.

President Jefferson forbade US merchant traders from sailing for five years - because British and French ships were capturing American vessels - and the original robustness never returned to Wiscasset. But its class hangs on, if sometimes by old threads.

The tours offered at Castle Tucker and the Nickels-Sortwell House are outstanding.

There are antique shops up the coast in Searsport, known for its collectors. But this town, and even Wiscasset and charming Camden, only set the scene for the stunning Blue Hill region and Deer Isle.

On the first evening with our friends, we attended an auction at the famous Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, on Deer Isle. Its workshops sit unpretentiously at intervals down a hill whose feet are in the sea. Graying cedar steps and platforms connect the workshops.

At the end of each of several summer sessions, where glass blowing, pottery, sculpturing, metal working, etc. are taught by world-famous teachers, the best works - some by the teachers themselves- are auctioned off to benefit the school.

More than half of the audience were teachers, students, and their families, all acting in spirited unison like a high-school cheering team for each sale. Droll auctioneers egged them on. Forget Sotheby's sangfroid.

How fine were the objects? One delicious goblet by a modern Italian master went for $1,200, but most prices were lower. Each piece was prized, none was humble.

The next days were for poking around Deer Isle to get its feel and flavor. The mixing of local folk and upscale summer folk is a featured attraction of the area, but catching the nuances takes more time than we had. Maybe a good novelist is working on this bit of Americana. We saw several signs in front of churches telling of Saturday social suppers a - place to work on the topic.

One drives, and drives, to cover this rural area. Our hosts wanted us to see the best parts, so after burning most of their tank of gas, we started on ours. It's good to have a designated driver to keep his eyes on the road - especially at Caterpillar Hill, where feasts of green hills scattered with moonscape rocks drift off toward water on three sides.

"Property" is a big topic in a place like Deer Isle and the surrounding region. Who owns what? Who lives where? Should one rent? Should one buy?

Should one retire here - and face those long, long Maine winters? Our hostess knew when each house was sold, and who bought it.

A lot of people come up, are enamored, buy a little place, and a few years later become so lonely that they can't wait to sell and leave. They hadn't checked their inner landscape.

One doesn't walk the beaches here, as on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, or Sarasota, Fla., two places with world-class sand and water connections. Maine offers rocky shores, mostly, and in some cases dramatic chunks of granite.

One lovely waterfront spot above Deer Isle is Flye Point, in North Brooklin (yep, Brooklin). But the whole thing belongs to one owner, who inherited it and now rents out cottages and runs a large guest house.

So it often goes here - the parents or the parents' parents owned it first, and then leave it to family. We heard of several people who inherited a little island from their folks, where they go once in a while to party or just relax.

One evening we heard a concert of Boccherini and Dvorak at Kneisel Hall in Blue Hill, long a summer chamber music school with connections going back to the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Julliard School, where founder Franz Kneisel was associated.

Our last evening together we dined at the Castine Inn - another long drive, but a fitting end to our stay.

Both the French and British once controlled this seaport, now elegantly dotted with 18th and 19th century Georgian and Federal houses. We had thought the trip was basically to enjoy friends, the woods, and water - which we did. Some cultural traditions imposed themselves graciously.

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