When envisioning a trip to Maine, many people imagine early morning sunrises over the Atlantic, contentedly watching the fog roll in, gorging on the freshest lobster possible and taking introspective walks through verdant fern- and moss-filled forests. Overshadowed by more popular spots in the state such as Blue Hill, Camden, and the tourist-packed Mount Desert Island, a nature-filled destination off the mainland called Deer Isle offers the quintessential Maine experience without the crowds. It is about one hour and 15 minutes south of Bangor, easily accessible by bridge from the end of the Blue Hill Peninsula in the Penobscot Bay in what is known as “Downeast Maine.” Deer Isle is the kind of quaint location where the inn owners and chefs probably went to elementary school with the lobstermen who supply them. It’s a place that invites travelers to throw out rigid and packed-to-the-brim itineraries and just unwind into the slow coastal island rhythm for a bit.
To avoid any trip planning confusion, know ahead of time that Deer Isle is both the name of the entire island and one of the towns on the island. And en route to Deer Isle, travelers have to drive past a smaller island called Little Deer Isle. If someone says they are “on” Deer Isle, take it to mean the whole island, but if they are “in” Deer Isle, they are most likely in town.
While it is accessible year round (and there’s something to be said for a visit in winter for an ultra-quiet and romantic snowy getaway), summer and fall are the best times to plan a visit. Maine in the summer is gorgeous, with July and August offering the warmest weather on the isle, perfect for enjoying some kayaking or a dip in the freshwater local swimming hole Lily Pond at the Lily Pond Beach Reserve. It also happens to be when delicious wild blueberries abound. Some businesses are only open during the height of summer, and some (like the Isle au Haut Mail Boat) have a limited schedule outside of peak months. Although Deer Isle is much quieter than other islands visible in the distance, keep in mind that summer finds Deer Isle at its buzziest. For those wanting fewer people sharing the island with them, try the shoulder season of fall and take advantage of gorgeously vibrant Maine fall foliage. Most places are still open and business owners have more free time, making it easier to stop and chat and connect with the local culture.
While there are many inns and lodges on the island, there are a couple of definite standouts. Pilgrim’s Inn in Deer Isle is housed in a more than 200-year-old property that has been lovingly restored and operating as lodging since 1977—it is even on the National Register of Historic Places. It has a view of the Northwest Harbor across the road and a cute little pond in the back, and dedicated innkeepers that know the true sense of the world, “hospitality.” Downtown Stonington has Inn on the Harbor, a year-round lodging option perched right above the water. Some rooms even have their own private balcony. For something much more rustic, there’s a basic campground at Old Quarry Ocean Adventures.
Offering so much more than just pretty ocean views, many travelers come to Deer Isle to hike some of the various nature preserves managed by Island Heritage Trust. A not-to-miss one is Barred Island Preserve, with an easy hike that takes explorers through a boreal fog forest (straight out of a fairy tale!) to a sometimes-covered sand bar that leads out to Barred Island. There are about three hours before and after low tide when it is possible to walk across the sand bar to explore the peninsula-island. Be careful, as at at mid- to high-tide, this sand bar gets fully covered and Barred Island becomes an island once again—and the water is frigidly cold. Wildlife lovers should keep a close eye out for bald eagles, osprey, black-throated warblers and hermit thrushes.
Crockett Cove Woods is another preserve with well-marked trails and easy hiking. It is a 98-acre nature paradise filled with old fir and spruce trees with a healthy understory of fern, moss and lichens. or a day trip focused on wildlife, there are guided boat tours from the shore of Stonington to the shore of Seal Island, a nesting home of a large puffin population. Visitors are not allowed on the island, so sightings must take place from the boat.
No trip to coastal Maine is complete without lobster. Lobstering is a huge part of the livelihood in Maine, and while driving around Deer Isle, you will even pass lobster traps and buoys lying in the front yards or stored in the garages of locals. The island is absolutely filled with lobster farmers—Stonington is the biggest-producing lobster port in Maine. While fresh lobster dishes are incorporated into menus across the island, there are other ways to experience lobster culture here. Discovery Wharf is a good stop for education about the world of lobstering—there is a touch tank, an interactive wall and some virtual reality activities. For an even more hands-on approach, visitors to Deer Isle can arrange a lobster fishing scenic tour and see real lobster traps pulled up from the ocean floor (this is a catch and release program). Bonus: on this tour, visitors can spot multiple lighthouses!
Lobster is not the only place Deer Isle shines in gastronomy. Start the day with a coffee at local hotspot and women-owned business 44 North and return later in the day for a meal. They are a huge part of the community and like to uplift other business owners however they can. This place serves as the pickup location for locally-sourced takeout meals made by Chef La and the owners often host a popup with a nearby woman-owned oyster farm, Long Cove Sea Farm. Anyone who happens to be in town on a Friday should check out their locally-made hand pies. To unwind at night, the wine bar at Lily’s House is ideal. For a souvenir (or ten!) to take home, Nervous Nelly’s is the place to head. It is a jam and jelly shop located in a small cottage—they produce more than 300 jars of jams, jellies and chutneys each day from locally grown fruit. Nervous Nelly’s also happens to be the home of a sculpture garden that spans several acres, with quirky art made from recycled materials.
Perfect for a rainy day activity or an evening out on the town, the town of Stonington has a historic opera house that was built in 1886 during the granite boom but burned down in 1910 (ironic fun fact: it burned down on the very first night the town’s fire hydrants were operational). The Stonington Opera House was restored and essentially rebuilt, and has now provided year-round live theater, music, movies and dance performances for more than 20 years. It has turned into a cherished community gathering place. Deer Isle has in the last few decades become home to many artists—the island hosts the world-renowned Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, plus numerous galleries and studios.
Those curious about history and culture may be interested to know that Deer Isle is located in the traditional territory of the Penobscot Nation, one of four Indigenous groups in Maine. These groups are collectively known as the Wabanaki Confederacy, which translates to “People of the Dawnland.” The islands off the coast of Maine, including Deer Isle, were once part of important canoe routes for the Penobscots. To learn more about the healing properties of the herbs grown in Maine, it is possible to take a class on herbalism or participate in an herb walk facilitated through the local Solidago School of Herbalism.
Many adventure travelers come to far-flung Maine to visit Acadia National Park. Those in the know who value peace and quiet head to Isla Au Haut, accessible by Mail Boat from Deer Isle (these two islands are 14 miles apart). The Acadia National Park half of Au Haut covers 2,700 acres and has 18 miles of beautiful hiking trails. While the rest of Acadia gets flooded with more than 3 million visitors annually, this small part of the park averages less than 10,000 visitors per year. Since the island is residential and its ecosystem fragile, the number of daily visitors allowed is strictly limited. There are not many tourist amenities on Isle au Haut, but that is all part of the under-the-radar charm. For stunning Atlantic views, head straight to hike either the Western Head and Cliff Trails, preferably with a picnic lunch.
Whether for exploring preserve trails, discovering wild hidden beaches, lazing with mountainous plates of lobster, or journal writing from a cozy historic inn, Deer Isle is a memorable and restorative Downeast Maine destination that should be at the top of any nature lover’s travel list.