Harpswell's Hidden Gems
October 23, 2019
Harpswell’s Hidden Gems
A boater could spend an entire summer poking around the waters surrounding this magical Maine destination. Many do just that.
By Ken Textor | Photography by Joe Devenney
Big, diverse and spread out, Harpswell isn’t really a single port. It’s at least a half dozen distinctly different destinations rolled into one, with miles of shoreline ranging from rugged granite to sandy beach, densely populated to nearly empty, easily navigable to seriously challenging. And gunkholes? They’re all over the place!
“We’ve got 216 miles of shoreline here,” says Harpswell Harbormaster Jim Hayes. “So when you come here, you’ll probably find what you’re looking for. It might take a while, but you’ll find it.”
COAST WITH THE MOST
Indeed, with three bays, two sounds, a sizable estuary and no less than five harbors to choose from, Harpswell’s potential for a visiting boat and crew seems unlimited. Even a trailer-boat enthusiast has scads of access options, as there are no less than ten launch ramps scattered amid the three peninsulas and major islands comprising the town.
Perhaps the best known of Harpswell’s “grips on the sea” is what locals call “The Neck.” This westernmost peninsula terminates conveniently at Potts Harbor, which is the most-visited of the town’s various official ports. Many boaters make this their only stop in Harpswell, and that’s a mistake. Yes, there are two excellent restaurants and a full-service marina in the northwest corner of the harbor, as well as quiet gunkholes and the impressive “reversing falls” at the entrance to Basin Cove. But even Harbormaster Hayes notes that nearby Mackerel Cove, on Bailey Island, is also worth a visit, given its distinctive “village within a village” atmosphere.
Like Potts Harbor, it’s located at the end of another stretch of land that juts well out to sea, convenient to the common east-west cruising route across outer Casco Bay. Unlike Potts, however, the recreational focus here is squarely on sport fishing, a tradition that has endured for nearly 80 years.
The Bailey Island Fishing Tournament, established in 1938 and run by the Casco Bay Tuna Club, is the oldest continually running fishing tournament on the East Coast. Formerly based in Mackerel Cove, participants now have their catch weighed and processed just a short distance up Merriconeag Sound, at Cook’s Lobster & Ale House.
Even if you miss the tournament (the last week in July), the cove on which Cook’s is located makes a worthy side trip. Here, the world’s only “cribstone” bridge spans Wills Gut, which separates Bailey Island from its northern neighbor, Orrs Island. Built almost entirely of granite slabs that are formed, Lego-like, into “cribs” of support, the bridge is now a National Historic Landmark, not to mention a nifty piece of engineering.
If the cove is too crowded for an overnight stay (as it often is), you can always drop the hook across the sound in Harpswell Harbor. This large bight also offers a rough sand beach that shows on the chart as a hooked arm at Stover’s Point. This is town-owned land, so you may see a sunbather or two enjoying the shore and salt marsh just behind the spit of sand.
If you seek even more seclusion, continue northeastward into Harpswell Sound, where the shoreline features fewer side-by- side bungalows and more unbroken forest with occasional homes here and there. In addition to the obvious gunkholes, the tide begins to accelerate here, especially in Ewin Narrows, where a bridge with 30 feet of clearance limits taller boats from enjoying the Harpswell Cove area. The tidal currents around Princes Point are downright intimidating. and often require more than just casual attention to the helm.
The truly daring will follow the flood tide east beyond Princes Point and into Long Reach, where you may feel as if you’re on the edge of wilderness—even though Maine’s biggest city, Portland, is little more than 20 miles away. Indeed, if your boat is short enough (under 10 feet), you can continue northward through Gurnet Strait and end up in the New Meadows River. Here begins yet another aspect of this multifaceted town, with options both northward and southward— and peppered with gunkhole options along the way.
Cundys Harbor is where most mariners on the New Meadows eventually drop in. Although it can be a bit rolly in almost any weather, Cundys is home to an old- fashioned, on-the-wharf fishing village, highlighted by Watson’s General Store. Opened more than 160 years ago, Watson’s is a place to get anything you might need for your commercial or recreational fishing boat. But more than that, it’s a hangout on foggy or stormy days, a place where local fishermen swap stories (both true and gilded) while they wait for the weather to improve.
HEAVENLY HOLBROOK HARBOR
The catch of those same fishermen often finds its way to nearby Holbrook’s Lobster Grille & Snack Bar, which locals saved from sure demise in 2009, rebuilding the pier and upgrading the landing area for commercial fishermen and hungry visitors. The fish tacos are particularly outstanding.
