Off the Loop
By Sandy Lang
Photographs by Peter Frank Edwards
On Mount Desert Island, everybody cruises the Park Loop Road. This time, we purposely skip the famous Acadia National Park drive and go for an off-loop, island rambler.
We arrive on Mount Desert Island on the crest of a minor heat wave. It’s early summer and traffic is picking up on Route 3, the only road to the island. Just beyond the Trenton Bridge, we pull into the Thompson Island Information Center to look at brochures. I’m still a fan of the paper fliers and posters. You can feel a buzz in the air—the season is getting into full swing. One of the employees is leaning on a counter beside the shelves of island maps and brochures and tells me he’s happy about the steamy, 90-degree temperature. “Spring went on way too long,” he says, and then directs me to a map showing the “must-do” Park Loop Road for motor touring Acadia National Park. He doesn’t know our ulterior plan. Just for fun, this time we’re not going to follow that loop. Instead, we aim to follow roads that are mostly outside the park or on its very edges. Our scheme is to spend a day on the busier eastern lobe of the island, where Bar Harbor is located, and another tooling around on the western “Quiet Side,” as the locals call it.
After a few miles on the island, Route 3 curves past the first great water views at Hulls Cove. From our station wagon in the slow but steady line of cars, I get a good passing look at the deck outside the Chart Room restaurant, where I see customers sipping iced drinks under umbrellas. Sailboats bob on Frenchman Bay. A few minutes later, we’re in Bar Harbor. We slow down for a dozen wet-bottomed kayakers who are walking back from the harbor with paddles. No cruise ships are at the docks, but hotel construction at the waterfront is blocking some streets. People–watching is in full force (at least for me). In the summer crush of Bar Harbor tourists, I see motorcyclists, bicyclists, and families with strollers. The street scene is like a northern version of Key West, with people dressed in a mix of hiking gear, T-shirts, and tank tops.
My first in-town mission is to buy a notebook to replace the one I forgot at home. On Main Street, the 126-year-old Sherman’s Books and Stationery has just what I need, along with shelves that run long and deep with books about Maine or by Maine writers. A few blocks away at Morning Glory Bakery, we stop in for a drink and check out the day’s selection, including loaves of cinnamon-raisin bread and stacks of fat, twisted pretzels. But on this humid, sunny day, thirst rules. I choose a cold bottle of that very good lemon-rosemary-honey soda called Lemon Sting made by Green Bee in Brunswick. We walk a bit more downtown, and then to the shore path to feel the cool air brushing across the water. People on the beach are standing bent at the waist, searching for shells and sea glass, I bet.
Keeping mostly to the shaded side of each street (like most everyone else), we make our way for several blocks on Main Street—beyond busy Adelmann’s Deli and Grill to the 300-block that includes hip, dinner-only restaurants like the vegan Eden and the Latin-influenced Havana. It’s hours away from dinnertime, but a few doors away is the modest-sized Mount Desert Island Ice Cream, which boasts a porch and patio bursting with flowerpots and blooms. I walk in and see the freezer case is filled with buckets of gourmet flavors with names such as Bay of Figs and Root Ginger, but I opt for the flavor that the woman scooping recommends: Blueberry Sour Cream. And I ask for it in a handmade, salted-pretzel cone. Sweet, salty, crunchy, creamy—this ice cream has it all. What is it about salt and ice cream that’s so good? I’m not sure, but I like it. And I hear the employee tell the next customer that salted caramel is one the shop’s most popular flavors.
Back in the car and heading south on Route 3, we soon trade the bustle of Bar Harbor for views of vaulted mountainsides, the seasonal Otter Creek Market, and the entrance to the Blackwoods Campground that’s part of Acadia. At the Blackwoods sign, we toy with the idea of driving in to look at the campsite where we spent a rain-drizzled night in a tent last summer, but we decide to remain true to our quest and don’t venture in. Our next stop is the rolling village green overlooking Seal Harbor, and we have it to ourselves. The park has benches, mature trees, and a lawn of thick, bright green grass. When I think no one is looking, I do a cartwheel (summer sometimes leads me to do such things). From the Seal Harbor Beach across the street and down the hill, I hear distant squeals and laughing, and I walk over to see dozens of people sunning themselves or wading in the chilly ocean water.
