A private island opens a door to Nirvana.
“Nights and days came and passed
And summer and winter
and the rain.
And it was good to be a little Island.
A part of the world
and a world of its own
All surrounded by the bright blue sea.”
Margaret Wise Brown, The Little Island, Maine, 1947
By Colin W. Sargent & Willis Kuelthau
When John Muir described an “infinite storm of beauty,” he must have had a Maine island in mind. In particular, House Island deserves that distinction.
House Island, $6.9M Acreage: 13
Looking for front-row tickets to the show? The northeastern half of House Island, with nearly 4,000 feet of shorefront and sparkling views of Portland’s skyline, tops the summer market.
Like a beckoning finger, the enclave’s new long pier draws you in from Casco Bay.
This is the part of House Island once known as the ‘Ellis Island of the North,’ where hopeful immigrants from Europe and the Mediterranean were processed from 1907 to 1937. Three years ago, when Vincent “Cap” Mona bought this vast parcel, the ghostly imprint of the Immigration Center was still here, despite generations of neglect and the presence of a strangling invasive plant, Black Swallow wort, that was “killing everything in sight.” Lovely in its ruins, the old Doctor’s Cottage still watched from the top of its hill. Near the water’s edge, the weatherbeaten wreck of the former Immigration Intake Station seemed a total loss, exploding with decay.
Who is this Don Quixote who would tackle such a challenge, fully restoring this lost kingdom while never tilting at windmills but instead harnessing solar power? Once triumphant, why would he ever relinquish this dream?
What did this island do to sweep you away?
The very first time I felt it was coming back from a dinner with our friends in his boat. It was a gorgeous fall night. The weather could not have been better. I was on Cloud Nine, breathing in the sweet, crisp air of Casco Bay, and my friend mentioned this island was for sale. The first thing that came to my mind was how gorgeous the surroundings were in close proximity to Portland Harbor. The sun had already set. In the darkness, I wasn’t able to see far into the island. Later on, I’d realize it was so overgrown with invasive vines it would take quite a lot more effort, inspiration, and money to bring it up to the level where it should be.
My next thought was, this isn’t Florida; it’s not New York or Connecticut. Maybe I could afford this island!
The Mosquito Coast meets Casco Bay. What was it like to explore here?
When the realtor took us to the island, we were in awe of the potential this property could hold in the future. But it was a mess. The ever-growing and deadly invasive Black Swallow wort had killed a vast amount of native vegetation and trees. There were three 1907-era buildings. When we walked into each building, it was almost overwhelming–the degree of neglect, the water damage from roof and wall leakage. But being in the construction industry for many decades, I knew that while the challenges were obviously numerous, there was reason to be excited here.
When we first went into the lodge, it was reminiscent of the 1960s lobster or crab shacks familiar along Maine waterfronts.The historical significance was not quite obvious until we understood this was the Ellis Island of the North in its day. The realization of the island’s former use was beyond amazing, especially when we found a “Quarantine: Keep Out” sign in the old intake station [now remodeled as Cappy’s Lodge].
We sensed it further when we walked to the grassy knoll going up to the old doctor’s house on top of the hill (which is now Christina’s World, named for my former wife and the famous 1948 painting by Andrew Wyeth).
Because House Island is hidden in plain sight in Casco Bay, it’s likely only a few lobsterboat crews would have heard the hammers ringing while you were making repairs. Has word gotten out about the improvements?
It was an unbelievable experience with fantastic results. I hate even to put it on the market, but I realize I’m a contractor. I did my part. The new owner has got to be a hospitality expert with experience in events for corporate and families as well as continuing [to develop and host] our very upscale weddings. Our first high-end wedding included a massive fireworks display and fabulously catered meals.
Our first high-end corporate event was for Mercedes-Benz International last September, showcasing the new models.
There’s some fast company. How did you pull that off?
We were approached by a top New York City marketing firm wanting to rent our island for ‘an international high-end auto manufacturer.’ That was quite a phone call!
Has anyone “Yelp-reviewed” House Island, so to speak?
A local TV reporter pulled me aside on the island. He said, “I can’t believe that [during one of the worst winters] you took three dilapidated old structures from 1907, took them down to the bare bones, and rebuilt these three skeletons into these gorgeous houses.”
We’d also built a brand-new caretaker’s cottage. All of the properties are solar powered with backup generators, new wells, new septic fields, and all new plumbing lines. Our brand-new dock is 375 feet long. It cost almost $450,000.
