Story and Photo by Sarah Hinckley
Welcome to Bar Harbor! This well-known Maine community gained its popularity a century ago as a resort community nestled between the rugged coastline and breathtaking Acadia National Park.
There are plenty opportunities awaiting a day-tripper on Mount Desert Island, whose 108 square miles include the towns of Bar Harbor, Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert and their villages, such as Northeast Harbor and Otter Creek. Here is an overview of low-cost activity options, picturesque locations, and coastal adventures that give tens of thousands of visitors that unique flavor that is Downeast Maine.
Upon arrival at the pier in Bar Harbor, one can immediately get caught up in the feeling of a coastal Maine town. There are working fishing boats docked alongside dinghies used for transport to larger vessels. Take a few steps onto dry land and you immediately come upon shops, restaurants and businesses geared toward seasonal visitors.
Getting the most out of a visit to Mount Desert Island depends on what kind of traveler you are and how much energy you’re willing to exert. There are those who like to observe – there’s plenty of amazing rocky Maine coastline; those who like to play – kayaking, climbing, hiking, and biking; and then those who get a feel for a place through its local flavors and delicacies.
Before one gets started on a tour of Mount Desert Island, it’s important to note Island Explorer provides toll-free bus services to most corners of the island. Its major hub is the Bar Harbor Village Green. Schedules and routes are available at the office across from the bus stop.
For anyone who has come to observe island life and learn a bit about the island’s history, a walk through downtown is a good start. Bar Harbor has many art galleries, bookstores, churches and museums. (On a smaller scale, many of these same services are offered in Northeast Harbor and Southwest Harbor – both Island Explorer destinations.)
There are two tour companies that depart from Bar Harbor, offering a narrative exploration through Bar Harbor and parts of Acadia National Park.
Oli’s Trolley has a ticket office in the building next to the Bar Harbor Pier and boards passengers from its Ice Cream Shop on Cottage Street. The trolley provides a one-hour or two-and-a-half hour tour on a historic cable car, with stopping points for photos, including the top of Cadillac Mountain, the highest point in Acadia National Park.
Acadia and Bar Harbor Tours calls itself the premiere sightseer. It also offers two-and-a-half hour tours through Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park with stops for photos. Look for the green bus, and sign up for a trip at the office next to Testa’s Restaurant on Main Street.
A Step Back In Time is a one-hour walking tour through downtown Bar Harbor told from the perspective of a servant for one of the Vanderbilt, Astor or Rockefeller families. Tickets for these tours can be purchased at Coastal Kayak Tours on Cottage Street.
In Bar Harbor, a museum operated by the Bar Harbor Historical Society is located on Ledgelawn Avenue, two blocks west from the Village Green. Visitors can learn about the fire of 1947 that destroyed the town.
The Abbe Museum is located on Mount Desert Street, across the street from the Village Green. At the Abbe Museum, visitors can find the most extensive displays of Maine Native American tribal history and art in the Northeast.
The College of the Atlantic campus, a half-mile north out of downtown Bar Harbor, is home to the George B. Dorr Natural History Museum. Taxidermy animals and informative three-dimensional displays of the local ecosystem are available with general admission or a guided tour.
In Southwest Harbor, the Wendell Gilley Museum is a nationally acclaimed bird-carving institute located on the Herrick Road, right off Main Street.
A number of places to rent bicycles and kayaks are within walking distance of the Town Pier on Cottage and West streets. Guided half-day tours around the island are available. These companies also offer transportation to drop-off sites or launching areas.
For the guest looking to play, the national park is your oyster. There are bike tours on portions of the 57 miles of carriage roads, built by John D. Rockefeller and his family. Hikers have their choice of 120 miles of trails, ranging from a “walk in the park” to more intense climbs.
With a map and an Island Explorer schedule, a hiker can reach incredible heights in short order, where spectacular views of the ocean and surrounding islands are offered from most of the bald, granite summits.
The Atlantic Climbing School and Acadia Mountain Guides Climbing School, both located in downtown Bar Harbor, are great places to find out more about climbing local granite cliffs.
Sand Beach, the only sandy beach on Mount Desert Island, is accessible by Island Explorer and has an entrance to the Great Head hiking trail.
It is assumed that visitors coming off the water would like to stay on steady ground for the day. But for those with sea legs, there are a number of whale watching companies with tours that leave Bar Harbor several times a day. Information can be found in the building next to the pier or one on the corner or Cottage and Main streets.
The Margaret Todd, a four-masted schooner, sails around Frenchman Bay and offers three trips during the day. Information and tickets are available on the dock in front of the Bar Harbor Inn, adjacent to the Town Pier.
A trip on The Seal is sure to leave a lasting impression. Diver Ed combs the sea floor, narrating and transmitting a live video feed to a giant LCD screen for the folks topside, then brings his bag of freshly-collected critters on board for all to touch and learn about.
The best part of the Maine island experience has been saved for last. Whether hungry after a day of play or just wanting some great seafood, there are some foods you shouldn’t miss while in Maine.
Lobster, Maine’s signature delicacy, can be found in every restaurant on Mount Desert Island, and prepared a number of ways. A lobster roll is a unique Downeast treat, made with freshly picked lobster meat, mayonnaise and served on a toasted bun. With a blueberry ale or Old Soaker root beer from the Atlantic Brewing Company in Town Hill, you’ve got a memorable lunch.
One of the best ways to have lobster, clams and mussels is picked daily and served boiled or steamed at a seaside lobster pound. Beal’s Lobster Pound in Southwest Harbor, Thurston’s Lobster Pound in Bernard, Abel’s Lobster Pound in Mount Desert and Stewman’s Lobster Pound in downtown Bar Harbor are a few eateries that offer the freshest fare.
Then there’s clam chowder — the white kind. The Thirsty Whale and Galyn’s in Bar Harbor sell an excellent cup of chowder. Most restaurants have it, and a “chowdah” connoisseur could spend all day traveling the island taste testing.
It’s easy to see that one day on Mount Desert Island is really not enough, but if it’s all you have, there’s plenty to do. Most importantly, have fun. If you get the chance, come back sometime to see the rest.