In search of... The lighthouses of Maine

Sixty-eight lighthouses line the rocky coastline of New England, not to mention a resident population of frolicking whales and seals. Alastair Fairley takes a tour

Americans love lighthouses. Photographers find them romantic; navigators find them helpful; shorewalkers find them peaceful and idealists are drawn to them because they symbolise man's humanity to man. Most importantly, you can get to most of them by car. And in Maine, getting there is half the fun.

Americans love lighthouses. Photographers find them romantic; navigators find them helpful; shorewalkers find them peaceful and idealists are drawn to them because they symbolise man's humanity to man. Most importantly, you can get to most of them by car. And in Maine, getting there is half the fun.

Maine? Isn't that America's least popular state?

Only half the year. It's staggeringly cold in winter, so most of the people close up the summer house and fly south. In the summer and autumn, the place is packed with wealthy visitors frequenting fancy harbourside restaurants, sailing huge yachts, partying in palatial waterside mansions and, erm, visiting lighthouses.

With all that, why are lighthouses so big in Maine?

They're not. Big, that is. In fact, most of them are quite small. But there are lots of them (68 in all); they're old (the first, Portland Head, was first lit in 1791, just two years after the US Lighthouse Service was established by George Washington) and they're often in some of the most beautiful spots on the US coastline. Enthusiasts travel from all over the US to visit and photograph them since the Maine coastline is made up of deep inlets and natural harbours along a rocky shore. It makes for some stunning scenery.

But aren't they a bit like trains – once you've seen one, you've seen them all?

Hardly. There are short, stubby lights, colonial cottage lights on deserted islands, sneaky pillar-box red lights peeking out of forested cliffs, strange metal lights sitting slap-bang in the middle of the ocean. There is even one you can stay in.

Stay in? Now that sounds romantic.

It is, if a little rudimentary. It's on an island called the Isle au Haut. You can only get to it by boat; the shower is outdoors in the garden and you run the risk of being kept awake all night by the horn if it's foggy. But the rooms are comfortable, the food home-cooked and the setting fantastic. What more could you want?

It sounds a little remote. Is there a more comfortable vantage point?

If you like lighthouses, you must stay at a colonial-style bed and breakfast in the harbour town of Camden, called The Elms. It is run by two lighthouse enthusiasts, Ted and Jo Payanotoff, and every room is decorated like an old lightkeeper's house, all four-poster beds, books on navigation, oil paintings of lighthouses, open fires and lighthouse knick-knacks everywhere. There is even an exhaustive library about lighthouses, navigation, ships and history to browse through after you've pigged out on their huge breakfasts. It's not for the layabout, though. Ted used to be a naval commander, so breakfast is at 8am, or not at all.

So where are the best places to visit?

Portland Head light is the oldest in Maine and is stuck out on a promontory just south of the beautiful trading town from which it takes its name. It was one of several famously painted by Edward Hopper in the 1920s and it hasn't changed a bit. There's also a small museum there, so it's a good place to start. For paraphernalia, you shouldn't miss the lighthouse museum in Rockland which has an amazing collection of lenses, bells and other lighthouse artefacts, though the most interesting of those is its curator, Ken Black. He's a mine of information and used to work the Nantucket lightship. For the prettiest, go to Rockland Breakwater, a cute doll's house light stuck out on a rocky causeway where you can sit and watch the huge yachts sail by in Rockland Bay. My favourite, though, is Marshall Point Light. It was where Forrest Gump was filmed ending his marathon run around the US and it feels like the edge of the world. There's a small museum to visit but head back in to nearby Port Clyde and visit the General Store, too. It's got everything in it, packed to the rafters and there's a wonderful seafood restaurant right on the harbour. Peaceful? It must be noisier in heaven.

How do you get to them?

Forget public transport. Like the rest of the US, if you haven't got a car it's difficult getting anywhere, especially to the lighthouses which are usually stuck out on promontories or tucked away at the end of inlets. Some of the most interesting aren't accessible by car either, since they're out on some of the hundreds of islands that pepper the coast. Ted Payanotoff runs regular lighthouse cruises to these every fortnight in the summer.

A cruise? Nice and easy, then.

Nice for enthusiasts, but the one I went on took about six hours in a small boat. Thank God it was good weather. If it had been even a little blowier I think quite a lot of us would have lost our lunch. You're better off taking to the water in a Windjammer. They're beautiful old schooners that sail all around the coast. You can go out for just a few hours or even days on some of them. Teak deck, rope and polished brass – it takes you back to the glory age of travelling. It's best to wrap up warm, though: it can get chilly out on the water.

What, even in the height of summer?

Yep. Maine has the opposite to Britain's Gulf Stream: their current comes straight from the Arctic. That's why it's so good for whale-watching. Or seal-watching. You can see them everywhere. I spent an hour watching seals playing in the harbour at Portland, hanging around for scraps from the fishing boats. The water was crystal clear, but nothing would persuade me to go into it. It was freezing.

Cars, millionaire yachts, lobster. It all sounds rather expensive. Is it?

Well you don't see a lot of backpackers, it's true, but it doesn't have to be pricey. You can shuck a huge lobster for about $15 (£10) and gasoline is about a quarter the price we pay here. If you're on the lighthouse trail you'll mostly be eating and driving, so that's two big tickets under control.

I'm sold. How do I get there?

I started my tour of Maine lighthouses with a couple of days soaking up history in Boston, which is only 50 miles from Maine (about an hour by car). Thomas Cook Holidays (0870 443 4446; www.tcholidays.com) can tailor-make your itinerary. Return flights start from £269 per person with American Airlines. Three nights at the three-star Copley Square Hotel start from £162 per person and £177 per person at the four-star Boston Marriott Copley Place until 31 March, both based on two sharing. Seven days' car hire through Alamo costs £215. Rooms at The Elms (001 207 236 6250) in Camden, Maine, start from $75 per night per person, based on two sharing. For information about staying on the Isle au Haut contact innkeepers Jeff and Judi Burke (001 207 367 2261; www.keepershouse.com).

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