The sales portfolio for your half of House Island suggests that 10,000 square feet of the larger immigration building is grandfathered as a commercial location for a possible island boutique hotel in the future. Did you sense this from the beginning?
No, we really didn’t consider the 10,000-square-foot foundation as a footprint for future building originally. Instead, we were busy cleaning up the island. I was personally there for a number of weeks, helping to clean up the mess. [Developer] Mike Scarks, the former owner, had already removed 10 or 15 huge dumpsters full of junk that the previous owner had hoarded and left on the island, including a large fire engine.
In the very beginning, our plan was to renovate just one house per year. But later on, we realized how important that 10,000-square-foot structure is. We, or the owners after us, could have one beautiful bed-and-breakfast or a small, quality boutique hotel, along with [guest residences] in some of the other historically significant structures.
We’re negotiating with Central Maine Power to bring power and internet to the island.
Meanwhile, you’ve ventured bold use of solar power. What was the inspiration there?
In the beginning, we felt solar would be the best bet because the power company wanted over $500,000 to bring in power. But now they need us, and the price is reduced by more than half.
We were very fortunate to have a good solar-power solution contractor, Maine Solar Solutions, owned by Sam Zuckerman.
What’s the most telling advice someone else gave you about the island when you bought it?
Some people I knew warned me that the cost of transportation was going to be unbelievable. They were correct! Looking back, we spent almost $1 million in transporting lumber and products, equipment, tools, concrete, vehicles, sand, gravel, mulch–even the trailers and RVs and the food required to house and feed a small army of workers each day.
During exploration and excavation, what did you find?
We found a graveyard where a British sailor is buried. We also found a keg made by Watney Combe Reid & Co. Ltd., of London that dates to the 1800s. [We traced the company records in] the national archives. Some liquid was still in the keg.
What’s the most unusual thing you ever saw that floated onto your shore?
A poor dead baby seal.
What does House Island sound like?
Sometimes, music floats in across Portland Harbor at night.
Where do you think new buyers might be standing when they fall in love with House Island?
Anywhere. If you get within eyesight [of a dream], anything draws you in.
–By Colin W. Sargent
Greer Island, $499,000
Scandal alert! For decades, owner Elizabeth Arey believed she could build her dream home on this small isle off Vinalhaven. After all, Greer Island had been in her family for over a century. But in 2005, the town told her to dream on. Vinalhaven placed Greer Island under “Resource Protection,” prohibiting any development that exceeds 600 square feet or involves plumbing. Most scary for Arey: “The town surveyor thought the island was under three acres and didn’t survey it. Greer is 5.1 acres in size.” Since then, the town hasn’t budged, and the island remains restricted for now. Greer Island still includes a ramshackle shelter near its rocky shoreline. Only 1,000 feet from the shore is Geary’s Beach, a photogenic landing with views of Penobscot Bay and Isle au Haut. “We had a rowboat. We used to go mackerel fishing all the time. We’d catch lobsters and cook them on the shore. [Our kids] had a lot of fun treasure hunting.” A mere two-minute boat-taxi ride lands you in North Haven.
However deferred her dream, Arey has a knack for gardening with love. She’s transformed this place. “When I married my husband it was barren,” says Arey of the now tree- and wildflower-covered isle. “My husband and I spent the last 40 years planting trees.”
Brown Island, $599,000
In the early years of the 20th century, Dr. Arey Alonzo Butterfield of Boston decided to divide his wealth between his two sons. Each would be given his own island–all they had to do was head to Maine and pick out their favorite. We don’t know which island the goofy brother stumbled onto, but the smart one fell in love with this small island in the corner of Nicatous Lake.
Current seller Phil Brown bought this forested jewel to escape the press of modernity. The problem was, did he dare to give it a new name? Surrounding Brown Island are 22,370 acres of state-protected land, including the elaborate coves and beaches of Nicatous Lake, on whose waters not even jet skis are allowed to make waves. Good riddance, interlopers!
The main house is surrounded by four guest cottages, a free-standing summer kitchen/living room, and a generator cabin. “You have all the creature comforts,” says agent John Calannino. The island’s five acres are covered with mature pine and birch trees. “There’s a little network of trails, and you can swim almost anywhere off the island.” Because while you’re luxuriating in all this silence, who’s going to stop you?
As for Phil Brown, escape was exactly what his family needed. “We lived in downtown Boston only three blocks from the “Cheers” bar on Beacon Hill,” says Brown, a former employee of the Department of Corrections. “You spend 11 months there, and you need to get the hell out.”
