Bar Harbor, Maine: Acadia National Park
is Only One of the Many Splendors
By Karen Rubin
It struck me, as we had just finished kayaking at the mouth of the Atlantic Ocean, amid glorious boats of every stripe and were about to return to Acadia National Park and bike down carriage trails beside the peaks and lakes, that Bar Harbor, on Maine's coast, offers a unique combination of sea and mountain within a small, self-contained area.
There is layer upon layer of interest on an island that seems as vast as a continent (and is, in fact, larger than the country of Bermuda; indeed, during our visit, we only scratch the surface, concentrating our stay in the most well known areas.) Just how special-and why Bar Harbor draws visitors from around the globe--becomes clear as we drive into the pleasant village as see the mini-mansions that have been converted to charming inns and bed-and-breakfasts, including our own accommodation, the Ledgelawn Inn and its sister property, the Balance Rock Inn (which commands the most amazing waterview right on the cliff walk). Both were among the many summer cottages for the wealthy, including the Astors, the Vanderbilts, Pulitzers, Morgans, Fords and the Rockefellers, who appreciated Bar Harbor as a more rustic and wild Newport.
There is so much to do in Bar Harbor (the biggest village on Mt. Desert Island) and Acadia National Park, that one can easily spend weeks at a time, or return year after year-biking, hiking, rock climbing, camping, kayaking, fishing, whale and seal watching, lobstering, sailing, boating, diving, golfing and mini-golfing, exploring Native American history and museums, galleries and shops, music festivals and entertainment, and simply exploring and enjoying the exquisite scenery of ocean, wilderness, mountains and lakes. You feel like a Rockefeller, even though this is a relatively low-cost destination to visit.
It is because of the Rockefeller's and other private citizens' largesse that the grandest jewel of Mt. Desert Island, Acadia National Park, exists. Spanning 40,000 acres, Acadia is an ecologists' dream, with granite cliffs, sand and cobblestone beaches, lakes, glacier-carved mountains, meadowlands and marshes, lush evergreen forests.
John D. Rockefeller, Jr. donated 10,000 of the acres and also financed the construction of 45 miles of broken-stone carriage roads and 17 bridges of granite and cobblestones-narrow enough to prevent their use by automobiles. They are pure delight for biking, and there are a selection of trails easy enough for children (a hybrid bike is sufficient and even a road bike); there are even carriage rides available (Wildwood Stables), horseback riding, and separate trails for hiking; in winter, the trails are used for cross-country skiing.
Acadia National Park
The carriage roads make this a unique destination for active families. are incredible, an absolute engineering marvel and a pure delight. There are 45 miles of these rustic carriage roads that weave around the mountains and through the valleys, originally for horse and carriage, brilliantly engineered (three layers of rock, stone culverts, wide ditches) to survive the weather extremes. The routes are well marked with numbers (but it takes a little while to get the hang of the system).
My favorite bike route (easy enough for families with children), was to start at Jordan Pond (considered one of the most beautiful of the park's many glacier-carved ponds and lakes, it is flanked by Penobscot Mountain and Pemetic Mountain), ride down the western side and link up with a carriage road that ringed Eagle Lake, then follow a route around Witch Hole Pond, riding out from there to Bar Harbor (there are numbered markers which correspond to a map of the carriage roads and you get the hang of it eventually).
Hikers will enjoy a variety of trails-some 120 miles of them--as well, including climbing to the summit of the 1,530-foot-high Cadillac Mountain, one of the most popular attractions in the park (not only is it the park's highest peak, but it is the tallest mountain on the Atlantic coast north of Brazil). Regulars know to head to trails away from the Park Loop to the relatively untraveled areas that make up the biggest share of the irregularly shaped island.
There are also separate automobile roads to visit the park, or find places to park and explore by bike or foot, but an ideal way to visit is using a free shuttle bus (equipped to carry bicycles) that picks up in town and drops off at various points inside the park; you can just ride the bus to see much of the park.
A centerpiece of the park is the Jordan Pond House, reached on the Park Loop and by the free shuttle bus, popular place to go since the late 1800s for lunches and dinners (daily from mid-May to mid-October, open as late as 9 p.m. in peak summer months), as well as afternoon tea. It is famous for its popovers and homemade ice cream (reservations recommended, 207-276-3316). There are also boat rentals.
The park provides an incredible array of activities. You can swim at Sand Beach, the only sand beach on the ocean in the park; (be warned: the temperature rarely rises above 55 degrees; the water is warmer in Echo Lake). There are ranger-led programs including boat cruises, evening slide programs, mountain hikes, star gazing and nature walks.
