Monhegan Island, Maine, is almost too pretty for words. That's probably how the problem started: Everyone wanted to go there.
It isn't easy or inexpensive. A one-hour ferry ride from Port Clyde, on Maine's rugged middle coast, will set you back $32 roundtrip.
Pick the right day, and you'll see the kind of scenery you thought only existed in a coffee table book: flat-calm water reflecting islands of pine trees, punctuated by occasional lobster traps. Pick the wrong day and the passage can be uncomfortably bumpy, as evidenced by the rows of seasickness bags stacked within reaching distance of the passenger seats. Indeed, the ocean here can be deadly.
But everyone will tell you that's it's worth the trip. I will. After spending a day on the island, I love the place.
I also resent it.
Monhegan is a classic tourist trap. It's such a textbook example of a tourist trap that if anyone were foolish enough to offer this renegade travel writer a teaching job, I'd take my class there on a field trip, to show them an authentic tourist trap. The place makes Orlando and Las Vegas look positively amateurish.
Double The Prices
"Everything costs twice as much as it does on the mainland," one local told me after we arrived. That turned out to be an understatement. I dropped $40 on a lunch that should have cost less than $20. There's a good reason for that: Everything must be imported to the island by boat, which makes it more expensive. But double? No, they're more than covering their expenses. They're unjustly profiting from their location.
A few years ago, when airports tried to encourage their merchants to offer "street prices" -- in other words, require them to charge reasonable rates for food and beverages -- it was a spectacular failure. The same thing would happen here too, I'm sure. But the reaction from visitors is worth noting: They shrug it off, open their purses, and pay up.
There's one public restroom on Monhegan and no matter where you go, you'll see signs reminding visitors of this single location with three stalls near the center of town. A sign in each stall informs visitors that they are all but required to "donate" 50 cents per visit minimum for the upkeep of these WCs. By the way, these bathrooms were super-clean and well-maintained.
Having spent almost half my life in European tourist towns that have real pay toilets (the coin-operated variety) I can tell you about some of the unintended consequences of having them. They make your destination look unwelcoming. They seem to take advantage of you in your time of greatest need. They ratchet up your stress level. (If you're traveling with kids, "I gotta go" is a one-minute warning if you're lucky.) And then there's also the little problem of public urination -- or worse. Bottom line: toilets should be free and plentiful and part of a destination's basic infrastructure.
After a day of taking photos and videos on my iPhone, my battery was dead. I found a cafe that sold overpriced pastries and offered half an hour of "free" wireless connection with a purchase, and plugged my phone into an outlet. It didn't take long for an employee to discover my transgression.
"Whose phone is this?" she demanded.
"Mine," I said.
"We don't allow that," she said. "Power is expensive."
Really? According to a recent survey, it costs less than $2 to charge the much larger iPad for a year.
Later, I managed to convince another proprietor to let me charge up so that I could continue documenting my trip to the island, but she asked me not to tell anyone that she allowed it. Thanks, but that's just silly.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment was the food. Monhegan's front yards are littered with lobster traps, a reminder of Maine's signature meal. With an abundance of fresh lobster, we were told we "couldn't go wrong" with the seafood. So when we paid about $40 for bowl of chowder, a lobster roll and a salmon burger, we assumed it would be some of the best we'd ever had. The chowder was fine, but the rest was pretty awful.
I see this attitude in a lot of other tourist towns. It's a kind of culinary arrogance that says, "We don't have to try that hard -- we're already the best." Come to think of it, if you're one of the few places that serve lunch on a remote island, you don't have to be that good. You don't have to be any good, actually. And you also know that guests will accept it.
It would be too easy to blame all of this on the good people of Monhegan Island. If I didn't know better, I'd conclude they were cheap and culinarily-challenged and capitalizing on their gorgeous location in a way that's unbecoming.
But I know better.
I know that tourists do the darndest things. You let them use the toilets in your art gallery and they leave a mess behind. You set your prices high because the season is short; come September, visitors will stop arriving by the boatload, but your bills will keep coming. And dammit, power is expensive here and you're selling pastries, not running an Internet cafe.
The bigger question that a tourist trap like this raises is this one: Who's responsible?
I think visitors may share some of the blame for creating Monhegan, partially because of their past behavior, which includes defacing public restrooms and otherwise taking advantage of a place's hospitality -- and partially because they accept the status quo and even encourage it.
If visitors to any tourist trap didn't put up with the substandard food and facilities, even refused to frequent an establishment that offers less for more, then it wouldn't exist. If they treated the restrooms with the same care as they do those in their own homes, maybe, just maybe, more businesses would let them use theirs.
One thing I know for sure: After my visit to Monhegan, I will I never look at a lobster trap the same way.