Phoebe Island, $339,000
In the 1930s, no roads reached Sebec Lake. Enter an indefatigable dentist who decided to build a cottage on tiny Phoebe Island, its .11 acres set just 100 feet from the shore. Materials were shipped out on the ice after the lake froze. Eight decades later, the cottage is still standing.
Nowadays, Phoebe is a birdwatcher’s paradise. “We watch our eagles’ nest with the adults going in and out and the young learning to fly,” says seller Jay Bailey. Ospreys, cormorants, and raucous kingfishers do drop in. Because the cottage sits so close to the water, stunning views are right on your doorstep. “You’re having your coffee at the table in the morning with the loons swimming by you,” says Bailey. “The loons even sound different out here. They have a lonelier cry.” All the while, hummingbirds battle for position at feeders outside the cottage.
The cottage has been renovated with an updated interior of polished pine panels and rustic wooden furniture. Phoebe Island sits only a hundred feet from the shore, with two acres of shoreline and a utility boat for loading and transportation included in the sale. Bangor International Airport is an easy hour’s drive away. Thirsty for beauty? Sebec Lake sits directly south of Mt. Katahdin and the Hundred-Mile Wilderness.
“You’re away from everybody,” Bailey says. “You’re away from the big, stupid boats going by, the planes…everything,” he says. “This place is spiritual.”
High Island, $1.675M
According to Charles McLane’s Islands of the Mid-Maine Coast, the first recorded deed for High Island was conveyed for just $65 back in 1805. Factoring in inflation, that’s a 1300-percent increase in value.
Between then and now, 26-acre High Island (one of the Muscle Ridge Islands off Spruce Head) underwent extensive quarrying in the early 20th century. Two large boarding houses hosted hundreds of quarrymen, among them many Italian immigrants. Conditions were poor. Food often consisted of “hard-boiled eggs like golf balls or doughnuts that would make good links for a stone chain.” To make matters worse, “local liquor laws led to periodic raids by the county sheriff and the confiscation of the red wine necessary to the morale of the luckless Italians.” The pink granite from the quarries made it all the way to Philadelphia, where it was used to make bridge seats for the Pennsylvania Railroad.
The boarding houses are long gone, but the steep ledges of the quarry, the stone foundations, and the beautiful granite wharves (built for loading the stones) survive to this day. Among the spruce woods and heirloom apple trees are several new building sites, meaning the next chapter in this island’s history is still to be written.
White Island, $1,675,000
Sailing enthusiasts, set your course for White Island. “We’re surrounded by a lot of very interesting boats,” current owner Bill Boyd says. And they’re drawn here for a reason. Brooklin’s Wooden Boat School and the renowned Brooklin Boat Yard sit just a short ride across Eggemoggin Reach, a stretch of water that the Boat Yard calls “the best cruising grounds on the coast of Maine.”
Once you’ve tied up at the island’s deep-water dock, turn your gaze inland toward a sweep of granite bluffs and sandy beaches surrounding sixty acres of forests, fields, and freshwater springs. On a clear day, your seaward view extends all the way to the rolling greenery of Acadia National Park. A cozy A-frame cottage and guest house provide three-season shelter on the northernmost point of the isle.
And who says island life is isolating? “The neighborhood is really exceptional,” says Boyd. “We know people on almost all the islands out here.”
Norton Island, $1,500,000
If you’re hoping to expend no more effort than unpacking your bags, Norton Island is your gateway to stress-free island living. The 3,000-square-foot self-sufficient residence was built only 10 years ago, meaning it’s probably younger than those jars in the back of your fridge. A vast stone fireplace and solarium will ensure you stay warm during the Maine winters. Solar panels and a complete septic system and a freshwater well service the property. A few yards away, hidden from sight by a row of fir trees, is a cozy guest house with sleeping loft and an ocean-facing deck. The surrounding woodlands give way to lush meadows, scattered blueberry and cranberry bushes, and sandy beaches totaling 55 acres, plus an additional five acres on the South Addison shore that comes complete with boathouse.
Lower Birch Islands, $1,295,000 Acreage: 28
Here’s a pretty pair of islands: 23.6 acres and 4.4 acres connected by a tidal land bridge. Included in the price is 3 acres on the mainland, where you can park your gas guzzler.
Think you’re tough enough to live out here? Before current owner Stephen Broyhill bought these islands, the previous couple who lived here lasted only one night under the stars before leaving and putting the property up for sale in the 1980s. Maine: Not Exactly For Everyone.