If you are traveling with children, take a hike to Gorham Mountain, only 525 feet high, but affording ocean views (and in July and August, you can pick blueberries).
To visit Acadia, you pay a user fee of $10 (for the entire family or group), good for seven days; there is camping at Blackwoods Campground (reservations required, May 1-through Oct. 31, $18 per night, 800-365-2267 or visit http://reservations.nps.gov), and at Seawall Campground, on a first-come, first-served basis.
While Acadia National Park is undoubtedly a major lure to Bar Harbor (many come and camp but the sites are booked up very early), we were delighted to find an amazing array of activities and attractions to enjoy at one's own pace, and just an overall pleasant place to be in. Indeed, visitors should consider coming anytime but the peak travel period, July and August, in order to get the triple-benefits of superb weather, value pricing, without crowds.
On the Water
The waterfront provides an equal amount of pleasure. You can rent canoes or kayaks or join a guided tour lead by a licensed guide. We enjoyed taking a 2 ½ hour sea kayaktour of Frenchman Bay through Aquaterra Adventures, which provided excellent equipment and did an excellent job of accommodating neophytes, families, and everyone else ($37 pp, includes lifejacket, spray skirt, footwear and dry-bag). Aquaterra Adventures, 1 West Street, right on the pier, 207-288-0007, 877-386-4124, www.aquaterra-adventures.com. The company also rents bicycles.
You can go seal watching and lobster fishing on the Katherine, a 42-foot lobster passenger boat (207-288-2386, www.whalesrus.com); take a virtual scuba diving trip (a video tour for non-diver) through Diver Ed, aboard a 50-foot vessel, where divers have video cameras and bring up samples from the ocean, 207-288-DIVE, www.divered.com); or join a half-day whale-watching trip, such as the Acadian Whale Watcher (288-9794), Frenchman Bay Company Whale Watcher (288-3322) and the Friendship IV (288-2386).
Deep sea fishing safaris, as well as lobstering, whale and seal watching, are offered through Masako Queen Deep Sea Fishing Co, from Southwest Harbor on the Vagabond (244-5385).
For a complete change of scenery, take The Cat, an intriguing looking high-speed super ferry which speeds you to the Bay of Fundy and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia (Canada) in under three hours (888-249-SAIL)-just watching the Cat (which actually looks like a cat) zoom off in the morning is a sight.
For a relaxing sojourn, take a two-hour sail aboard a new-built 151-foot, four-masted schooner, the Margaret Todd. The sunset sail offers live folk music (adults $27.50, children $17.50, 207-288-4585, www.downeastwindjammer.com).
There are also a number of marvelous museums. The Abbe Museum, which has been open since 1928, presents a fascinating insight into Maine's earliest people, the Wabanaki, "People of the Dawn," going back 11,000 years up to the present day in an intimate setting and is very child-friendly (located at Sieur de Monts Spring, open 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; small fee charged, open Memorial Day weekend through mid-October); a new, modern and larger museum which offers special exhibits and archaeological collections is located in downtown Bar Harbor and is definitely worth a visit (open year-round, 207-288-3519, www.abbemuseum.org). Near to where the original Abbe Museum is located, Sieur de Monts Springs Nature Center, offers exhibits reflecting Acadia's natural resources (open daily; www.nps.gov/acad/home.html).
Also, the George B. Dorr Museum of Natural History (www.coa.edu/nhm, 207-288-5395); the Bar Harbor Historical Society, in downtown Bar Harbor, which has a collection extending from the 1796 incorporation through the Gilded Era to the present, www.barharborhistorical.org, 207-288-0000; the Sound School House Museum (Rt. 198), built in 1892, was recently restored (276-9323, www.ellsworthme.org/mdihsociety).
You can explore Maine's ocean at the Mount Desert Oceanarium, a hands-on aquarium, which has two locations, one in Bar Harbor (Rt. 3, Thomas Bay), which offers a lobster hatchery, marsh tour and seal exhibit (207-288-5005), and one in Southwest Harbor on Clark Point Road, which offers a marine aquarium and fisherman's museum (207-244-7330).
A trip to the west side of Mt. Desert Island offers traditional downeast towns such as Bass Harbor and Bernard, harbors filled with fishing boats and lobster traps, and many lighthouses. To give an idea of how far this is, the bus trip can take one hour from Bar Harbor to Bernard, the furthest point. There are interesting museums, such as the Great Harbor Maritime Museum, located in the old firehouse at Northeast Harbor; the Wendell Gilley Museum, which offers a collection of bird carvings and touring art exhibits, at Southwest Harbor.
