It’s not yet 5 o’clock and the bar seats are filled with regulars. Some cradle a heavy clay mug in one hand, others nurse pints of beers or house cocktails. Plates of food – haddock sandwiches, burgers, bowls of chili – faithfully make their way out of the kitchen. The space is cozy and familiar and the servers know almost everyone by name.
Outside, the streets are dark, the wind howls and about three miles offshore, the lights of Portland shine brightly in the distance.
This is the start of the winter season on one of Casco Bay’s 200 islands – Peaks. And The Inn on Peaks Island is a place to land, so to speak.
During the colder months, there are about 1,000 residents on the most populous island off Portland. But in the summer, the population nearly triples. Peaks Island is easily accessible by ferry – a scenic 15-minute trip that costs $4.10 – or water taxi (but the Casco Bay ferry adds positively to the overall experience).
The inn’s restaurant and bar, just up the hill from the ferry landing, is open year-round but closes Monday through Thursday starting in the fall and through the winter. Luckily, they are open Friday evenings and all day Saturday and Sunday, so a trip to the island is a perfect excuse to stop in for a drink or a warm meal.
Like most island restaurant menus, the inn’s prices are a bit higher than on the mainland, but you could order a beer and an appetizer, like the fried pickle chips, and still stay under $12.
The cocktails are $8.50 each, but don’t bother ordering the Perfect Margarita or the Blueberry Hill. These are served during the summer months only. The Dark ’n’ Stormy, touted as an “island favorite” is served in a pint glass and made with Captain Eli’s ginger beer. It’s made strong, with Gosling’s rum, and somewhat watered down with too much ice.
Do as the regulars do and stick with beer or a decent glass of wine.
The aforementioned mugs are part of an annual club at the inn. For $50 a year, you get your own mug, $2 beers and half-priced appetizers on Sundays. There are more than 200 mugs available and not all of them are taken.
The inn is a good place to know about if you’re out on Peaks for a day trip. There’s a ton to explore – it takes about an hour to walk the circumference of the island – and plenty of activities year-round, such as cross-country skiing, ice-skating, horseback riding and historic tours.
From 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. Dec. 14, Casco Bay Lines is hosting the Boat Parade of Lights, a twilight cruise in Portland Harbor. Stop at the inn for a quick drink or a hot chocolate and a snack.
Luckily, for many Maine residents, getting out of town doesn’t necessarily involve crossing state borders or long car rides. Mountains and lakes are nearby and a tranquil island getaway is less than 20 minutes by ferry.
At the inn, it’s nearing 7:45 p.m. and some of the regulars start to bundle up to catch the ferry back to Portland. The clock behind the bar is purposely set seven minutes fast so people don’t miss the boat.
“What? You’re not going to stay for another one?” the bartender shouts in jest to a customer.
“I gotta get off the island sometime!” the man says and takes one last swig from his mug.
Claire Jeffers is a Portland freelance writer.