48 Hours In…Bar Harbor
September 2010 | By Melissa Coleman | Photographs by Jonathan Laurence | Illustration by Jennifer Judd-McGee
48 hours, and more, of our favorite places to eat, sleep, explore, play, and browse
The darkness of Mount Desert Island’s night skies means more stars, and the Acadia Night Sky Festival celebrates this fact with 8 p.m. stargazing parties at Sand Beach (September 9) and atop Cadillac Mountain (September 11). Park rangers supply the telescopes so you can view clusters, galaxies, planets, and, even with the unadorned eye, the Milky Way, which is often bright enough to reflect off the surrounding ocean.
It’s hard not to follow the footsteps of history makers when visiting Bar Harbor and Mount Desert Island. Of recent note, President Obama and the first family dropped in for a weekend in July to commemorate the centennial anniversary of a similar trip made by President Taft, who referred to the Maine air then as “champagne in a prohibition state.” In Taft’s day, wealthy Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Pulitzers, Fords, Astors, Carnegies, and Morgans had already discovered the area, built grand houses, and bought up much of the land—many later donated parts of their holdings to create, in 1919, what is now the 47,000-acre Acadia National Park.
Mount Desert Island may be Maine’s Aspen or Newport, but as with most havens of the rich and famous, there’s a reason the well-heeled choose to vacation here—it’s lovely and jammed full of priceless things to do. You will need at least a week or, better, a summer to explore all that Bar Harbor and the island have to offer, but here is a sampling of some intriguing spots I was able to enjoy during a far-too-short 48-hour visit.
Acadia National Park is your playground. Gear up at Cadillac Mountain Sports, Bar Harbor’s source for outdoor apparel and equipment since 1980, and head off to hike the many trails, bike the carriage roads, rock climb at Otter Cliffs (with Atlantic Climbing School if you need a guide), swim at Sand Beach, and enjoy the views on a drive along Park Loop Road or up Cadillac Mountain, the highest peak.
Or, leave your car at the hotel and rent a bike from Bar Harbor Bicycle Shop on the corner of Cottage Street. Peddle up West Street Extension (a good warm-up) to access the crushed-stone carriage roads that were created by John D. Rockefeller Jr. to escape the automobiles that began taking over the island after 1913. An engineering marvel, the 45 miles of bicycle-friendly trails traverse rolling terrain and feature 17 elegantly constructed native stone bridges that span the gorges and rushing creeks.
The propane-powered, L.L. Bean–sponsored Island Explorer buses deliver you free to many of the trailheads—or anywhere else for that matter. My favorite hike is Dorr Mountain, named for the park’s first superintendent, George Dorr. There’s also the famed Precipice Trail, climbing 1,000 feet from sea level up Champlain Mountain with the help of iron rungs. The squeamish or short of breath should try the three-mile Jordan Pond Shore Trail for a more relaxing (and horizontal) hike, and Acadia Mountain offers an intermediate option, but one that still affords great views of Somes Sound. For a casual stroll, the Shore Path follows Bar Harbor’s coastline, while Bar Island, Bar Harbor’s namesake, creates a tidal land bridge you can walk across from Bridge Street.
If you prefer activities that involve a ball, put on your whites for a game of tennis on the public courts in Northeast Harbor or, if you’re staying at the Harborside Hotel, enjoy the clay courts at the member-only Bar Harbor Club, where the Obamas recently played. If golf is your game of choice, tee off as President Taft did at the par-seventy Kebo Valley Golf Club, the eighth-oldest in the nation, or try the waterfront greens at the nine-hole Causeway Club in Southwest Harbor.
Stop by the Abbe Museum to learn about the native Wabankis—among the first peoples to explore the area more than 5,000 years ago—who named the glacier-carved landscape Pemetic, or “mountains seen at a distance.” If you are interested in the local animal life and ecology, stop in at the George B. Dorr Museum of Natural History, located on the College of the Atlantic campus, or at the Naturalist’s Notebook, a unique store in Seal Harbor “for anyone who’s even a little curious about the last 13.7 billion years.”
Further exploration awaits in the island’s lovely estate gardens, most of which were built in early 1900s. There’s Charles Savage’s Asticou Azalea Garden, the English- and Japanese-style Thuya Garden next to Asticou Terraces in Northeast Harbor, and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden, located on a nearby bluff in Seal Harbor, that was designed by landscape-design maven and former resident Beatrix Farrand.
Early explorers arrived by boat, including Frenchman Samuel Champlain, who dubbed the rocky land mass Isles des Monts Deserts (Island of Barren Mountains) in 1604. And afloat is still one of the best ways to explore the island today. There are countless boat and sea kayak tours, deep-sea fishing trips, and schooner cruises, including trips aboard the red-sailed Margaret Todd, a 151-foot, four-masted schooner, and the Ada C. Lore, which measures 118 feet. And there’s Diver Ed’s Dive-In Theatre, a two-hour scenic boat ride featuring video coverage of Diver Ed’s real-time scuba adventures beneath the boat. Another favorite adventure is a ferry trip to the Cranberry Isles from Southwest Harbor, which also is the birthplace of the famous Hinckley Picnic Boat made by the Hinckley Company, one of Maine’s renowned yacht builders.
Speaking of picnics, I’m betting you’ll be getting hungry about now, which is not a bad thing to be on MDI. (If you’ve already sampled Joe Ricchio’s recommendations from the Eat Maine column in June 2010, you know there’s plenty to love.)
