I'm your typical Robinson Crusoe type. Just the merest hint of secret islands, hidden coves and deserted beaches and all sense of responsibility goes out the window. You can have the cities--I'll go island-hopping anytime.
I've explored the whole Atlantic Coast from the northern tip of Newfoundland to the farthest blips of the Florida Keys, and my favorite islands range from tiny rocky outcrops, treeless and lost in long winters, to the pine-profiled archipelago of Maine, to soft southern isles snoozing in the shade of live oaks and Spanish moss.
Four of these places would welcome a few more admirers without spoiling their charms. They offer delights and surprises for adventurous travelers willing to relinquish home comforts for a while and lose (or find) themselves in these special places.
St. Pierre-Miquelon is a cluster of 12 outposts of France in Canadian waters, only three of them islands of significant size. Floating lonely off the southern coast of Newfoundland, they are the last remnants of France's once-vast American empire. Here in the misty, iceberg-littered Atlantic, they preserve a French way of life complete with fine cuisine at tiny bistros, charcuteries offering homemade pa te's, boulangeries bursting with gold-crusted brioches and baguettes and wine stores displaying the finest of vintage chateau wines.
St. Pierre, a village of 5,000 on the island of St. Pierre, is by far the largest community on these almost treeless islets. Tiers of simple frame-and-stucco houses painted in the oddest combinations -- scarlet on aquamarine, orange on prune and blue on canary yellow -- rise up the steep hillside behind the wharves. There are few roads, and traffic in the town bustles with all the horn-honking frenzy of a Parisian rush hour.
The residents, many of Brittany and Basque heritage, dodge the mopeds and Citroens with cosmopolitan nonchalance; widows wrapped in black scurry home with long loaves tucked under their arms, and the men in their berets and blue jackets gather to cheer the whirling participants in the fronton games near the Place du General de Gaulle.
Cod fishing on the Grand Banks is still the prime economy of the islands, and the wind-etched faces of the fishermen tell of thousands of hard days out in petite pe che dories competing with the sophisticated Russian and Japanese fleets that have depleted the shoals in recent years.
I was invited to lunch by one of St. Pierre's retired trawlermen who lived high on the slope overlooking the harbor. As we drank a splendid dark burgundy, his wife was in the tiny kitchen garden selecting leeks and endives to accompany a lunch of fresh cod ("Oh, we have this every Friday," said my host nonchalantly). Down the slope I could see dozens of similar little gardens, brimming with flowers, a colorful contrast to the bleak tundralike landscape of the island itself.
After indulging myself in the comforts of St. Pierre for a couple of days, I took a day trip by ferry to the outer islands, across the dangerous four-mile strait. Particularly dramatic is the high plateau of Langdale, tied to the larger island, Miquelon, by a flat sandy isthmus known as "La Dune." The rocky shoals, 500-foot-high cliffs and deceptive shallows have wrecked over 600 ships in the last century. Yet Langdale itself is pleasantly wooded and notched by narrow dark valleys, ideal for picnicking and afternoon strolls across the bouncy tundra.
Miquelon is a bleaker place, a barren landscape of moors, peat bogs and thin brown streams. Wild ponies roam the hills, and the southern portion of the island consists mainly of a saltwater lagoon, the Grand Barachois, edged by dunes and linked to the ocean by a narrow channel. Gray seals frolic here in the summer, but in the winter it is often smothered in dense fog or broken into high waves by the fierce 100-mile-an-hour winds.
Seamen's Island (L'I le aux Marins) is a short float across St. Pierre's harbor and was a summer home for foreign fishermen a few decades ago. The low rocky shoreline was once carpeted by split cod drying in the sun during the warm season. Now the place is uninhabited, with remnants of simple houses and a wooden church -- an excellent spot to watch passing whales or small icebergs, during the spring thaw.
The future of St. Pierre-Miquelon seems bright. Cruise ships are making regular stops here, and talk of offshore oil keeps the French government interested in these tiny bits of rock. New ideas for island development -- such as elaborate schemes for casinos, huge international duty-free port facilities, the creation of a breeding center for enormous 3,000-pound Charolais cattle and the development of a "showcase" for French culture and French products -- constantly amuse the somewhat skeptical populace. They will not easily give up their heritage, their traditions and their simple approach to life. But then, why should they?
Monhegan, Maine. As the ferry pulled away from the dock for the daily trip out to Monhegan, 10 miles off the Maine coast, passengers eased into corners among piles of cargo, watching pine-topped islets slide past. A group of dolphins crossed the bow and turned to frolic alongside the boat. Sleepy families of gray seals filled the ledges beyond Burnt Island. Morning clouds were pulling back to reveal a bright blue day.
