June 2015 – So far our travels in downeast Maine and Acadia National Park had far exceeded our expectations. The sights, the smells, the cute towns and the beautiful coast had all been intoxicating, and we were sure it couldn’t get any better. But it did!
The best way to see the northern Maine coast is by boat, and I had been scouting around for ways to get us out on the water. The colorful sailboats looked so inviting in the early morning light. The water beckoned, and I wanted so much for Mark to experience Maine from the water on a boat, because it is nothing at all like Mexico or the west coast where we had done all our sailing together.
There are all sorts of tourist boat rides available, from whale watching tours to schooner rides to cruises.
But when I saw that the local mail boat takes passengers to two of the tiny islands just off Mt. Desert Island, I knew I’d found just the thing. This mail boat is exactly that, a small boat that delivers the mail to the folks who live on nearby Cranberry and Islesford islands. It also picks up and delivers all kinds of other things too, including people.
We hopped aboard with a small rag-tag group of people in the early morning and stood in the back watching the shore disappear. Once the boat got a ways from shore, Ted, the ticket man, whipped out a smartphone and ran our credit card for our tickets. “I can’t get a signal on shore, but I can get one out here,” he said, handing us back our card. How funny!
We passed some beautiful sailing yachts bobbing on their moorings and we passed some lobster boats as well. The wind felt fresh in my hair and cold on my cheeks. Ted told us how this ferry, the Double B, runs every day of the year. In many ways it is a lifeline between the people on these two small islands and the rest of Maine.
I hadn’t really noticed that we were surrounded by men on the boat who were carrying lunch pails, but when we got to our first stop, Cranberry Island, everyone around me suddenly piled off the boat and up the steep stairs onto the dock. Every single one was a fellow heading to work with a lunch box. How cool is that!
No sooner had they all gone up the stairs than a group of schoolkids came down the stairs!
Everyone on the mail boat knew each other, and the adults on the boat welcomed the kids eagerly. Each child had a backpack and was dressed for school — and each was wearing a lifejacket too. Ted and the other adults checked that all the kids they expected to see were aboard, and then the schoolbus / mail boat headed back out to sea. These kids live on Cranberry Island but go to school on the island of Islesford!
“If there’s a kid missing,” Ted said, “We have all the parents’ phone numbers!”
Ted explained that no matter what the conditions, the “Double B” mail boat ferry runs — unless it is just too dangerous. This past winter was a doozy, and he described one day where the ocean spray was huge as the boat pounded through the surf, and the water froze in mid air. It built up on the boat’s windows so fast that the captain couldn’t see a thing and had to turn around.
But this boat is a vital link for these islands, and when we landed in Islesford, we were amazed to see a brand new washing machine on the dock waiting to be loaded onto the mail boat. We weren’t sure why a brand new washing machine would be leaving the island instead of arriving, but maybe it had to be returned!
How do these folks do their shopping, I asked a local woman on the dock. “We live and die by Amazon,” she joked.
Islesford is a tiny island with just a handful of inhabitants. As we walked up off the docks, we were greeted with a sign that made two things clear: 1) The mosquitos are so fierce that they carry people away, and 2) the speed limit for cars on the island is 15 mph!
Actually, a bumper sticker made a third thing clear:
This is a very quiet island, and after the school kids and their teachers had disappeared from view, we wandered around the docks and then up the street a bit.
There isn’t really a town center, but we passed the tiny Islesford post office and Islesford Market, which share a small store front.
Then we came across a welcoming building that had a sign over the door, “Neighborhood House.” There were picnic tables out front, and since we’d gotten an early start to the day, and our tummies were rumbling, and neither of our moms was around to say we had to wait, we sat down and ate our picnic lunch despite it being barely 10:00 a.m.
We continued our stroll after lunch and found ourselves in front of a sign that said, “Islesford Artists.” This was a gallery dedicated to artists from the island, and the the curator, Katy Morse Fernald, showed us some beautiful paintings. Upstairs there was a loft room that once housed her husband’s lobster traps and line and buoys. He was a sixth generation lobsterman from the area!