Had they stayed longer, they might have seen deer who occasionally swim out to sneak a night bite of the apples ripening in the orchards.“You’re truly out in nature. It’s quiet and undisturbed,” Broyhill says.
An elegant post-and-beam home crowns the hill on the bigger island. A wraparound deck overlooks a meadow leading down to the shoreline. All new furniture complements a stone fireplace and hardwood floors. Utilities are fed by an updated solar system and a drilled well.
“For anybody who likes to be in nature or is creative, it’s just ideal,” says
Broyhill. He drops his voice confidentially. “I get tired of being around people. What I like is being able to get totally away.”
Pine Island, $550,000
Just an hour from Portland, on Long Lake in Naples, Pine Island is so lovely you sometimes have to repel explorers. “One Fourth of July, I came face to face with a boatful of would-be island partiers,” says seller Jay Bailey. “There were about 25 people on it, all hanging off the sides. When they saw that we were there, they anchored off the island instead and partied there all day.” Since then, “I make sure to go back every year.”
What Bailey values most is that “it’s very heavily treed–it’s like a park.” The tall pines rocketing up from this one-acre getaway were once highly prized by shipbuilders, giving names to both the island and its locale: Mast Cove. “Ancient sunken masts are still visible on the island’s shores,” Bailey says. Mingling with the pines are swathes of wild blueberry bushes surrounding–what else?–a “Hansel and Gretel” cottage with sleeping loft. Off the back, a small sheltered beach is a great place for swimmers. Maybe you’d like to hang out here too.
Wahl’s Island, $250,000
Once upon a time, passage onto Wahl’s Island required the equivalent of a secret knock. “We used to drive to the boat landing and beep our horn three times,” says owner Kathy Noddin, whose family has owned the island for 80 years. “And then our grandfather would come out and get us.”
“It used to be a sheep farm in the 19th century,” says agent John Lawrence of this 40-acre island that lies at the confluence of the St. Croix River and Grand Flow Lake. The island hasn’t made leaps in development since its agricultural past, so the camp will need renovations. But for the adventurous, Wahl’s Island is a pristine pocket of Maine only 10 miles from the historic border town of Calais and the Canadian frontier.
Campbell Island, $245,000
Campbell Island may be the bargain of the bunch. For less than $250K, you get 90 acres of preserved wilderness ringed by 9,800 feet of ocean frontage. The island is under a conservation easement that allows for a 400-square-foot shelter, and existing campgrounds can currently accommodate up to eight visitors. Around the island, opportunities for hiking, camping, kayaking, and bird-watching are almost limitless. Nearby, the quiet town of Brooklin offers an escape from seclusion with establishments like Brooklin Candy, Mad Mama’s Paint ’n Sip, and Flye Point Sculpture Garden & Art Gallery. As with most good deals, there’s a catch. The easement requires that the island must be kept open for public access, so your paradise will have to be shared with visitors.
Sand Island $1,900,000
A Caribbean quay just half an hour from Portland might sound like fantasy, but Sand Island, located in Casco Bay east of Chebeague Island, comes close. The island is ringed by sandy beaches with deep-water anchorage for boat owners. There are no buildings on the island other than a basic “Bomba’s Shack,” but the sunny beaches provide an ideal vantage point for admiring passing yachts and the views of surrounding islands. Jeff England, owner of Sand Island for more than 25 years, believes wholeheartedly in his island’s uniqueness. “If Casco Bay is the oyster, then Sand Island is the one and only natural pearl.” At this price, he’d better hope buyers agree.
Bare Island, $2,800,000
Don’t let the name fool you–Bare Island is a hidden treasure. Located in Machiasport, Bare is one of the last harbor islands to retain all development and mineral rights, meaning you have total freedom to create your own paradise on its shores. There’s already a seasonal four-bedroom, two-bath cottage tucked away on the sheltered western cove, plus 77 acres of forest and shoreline for you to play with. The island is just a ten-minute boat ride from the town of Machiasport, though the most dramatic arrival would certainly be by means of the bayside northeastern cove, which stays deep right up to the shore–perfect for a sea plane.
Fisherman Island, $599,000
This island is flat and open, sprouting only a few trees and patches of scrub within its 50-acre spread where scattered meadows provide 360-degree views of both sea and mountains. While some might bemoan the lack of greenery, the island could be a blank slate for the right owner hoping to develop a family complex or even a private runway. Nearby, you’ll find Great Wass Island Preserve and the fishing town of Jonesport. But if you’re planning to visit, we suggest bringing along a book or two.