Bar Harbor Maine
Bar Harbor Maine is one of the main towns on Mount Desert Island (the others being Northeast Harbor, Southwest Harbor, and Bass Harbor).
Bar Harbor itself, is the epitome of a tourist town with about half the stores selling tee-shirts, half the remainder are restaurants (lots of lobster as you would expect), and most of the remaining quarter selling some other type of souvenir.
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 the homes of most normal people.) While they were their cottages 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 the 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 Acadia 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 the 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. The 1902 La Rochelle (with its 35 rooms and 15 baths) has been preserved as a museum and is available for tours. Most of the others, including a number in which we have stayed over the years, have been converted into inns.
But while the city itself has plenty of history and things to do, it is jammed with tourists through the summer and the fall.
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”.
- 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.
- Cadillac Mountain, 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. Views take in Bar Harbor, virtually the entire island as well as Somes Sound, Frenchman’s Bay, and the Porcupine Islands. A series of interpretive signs trace the history of Cadillac Mountain tourism from the 1861 construction of the first road to the summit, the 1867 construction of the first of several summit hotels (all of which subsequently burned), and the 1883 completion of a railroad. NOTE: Reservations are required at certain times of the year to drive up to the top.
- 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.
- Beehive, a gracefully rounded, 500-foot hill whose ragged glacier-sculpted surface invites fit and fearless climbers.
- 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
- Isle au Haut, a tiny, remote island that, while part of the park, is located fifteen miles offshore and is accessed via a mail boat.
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.
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 sheer 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 sheer 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:
Cadillac Mountain. Although you can drive to the top of the mountain, we prefer to hike one of the many trails to the top. Our favorite trail is the South Ridge Trail. This beautiful 7-mile round trip trail provides the longest, least steep hike to the 1528-foot summit of the tallest peak on the eastern seaboard. It begins in a dense evergreen forest whose paths are overgrown with tree roots that reach several inches above the surface and provide plenty of opportunities for tripping if you don’t watch your step. You then get to to a granite ridgeline that progresses from trees to bushes to rock that is virtually barren except for its covering of colorful blue, green, and occasional orange algae. Although there are a few steep spots that require a bit of clambering, the trail provides a relatively gradual ascent. The views to the south and the east begin about a mile into the hike and get progressively better as you ascend, culminating in the spectacular views from the summit. The only drawback of the hike is the time spent near the road and with crowds of people at the summit parking lot. Overall, this is one of the prettiest and most rewarding hikes one could hope for in the area.
Acadia Mountain, near Southwest Harbor, is 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, it is a very nice trail that took about an hour and a half to complete.
Gorham Mountain Loop is a 3.1-mile loop (which we extended to about 4.5 miles) that scales the 525-foot mountain. It 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, the Beehive is stark and the coastal walk (particularly in high surf) is majestic.
Sand Beach-Great Head Trail is a walk across a rare cold water sand beach that was formed after a rock in the harbor diverted the current in a way that allowed the sand to accumulate. 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.
Schooner Head Trail is a short trail to an overlook of a rough, eroded coastline and a modern day “cottage” of a wealthy rusticator.
Acacia Mountain, a short, 2.8-mile round trip hike with 500-feet of elevation gain (including a few steep sections that require scrambling) to a ridgeline that offers spectacular views across the beautiful Somes Sound to the mountains of the eastern half of the island, to the Atlantic.
Great Head Loop is a 1.7 m trail that climbs 135 ft over the rock from Sand Beach to a headland that overlooks the beach on one side and the Schoodic Penninsula (a more remote section of Acacia NP) over the water. It has a lot of scrambling over rock for the first half of the walk until it levels out on the return.
Mount Desert Island Restaurants
Harbor Inn Reading Room, the Inn’s formal restaurant that is named after the iconic curved windows of the city’s 19th-century “cottages”. On our 2021 trip we had a lamb rack with smashed purple potatoes, vegetables, and mustard jus; steamed, shelled lobster with fingerling potatoes and melted butter. While both were very good we would have expected a more interesting preparation in an upscale restaurant). We accompanied the meal with a pleasant 2018 Mohua Pinot Noir from New Zealand’s Central Otago region and finished the meal with a good blueberry pie a la mode.
On a previous trip, we began with a scallop salad amuse bouche and each had a fish-based main course. The 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. Our swordfish was less elaborate (with lemon lobster basil butter, rice pilaf, and asparagus) and less impressive. Our 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.
Havana is something of a Cuban-Maine fusion restaurant with an impressive 77-page wine list. After a serviceable black bean soup, we shared two very nice dishes: mussels steamed in a shellfish broth with chorizo and coconut-crusted halibut with mango/jalapeno sauce. Our wine was a 2015 Willamette Valley pinot from St. Innocent’s Freedom Hill Vineyard.
On a previous trip, 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 is 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. Our 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 is the Harbor Inn’s casual restaurant. For lunch, we shared 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.
Asticou Inn is where we had lunch on the terrace, overlooking Northeast Harbor. Our 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). (Updated note for 2021: The Asticou Inn was closed in 2021 due to covid but we hope it is not permanent).
And while you are there, go across the street to the lovely Asticou Gardens. We love this oriental-style garden. It is even more special in the fall with its autumn backdrop of vivid red, orange, and purple-leafed trees reflected in the pond. Beautiful and peaceful.
Jordan Pond House is 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–a 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 Somes Sound. We feasted on two, 2-lb lobsters (soft-shell), with corn, cornbread, and coleslaw. A wonderful, if messy coastal Maine treat.
Rose Eden Lobster is 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.
Abel Lobster Pound is one of our favorite of all lobster pounds (until that is, we discovered Rose Eden). You can eat on the lawn or on 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 when we were there. 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.