MONHEGAN ISLAND, Maine -- Eleven miles off central Maine, a duck bobs in shallow water near a rocky island shore. A 19th century lighthouse rises nearby. Three painters drag their easels onto the beach. A lobsterman tinkers in his shack.
This is Monhegan Island, cherished throughout New England for its scant size and population, weather-beaten buoys and wayward stacks of lobster traps. These are landscapes you'd expect a Wyeth or Edward Hopper to paint, and indeed they have. The place looks today largely as it did a century ago: no cars, no paved roads.
But like that duck in the shallows, Monhegan is always churning beneath the surface. This makes it not only a gorgeous destination but also a fascinating one, especially if you're accustomed to California coastlines and bigger cities.
I arrived by ferry on a Tuesday morning in June, eager to see Monhegan stem to stern, a little worried I might finish before lunchtime. The island is less than two miles long and less than a mile wide, with no airport, police, doctor or bank, but plenty of well-worn Boston Red Sox caps. Population drops to 65 or fewer in winter, when snow falls and the few remaining lobstermen set out their traps.
But the warmer months are different. In spring and fall, birders show up, eager to catch song birds mid-migration. The island is fully awake June through September, when the population increases to perhaps 250 seasonal residents, joined by scores of day-trippers and short-term visitors.
That modest tourist tide is enough to sustain three summer-only inns, a handful of summer-only restaurants, one or two bed and breakfasts and assorted rental homes. In other words, it's Brigadoon with shellfish and costume design by L.L. Bean.
Like summer people everywhere, these visitors hike, read, eat outside, huddle over jigsaw puzzles and dawdle by the water. But by long Monhegan tradition, many also paint. On any day, you're bound to find a dozen or more artists with their easels and nearly as many tripod-lugging photographers. More than a dozen painters and sculptors keep island studios with regular summer visitors' hours.
"I used to do only portraits," said Alison Hill, who moved to the island full time in 2002. "Then I started doing landscapes because you have to. It's so beautiful here."
"You get this mist, this atmosphere, that intensifies the colors," said Jack Hobbs, who had come from Massachusetts to set up his easel at water's edge.
Even if you've never heard of Monhegan, there's a good chance you've seen it on a museum wall. Artists have been visiting since the 1850s, including a great burst between 1895 and 1920 when Robert Henri, George Bellows, Alice A. Swett, Maud Briggs Knowlton, Edward Hopper and Rockwell Kent, among others, came to paint.