We got chatting with her about the lobster industry, and we were very surprised when she said it is currently fluorishing in Maine. She attributes this primarily to the overfishing of the predator fish as well as to the increase in the minimum sizes for lobsters so they are a little older when they’re caught and have had a chance to reproduce more. I hadn’t realized that lobsters have predators. I guess I just never imagined a large fish chomping away on a crunchy lobster, shell and all!
After a few hours on Islesford, the mail boat came back on its rounds and we caught a ride to Cranberry Island. The mail boat goes round and round between Mt. Desert Island, Islesford and Cranberry Island all day long, and a passenger ticket is good for as many rides between the destinations in one day as you wish to take!
Cranberry Island (“Great” Cranberry) is a little bit bigger than Islesford (“Little Cranberry”), but not much. The Cranberry General Store was at the top of the dock and had a restaurant where people were having lunch.
Walking the quiet roads on Cranberry Island, we passed several pretty homes and quite a few stands of purple lupine wildflowers.
At one house there was a goose who was very enamored with her own reflection in a basement window!!
Back at the town dock, we walked for a little ways along a pebble beach that was lined with washed up seaweed.
The mail boat had returned to Cranberry Island by now, and we watched Ted and the captain unloading their deliveries from the roof of the boat. Coolers full of fresh food were destined for Hitty’s Cafe, a popular restaurant that is a few streets back from the town dock. There were also quite a few bags of potting soil and a lot of boxes destined for the post office. A pickup truck was there to pick up a lot of the goodies, and it had a stack of US Mail sorting bins that were headed back to Mt. Desert Island.
It was quite an operation, and one that goes on all day long everyday, year in and year out, as small goods and packages get moved between the islands of Mt. Desert, Islesford and Great Cranberry. We watched a larger commercial boat delivering a big heavy construction vehicle onto another dock. The “Double B” is too small to carry vehicles, but it seems that vehicles are delivered one at a time here!
Soon it was our turn to climb aboard. We stood to the back watching other people come onto the boat, and we recognized some of the people we had seen in the morning.
Then, we looked up and noticed a guy with a long beard walking down the dock carrying a big bongo drum. Next to him was a young boy with an equally big bongo drum. They set them down in the boat and then disappeared. Then some more people came with bongo drums and then more and more. Soon there was a huge stack of bongo drums right in front of us on the boat!
The stack kept growing! At long last the boat was loaded, bongos stacked high, and then a fellow in a blue shirt jumped in. It turned out it was Beau Lisy, the school music teacher on Islesford, and he had just finished teaching the kids a segment on west African music. He lived on Mt. Desert Island and commuted via this mail boat out to Islesford School once a week to teach music to all the kids.
Beau was a professional musician, and he performed in Northeast Harbor and in other venues in the Mt. Desert Island area in Maine in addition to giving private music lessons and teaching music at this little island school.
He was a super guy to talk to, and as he described bringing out professional music friends of his to introduce the kids to various styles of music — a classical music trio and rock musicians and west African drummers and more — how cool for these island kids!
The funny thing is that all of Beau’s musician friends had to carry their instruments on the mail boat too, even in January!!
This wonderful excursion on the Double B mail boat was a true highlight in our visit to Mt. Desert Island. If you travel to Mt. Desert, whether by RV or by other means, plan a day trip out to the Cranberry Islands via the mail boat. You’ll be traveling the way the locals do, right alongside the mail, the small packages, the food coolers, and maybe even the bongos too!
The Double B mailboat sails out of Northeast Harbor. Our tickets were $32 apiece for one day of unlimited rides between the islands. Each leg is roughly 15 to 30 minutes. Before getting off at each stop, check with Ted or the captain for the times for the next ferry. They don’t always go around in a circle but double back once or twice during the day between Islesford and Cranberry Island.
You can take bicycles for an additional small fee, and we watched two French Canadians loading and unloading their bikes on one leg of our trip — easy! However, we found that the islands were small enough to get a flavor of each one on foot.
One other tip — dress in layers, as it can be chilly out on the water and quite warm as you walk around inland in the sunshine. There are places to get lunch on Cranberry Island.
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A few helpful links for the Cranberry Islands:
- Beal & Bunker Ferry – A little out of date, but gives an idea
- Islesford Artists – The Gallery we visited
- Where are the Cranberry Islands? – Google Maps
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