To many island-lovers Monhegan is the epitome of Maine islands -- even of islands in general. This lonely "High Round Isle" possesses all the attributes often associated with small, self-sufficient places -- a close-knit community, high silent forests, soaring cliffs, hidden coves and tiny beaches, and remnants of history that suggest a significance far greater than its 1-by-2-mile size.
During the 1600s the island flourished as a trading center, but as the coastal ports developed, Monhegan became a quieter enclave for fishermen and, much later, for a colony of artists and writers founded by Rockwell Kent. Today it has about 80 permanent residents with an additional flurry of 400 artists and "rusticators" each summer. Actor Zero Mostel had a studio here, and painter Jamie Wyeth is a regular visitor to the village, a scattering of salt-grayed shingled buildings around turn-of-the -- century inns and hotels, and a huddle of houses beneath Lighthouse Hill.
This is a place for walkers and lovers of quiet places who stock up on snacks at Murdock's general store and begin the slow climb up past the church through scrub and pines, to the ridge overlooking the southern edge of the island. Twisted iron remnants of wrecks lie scattered across the rocks.
Lobsters are Monhegan's prime economy, and "Trap Day" is the island's most important annual event. In 1909 the lobstermen here decided to limit their season from Jan. 1 to June 25, both to conserve the valuable resource and to take advantage of the season when the lobsters are best, in size and in flavor. So during the last week in December, mountains of wire and wooden traps are moved from the paths, back yards and front gardens down to the dock, where they lie in waiting for the afternoon of Dec. 31, when the boats are loaded.
Monhegan is a good place to be. The islanders seem to share a recognition of the fleeting nature of personal mishaps. On my last day, I stood on the deck of the Laura B. watching them meet as they do each day on the dock, to talk of island things -- to see and be seen. For a brief moment I wanted to share their commitment and their mutual dependence. But the boat moved away, and I with it.
Prudence, R.I., whalelike in both shape and spirit, is gentle and playful -- an ideal place for a day's visit. This cozy green world, reminiscent of the Maine backwoods, nestles among smaller islets in Narragansett Bay, south of Providence. It is a place where life moves along slowly with abundant time for sun-basking and ocean-bathing.
Paved roads provide a bare framework for exploring the 7-by-3-mile island, and enormous autos, most at least two decades old, lollop along without mufflers and shocks. Five times a day when the ferry docks at Homestead they waddle down to the wharf, puffing and steaming, deliver or collect their cargoes and waddle back again, disappearing like strange forest creatures up dusty tracks to homes deep in the woods.
"No point getting new ones. Sea air'll rust 'em up in a year or less, and what d'you need 'em for anyhow?" My informant, one of the island's 50 or so permanent residents, kindly offered me a lift when I arrived on the early-morning ferry from Bristol. I wasn't sure where I wanted to go, but he took me anyway and became an instant island guide.
We passed the Prudence Inn, the island's only hotel, and started across the wooded interior on arrow-straight Broadway. At the schoolhouse, a typical white New England structure complete with belltower, a road on our left went south to a park along the bay. This park is one of nine components of the Bay Islands Park, a 2,600-acre recreational area stretching from Conanicut Island at the southern end of the bay to Patience Island and the North Prudence Sanctuary.
My guide dropped me at Prudence Park among a cluster of ornate Victorian summer houses. A dusty track led alongside the ocean for a mile or so. My trunks were in the car back in Bristol, but I found a secluded cove and skinny-dipped while seagulls circled overhead. The remnants of a cooked lobster and crisp roll I'd bought from Marcy Dunbar's store at Homestead dock made a perfect lunch. I had the place all to myself.
I continued north along the sandy road to the tidal flats that separate North Prudence from the rest of the island. Ten miles of narrow trails here lead through a landscape of dunes and coves, hedges and old walls that once marked the boundaries of farms long abandoned. Small rounded hills, covered in oak and pitch pine, mingled with salt marshes full of bird sounds and watery scurryings in the rushes.
A crude hand-painted sign read, "THIS WAY TO THE DESERT," so I followed a path south through the woods and climbed higher up the sandy slope out onto a bleak mini-Gobi of golden dunes. Some were quite substantial, 50 or 60 feet high, and one looked much the same as all the others. I'd hoped for views out across the island but all I could see was shimmering sand in all directions. My orientation vanished completely, and within a few minutes I was hopelessly lost, parading up and down dunes.
I could have done with company, but all I had was the silence, the shimmering heat and no shade. Then, by chance, came the winery. The dunes ended abruptly at woods near the edge of a small valley. A Wyeth-like farmhouse sat on top of the hill overlooking 16 acres of meticulously pruned vines, fenced to keep out the island deer, now said to number over 200.