Off the island, Islesford Historical Museum (on Little Cranberry Island) has exhibits about the Cranberry Isles and its people through ship models, navigation aids, dolls, toys, photographs and tools (reached by mailboat or tour boats from Northeast Harbor and Southwest Harbor; free).
There are also organized trolley and walking tours of Bar Harbor (call Acadia Bike and Canoe or Acadia Outfitters, 207-288-9605), and in-town, an adorable multi-passenger "bicycle" that is made to look like a lobster, that ferries people around.
Evenings, we enjoyed visiting Pirates Cove Adventure Golf center, which offers two 18 hole courses, one more scenic than the other, challenging, with marvelous effects--one hole had an entire pirate ship; another had a lighthouse (207-288-2133). Just across the street, the Dreamwood Hill Drive-In Restaurant, is a delightful informal restaurant with its own lobster pound and dairy bar (288-1005).
There is also real golf at Kebo Valley Club, one of the oldest public courses (288-3000), in Bar Harbor.
Where to Stay
We so enjoyed our stay at Ledgelawn Inn, one of the mini-mansions that has been turned into an inn with 33 rooms and suites. The Colonial Revival-style inn affords both the intimacy and personal attention of an inn, but the amenities and luxurious service of a European-style hotel. Its location is superb-walking distance to Bar Harbor's bustling historic district; biking distance from one of the entrances to Arcadia National Park; and located within a residential district where we were able to enjoy public tennis courts within a community recreation center. The inn itself offers a swimming pool, and each morning, serves a marvelous continental breakfast buffet (freshly baked muffins were a treat) as well as afternoon tea, coffee and hot chocolate.
The last of the grand summer residences to be built on Mount Desert Street, the Ledgelawn Inn was built in 1904 as a summer cottage for John Brigham, a wealthy Boston shoe manufacturer. He was renowned for the grand parties he held here. In addition to the beautifully decorated rooms within the mansion (most of the furnishings are original to the house), it has a separate Carriage House with additional rooms that were just as wonderful, and provided ample space for a traveling family. All the rooms are equipped with private baths, telephone and cable TV; many have four-poster beds, porches, air conditioning, whirlpool tubs, private saunas, steam baths and working fireplaces (so ask). The inn also has a Ledgelawn Bar, and a Widow's Walk (reached via the third floor stairway) which offers lovely views and uninterrupted sun for sunbathing. The inn also offers free parking (significant in Bar Harbor), concierge service, babysitting is available, and there is complimentary airport and ferry livery service.
Staying at the Ledgelawn Inn was pure delight, both in service, ambiance, and a certain fancifulness. For example, magnificent raised paneled doors which the Town required replaced with fire doors, were converted to architecturally significant beds; Room 123 has a commode that was converted from an elevator; and toilet paper is stored in what used to be a safe. Rates are as low as $75 in off-season, and range from $145 to $295 in peak season; Ledgelawn Inn, 66 Mt. Desert St. (Rte. 3), 800-274-5334, www.barharborvacations.com.
As wonderful as the Ledgelawn Inn, its sister-property, Balance Rock Inn, is a four-diamond wow. Not only is it a magnificent mansion (built in 1903 for Scottish railroad tycoon Alexander Maitland) filled with magnificent antiques and furnishings, but enjoys one of the prime locations in Bar Harbor, right on Frenchman's Bay, separated from the cliffside walk by an expansive acre of sweeping lawn and flower gardens, yet only a couple of blocks walk from downtown Bar Harbor. Its heated pool and veranda, on a slight perch, provides exquisite ocean views. Many of the rooms have fireplaces, whirlpool baths and steam rooms. Most have spectacular harbor views. Here, too, breakfast is served from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., with fresh coffee and tea provided at 7 a.m. along with the morning papers. There is also a gym. The inn is named for a mysteriously balanced boulder on the beach, a remnant of the glacial age (Peak season rates range from $195 to $595 per room, including breakfast; 21 Albert Meadow, 800-753-0494, www.barharborvacations.com).
Both inns welcome children as well as well-behaved pets in limited numbers.
Getting to Bar Harbor and Acadia can be a long drive, 475 miles from New York City (we broke it up, visiting in Cape Elizabeth and Rockland); but you can also fly to Bar Harbor/Hancock County Airport on Colgan Air from Boston, or fly from New York into Portland. Vermont Transit Lines offers bus service between Boston and Bar Harbor (207-772-6587).