Great Maine island adventures for families

There’s something about an island, kids, and summer. I’ve spent a lot of time on Maine’s islands, and I can tell you that when that ferry pulls away from the dock, both grown-ups and kids react with a true sense of adventure. I’ve been getting the itch to plan out some summer adventures and I’m thinking some island time might be in our future.

There are hundreds of islands off of Maine’s coast, but if you aren’t ambitious or lucky enough to own a boat yourself, you are going to be restricted to those served by regular ferry service. These are all worth visiting, but a few are especially suited for short trips (or trips with short people) due to their walkable size and family-friendly options. Below are my picks.

A note on island visiting: islands are not your standard tourist destination. To fully enjoy your experience, I recommend the following considerations:

  • Be self-sufficient. There may be a place to grab some lunch, but you are going to be in charge of everything else. Make sure you have all the layers, comfortable shoes, money, and entertainment plans figured out before you go, especially in the shoulder seasons of spring and fall. You will be on your own until the ferry returns.
  • Be respectful. It’s amazing how many folks think islanders are props for their own vacation. Respect people’s time, and private property, just like you would in your town. Be especially careful on the roads, which are often narrow and a bit rough. If you see a car coming, step off to the side and let it pass before continuing.
  • Be on time. The ferry waits for no one.

One more thing: unless you are planning on staying for a long chunk of time, I discourage bringing a car or bike. It’s expensive, stressful, and usually unnecessary. If you are planning a multi-day trip to an island that has car ferry service, contact your lodging provider for their advice on the matter.

Now, on to the islands.

Vinalhaven Island

island harbor

Carver’s Harbor, Vinalhaven. Photo courtesy Flickr user Aaron Dahlstrom

To get there: take the Maine State Ferry from Rockland

What: Vinalhaven is Maine’s largest off-shore island with 1,200 year-round residents. It has a lively main street, plenty of services, and lots of preserves with hiking trails.

Why: Despite being large in size, Vinalhaven has some easy-to-reach sightseeing just a short walk from the ferry terminal. More than an island, Vinalhaven is a true small town that just happens to be 15 miles out in the ocean. Lobstering is the main industry and the sight of Carver’s Harbor filled to the brim with lobsterboats is breathtaking.

To do: Explore the completely walkable downtown area, which has a great view of the harbor and several shops to visit. Keep an eye out for the galamander, a giant cart used to transport stone during the island’s granite-quarrying days. At the end of the main street stretch, take a right to head out to Lane’s Island Preserve. This Nature Conservancy spot has easy trails that criss-cross the acreage and lead to both bouldering and beachy spots. Head back into town and grab some lunch at the Harbor Gawker and an ice cream at the Vinalhaven Candy Co. before catching the ferry back.

Bonus: Bring along your copy of Chris Van Dusen’s The Circus Ship, which is (very) loosely based on Vinalhaven, and see if you can recognize any sights.

More information: Vinalhaven Chamber of Commerce

Cranberry Isles

Great Cranberry Island

The beach on Great Cranberry Island.

To get there: Take either the Beal and Bunker ferry from Northeast Harbor or the Cranberry Cove ferry from Southwest Harbor or Manset (starting May 26)

What: The town of Cranberry Isles actually consists of five islands, but Great Cranberry and Little Cranberry (also known as Islesford) are the most accessible and family-friendly. Great Cranberry has around 40-50 year-round residents and Islesford has around 90-100.

Why: With the two islands so close together and on the same ferry routes, you can get two great experiences in one day of adventure. Plus, these two islands offer the best views you’ll ever find of Mount Desert Island.

To do: Take the early morning boat over to Great Cranberry and grab a coffee at the Cranberry General Store right off the dock. If you are feeling ambitious, head about half-mile up the road and tackle the Whistler Cove trail and the Cranberry House museum. If not, stay right where you are. The cove around the dock is great for beachcombing for seaglass and the occasional little crab. Get lunch and ice cream at either Hitty’s Cafe at the Cranberry House or the General Store, then catch the mid-day boat over to Little Cranberry. There you can check out the Islesford Historical Museum and grab an early dinner at the Islesford Dock (open after June 22) before heading back to the mainland.

Bonus: Walk down the beach on Great Cranberry and pay your respects to Edgar Bunker’s tractor, left behind when he was drafted into the Korean War.

More information: and


Monhegan island

Photo courtesy Flickr use Navin75

To get there: There are a few ferry options from different starting points. The Monhegan Boat Company has daily runs from Port Clyde and offers the longest day-trip option.

What: One of Maine’s most remote island communities, Monhegan is part lobstering community and part artist colony. There are about 65 year-round residents.

Why: You want Maine island mystique? Monhegan has Maine island mystique. With 12 miles of trails, artist studios all over the island, and spectacular headlands and surf, Monhegan is in a class of its own.

To do: Swim Beach right by the dock is a little chilly for actual swimming, but it offers the best and safest spot to wade around and check out the ocean. (Most of Monhegan’s shore has very dangerous surf; please be careful.) Take a walk around the small village area that includes the one-room schoolhouse and library. You can grab some lunch at either the Lisa Brackett and Son general store or the Fish House by Swim Beach. If you are feeling ambitious, take a hike to Burnt Head and then around to Lobster Cove for some birdwatching and to check out the island shipwreck (there’s a great trail map here). Head back into town for a visit to the Lighthouse and Monhegan Museum of Art and History before catching your boat back.

Bonus: Stop in at the Monhegan Brewing Company for a tasting. Don’t worry, they have sodas for the kids to try, too.

More info: the Monhegan Welcome website

If you are a regular island visitor, which island would you recommend?

Cherie Galyean

About Cherie Galyean

In a perfect world, Cherie Galyean would spend hours every day chasing her kids up hiking trails, pretending to garden, and baking things. Instead, she works full-time in the non-profit sector and fits those other things in-between loads of laundry in her free time. A Maine native with multiple hometowns, she currently lives on Mount Desert Island with her husband, seven-year-old daughter, five-year-old son, and the best shelter mutt in the world.