Friday, March 7, 2014
The first thing I noticed was the quiet.
At 5 a.m. on a beautiful summer morning, I found myself standing on the deck of Casco Bay Lines' Maquiot II. While I'm well aware that Portland is no metropolis, I'm used to a steady background hum of cars, boats and people. This early in the morning, the city was still silent. As the ferry set out toward the islands, a family fishing off the pier and a single lobster boat (the Rising Tide) pulling traps were the sum total of activity on Portland's coast.
Such is the appeal of Sunrise on the Bay, one of a number of scenic cruises offered by the Casco Bay Lines ferry service. The cruise departs at 5:05 a.m. Monday through Friday, and runs between 2 and 21/2 hours, depending on that day's route and cargo volume. For $15.50 (or $13.50 for seniors, $7.75 for children), passengers can get a tour of Casco Bay's awakening islands and wildlife.
It's practically a private tour, at that. Despite taking a trip on a Friday morning at the height of Maine's tourist season, I was on a ferry with just five other passengers. Two were using the Maquiot II as commuters, leaving just an older couple from Scarborough and a visiting Chicagoan as tourists on the cruise. The East Boothbay-built ferry has a capacity of almost 400 passengers, so suffice to say we had elbow room.
The Sunrise on the Bay route skips the popular Peaks Island but manages to hit most of the other islands serviced by Casco Bay Lines. The two-hour tour took us to Long, Cliff and Chebeague, before looping back to Great Diamond, Little Diamond, and Long (again) on the way back to Portland. The crew dropped off newspapers and some other packages at each stop, and island commuters also came and went.
Each stop also gave the ferry's pilot a chance to take a cast with his fishing rod. He said with the short stops, he only has time for a single cast. "You'd be surprise how often we get a bite," he yelled down, though nothing seemed to be biting the morning of my trip.
Along with picking up and dropping off commuters, the stops give visitors a chance to get an early start exploring the islands. Once passengers have paid, they're free to disembark whenever they'd like and take a later boat back. While Great and Little Diamond are primarily private, Long Island and Chebeague in particular have many attractions to tempt visitors.
With a temperature that started in the mid-60s and barely topped 70 by the end of the trip, I couldn't have had more perfect weather. The handful of red-and-yellow ships in the fleet do, however, offer plenty of creature comforts. Two levels of indoor and outdoor seating, bathrooms, vending machines, and free wifi added to all the ferries in 2011 mean inclement weather won't ruin the cruise.
Sunrise on the Bay is just one of many scenic cruises offered by Casco Bay Lines. The Mailboat Run, which runs twice daily throughout the year, follows the same route in the late morning and early afternoon. The Sunset and Moonlight cruises tour the islands in the evening light. Rates for all the scenic tours are fairly similar, and more information is available at CascoBayLines.com.
It was a bit after 6 a.m. when we stopped by Chebeague on the way back to Portland, and by then the coast was starting to come alive. Colorfully named lobster boats like the Mrs. Robinson, Pull N Pray, and Isla Dawn were headed out to haul. Campers on Little Chebeague's beach were up and out of their tents. On our second stop by Long Island, more than two dozen new passengers filed on to the Maquiot II, headed to Portland. As we passed Fort Gorges and Peaks Island, it was easy to spot scores of lobster and pleasure boats, joggers on the Eastern Prom and cars on the Casco Bay Bridge.
As we docked at the Portland terminal, one of the tourists who came aboard with me at 5 a.m. remarked that the cruise was the "best $15 ever spent." I have a hard time disagreeing. It's a great way to experience the quiet beauty of the Casco Bay islands, and you can easily take the weekday cruise before heading into work.
Josh Christie is a freelance writer and lifetime outdoors enthusiast. He shares column space in Outdoors with his father, John Christie. Josh can be reached at: