Maine attraction

America's last remaining Shakers live here, alongside Ralph Lauren devotees and the artistic settlers of an east-coast Utopia. Philip Hoare likes life in the backwoods

Within hours of flying north from a vaguely depressed New York, I'm in deepest Maine, a mile from Sabbathday Lake Shaker village, a still-functioning religious Utopia housing the last 10 Shakers left in America. Twenty miles to the east are the seaside holiday homes of the great, the good and the merely wealthy, including those of George W Bush and Martha Stewart. Somewhere in between, I'm swimming in the clear spring water of Sabbathday Lake itself.

Within hours of flying north from a vaguely depressed New York, I'm in deepest Maine, a mile from Sabbathday Lake Shaker village, a still-functioning religious Utopia housing the last 10 Shakers left in America. Twenty miles to the east are the seaside holiday homes of the great, the good and the merely wealthy, including those of George W Bush and Martha Stewart. Somewhere in between, I'm swimming in the clear spring water of Sabbathday Lake itself.

Maine, the Union's most northerly representative on the eastern seaboard, is barely a state at all, more a drowned mountain range, its ridges and islands ripped out of the granite by glaciers. This fjord-like coast is interspersed with dense forests (lair of the dolorous moose) and fast highways (preserve of flattened porcupine and skunk road-kills). It is also a place where America meets its past. Here, in the late-18th century, an advance party of Shakers – the sect founded by Ann Lee, a religious visionary from Manchester – set up their most remote settlement.

Their intention was to await the Second Coming of Christ in the virgin wilderness. Two hundred years later, their village has been bisected by the highway, and its 18 exquisite white clapboard buildings rattle to the rumble of passing pick-up trucks and SUVs (sports utility vehicles) rather than the celestial chariots the Shakers expected. Yet, inside the 1794 meeting house – still wearing its original blueberry skin, sage leaf and indigo paintwork – you can imagine the ghosts of Ann Lee's faithful starting up one of the shaking, dancing rituals which earned the group its name.

The 21st-century Shakers – five men and five women, ranging in age from 30 to 80 – attend daily services in this barn-like hall. Males and females enter by separate doors, and leave for their equally separate accommodation. Yet, like the rest of the Shaker industry, Sabbathday Lake is also geared to tourism. There are blacksmith and quilting displays, tours of the buildings with their beautifully simple furniture, costumes and textiles, and there are tinctures and herbal infusions, Shaker pegs and Shaker mittens to be bought. Sabbath day visitors are even permitted to attend the Shakers' Sunday service.

Not that any of this commodification (itself a reflection of the enormous popularity of Shaker furniture in the States, where the likes of Oprah Winfrey allegedly pay thousands of dollars for original pieces) would be news to their forebears. A century ago, Shakers were peddling sweets and toys at the local Poland Springs Hotel, a vast but long-demolished spa (resembling Jack Nicholson's winter pension in The Shining), now replaced as a tourist site by the nearby bottling plant of America's best known mineral water, Poland Spring.

A few miles "down-east" (as the land above the state capital of Portland is called) lies another kind of American idyll: the artist-infested backwoods. Here Hui-Yong – my friend from Seattle, and a long-term Maine addict – took me to visit the home of the artist Yvonne Jacquette, at the forest home she shared with the photographer Rudy Burckhardt, and the dance critic and poet Edwin Denby, in a kind of artistic rural Utopia.

Ironically, Jacquette's art consists of almost entirely urban scenes, albeit seen from the remote aerial view of a plane or skyscraper. Likewise, the work for which Burckhardt is famous – now on display as the first solo show in New York's relocated Museum of Modern Art at its converted staple factory in Queens, Long Island – could not be further removed from this pastoral setting. In "An Afternoon in Astoria", Burckhardt's photographs at MoMA QNS show a blasted, semi-industrial 1940 wasteland reminiscent of Scott Fitzgerald's descriptions of the drive between Long Island and Manhattan in The Great Gatsby – and perhaps of the destruction still evident at Ground Zero. Far removed from Maine's vivid green lushness, these images might have come from another country altogether.

Their idyll ended with Burckhardt's sudden death in 1999, Denby, his devoted friend, having died some years before. Now their ghosts, too, haunt this place. Having greeted us in her swimsuit, Yvonne takes Hui-Yong and me through the woods, pointing out the tiny stones, initialled and dated with white Tippex, that mark the place where Burckhardt and Denby's ashes were scattered. Then, as the light opens up through the pines, another of Maine's glacial lakes appears. Yvonne, a woman of a certain age, plunges in and strikes out for the far bank, swimming a mile with ease, leaving me and Hui-Yong to doggy-paddle among the neon-coloured reeds.

A day or so later, we attend Yvonne's opening at Colby College's prestigious art gallery, where her extraordinary aerial views stand next to a rare glimpse of Burckhardt's photographs and paintings of the same woods in which his ashes now lie. It's a sudden glimpse of an elegiac America – made more poignant by one Jacquette canvas of a view from the World Trade Center. Out on the college lawns, the reception lunch is in progress: an elegant crowd of seersucker-clad benefactors, curators and associates mill about in the noon-day shade of the marquee. In the wealthy environs of Colby College, it's clear that, for all its Shakers, its art and its natural beauty, money and power still talk in Maine. Or at least, gently whispers. Down on the coast, the season is in full swing: a throng of Ralph Lauren and DKNY, genteelly scuffed loafers and tanned shins for which the coastal towns of Rockland, Camden, and Wiscasset provide an endless and charming sequence of New England architecture, chi-chi art galleries, and all the other unobtrusive appurtenances of vast wealth. It's a scene which Fitzgerald would recognise – yet more so, perhaps, in the shadow of the summer's plunges on Wall Street.

Here the rich shelter from the economic weather in their grey cedar shingle-roof villas, doubtless furnished with Shaker originals. Neatly hidden along the jigsaw shoreline, each boasting their own bays – often islands, too – they curve in and out of the coastline, enviable little paradises of their own. Even the scenic drive down the west side of Mount Desert Island – now part of the Acadia National Park – was built for the carriages of the 19th-century magnates and industrialists who first made Maine a summer home. In the yachting centre of North-East Harbour, Hui-Yong's enquiry as to the site of the home of Martha Stewart – America's doyenne of interior decoration, recently questioned about insider dealing in her own company – is met with a weary "We can never find it, either" from a shop assistant.

As we perch on the quayside to eat our enormous wraps, a young girl, nine or ten years old, appears on her bicycle. Overhearing our admiration for one huge house, she informs us it is hers. Ten minutes later, she appears on its private landing across the water to shout, "Now do you believe me?" The loneliness is implicit; she might as well be a budding Gatsby herself.

Our own accommodation is not exactly slumming it. We stay on Deer Isle, an island tenuously connected to the mainland by a great green suspension bridge that rises to a whale-like hump at its centre. The Pilgrim's Inn dates back to the 18th century – therefore an ancient monument here – and is extraordinarily comfortable, for all its wonky stairs and skewed windows. You get fresh-baked zucchini bread for breakfast, and in the evening, guests gather over hors d'oeuvres and drinks poured by themselves from an open bar. An air of gentrification and culture overlies the place. Art is ever-present: every other house is a gallery, and close by is the famous Haystack school of applied arts, a modern angular building gorgeously set on the granite shore. Here you can study screen printing, photography or ceramics on three-week residential courses, tutored by experts.

Off the end of Deer Isle lies yet another kind of Utopia: Maine's most remote island, Isle Au Haut, another adjunct of Acadia and accessible only by a 40-minute ferry ride. Ringed by forests and guarded by seals and eagles, this is about as far away from the hubbub as you can get: a place of scented and stunted pines, beaches strewn with multi-coloured pebbles, boulders lashed by white water.

Climbing to the peak of the island (Hui-Yong's training for a marathon), we feel we have conquered Maine. But as we look around us, at the jagged inlets and unyielding rock, it's clear it would take a lifetime to get to know this coastline; and that for all its rich summer visitors – somehow epitomised by the omnipresent fat lobster rolls and the endless supply of glaucous-bloomed blueberries – it would take a new glaciation to erode Maine's eternal appeal. Even in the 21st century, a land that can house Shakers and presidents alike surely stands a chance of retaining its enigmatic and sublime beauty.

The Facts

Getting there

Return flights with British Airways and two weeks' car hire with VGO Metro costs from £568 per person through Trailfinders (020-7937 5400; www.trailfinders.co.uk).

Pilgrim's Inn on Deer Isle (001 888 778 7505; www.pilgrimsinn.com) offers rooms from $112 (£75).

Isle au Haut Ferry (001 207 367 5193; www.isleauhaut.com) service departs from Stonington three times a day. The fare is $14 (£9) each way.

Being there

Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, 707 Shaker Road, New Gloucester (001 207 926 4597; www.shaker.lib.me.us).

"Aerial Muse: The Art of Yvonne Jacquette" runs until 13 October and "Rudy Burckhardt's Maine" runs until 20 October at Colby College, Waterville (001 207 872 3228; www.colby.edu/museum/).

"An Afternoon in Astoria: Photographs by Rudy Burckhardt" runs until 4 November at MoMA QNS, 33 Street at Queens Boulevard, Long Island City, Queens (001 212 708 9400; www.moma.org). It is also published in book form this month by Thames & Hudson, price £12.95.

Further information

Maine Office of Tourism (001 207 624 7483; www.visitmaine.com).

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