Desert Island Maine

Bar Harbor Maine

Bar Harbor Maine is one of the main towns on Desert Island. It is the epitome of a tourist town with about half the stores selling tee-shirts, half the remainder restaurants (lots of lobster as you would expect) and most of the remaining quarter selling some other type of souvenir.

Bar Harbor town 01

While much of the city consists of relatively recent vintage buildings, most of which mimic traditional styles, it does have quite a few late-19th-century and 20th-century buildings, from the era when Bar Harbor was one of the summer hot spots for the ultra-wealthy of the Gilded Age.

The region was initially “discovered” by landscape painters including Frederic Church and Thomas Cole. It, however, soon captured the attention of the ultra-wealthy families of the era including the Astors, Morgans, Fords, Vanderbilts, the Pulitzers and the Rockefellers. These “rusticators” built elaborate “summer cottages” on the island. (“Cottages” are much bigger than most homes of normal people.) While they were ostensibly used as bases from which they communed with nature via walking, hiking, picnicking, fishing and boating, they also brought their New York and Boston society lifestyles of elaborate parties and balls to the town.

A handful of these summer residents, led by Harvard president Charles Eliot, however, feared overdevelopment of the island and sought to preserve some of its natural beauty. They formed a group, led by George Dorr, which bought and secured donations of key island sites and got them designated as National Monuments, and eventually as a National Park. But of all the island’s benefactors, it was John D. Rockefeller, Jr. that made Acadia National Park what it is today. Not only did he donate more than 10,000 acres, including the most scenic segment of the Atlantic Coast to the park, he also built the 45-mile network of tranquil carriage roads (see below).

The rusticator era, however, began petering out in the late 1910s with creation of the income tax, accelerated during the recession and officially died in 1947 when a fire burned 17,000 acres of the island and destroyed more than 60 “Millionaire’s Row” cottages. (While a few of those that remain are still private homes, most are Inns and B&Bs.)

Among the remaining of the city’s most interesting sites are:

  • West Street Cottages. While nicely-restored 18th-century buildings can be seen throughout the downtown, the most impressive are the beautifully-restored 30-40-room cottages that line fashionable West Street.

Bar Harbor homes 10Bar Harbor homes - La RochelleBar Harbor homes 03

  • Coastal Walk, behind Bar Harbor Inn and around the northern coast of downtown, this stoll-able trail provides nice views of the bay, islands and some of the remaining Gilded Age cottages’
  • Museum on the Street signs, a series of interpretive signs that track the history of specific buildings or sites around the city; and
  • Bar Island. An undeveloped, forested island about a quarter mile from downtown Bar Harbor, that is accessible by foot over a sand bar from 1.5 hours before to 1.5 hours after low tide. The summit can be reached via a spiral path that takes you up and around the island, albeit with no meaningful views.

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But while the city itself has plenty of history and things to do, it is jammed with tourists though the summer and the fall.

Acadia National Park

While Bar Harbor is home to most of the island’s hotels, restaurants and activity, the real attraction for us is its access to the rest of Mount Desert Island, and especially Acadia National Park. The park, which originally had a French name (Sieur de Monts), was renamed “Acadia” after the British forced out the original French settlers who were forced out of Maine and southeastern Canada (eventually to southern Louisiana).

Today’s National Park epitomizes the ongoing struggle of nature, and especially ice and water’s unrelenting assault on land. This is evidenced by the rugged, battered rocks of the coastline, the bare granite of mountains whose soil has been washed away and whose rocks have been eroded and polished to a fraction of their original heights.