The sign for Thuya Garden in Northeast Harbor is discreet, tucked beside what looks like the driveway to a private residence. From a parking lot nearby, we follow signs for a hiking trail that will take us up to the garden and historic lodge located on a 140-acre preserve. I walk through the carved wooden gates to a peaceful scene with a reflecting pool and a pavilion, where I stretch out for a bit and overlook the linear plantings of phlox, salvia, iris, and nasturtium, along with dozens of varieties of flowers. Blooms are the only crowds here.
After a spin through the village of Northeast Harbor and a peek in the Local Color boutique, with its French bistro table in the storefront window and settings of teapots and cups, we continue onto the coastline road along Somes Sound. Sargent Drive is one of the greatest stretches of scenic roadway I’ve seen in Maine, and its narrow lanes wind within yards of the fjord-like sound. Acadia Mountain (elevation 681 feet) and St. Saveur Mountain (elevation 679 feet) are visible on the far shore. In the village of Somesville, we stop at the white bridge over a pond in Somesville, which looks like something from a Monet painting—perhaps that’s why it’s endlessly photographed by visitors. I stop to read from a placard about the 60-to 70-year-old granite fish ladders that alewives still use during spawning season to migrate from salty Somes Sound to the fresh water of Somes Pond.
Then, like fish on the move, we decide that we need a new perspective, too. In less than a half hour, we make the drive back across the bridge to Trenton and sign up for a short airplane ride with Scenic Flights of Acadia. The Vermont-born pilot tells us he works with the ski patrol at Killington in the winter months, but has been flying tours over Mount Desert Island for six summers. I slide into the back seat of the Cessna 172 and watch the buttercups along the runway wave in the wind as we taxi for take-off. Does Martha Stewart use a private jet at this airport? We buzz and float over the lop-eared island to see from above the coves, mountaintops, ships, and pods of kayakers in yellow crafts. It’s always a thrill to be in a small plane, and I step back on land with a boost of adrenaline. We circle back to MDI and talk about our plans for the next day over plates of smoked chicken and pulled pork from Mainely Meat Barbecue.
On the Quiet Side, we start the day at Beech Hill Farm off of Pretty Marsh Road. Students from College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor are stocking the vegetable stand. Alisha Strater and a half-dozen others in jeans and sandals or boots invite us to check out the organic farm’s tomato house, which is filled with alternating rows of blooming flowers and tall plants bursting with mostly green tomatoes. Besides herbs, cut flowers, and vegetables such as squash, onions, and potatoes, the stand also sells local honey, jam, bread, and other products from Maine. When we start talking about the island’s many diversions, Bekka Payne, who grew up on MDI, recommends that we stop by a quirky local haunt in Bass Harbor called Cap’n Nemo’s. Her co-worker Jerzy Skupny, who’s standing beside her in an aqua-blue, leopard-print T-shirt, smiles knowingly. “You’ve got to go there just to look at everything on the walls,” he says, “but the pool table is terrible.”
