Keeping Chill On Northern Islands


When Kate Hotchkiss purchased a home on Isle au Haut off the coast of in 2001, she never dreamed she would be two decades ahead of the trend of working remotely. 

Ms. Hotchkiss, a global business consultant, bought her island as her American home base and quickly transitioned it to her full-time home.

“We were considering buying a place in Hong Kong instead of renting, but we realized that instead of buying an ugly concrete apartment, we could buy a mansion off the coast of Maine,” says Ms. Hotchkiss, 60. “I’d been coming to Isle au Haut since the late 1960s, after my dad discovered it when we were visiting his parents in China, Maine.”

Ms. Hotchkiss brought her two sons to live full time on the island to escape the polluted air of Hong Kong and embrace a healthier outdoor lifestyle. 

Ms. Hotchkiss, author of On Harbor’s Edge 1912-1913, and her husband, Ellard Taylor, 79, owner of Great Blue Heron Island Builders, are among the fewer than 100 full-time residents of Isle au Haut.

“Personally, I think fall through spring is the best time to be in Maine,” Ms. Hotchkiss says. “The winters are pristine and quiet and stunningly beautiful.” Islands off the coast of Maine, British Columbia, and Washington share a few qualities that became particularly appealing as the pandemic took hold around the globe. 

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They’re quiet and remote, yet accessible by ferry, boat, private plane, and sometimes seaplane from cities such as Seattle, Vancouver, and Portland, Maine. 

In addition, since they’re surrounded by salt water, they usually have a slightly warmer microclimate than the nearby mainland and have less snow in winter.

“Before the pandemic we had lots of vacation-home buyers from Florida, Arizona, and Texas, who came up to the San Juan Islands because of the climate, along with second-home buyers from Seattle,” says Roberta Kent, a broker with Island Group Sotheby’s International Realty in Friday Harbor in Washington’s San Juan Islands. “Once the pandemic made more people realize they could live and work anywhere, demand increased fast, and prices went way up.”

Home prices for relatively modest homes in the San Juan Islands, which are found in the northwest of the Evergreen State, near the Canadian border, quickly climbed above $1 million, which once would have been enough for a waterfront home, Ms. Kent says.

“The prices are still much cheaper here than in Marin County, so people from the Bay Area are buying homes here and flying into Seattle to catch a ferry,” she notes. 

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REMOTE BUT MODERN SAN JUAN ISLAND

Laura Taylor Massoud, 57, and her husband, Elie Massoud, 60, learned what they wanted in a vacation home while they traveled the world with their three children, sourcing products for their food-importing and distribution business.

“I realized that the places I love the most are the ones that are difficult to reach and are a couple of hours off the main road,” Mrs. Massoud says. “Places like Captiva Island [Florida] are more preserved and isolated, with fewer people. The harder they are to get to, the more beautiful they can be.”

Mrs. Massoud prefers to avoid flying if possible and likes to bring her dogs when she travels, but she didn’t want to be in hurricane-prone locations such as the Gulf Coast or in overcrowded areas on the East Coast.

“I kept driving up the Pacific Coast until I stopped on San Juan Island, which feels remote but isn’t really remote,” Mrs. Massoud says of the second-largest of the San Juan Islands. “It has modern comforts and restaurants and stores, but it also has natural beauty and wildlife.”


Dean Tyler/LandVest

“It’s just magical to see whales and seals and dolphins, but we’re also only 10 minutes by car from shops and restaurants.”
Laura Taylor Massoud, san juan island homeowner


Dean Tyler/LandVest


The Massouds purchased a home in 2019, with views of the water and across the San Juan Islands to Bellingham, on a 10-acre site with a forest. Their home in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island is listed for $2.35 million because the couple decided they want a vacation home closer to their primary residence in Houston.

“My goal was to create a welcoming house for guests, so I turned an old hunting cabin into a sauna and spa overlooking the water,” Mrs. Massoud says. 

While Ms. Kent acknowledges that some people who move to the San Juan Islands find them too quiet, about half of homeowners are year-round residents and the others spend April through October there.

“You have to fly or take a ferry to get here, which can be a plus or a minus for people,” Ms. Kent says. “Your trip to and from the islands usually begins or ends with a cruise, which is lovely.”

The ferry takes about an hour from Seattle, while flights and seaplanes take 30 minutes or less. Because the islands are surrounded by water, the summers and winters both tend to be milder than the mainland, Ms. Kent says.

“It’s just magical to see whales and seals and dolphins, but we’re also only 10 minutes by car from shops and restaurants,” Mrs. Massoud says.

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ISLAND VARIATIONS IN MAINE

While Isle au Haut, where the Hotchkiss family lives, is accessible by ferry from Stonington, Maine, residents also rely on their own boats to travel between islands and to the mainland. The ferry trip takes about 45 minutes.

“The islands are mostly a vacation-home market for people who stay from June to October,” says Jamie O’Keefe, a real estate agent with LandVest, an affiliate of Christie’s International Real Estate in Northeast Harbor, Maine. “The buying pool is smaller for some islands because of the need to go off-island for a bigger grocery store, but some have private airports.”

The pandemic widened the appeal of Maine islands, Mr. O’Keefe says. “In the past, most buyers had a connection to an island, such as a previous visit or friends and family here, but now we get calls from all over the world,” he says. “We have a few more buyers from Boston and New York, but most of the rest are from all over the U.S., not just New England.”

Keeper’s House on Isle au Haut, an off-the-grid solar-powered oceanfront property that includes a lighthouse, a main house, a guesthouse, and sleeping cabins.


Joe Keeney/LandVest

The fantasy of living remotely is likely to draw some people to the Keeper’s House on Isle au Haut, an off-the-grid solar-powered oceanfront property that includes a lighthouse, a main house, a guesthouse, and sleeping cabins, listed at $1.975 million.

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“The Keeper’s House is a quintessential Maine property, but it’s not insulated or heated enough to use year-round,” Mr. O’Keefe says. “But other islands are more accessible, such as Mount Desert, which is the largest island off the coast of Maine and where more people live year-round.”

Much of Mount Desert Island is covered by the Acadia National Park, which also covers about half of Isle au Haut, but the island is also home to Bar Harbor. Buyers looking for more accessibility but who still want a remote lifestyle may be drawn to places such as Whistle Pig Farm, a 12-acre waterfront equestrian property on Mount Desert Island, listed at $7.995 million.

“During the pandemic, buyers’ first priority was the view, followed by high-speed internet access so they could work remotely,” Mr. O’Keefe says. 

Ms. Hotchkiss finds the remoteness of Isle au Haut appealing in winter.

“Sometimes we don’t see people for months, but the quiet is great for creativity,” she says. “Plus, we feel connected by the internet and I’m working with people around the world.” Raising two boys on Isle au Haut, which Ms. Hotchkiss says has an excellent one-room schoolhouse, brought the family closer to nature.

“Maine allows kids as young as 8 to get a student lobster-fisherman license, so I had the pleasure of working for my son as a sternman on his lobster boat when he was 9,” Ms. Hotchkiss says. “Not too many people can say that.”

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Wes Edholm Photography

This home in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, recently listed for $2.35 million, includes a guest cabin in the woods and a spa building with a sauna overlooking the water. The main house has views of the water and across the islands to Bellingham, Wash.


Wes Edholm Photography

LIVING WHERE THE FERRY STOPS AT 9 P.M.

Salt Spring Island in the Gulf Islands in British Columbia offers an equally nature-infused lifestyle, with homes surrounded by beaches and forests, says Erin Williams, a real estate agent with Pemberton Holmes on Salt Spring Island.

“It’s a pretty secluded place, especially because the ferry stops running at 9 p.m.,” Ms. Williams says. “You can also get here by private boat and some people fly in by seaplane.”

Wildlife painter Robert Bateman and the famous Kellogg family maintain homes on Salt Spring Island, which Ms. Williams says offers a vibrant community of artists and musicians along with a local food movement.

“We saw interest in our island explode during the pandemic, when buyers decided they wanted a home office with a view and a garden, so the pace of sales and prices went up significantly,” Ms. Williams says. “Most people live here year-round, although we do have some second-home buyers, too.”

When the pandemic started, clients from all over Canada and even from Europe were buying homes without seeing them in person, she adds.

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“There are three ferry terminals on Salt Spring, and it takes about 90 minutes to get to Vancouver by ferry and about 20 minutes by seaplane,” Ms. Williams says.

Luxury homes on the island range from $4 million to $7 million, but there are also two $14 million properties on the market, with 165 acres and 232 acres, respectively. One waterfront property listed for $6.95 million includes 20 acres, a separate guesthouse, a dock, and ocean views across to Vancouver, Canada.

“People who buy here want privacy, a view, and often to build a custom home,” Ms. Williams says. “They like this slightly more Mediterranean climate that you get because of the salt water compared with the mainland or even Victoria Island.”

While the privacy and remote feeling are a draw, Ms. Williams points out that Salt Spring also has restaurants, shops, a farmer’s market, and lots of community activities, in addition to the lakes, beaches, and forests. “It’s truly a different lifestyle here,” Ms. Williams says. “People on the East Coast tend to focus on work and achievement, but here there’s a more relaxed atmosphere and everyone seems to want that balance of work and play.” 

Islands off the coast of Washington have also seen rising popularity over the past couple of years. Pictured here is Lummi Island, part of the San Juan Islands, located in the Salish Sea area of the Pacific Northwest.


Edmund Lowe Photography/Getty Images

This article first appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of Mansion Global Experience Luxury.

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