We love driving along the 29-mile Park Loop Road (and walking the footpath alongside the road) which passes the island’s beautiful coastlines, winds around its bare, granite mountains and provides glimpses of the secluded ponds that dot the landscape. Among our favorite of these spots are:

  • The three-mile stretch of the coastline along Frenchman Bay’s Ocean Walk, generally from Schooner Head to Otter Point, provides a stunning overview of the rugged coastline. It hits the coast’s two primary tourist spots (the gracefully curved beach and occasionally crashing Thunder Hole) plus a number of lesser known highlights like the views from Great Head, Little Hunter’s Beach’s polished cobblestones and even the “cottage” of a modern-day wealthy “rusticator”.
  • Schooner Head overlook 05Schooner Head overlook 01Schooner Head overlook 03Otter PointThunder Hole
  • Somes Sound, a lovely “fiard” (a small fjord) is lined by steep mountains. It bisects the island and provides some of its best views and sailing.
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  • Cadillac Mountain, which at 1,530 feet, is the tallest massif on the North American East Coast and the best spot for a panoramic view of the area. If, that is, you can avoid the ongoing parade of cars that take the easy route to a view.
  • Jordan Pond, a lovely glacial lake from whose head is a dramatic view of the twin, rounded mounds that are aptly named, The Bubbles. The deck outside the restaurant, at which we ate one of our lunches (see below), provides a wonderful view of the pond, the surrounding forest and The Bubbles.

Tom and Joyce at Jordon Pond

  • Beehive, a gracefully rounded, 500-foot hill whose ragged glacier-sculpted surface invites fit and fearless climbers.

Beehive

  • The less visited, southeast side of the island, with its smaller, but still lovely mountains, lovely lakes and ponds (try canoeing around Echo Lake) and its more tranquil, leeward coastline; and
  • Ilse au Haut, a tiny, remote island that, while part of the park, is located fifteen miles off shore and is accessed via a mail boat.

Carriage Trails

For a tranquil, meditative experience, you can walk or ride the 45-mile network of carefully engineered carriage paths and graceful stone bridges built by the legions of workers who were hired by, and worked under the exacting direction of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. He, somewhat ironically, built the network out of fear that the automobile, powered by his father’s own gasoline, would eventually force the carriages that he preferred to ride, off Mount Desert’s roads.

Carriage Road

Acadia Hikes

While the carriage roads are certainly lovely, we generally prefer more active hikes to tranquil strolls. Although the mountains are quite short (Cadillac, the tallest, is only 1,529 feet), hiking can be more difficult than on many of the country’s younger, taller western mountains. The primary reason is that the very old Northeastern mountains have been besieged by millennia of erosion. Much of their soil has been washed away and much of the hiking is on shear granite, much of it so eroded and steep that paths have to be chiseled into irregular granite steps. Many spots, too steep for steps, require pulling oneself up, and easing your way down, by hand. Still, the hikes get our heart rates up and since peaks are often shear stone, the views can be incredible.

Although we have hiked some of the park’s tallest mountains (including Cadillac) and steepest trails (especially Perpendicular) in the past, this trip’s hikes were limited to shorter peaks. Among these were:

Acadia Mountain, near Southwest Harbor, the 500-foot hike that we scaled via a steep, roughly 0.9-mile trail, and down via a more gradual 1.6-mile trail. The ascent is mostly through a dense forest and then up through many segments that required scrambling over and often climbing up (and on the return, down) the mountain via gaps in the granite. The top and a number of spots along the first half of the up a decent, provided wonderful, unobstructed views of Somes Sound. Overall, a very nice trail that took about an hour and a half to complete.

Gorham Mountain Loop, 3.1-mile loop (which we extended to about 4.5 miledead s) that scales the 525-foot mountain, climbs to the “Bowl” glacial pond, passes in front of the intimidating Beehive and returns via the Ocean Path. This return path runs along one of the most impressive stretches of the coastline and passes Sand Beach and Thunder Hole, two of the coast’s most popular sites. The mountain, especially over the roughly quarter mile before the summit, offers stunning views, the pond is scenic and tranquil, Beehive is stark and the coastal walk (particularly in high surf) is majestic.

Sand Beach-Great Head Trail. A walk across a rare cold water sand beach that was formed only because a rock in the harbor diverted the current in a way that allowed the accumulation of sand). Our goal, however, was a rocky headland on the other side of the beach—a roughly 2-mile long hike around and to the top of a 150-food granite mound that offered periodic views of the ocean coastline.

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Schooner Head Trail, a short trail to an overlook of a rough, eroded coastline and a modern day “cottage of a wealthy rusticator.

