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Destination - Northeast Harbor - The Cranberry Isles: a simpler world

Discovering life at walking speed, that’s what the Cranberries are all about.

Discovering life at walking speed, that’s what the Cranberries are all about.

The five Cranberry Isles lie only about two miles south of Northeast Harbor, and a cruise to Great Cranberry or Islesford (Little Cranberry) offers a quieter, more peaceful world to explore on foot or by bicycle. You also can ride the Beal and Bunker Mail Boat, (207) 276-3575, with bicycles if you’d rather.

Great Cranberry and Islesford, the two inhabited islands with public access, are working communities of some 50 year-round families each, though summer residents and visitors have been important since the mid-1800s. Lobster pot buoys dot the waters, and lobster boats outnumber yachts in the harbors.

Many cruisers come to dine at Islesford Dock Restaurant. Its casual nautical atmosphere, friendly staff, good food and panoramic views of the harbor often draw crowds of day-trippers and ferry passengers. Several shops on the dock feature crafts, photographs, pottery and other “winter work” by locals. You can often buy lobsters at Fisherman’s Co-op or directly from local lobstermen.

“We’re a small community, an accommodating place, without a lot of rules and regulations,” says Islesford Dock Restaurant owner Dan Lief. “People are friendly and helpful.”

Just north of the restaurant dock, the National Park Service’s Islesford Historical Museum illustrates island life from Samuel Champlain’s explorations in 1604. Comprehensive exhibits follow the local economy from the late 1700s cod fishing and farming era through the 19th-century glory days of shipbuilding and coastal trade to a 20th-century summer colony and today’s lobstering and tourism. One exhibit features women’s lives, with artifacts used by Hannah Gilley — a pioneering islander who with her husband took possession of Baker Island and moved their family there in the early 1800s. Rangers staff the museum, which is part of Acadia National Park.

Stephanie Alley and Rebecca Larkin epitomize the recent changes in local lobstering. Mornings, the two women haul almost 400 traps from Alley’s boat, Ashley and Lucy, a 28-foot T Jason. On summer afternoons they also cruise with tourists aboard, hauling pots and viewing wildlife.

Walking ashore from the town dock you’ll spot “Welcome to Islesford” painted on the pavement. Within a half-mile along the two-lane main road are the 1890 Congregational Church, library, post office, store, school and chapel. It’s another mile to the south shore’s sandy beaches. Or stroll woodsy streets past 1920s homes to the north end of the island, where the mountains of Acadia National Park loom across the water.

Great Cranberry Island to the west is a bit larger — some 1.5 by 2 miles — and seems more remote and quieter, especially after the lone store closes at 3 p.m. (Cranberry General Store stocks fresh meats, seasonal produce, breads, dairy products, sandwiches and more.)

The shady two-lane main road curves past tidy homes occupied by year-round families and urbanites who have summered here for generations. A mile or so from the dock, Longfellow School contains the Great Cranberry Island Historical Museum, town hall, library and K-12 classrooms. Stroll farther, and you’ll find boat repair shops, a craft shop and a sandy south shore beach.

Most of Baker Island, the outermost island in the group, belongs to Acadia National Park. Unless the wind’s from the north, you can anchor off the north shore and safely land a dinghy on the rock beach, says Wes Shaw, captain of the MDI water taxi. Then follow the trail to the 1855 lighthouse and “Dance Hall Rocks,” flat ledges where locals used to party.