My reception at the farm could not have been more gracious. Bill and Natalie Bacon welcomed me into their large kitchen with its stone fireplace and broad oak table. One glance at my bedraggled state and they offered me their bathroom, then a jug of ice cold water and chunks of cheese.
We began the inevitable wine-tasting, while the plump, pink-faced couple recounted the secrets of their wine-making.
Reluctantly I had to catch the last ferry back to Bristol. Bill offered me a lift in his worn VW van, and we crashed along back roads past the winery cellars, down the long slope from the farm, with me clutching two bottles of chardonnay complete with Prudence whales on the labels.
We made it with only minutes to spare, and I scrambled aboard just in time to watch us cast off and start the short, calm journey back to the mainland. The sun was low, silhouetting the island deep purple in the sunset. Seagulls circled after us as we edged around the lighthouse at Hog Island, another quiet little backwater in the bay, and the refined waterfront mansions of Bristol, perched on lawns sloping into the bay, glowed gold and pink in the evening's last light.
Daufuskie, S.C., just south of Hilton Head Island, is perhaps the most mysterious of all southern islands. People I'd talked to on Hilton Head seemed reluctant to talk about the place.
The islanders, almost all black and many of them descendants of the original slave families, tend to be an insular lot who prefer the basic comforts of their isolated world and who still speak "Gullah," a sort of pidgin dialect based on the African Benta language.
I was en route to this island of mystery. The water slapped the side of the small ferry. The mists were lifting and a lemon light flecked the ripples and reeds on either side of Cooper River, a placid stretch of water about half a mile wide, separating the mainland from the islands. Time moved as slowly as the boat.
"That Haig's Point on Fuskie," the ferryman said some time later. In the early glimmerings of dawn the place looked deserted, a tangled wilderness of ancient live oaks with scraggly beards of Spanish moss, high ragged grass and eucalyptus trees, dripping bark. A white heron stood skeleton-stiff in the shallows and two ospreys circled above a bulbous nest, wary of alien sounds.
Just as the sun rose from behind the silhouetted trees, I spotted the Daufuskie dock. Half a dozen men stood in front of four battered trucks of indeterminate age watching as the boat nudged against the new pier.
"You got plans for anything?" the ferryman asked me. I shook my head. "Well, unless you want to wear yourself out walkin', better see if Jake'll give you a ride around. Jake Washington. You can't miss him. He's up by that red truck."
Jake had his head buried deep in the innards of a battered truck with no door handles and no windows. "Yer wantin' a ride?" Jake had one of those active faces, a patchwork of fleeting expressions, a quick scowl followed by an almost-smile. I joined him in the truck and we set off into the island along a sandy track.
He turned out to be an excellent guide. After an impromptu breakfast of Daufuskie's famous deviled crabs at his home, he drove me along miles of sandy island roads, shaded by oaks, up to the long-gone Melrose estate, which, according to a visitor in 1862, was "the finest ever I have seen on this shore, an elegant and tasteful mansion."
There are elaborate plans for development here, which delight Jake: "Things need changin' on Fuskie." He banged the steering wheel and laughed.
"Tha's where we usta live." We stopped in an open field of high grass and he pointed to a series of gray stumps. "Tabby-shacks. Slave cabins. From when all this was cotton plantations."
We drove on to Haig's Point at the top of the island, where a Victorian mansion with an elegant lighthouse tower peered over the reeds at Hilton Head Island. Then we took a different track down the island, winding around the roots of the live oaks, watching for deer. A snake whiplashed across the sandy dust. Jake aimed the truck at it and missed.
"Copperhead. There'll be another near."
Jake and I parted company at the Mary Field School after I paid him for his services as guide. There was a glimmer of amusement in his eyes, and island knowingness that made me wonder what I could have asked him but didn't.
I had the afternoon to myself and set off on a slow ramble along sandy tracks. The air was butter-thick around the oaks. Except for the occasional battered truck and its spume of white dust, the island was silent. Only a few years back people moved around in ox carts. Today, everyone seemed to be indoors.
There's virtually no work on the island now, so life has taken on the rhythms of a leisured population. Even the dogs seemed half-hearted in their barks and snarls as I wandered past the tin-roofed shacks set back from the soft sand paths. Patches of swamp glistened in the half-light of the forest.
They say there are alligators and hundreds of deadly snakes, but I didn't see any. Occasional breaks in the thick underbrush of thatch palm and palmetto offered vistas across reeds out to the mainland. A tiny boat drifted by. A fishing rod dangled from the bow and a pair of bare feet peeped up over the side; someone was snoozing the afternoon away. I sat in the shade under one of the oaks and stretched. No one disturbed me, and for a while Daufuskie was all mine.