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Mount Desert Island Restaurants

Harbor Inn Reading Room, the Inn’s formal restaurant where we began with began with a scallop salad amuse bouche and each had a fish-based main course. Joyce’s cedar-planked Maine salmon was glazed in a delicious brown sugar tamari with shitake mushrooms, sweet corn, ginger and leeks with parmesan risotto and wilted baby spinach. Tom’s swordfish was less elaborate (with lemon lobster basil butter, rice pilaf and asparagus) and less impressive. Wine was a Dundee Hills Pinot Noir, courtesy of the Willamette Valley’s Domaine Drouhin. We were also lucky enough to be by a window with a perfect view of one of the island’s classic sunsets.

Bar Harbor sunset 02

Havana, something of a Cuban-Maine fusion restaurant where we began with slightly over-fried lobster cake atop grilled avocado and with champagne chili oil and jicama slaw. This was followed by a very nice seafood paella with lobster, shrimp, mussels, scallops, chorizo, smoked chicken and saffron rice. Its impressive wine list shares billing with the food. After a long search through the large list, we selected a wonderful 2014 St. Innocent, Shea Vineyard pinot noir from the Willamette Valley.

Gaylan’s, a classic island seafood restaurant housed in a 19th-century building, where we began with puff-pastry biscuits with lobster in a lobster cream sauce, followed by Caesar salad and Maine crab cakes and cream sauce. Wine was a 2017 French Chablis from Samuel Billaud. For dessert, we couldn’t resist the blueberry-apple crisp with vanilla ice cream.

Harbor Inn Terrace Grill, the Inn’s casual restaurant where we had a lobster roll and a bowl of sherried lobster bisque served in a bread boule. Both meals were overflowing with lobster meat and both were very good. As a side benefit, the outdoor terrace overlooks the harbor with its island and its cruise ships channeling shuttles back and forth, carrying passengers between the ships and the island.

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Asticou Inn, where we had lunch on the terrace, overlooking Northeast Harbor. Lunch began with popovers (on which we tried the maple pecan butter, but preferred blueberry jam), followed by two nice lobster dishes: lobster roll and lobster lettuce wraps (with lobster with light red pepper mayo on butter lettuce leaves). After lunch, of course we had to go across the street to the lovely Asticou Gardens.

Asticou Azalea Garden 01

Jordan Pond House, on the banks of the lovely pond and the intersection of several sections of the Carriage Path, the restaurant is famed for its very good (but actually not the best we have had) popovers with strawberry jam. We each followed this requisite appetizer with the requisite tourist sandwich–lobster roll. Each was accompanied by our choices of salads—one Caesar and one quinoa salad with wild rice, carrots, peas, goat cheese and dried cranberries.

Beal’s Lobster Pier, in Southwest Harbor, provides tables overlooking on Somes Sound. We feasted on two, 2-lb lobsters (soft-shell), with corn, cornbread and cole slaw. A wonderful, if messy coastal Maine treat.

Southwest Harbor 04 Beals

Rose Eden Lobster, a small, family-run, very reasonably-priced lobster (along with peekytoe crab, mussels, steamer clams and other assorted shellfish) market that will also cook the food (along with corn, blueberry pie, etc) and serve it to you at one of their picnic tables (and, lend you blankets on a chilly night like the one when we were there). And as a bonus, it was the only place we found on this trip that offered a choice of hardshell or softshell lobster. Located about 15 minutes northwest of Bar Harbor (on Route 3) and light-years from the crowds and the tourist prices, Eden Rock and its next-door neighbors, Bar Harbor Cellars winery (which makes fruit wines from local fruit and grape wines from berries sourced from northern Italy) and a pizza restaurant, make for a nice inexpensive, downhome alternative to eating in the city.

Rose Garden lobster pound

Abel Lobster Pound, one of our favorite of all lobster pounds (until, that is, we discovered Rose Eden) allows you to eat on the lawn or a second-tier porch with a knock-out view of the beautiful Somes Sound. On one hand, we were dismayed that it had just closed for the season. On the other hand, if it had been open, we probably wouldn’t have discovered Rose Eden. Perhaps it’s true what they say about silver linings.

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