Continuing south and between the New Meadows River and back toward Bailey Island, the entirety of Quahog Bay and a slice of eastern Casco Bay await exploration—again with numerous anchorages and islands ripe for closer scrutiny. And if that’s not enough temptation, head back west and north of Potts Harbor and into Middle Bay, which is yet another Harpswellian nugget of nautical nirvana. The quiet coves, warm waters (swimmably warm!) and seclusion are worth the effort.
And since all that Harpswell has to offer is impossible to cover here, you may want to check out the websites for the Harpswell Maine Business Association, Harpswell Heritage Land Trust and Things to Do, Harpswell. Or better yet—just go!
Harpswell At a Glance
HARBORMASTER (207) 833-5771
DOCKAGE, MOORINGS & SERVICE
DOLPHIN MARINA (207) 833-5343
Potts Harbor marina offering transient slips, moorings, launch ramp, gas and diesel, showers, pump-out, storage and onsite restaurant. Fifteen feet MLW dockside.
GRE AT ISLAND BOAT YARD (207) 729-1639
Transient slips and moorings, gas and diesel, haul-out, launch ramp, repair, showers and pump-out. Eight feet MLW dockside.
PAUL’S MARINA (207) 729-3067
Transient moorings, gas, restrooms, pump-out. Five feet MLW dockside.
COOK’S LOBSTER HOUSE (207) 833-6641
There are loads of protected places to drop the hook in and around Harpswell. A few good spots include Harpswell Harbor (west of Stover’s Point in 18 feet of water); Potts Harbor (central portion of the harbor in 22 to 33 feet of water); Mackerel Cove (47 to 52 feet of water), and Cundys Harbor (southern end in 20 feet of water).
Harpswell has some 10 public launch spots, although not all are suitable for larger craft or offer low-tide access. Additionally, some marinas have launch ramps and allow parking for a fee. The best public bets are Lookout Point Town Ramp on Harpswell Neck (all-tide, limited parking) and Bethel Point Town Ramp (all-tide, limited parking). Among the other options are: Potts Point Landing, Graveyard Point Landing, Stover Cove Landing, Wharf Road Landing, Hildreth Road Landing, Mackerel Cove Town Ramp, Buttermilk Cove Landing and Holbrook Street Landing.
H2OUTFITTERS (207) 833-5257
Sea kayak and paddleboard rentals, lessons, tours and more. Headquartered on Orrs Island.
WHERE TO EAT
DOLPHIN RESTAURANT (207) 833-6000
Potts Harbor dock-and-dine favorite. Offers lobster, local fish and shellfish, hand-cut steaks and more, all served with great views of Casco Bay.
MORSE’S CRIBSTONE GRILL (207) 833-7775
Cozy restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating near the famous Cribstone Bridge on Bailey Island. Good food and water views.
COOK’S LOBSTER & ALE HOUSE (207) 833–2818
Boiled lobster dinners, chowder, steamers, mussels and other Maine classics are the draw at this seafood mainstay on Bailey Island.
HOLBROOK’S LOBSTER GRILLE & SNACK BAR (207) 729-9050
Cundys Harbor dock-and-dine specializing in seafood, burgers, fried fare and more.
GIANT STAIRS SEAFOOD GRILLE (207) 833-5000
Popular breakfast stop, but also serves lunch and dinner; also known for homemade pies and other desserts.
ASH COVE POTTERY (207) 833-6004
Beautiful handmade pots, bowls, mugs, dishes and more.
PERIWINKLE CO. (207) 833-8040
Gift shop and gallery featuring local art and crafts, seashore wreaths and baskets, gourmet foods, baby gifts, jewelry, women’s accessories, cards and more.
THISTLES & THINGS (207) 833-2329
Handcrafted Scottish items, including Thistle Crieff pottery, Luckenbooth China, ceramics, Celtic jewelry, kilt accessories, music books and gift items.
THINGS TO SEE & DO
SEA KAYAKING WITH H2OUTFITTERS (207) 833-5257
Take a sea kayaking lesson or tour of the beautiful waters around Harpswell with this respected outfitter.
Boaters can visit this small but beautiful state park southwest of Potts Harbor. Passengers can be dropped off at the pier float on the west side of the island while a park ranger directs you to a mooring. Anchoring is also possible. You can either dinghy to the pier or get a lift with the ranger. If arriving by kayak, you can land on the small beach on the north end of the island.
Winding, rugged, 2.3-mile path that includes a shore walk along a tidal creek and spectacular views from 150-foot cliffs overlooking Long Reach.
GIANT STAIRS TRAIL
This popular walking trail follows the rockycoastline and offers spectacular views of eastern Casco Bay.
Watch the New England Boating episode in nearby Yarmouth, Maine: