IT takes a certain determination to visit the island of Vinalhaven, Me. Once you've made it to Rockland, halfway up the Maine coast along slow, winding Route 1, you're still a 75-minute ferry ride away. The ferry fits only 16 cars, and reservations are limited, so it's not unusual for motorists on a busy summer day to wait in line for two or even three of the six daily ferries to depart before securing a place on board.
Once you're on the island, though, you are immediately aware of its natural beauty. It's a place of rocky shorelines, dense forests of pine and spruce, swooping sea birds and quiet, secluded coves.
"I have found peace there that I don't seem to find in other places," said Norma Jean Kruger, a retired spinner and weaver from Windham, Me., who bought a house on the south part of the island two years ago.
Once a major source of granite, now a thriving lobstering community, Vinalhaven has been a retreat for summer people for about 120 years. Like most who own second homes on the island, Ms. Kruger vacationed on Vinalhaven for many years before buying. She would stay at the island's one motel or rent a cottage for weeks at a time. Slowly, inexorably, the place grew on her like mussels on a rock.
"When I found this house, I had the sense I belonged," Ms. Kruger said. "I called my husband on the mainland and said, 'Can you get to the island?' The house was advertised for $229,000. I offered $229,500 and got it. It hadn't been on the market for two weeks."
Ms. Kruger's modest two-bedroom is in the heart of the island's one village, within walking distance of the ferry, so she can leave her car on the mainland. She and her husband, John, often travel separately. While he attends a variety of Elderhostels, she repairs to what she calls "my haven in Vinalhaven."
At the opposite end of the island, and the opposite end of the housing spectrum, Wanatha Garner is applying the finishing touches to a new house she affectionately calls the Barn.
Indeed, Ms. Garner, an architect living in Brooklyn, originally intended it to be a working barn. She is clearing some 30 acres of forest to realize her lifelong dream of raising sheep and dairy cows. But the ocean views from this structure were too good to waste on livestock, and so it has been refitted for human habitation, complete with a soaring ceiling and a wraparound deck. (Ms. Garner wouldn't disclose the cost of the property or the house.)
The house, though, proudly retains its barnlike roots. The hayloft has been converted to a mezzanine with several rooms. The post-and-beam frame is exposed, showing off intricate lap joints and wooden pegs.
Ms. Garner too spent many summers on the island before getting her own place. She rented a house from a friend, and her children learned to swim in the quarries.
"Having three children of varying ages, Maine has been wonderful," Ms. Garner said (they range from an 11-year-old to a college senior). "It was like summer camp, and I got to go along."
Vinalhaven is proud to be a working-class community first and a recreational retreat second. The town's 1,276 full-time residents include 279 lobstermen and stern men (the second person on a lobster boat) but only 18 waitresses, according to figures supplied by the town. Main Street has one motel, a grocery store, a video rental store, a few retail shops and four restaurants, two of which are open summers only. At the Surfside, a no-frills place with a fine view of the harbor, breakfast is in full swing by 5 a.m., and you can enjoy fish cakes, eggs and an earful about the latest lobster catch or the price of plywood. No credit cards accepted.
In short, Vinalhaven's scene is no scene. There is no movie theater on the island. No swimming pool. No golf course.
The pleasures of the island, though, are wholesome, plentiful and family-friendly. Parkland abounds, with miles of trails through forests and along the shore. Lane's Island, across a bridge from downtown, has a 40-acre preserve managed by the Nature Conservancy with tide pools, rocky and pebble beaches and granite bluffs. Several old granite quarries are now swimming holes (one quarry is decidedly clothing optional).
On summer weekends, cyclists swarm the island for a day on its winding, hilly roads, many of which are unpaved. Sailing enthusiasts use Vinalhaven as a base, while canoeists and sea kayakers explore its hidden inlets and coves.
Aside from scenic splendor, the island has a strong, tight-knit community feeling that is inclusive of summer people — to a point. Year-round islanders draw a strong distinction between folks "from here" and "from away," but it's by and large a friendly distinction, residents say.
"Of all coastal Maine, the relation between the year-round people and the summer people is the healthiest on Vinalhaven," said Wesley Reed, a real estate agent. "You could ask any islander what they think of summer people, and they kind of scowl. But they all have summer people who come over for dinner."
Nearly everything on the island arrives by ferry, which makes supplies sometimes short and prices usually high. There's only one gas pump on the island, and regular unleaded recently went for $3.41 a gallon. When that went dry, motorists had to wait a day for the next shipment. Until a new underwater cable was recently laid from the mainland, electricity used to be unreliable; now it's just expensive, about double the mainland price.
One hidden cost of owning a summer home is hiring a winter caretaker. The caretaker's job can be as simple as checking the place every few days, or as complicated as tending livestock and performing major repairs. The basic service typically runs $50 to $100 a month.
The Real Estate Market
Housing stock on Vinalhaven runs from a $100,000 cottage to multimillion-dollar properties with many bedrooms and significant acreage and hundreds of feet of shoreline. In a typical year, more than half the properties sold go to summer people, Mr. Reed said.
Not surprisingly, proximity to the sea commands the highest prices.
"The shoreline doubles or triples the value of a house," said Bob Watts, a caretaker who maintains properties for many summer homeowners. "There's shoreline, deep-water shoreline, view of shoreline, glimpse of shoreline and away from shoreline." Deep-water, which allows the owner to moor a boat on the property, is the most desirable and costliest.
Prices have risen slowly but steadily in recent years. The market is so small, real estate professionals say they have difficulty identifying trends. One property may sell within weeks of being listed, while a similar one languishes on the market far longer.
"I had one property that sat on the market for four years, and then had multiple offers," Mr. Reed said. "It had plenty of exposure. It was on a 15-acre lot with gorgeous distant views of the ocean, a 180-degree panorama of the bay and deeded access to a dock."
The best bargain on the market today may be undeveloped land. Virginia and Richard Quick, a lawyer and a psychiatrist, both retired, from St. Louis, are part of a wave of summer people who've opted to build rather than buy a house.
"We found 21 acres, mostly wooded, with a little cove that's quite accessible," Ms. Quick said. This year, they're completing a four-bedroom cottage with a large, open living room, wide views of the ocean and an antique wood-burning cooking stove they brought over from Belgium. Now that they have retired, they hope to go from spending weeks at a time on the island to spending months there. These summer people have even come in the winter.
"We were here last March," Ms. Quick said. "It was beautiful to watch the sunset casting pink fingers over the 12 inches of snow."