THE words ``Midday Mail Boat,'' hand-stamped on a small manila tag, caught our eye as we pulled out a suitcase recently, and we were instantly caught up in reminiscences of our summer visit to Monhegan Island. This speck of land 10 miles off the Maine coast offers hardly any of the facilities of modern resorts - no swimming pools, golf courses, movies, tennis courts, or fast-food restaurants. Yet the population of 80 year-round residents swells to 800 in summer.
Nostalgia for the simple life, the lure of Down East folkways and of Mother Nature in her glory - these are what attract mainlanders to the one-mile-square strip of land year after year.
An old-timer, returning on the mailboat from a mainland shopping trip, was heard to say, ``Monhegan is what you make of it.'' Since two-thirds of the island have been set aside as a wildlife sanctuary and since Monhegan has not only the highest cliffs on the New England shore but an artist colony added in this century, it isn't hard to make something special.
Getting here can be half the fun. The coast of Maine is made up of hundreds of points of land, so driving up US 1, the coastal route, you may not see much of the ocean, but you get more Maine flavor than the faster Interstate 95 provides. Port Clyde sits at the point of St. George's Peninsula, 15 miles out of Thomaston. Monhegan is a 10-mile boat ride from there. It's also possible to sail from Boothbay Harbor, an 18-mile trip.
Since the ferry leaves Port Clyde in the middle of the morning, it makes sense to spend the previous night nearby. But don't expect to put up in Port Clyde itself unless you have reservations, for local accommodations are few and in great demand.
We spent the night before at the East Winds Inn at Tenants Harbor, halfway down the peninsula. The next morning, we headed for the ferry and found ourselves in line with some 75 people, not to mention crates of food, bottled gas, mailbags, and sundry other supplies. The boat seemed very small, but everything fitted nicely, with passengers either seated in the cabin at the stern or standing in the open air on the prow.
An hour later we were unloading at the dock on Monhegan. We could see the Monhegan Inn, where we were booked, just a stone's throw up the hill. Flower beds of petunias, phlox, sweet williams, and monkshoods guide the guests to the modest side door. And modest is the right description for this hotel - modest but comfortable. Few rooms have baths, but a sufficient number of public baths and showers are available. Those who reserve early get the rooms on the front overlooking the harbor and Manana Island.
Monhegan doesn't have electricity, except for that provided by the hotel generator and some private generators. Bottled gas, kerosene, and photovoltaic cells provide the rest of the power.
Dress is informal here, with walking shoes and warm sweaters a must for evenings and windy days, and swimsuits for sunbathing and swimming, of course.
Aside from the inn, accommodations are provided by two hotels, the Trailing Yew and the Monhegan House. Several residents offer bed and breakfast, and a few apartments are advertised with advantages such as fireplaces and special views. No camping is allowed.
There are few roads on Monhegan and no cars - only some delivery and repair trucks.
There are plenty of pathways for walking, however, and 17 of them lead through the wilderness areas. In the residential area, pathways lead to a shop where you can buy newspapers, cards, gifts, and clothes, or get a snack, or just read the posted notices. There you will find announcements about boat tours that take you to see the seals and bird life. Other notices tell the dates and times of lectures on Monhegan's history, given at the schoolhouse.
Near the schoolhouse stands a small community library, and just up the hill is the island museum, right next to the lighthouse.
In the other direction, a path leads to the general store, a laundromat, a lunch restaurant, a church, and the small beach. Hiking paths take you to the high cliffs, the ice pond, Lobster Cove (where remains of a shipwreck speak of a less kindly side of nature), and the ``Cathedral Pines,'' where tall spruce and balsam firs intertwine their high branches in a green vaulted dome.
At the lighthouse museum, visitors might meet Alta Ashley, the unofficial historian of the island. She or another guide is likely to recount the story of how, from 1824 to 1956, the kerosene-fired light helped guide approaching ships. Many of the displays in the museum depict the way of life of the lighthouse keepers who worked here. Now, along with the fog horn on nearby Manana Island, the light is generator-powered and controlled by the Coast Guard. No lighthouse keeper is needed.
Especially fascinating to the urbanite of today is the 1880s kitchen and the outbuilding that contains gear for ice cutting, which was an immensely important part of life before refrigeration. The whole population contributed directly or indirectly to the effort to garner ice from the mill pond and then pack it away in sawdust and hay to last through the following summer. Other exhibitions include photos of historic events and of the 293 wildflowers native to the island, the works of local artists, and information about the Indians who made this their home in the 17th and 18th centuries. Archaeological evidence suggests that visitors from various parts of Europe - Norsemen to Phoenicians - a thousand years ago visited the island.
Fishing is still the backbone of the economy. Everywhere you go you see the lobster pots piled high, as though someone were providing a photo opportunity. They are not in use in summer, because Monhegan fishermen have obtained special permission from the legislature to do their lobstering in the winter season, when warm waters here allow them to supply the market at a time of scarcity and higher prices on the coast.
In summer not only tourists but artists enhance the economy and the social scene here. Not all of them have such commodious quarters as painter Jamie Wyeth, with his substantial cottage on the headlands at Lobster Cove (built in 1908 by Rockwell Kent). Artists take space where they can find it, in garages, workshops, or apartments. A fair number of them hold open house at appointed hours during the week.
On our day of departure, the Laura B., our mailboat ferry from Port Clyde, came in over stormy waters, and the passengers out on the prow were drenched but exhilarated. Our days of sunny leisure, hiking in woods and along the cliffs and snoozing in the sun or in the shade of the inn porch, were over too soon.
But we became part of the local tradition, as friends from the island handed us little bouquets of flowers from their gardens to toss into the sea as the ferry pulled out, thus signifying our intention to return.
If you go
Drive US Route 1 or Interstate 95 to Thomaston, and follow Maine Route 131 to Port Clyde. Or go to Wiscasset and take Maine Route 27 to Boothbay Harbor.
The ferry from Port Clyde sails twice daily, tel. (207) 372-8848; the one from Boothbay Harbor sails once daily, tel. (207) 633-3244).
Accommodations on Monhegan, for which reservations should be made early, are the Island Inn at (207) 372-9681, with double rooms priced at $42.50 per person, including breakfast and dinner; the Monhegan House at (207) 594-7983), where double rooms start at $40 and meals are extra; and the Trailing Yew at (207) 596-0440, with rates at $34 per person per day, including breakfast and dinner. Rates at the Shining Sails apartments, (207) 596-0041, start at $225 a week for one or two people, with $8 extra for each additional person.