Taking the 15-minute ferry from Portland to Peaks Island is a required adventure for all who live near or pass through Portland. We rent bikes and ride the the island loop, stopping to climb on the coastal rocks, explore Battery Steele, and swing from a rope. Then there’s lunch on the patio at The Peaks Island House Restaurant and an ice cream cone from Down Front (consumed in the sun while sitting in a brightly colored Adirondack chair) before heading back to the mainland.
I highly recommend it. In the summer.
But when cold and snow overtake our state, my brain conjures up weekends of skiing down mountains, skating on ponds, and snowshoeing trails in the woods. Peaks Island gets forgotten.
But Peaks Island is pretty sweet to see, even in the off-season.
Sure, the patios and ice cream shop are closed, and there’s nary a bicycle to be seen (aside from one mountain bike I saw locked up by its island owner, perhaps as transportation between home and the ferry).
But Peaks Island in the winter is a different kind of beautiful. Quieter. Browner, like much of Maine in Winter. The leafless trees give way to the ocean, which is a head-turner any time of year, and there’s a solitude you won’t find during the busy summer months.
The cost to get there: $4.10. (It’s $7.70 during peak season.)
On a recent winter weekend – when the sun was shining but the temperature hovered around 20 degrees – I invited myself along on a Peaks Island trip with my friend Wendy, her daughter, and her daughter’s friend, who was visiting from Germany. They wanted to show her Peaks Island – whatever the weather. So we packed Thermoses of hot cocoa and picnic lunches comprised of ham and cheese sandwiches and PB&Js and caught the ferry over.
We headed straight for Battery Steele, a former military fortification completed in 1942. It’s accessible on the east side of the island, off Seashore Avenue. The armaments are long gone, but the long, dark concrete interior is cool to explore (having a headlamp or flashlight helps).
Battery Steele was preserved as a public space back in the 1990s, after a local land preservation group formed to purchase and protect it, but it still has an “illegal trespassing” feel to it, which is neat for rule-followers who don’t want to break laws but who also appreciate the thrill of exploring cavernous old military structures. Exploring here is a-okay – just mind your step and no litterin’!
Graffiti of all varieties covers the walls – from comedic one-liners to artistic portraits and advice on life (“Love yourself” or “Break things”), as well as questions asked of the emptiness: “Will you be my everlasting light?” (The answer, spray painted just below: “Nah.”)
Parts of Battery Steele are often flooded in warmer months. This time of year, it’s all ice. So we made our careful way back out and then followed a trail to go on top.
We stationed ourselves atop the battery with an excellent view of Casco Bay for our picnic lunch and hot drinks.
Eventually we bid goodbye to Battery Steele and took the trail back to Seashore Avenue.
Peaks Island is never a “high traffic” area (although everything’s relative, I suppose, and I’m sure there are island versions of traffic jams in the summer), but in winter, it feels even more desolate.
As we walked the coastal road, we came upon two other people – both walking dogs – and not a single car. For long periods it seemed like we were the only people there, owning the road like some post-apocalyptic island posse. I wondered what would happened if we turned a corner to see another group walking towards us in an opposite direction. Would we duke it out? Surely we would.
On the south end of the island, we took a dirt path down toward Torrington Point, where there’s a rocky beach and more climbable rocks and a rope hanging from a tree that’s fun to swing on.
The views are stupendous, and the rocks are perfect for climbing.
And then there’s that rope swing:
Eventually, after all the fun was had, we headed back toward the ferry landing for our return trip to Portland.
Cars lined up to board the incoming ferry and eventually a couple of dozen people turned up, too. Peaks Island was alive and well, of course, but we certainly enjoyed our quiet visit.
Peaks Island in the off-season
Getting there: Casco Bay Lines has regular ferry service throughout the day in winter and spring. See the schedule: www.cascobaylines.com
Off-season ticket costs $4.10
Most eateries and the ice cream shop are closed during the winter, but the Cockeyed Gull is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday.