48 Hours on Mount Desert Island

Maine’s largest island and home to one of the most visited national parks, Mount Desert Island is a utopia for nature lovers, where the tallest mountain on the eastern seaboard rises up from a jagged coastline.

On the quietside of the island

It’s raining when I arrive, but I waste no time starting my exploration on the “quiet side” of the island. Located in Southwest Harbor, the Wendell Gilley Museum celebrates the life and work of the preeminent decorative bird carver. Half of the museum is a rotating exhibition of Gilley’s beautifully carved birds, while the rest is an interactive workshop that showcases carvings in progress.

Sawyer’s Specialties is the perfect neighborhood wine shop. It offers both a well-curated wine selection and a large selection of gourmet cheeses. The knowledgeable staff give me recommendations for the ideal spring wine.

I make a brief stop at the idyllic Somesville Museum and Gardens to stroll across the Thaddeus Shepley Somes Memorial Bridge. From the museum, the bridge spans a mill stream and heirloom garden to reach the Somesville Selectmen’s Building.

The grand and warm interiors of the Harborside Hotel are a welcome sight in the rain. My nautical-themed suite looks out to matching views of the Mount Desert Narrows dotted with boats.

Downtown Bar Harbor is lined with adorable shops and pubs. From Agamont Park I watch some lobster boats come and go before I head into Sherman’s Maine Coast Book Shops for my next good read. Just up the street I see a sign for a “chocolate emporium” and can’t resist stopping in. Ben and Bill’s Chocolate Emporium is lined with cases of confections and ice cream—a Bar Harbor Willy Wonka’s.

Every town needs a bar like The Barnacle. Upon entering the bright blue storefront I am greeted with a warm glow, a tin of popcorn, and a glass of fernet. The Barnacle is filled wall-to-wall with locals, so I know I have stumbled upon a local treasure.

For dinner I head to one of Bar Harbor’s newest fine dining restaurants, Salt and Steel. The menu relies on the seasonal products that farmers and fishermen provide, so it can change frequently. The ambiance is refined but approachable, perfect for a date night or a family meal. Tonight I enjoy classic littleneck clams with organic chorizo and perfectly cooked braised lamb.

There is no place to end an evening on MDI quite like the Thirsty Whale. The dark bar is packed and loud with laughter when I arrive. I belly up to the bar for a cold beer and am lucky enough to be surrounded by locals who are happy to share their recommendations as I prepare for my second day on the island.

Breakfast and beachcombing

I start the morning at Thrive Juice Bar and Kitchen, just up the street from the Harborside Hotel. Thrive is light and bright and offers a healthy and fresh respite from the fried seafood and rich dishes at other island restaurants.

I take my grapefruit, carrot, and pineapple juice down to a small pebble beach just outside of Harborside. I sip my juice and comb through the stones and shells exposed by the low tide.

Saturday in the park

I have brought two things to prepare for my adventure in Acadia National Park: a park pass from the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce (park passes are also available at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center, but it’s closed during my trip) and a paper map (cell phone reception isn’t reliable). In order to get the most out of my short amount of time, I’m driving the Park Loop Road. My first stop is an overlook just a half-mile from the Hulls Cove entrance that offers sweeping views of Frenchman Bay and the Porcupine Islands.

The Wild Gardens of Acadia don’t look all that special at arrival, but just steps past the parking lot and the nature center I find beautifully maintained displays of the natural habitats of MDI. All of the gardens are thoroughly labeled to make plant identification easy. Tucked away among the gardens are two structures from the park’s beginnings. The springhouse at the Sieur de Monts Spring stands just behind a large stone carved with “Sweet Water of Acadia.” Today the springhouse, built by the park’s first superintendent, George B. Dorr, is symbolic of the dedication of all the contributors and creators of the park. Deeper in the gorgeous woodland setting is the original location of the Abbe Museum, which now also has a location in downtown Bar Harbor. The trailside museum focuses on the culture of Wabanki people.

After continuing on the Park Loop Road, I stop at Sand Beach, a small beach nestled between granite mountains and the rocky shoreline with soft sand and small shell fragments. There are a number of trails that meander along the coast around the beach, providing different perspectives of the ocean.

Another crowd favorite, Thunder Hole is a small inlet reached by stairs. Waves crash in, making a sound like thunder if the right wave hits the small cavern below. If you happen to visit Thunder Hole on a calm day and don’t see what all the fuss is about, look to the right and left for stunning views of Otter Cliff and Sand Beach.

Jordan Pond is synonymous with two things: the Bubbles and popovers. With a beautiful view of North and South Bubble Mountains, Jordan Pond is encircled by an easy three-mile trail. Jordan Pond is also home to the Jordan Pond House, which has been serving tea and popovers overlooking the pond since the late 1800s. I take a slightly less traditional route and order popovers with a glass of prosecco.

The final stop on my trip around the Park Loop Road is the summit of Cadillac Mountain, which for part of the year is the first place in the country to see the sunrise. As with many attractions in the park, there are plenty of places to pull off the road for panoramic photo opportunities. Being the highest point on the eastern seaboard, the summit boasts some of the most magnificent views of the island landscape. The Cadillac Summit Loop Trail is an easy paved path that loops around the summit and offers wonderful views and educational plaques along the way.

Azalea gardens and al fresco dining

I am fortunate to be in Bar Harbor the same weekend as the Abbe Museum’s annual Indian Market. The Village Green is filled with vendors, performers, and exhibitors including Geo Neptune, one of Maine magazine’s “50 Mainers” and a master basketmaker.

Charlotte’s Legendary Lobster Pound in Southwest Harbor made international news last fall when owner Charlotte Gill announced that the roadside restaurant was experimenting with using marijuana to sedate lobsters before cooking them. This season she is using a combination of CBD and valerian to calm the lobsters and make what she says is a sweeter, lighter lobster meat. Along with a large lawn, there are picnic tables and Adirondack chairs surrounding the small shack, and I sit to enjoy my first heaping-full, lightly mayo-ed, sweet lobster roll of the season.

In Northeast Harbor, another quiet part of the island, is Asticou Azalea Garden. The garden was inspired by Japanese stroll gardens but retains unique characteristics of the coast of Maine. Interlacing paths lead me from one delightful discovery to another, with perfectly placed benches along the way.

A short drive away is another Northeast Harbor gem: Sargent Drive. Just minutes from the Park Loop Road, I wind my way down the tree-lined road to take in beautiful views of Somes Sound and pass by spectacular mansions tucked into the hills.

Back at the Harborside Hotel, I take a moment to journal my day beside the grand fireplace before I head to dinner at the Lompoc Cafe. The downtown Bar Harbor restaurant’s charming brick patio is shaded by a big old maple tree, illuminated by small twinkle lights, and includes a bocce court. It’s just warm enough out to dine al fresco. On the suggestion of my server I order spicy Dijon mussels and a fried chicken sandwich called the Bang Bang. I thoroughly enjoy both the meal and the ambiance.

A popular breakfast spot

Cafe This Way is tucked away on a small side street in Bar Harbor and offers a nice respite from the bustling downtown. Retro touches and eclectic decor make the cafe fun and light. I enjoy the house-made corned beef hash and eggs before I head on my way, making room for the growing line of hungry patrons.

Even after a full weekend of exploration I feel that I haven’t even scratched the surface of what MDI has to offer. I am already looking forward to my next visit.