Skip to main content

Going ashore: a ‘walkabout cruise’

The best of cruising involves finding a balance between on- and off-the-water activities.

The best of cruising involves finding a balance between on- and off-the-water activities. Special walkabouts ashore — beyond the usual stroll through a harbor town to window shop or dine at a dockside lobster pound — enrich the cruising experience in unexpected ways, providing a contrast and a sense of adventure both on land and sea. Here one Maine cruiser discovers the rewards of achieving that balance with four shore-side sojourns ideal for couples and families.

It was one of those perfect days with a gentle breeze from the southeast and a cloudless sky that cast the blue hills of Camden in majestic relief. Our 36-foot cutter, Sonata, heeled slightly, the three sails drawing with the wind off the starboard quarter, her bow pointed northward up the west side of Penobscot Bay to Islesboro’s Warren Island State Park.

“Maybe we should keep going,” I said to my wife, Elizabeth. “We could make Castine.”

It was tempting to keep sailing until dusk, but so was a leisurely afternoon hike on the park’s two miles of scenic trails.

“I like Warren Island,” Elizabeth said.

Warren Island it would be.

Sonata ghosted past Grindel Point, passing an anchored windjammer from Camden, Maine, the deck full of passengers gazing at the hills across the bay. The mooring field in front of the park’s floating dock was crowded, as it usually is at the peak of the summer season. Lowering the sails, we cruised under power, weaving among yachts from Canada, and others with hailing ports as far south as Texas. On the bow, Elizabeth guided us to an open mooring, and we were soon secure and ready to go ashore.

Ambling up the ramp leading to the trails that circle the island, I turned and admired the harbor. Two more schooners were anchoring north of the moorings, presenting a pleasing juxtaposition between the modern boats and the graceful beauty of the past. Heading inland, the pines surrounded us, the wind whispering through the boughs. At intervals vistas of the bay caused us to stop and observe the scenery. Although the island is popular, we only passed a few people on the well-maintained trails, enabling us to enjoy the solitude.

The perspective from the water, particularly in Maine, offers a detachment from land that magnifies the grandeur of the seascape. For years, though, I had been drawn to seek a view of midcoast Maine from the tops of the mountains that rise in pale purple on the horizon. Mount Megunticook and Mount Battie, near Camden, represented a bit too much of a hike for my tastes. But Blue Hill seemed a little easier with its lower elevation and closer access to the boat.

Determined to climb Blue Hill, we set sail for a destination we had never visited, and the promise of adventure. Riding a stiff southerly, Sonata raced up Islesboro, rounded the northern tip, and faced a broad expanse of whitecaps surging up the east side of the island. Spray flew over the bow as we beat toward the approach to Eggemoggin Reach under full main and staysail. The seas flattened out when we ducked behind the islands on the west side of Deer Isle, and the motion became more comfortable. The suspension bridge over the reach hove into view and we picked up a mooring for the night at Eggemoggin Landing, just west of the span.

The sail up Blue Hill Bay the following day was all I had hoped for. Sailing along with the big Yankee jib, the hills of Mount Desert to the east furnished a view we had never seen, having always taken the direct route to Northeast Harbor, by Bass Harbor Bar and the Western Way. Ahead, the 940-foot summit of angular Blue Hill grew more distinct as we drew closer to Blue Hill Harbor, a well-protected nook in the northwestern corner of the bay.

Friends ashore

By late afternoon we rode to a guest mooring at the Kollegewidgwok Yacht Club. Nursing a cold beer, I sat in the cockpit staring up at Blue Hill and wondered how the harbor and surrounding waters would look from the top of Kollegewidgwok, “blue hill on shining green water,” to use the language of the Penobscot Indians. The yacht club takes its name from the Penobscots, though most people call it KYC on the radio; it’s just easier.

KYC is a friendly club, welcoming visitors from “away,” as was obvious in our case from the New Jersey hailing port on the transom. I originally planned to take the dinghy into the inner harbor, follow the directions in the cruising guide and climb the hill. The alternative would mean walking from the club into town, a trek of well over a half-hour each way, then more walking to reach the trail head, not to mention the climb itself. That sounded like a little too much work.

“You only have about three hours at high tide,” the dock master said. “The harbor dries out pretty fast after that.”

“Dries out? Oh,” I said. “Any taxis?”

“Not really. But we can get you a ride, don’t worry.”

And that’s just what the dock crew did the next day. In about 10 minutes I was alone at the trail head, my wife passing on the Blue Hill climb. The trail traversed a wide meadow with an easy grade to the edge of the hill. Already the views were stunning, taking in the harbor, the bay and Mount Desert. Then the trail plunged me into stands of pine, and the grade got steep. My heart pounded. Sweat soaked my T-shirt. I stopped often to drink from my canteen.

I reached the summit about an hour after starting out, thoroughly invigorated from the exercise, the peace of the woods, and the immense pleasure I experienced upon breaking from the trees into the clearing at the top. The afternoon sea breeze cooled me off as I gazed at the long fingers of blue water interspersed with the verdance of pine-covered peninsulas and islands spread out below. To the west, Penobscot Bay. To the south, Blue Hill Bay, and to the east, Mount Desert. Through my binoculars I saw the specks of white sails, adding to the beauty of the panorama. On the way down, I stopped to pick blueberries for dessert, a quintessential Maine experience.