Here’s the lowdown: for a special dinner to remember, make a reservation at the Burning Tree in Otter Creek to enjoy Elmer Beal’s delightful fish and vegetable dishes sourced directly from the restaurant gardens and local fishing waters. For a mojito that’s hard to beat, try the Latin-inspired Havana (also featured in the June issue and visited by the first couple in July). For the all-around favorite hangouts in town, head down the alley to Café This Way for an Asia-Maine fusion lobster-and-crab spring roll or to the Lompoc Café for Mediterranean-style pub food and the option of playing bocce or listening to live music on the outdoor patio. If it’s location you’re after, the outdoor Terrace Grille at the Bar Harbor Inn overlooks Frenchman Bay, while the Jordan Pond House in the middle of Acadia National Park serves up a classic afternoon tea, accompanied by its famous popovers, on a wide lawn with a stunningly scenic view of Jordan Pond. The Thirsty Whale is Bar Harbor’s local watering hole, and Rupununi hosts the nightlife scene. Popular year-round eateries include McKay’s Public House for high-end pub fare in an old Victorian setting, A&B Naturals for health food, and Reel Pizza Cinerama for wood-fired pies and a movie. Be sure to arrive early to claim one of the theater’s coveted couches. End any evening at MDI Ice Cream and all will be well in the world, or for those with more adventurous stomachs, try the lobster ice cream at Ben & Bill’s Chocolate Emporium.
Breakfast brings some tough decisions. Go back to Café This Way for a McThisWay breakfast sandwich, wait in line at Jordan’s (if you have the time), or get raspberry pancakes at 2 Cats. For a quicker bite, grab a bagel sandwich at the Bagel Factory or coffee and pastries at Morning Glory Bakery. If your idea of breakfast involves a laptop, the Opera House Internet Café has one of the better WiFi connections in town (which can come in handy, since cellular coverage tends to be a tad unreliable).
The trip over to Southwest Harbor is rewarded by a number of fine eateries, including Sips for music and drinks, Red Sky Restaurant for fine dining, and the Claremont Hotel’s Xanthus Restaurant & Bar for one of the best views in town. Come back next July and August for cocktail hour at the Boathouse. Stock up on wine, cheese, and Manset Little Farm Chocolate Chip Cookies at Sawyer’s Market, also in Southwest Harbor, and don’t miss Thurston’s Lobster Pound in Bernard, one of the prettiest working harbors in Maine.
When passing back through Northeast Harbor, you never know who you might run into at Pine Tree Market—maybe even Martha Stewart, who owns Skylands, the nearby Seal Harbor house originally built for Henry Ford’s son, Edsel, in the 1920s.
The saying goes that Mount Desert Island sits on its view. In fact, this was the view that caught the eye of landscape artists Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, of the renowned Hudson River School, whose paintings of the area inspired the first vacationers. Today, a number of venues cater to the art and retail demands of the ever-expanding summer population.
Art spots to visit include the Ethel H. Blum Gallery at the College of the Atlantic and Rocky Mann’s pottery studio in Hulls Cove. Island Artisans and the new Asticou Connection Gallery in Town Hill come recommended by popular local artist Dan Falt, but good luck finding one of his wooden animal sculptures for sale—they’re generally all sold out by midsummer. For art of a different kind, check out the stained-glass windows crafted over the last century by Louis Comfort Tiffany and other artists, at St. Savior’s Episcopal Church.
Stop at Window Panes for house and garden gifts, the Man Store for something tongue-in-cheek for the hubby, and Spruce & Gussy for a wife-pleasing gift. On your way on or off the island, check out the incomparable Hulls Cove Tool Barn, a handyman’s fantasy collection of old tools. And don’t forget Northeast Harbor’s Shaw Contemporary Jewelry and the Kimball Shop & Boutique, which features shirts by Portland’s own Jill McGowan and other stylish duds.
Ahhh, it’s finally time to put up your feet. End your busy days in style at Bar Harbor’s great resorts, the Harborside Hotel and the Bar Harbor Inn, or try the equally fine classics, the Asticou Inn in Northeast Harbor and the Claremont Hotel in Southwest Harbor.
The Bar Harbor Regency Holiday Inn features a heated pool overlooking the ocean, tennis courts, and a lobster restaurant. The Bluenose Inn on Route 3 is another good bet that offers panoramic views and a spa. Next door, Wonder View Inn & Suites was once the estate of mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart, and Balance Rock Inn is a former turn-of-the-century mansion on the Shore Path. For an intimate bed-and-breakfast experience, the Acacia House Inn is hosted by the original owners of Morning Glory Bakery—yes, great breakfasts.
The spas at the Bar Harbor Inn and Bar Harbor Club are open to anyone who wants to enjoy a little relaxation and pampering at some of the nicest facilities in Maine. One thing’s for sure, these places know how to make any vacationer—famous or not—feel like a millionaire.
Our Facebook fans speak up about their favorite spots in Bar Harbor:
A late morning hike around the Jordan Pond Shore Trail then lunch on the lawn of the JP House!
—Andrea Stanley Hester
Well of course Havana for dinner, and a walk under the moon at Compass Harbor Beach, I call it my little secret….
My husband and I love Bar Harbor! Sleep at the Harborside Hotel, have breakfast at 2 Cats or Cafe This Way, have lunch at Rupununi’s, have drinks at Lompoc Cafe and have dinner at Havana or Cafe Bluefish, where the lobster strudel is delicious and cranberry ginger martinis are like candy. On your way out of town visit Bar Harbor Cellars Winery—they’ll offer you a tasting!
Rent bicycles at Acadia Bike http://www.acadiabike.com/ or the Bar Harbor Bike Shop http://www.barharborbike.com/, load them on the bike racks of the Island Explorer’s free shuttle buses (bicycle express route) from Village Green to the Acadia National Park carriage road system at Eagle Lake to explore 57 miles of motorist-free, gravel carriage roads.
A trip to Acadia would not be complete without a visit to Thunder Hole, and biking around Jordan Pond.