I’ve been curious about the place, and we drive there directly. To see Cap’n Nemo’s from the outside, you don’t know if it’s a junk shop, a folk-art display gone mad, or some kind of bar or restaurant. Maybe it’s all three. A lighthouse-shaped tower rises from the building and various tanks, buoys, birdhouses, and lawn sculptures surround it. Judy Cousins, one of the owners, is in the parking lot loading something into the truck when we pull up. She explains that they’re not officially open for a few more hours, but if we want a burger, she’s happy to make one. Our new friends at Beech Hill recommended the Juicy Loosey burger made with gooey cheese in the middle, so we take her up on the offer. Judy adds that Nemo’s is known for serving beers in big frosty mugs, so we order a couple of those, too. The frost-coated mug she hands me is a “small,” and it’s a heavy-lifter that easily holds a pint and a half. While Judy cooks, her bearded husband, Bob Cousins, joins us to talk as we sit surrounded by the art that covers much of the walls and ceilings, including a section of portraits that customers have made of Bob. He’s a descendant of people who landed on the island centuries ago, he says, and he and his wife returned in the past decade to live near family and open their restaurant. One of his six children, Jasper, is a lobsterman, and local seafood is definitely on the menu. I mention the pool table, and Bob admits that it’s peculiar to play. “When it’s low tide the balls roll one way,’ he says, “and when it’s high tide, they roll the other way.”
Our next stop is inspired by one of the pamphlets I picked up at the welcome center. We pull into a gift shop named Ravenswood overlooking the water in Bass Harbor. Freshly painted buoys are strung on a clothesline out front, and the shelves in the shop are filled with painted bird carvings, wooden model boats, and non-electric toys of all kinds—rubber snakes and horses included. Some of the gifts are priced well under one dollar. Anne Paradise is at the register, and she tells us she remembers when the big fire of 1947 burned much of the island. She was a young girl then, and she actually tried to walk toward Bar Harbor for a closer look. When it comes to the items in her shop, Anne and her husband, Joe, do the painting and carving. “Tourists often ask if the fishermen use our buoys, and I have to tell them that no self-respecting lobsterman would have a buoy with a lighthouse painted on it. They’re for decoration.”
From Bass Harbor, we wander north on Pretty Marsh Road and dip into Acadia National Park. Our destination, from what I understand, is one of the park’s lesser-known areas. The sliver of deeply wooded parkland at Pretty Marsh offers a paved road with private picnic tables that you can park beside. Some day, we’ll have to return with a cooler full of drinks and sandwiches. For now, we circle back around to Southwest Harbor, and stop in at the Claremont Hotel. The croquet lawns are empty this afternoon, and the beautiful dining room of the hotel restaurant, Xanthus, has not yet begun to fill up. (We’re early for the day and the season.) But the stop is worth it. I’ve visited before, and I like to see the paintings and the elegant-but-not-stuffy furnishings inside, as well as the tidy grounds and the lawns rolling down toward the harbor and views of Greening Island.
Last summer, we had some terrific chowder and burgers at the Seawall Drive-In near the snaking seawall between Southwest Harbor and Bass Harbor, and I’ve since heard that the owner has moved to downtown Southwest Harbor. This is a food town: Red Sky, Eat-A-Pita and Cafe 2; and the Quietside Cafe and Ice Cream Shop, are all buzzing with customers. We find the new place, Jay Dubs, next to the post office, after noticing the hand-written note about its connection to the Seawall Drive-In that had been taped to the window. I order a three-soup sampler that arrives in a line-up of coffee cups, including a chilled carrot soup with curry and a garnish of lobster—fresh and interesting flavors for a former roadside take-out.
After our early dinner, we make one more stop at the park’s edge. From Route 102, we pull into the roadside parking lot for Acadia Mountain. Park signs declare the trail’s only for hiking, but I’d heard that this is a prime access point for swimming in Echo Lake. Following a woodland trail for a few hundred yards, we make the descent to the shore. Along the way, two women pass by in wet bathing suits and towels, and when we get to a broad ledge of sun-warmed rocks, I see five or six boys and girls at the water’s edge. Everyone’s taking turns doing dives or cannonballs. A couple of them are local kids, brought here by their mom after baseball practice. “When they want to come here, the kids say ‘let’s go jump,'” says Rina Grierson of Southwest Harbor, who watches her son, Stanley, plunk into the water again with a splash. Shade from the mountains casts the other side of the lake in full shadow, but we’re still standing in sunshine. A woman on a paddleboard is gliding across the smooth water in the distance. We sit down for a few minutes longer before the sun sets on this ideal MDI summer day.