The Blue Hill climb was the closest I came to hiking during the “walkabout cruise,” as Elizabeth called it. My intention was not to win any Boy Scout merit badges for strenuous exercise, but to add new experiences to an otherwise familiar trip. We had visited Mount Desert’s Northeast Harbor, walking the short distance into town to window-shop and enjoy dinner ashore. However, we did not go to the English-style gardens at Asticou Terraces. This time we went, ready for cultivated natural elegance that did not disappoint after a long, dull motor from Blue Hill Bay.

Sea breeze and a view

Taking the dinghy to the Asticou Terraces Landing on the northeast side of the harbor, we hiked an easy quarter-mile switchback trail up the steep slopes of the hills. Splendid views of the harbor opened between the pines. The higher we went, the smaller all the boats appeared from a distance — even the ubiquitous megayachts.

Soon we reached Thuya Lodge, the former summer residence of Joseph Henry Curtis, a wealthy landscape architect from Boston. After Curtis’ death in 1928, the 140-acre property was, according to his wishes, set aside for the “quiet recreation of the people of [Northeast Harbor] and their summer guests.” Inside the lodge the first impression was of the warm wooden interior and the fragrant scent of pine. Wandering through the cozy rooms, many of which house rare botanical and horticultural books, I imagined what it must have been like for Curtis to sit in the study, enjoying the view and the cool summer sea breeze.

Outside, the gardens presented a luxury of color. The bright sunlight enhanced the vivid blues, reds, pinks, purples and yellows of the flowers. A sense of peace and tranquillity was palpable, and I noticed the other visitors spoke in whispers, as if they, too, did not want to spoil the feeling. Beyond the gardens, trails led through the rest of the preserve, and we might have spent much of the day exploring.

“Just beautiful,” Elizabeth said as we headed back to the boat. “Really incredible. And to think we’ve been here so many times and never went.”

“We’ll be back,” I said.

The tourist route

Back on the boat, we retired early in preparation for our sail to Bar Harbor, where the summit of Cadillac Mountain awaited.

A gentle morning breeze sent Sonata eastward into Frenchman Bay. The bold shores of Mount Desert captivated us, so rugged and high it reminded me of sailing the lakes of the Adirondacks. Rising above the granite, laced with the white of breaking swells, were a series of mountains, rounded and cloaked in green. Up on a rocky point, an amazing castle stood out against the sky, looking better-suited to Europe than Maine. We later learned that this was the Titanic Estate, so named because its builder lost his true love aboard the doomed liner.

The humped back of Bald Porcupine Island, studded with pines and fronted with precipitous cliffs, drew abeam. Upon rounding the east end, Bar Harbor hove into view. It did not look like much from the water, but after climbing the ramp at the town dock it became obvious that this town really bustles. Crowds of people filled the streets as we walked to the tour bus for the three-hour loop through Acadia National Park. Feeling like quite the tourists, we settled into our seats and unfolded maps.

The bus rolled out of town and took the coastal road, retracing Sonata’s path. It was interesting to view the same scenery from the perspective of land. The guide’s humorous banter made the time pass quickly.

“How many times do you think I’ve been to the top of Cadillac Mountain?” the guide asked.

If memory serves me, he said over six thousand. “And it’s still beautiful!” he shouted above the rattle and rumble, the wind rushing in through the open windows. Gradually, the bus ascended the crooked road to the 1,530-foot summit of Cadillac Mountain, presenting a grand vista from the highest point on the Eastern Seaboard. Far below, we saw boats riding to the moorings in Bar Harbor.

“Look!” I said, pointing. “There’s Sonata.”

She formed a tiny white speck in the lens of my binoculars, waiting to take us to other adventures in new places only limited by our imaginations.

Tips for a Maine ‘walkabout cruise’

Warren Island

The state moorings are free. Donations welcome. Lots of roots cross the trails, but otherwise the walk is easy and suitable for children. Arrive by midafternoon. Anchoring not recommended.

Blue Hill

KYC can provide a ride to the trail head, if the dock crew is not busy. Call ahead to find out. I gave the driver a $20 tip, which she contributed to the crew’s snack fund. Physically fit hikers out for a day can easily do the climb without a ride. Bring a bag or pail for blueberries. Though the grade is steep, I saw plenty of kids with their parents. If you get a ride from the club, carry a cell phone or a handheld VHF to call for a pick-up.

Northeast Harbor’s Asticou Gardens

Free admission. Donations welcome. No dogs allowed. Children must be supervised. Contrary to information in some guides, it is not possible to call ahead to reserve a mooring in Northeast Harbor. Call the Northeast Harbor Mooring Agent on VHF channel 09 when close to the harbor. Arrive by early afternoon.

Bar Harbor

Bar Harbor offers moorings and dockage, as do some private businesses. Call the harbor master on VHF channel 09 or (207) 288-5571. Take the dinghy to a small T-dock on the south side of the town pier. The dinghy dock on the north side is crowded. Be warned: Wakes make the harbor rolly. Though a couple miles out of town, the Bar Harbor Yacht Club in Hulls Cove may be more comfortable. If a mooring is not available, anchor in 24 feet at low. You’ll need a taxi to get into town.

Tour Bus Companies

National Park Tours: (207) 288-0300

Oli’s Trolley: (207) 288-9899