It's no wonder the Rockefellers, Morgans, Astors, Vanderbilts and Pulitzers flocked to Maine's Mount Desert Island. Home to the spectacular Acadia National Park, which those early-20th-century "rusticators" helped create, MDI boasts dramatic cliffs and towering pines where the mountains meet the sea.
Inside the park, you can scamper across rocky mountain ridges on 125 miles of well-marked hiking trails, taking in stunning vistas in every direction. Or imagine yourself a rusticator by exploring the bike- and horse-friendly carriage roads built by the Rockefellers.
The town of Bar Harbor, which sits surrounded by the park, is one of the Northeast's top tourist destinations. Formerly called Eden, it's a great little town with something for everyone: hotels for most every budget, shopping, dining, museums and other educational institutions -- plus helpful folks, small businesses and outfitters who stand willing to guide tourists on whatever adventure they seek. That's why, when you're headed to Acadia, it can seem as if
is in Bar Harbor. (You might even run into area homeowner Martha Stewart.)
If you'd rather avoid the crowds, consider this: Mount Desert (pronounced like what you eat after dinner, despite the spelling) Island is more than just Bar Harbor. The island is split down the middle by seven-mile-long Somes Sound, the East's only fjord. The town of Mount Desert, on the eastern side of the sound, and the towns and villages on the western side have just about everything Bar Harbor does -- except for the tourist traps and the people who flock there.
Less Can Be More
Fewer people means smaller, more charming lobster places, shops and galleries. It means minimal auto traffic, less-crowded hiking trails and carriage roads. The western half of Acadia also has more quaint fishing villages, cute little harbors, even celebrities -- Stewart's Skylands estate lies not in Bar Harbor but in the village of Seal Harbor.
Need a place to stay, details on restaurants and other doings? Check the Web site for the Southwest Harbor/Tremont Chamber of Commerce (
), or call them at (800) 423-9264. The western side of the island boasts classic hotels and motor-inn-type lodgings, B&Bs and several campgrounds. Privately owned Somes Sound View Campground (
), in Mount Desert, has fantastic waterfront sites, views and a new dock. Or search Vacation Rentals by Owner (
), with listings by village. They tend to be cheaper and offer shorter minimum-stay limits than homes in Bar Harbor.
Bottom line: It's a small island, and there's plenty of information on some special places outside of "town," as locals call Bar Harbor -- such as these favorites from the Quiet Side of Acadia.
One of the first rewards of heading west is the tiny village of Somesville, part of the town of Mount Desert. Watch for the itsy-bitsy Selectmen's Building (circa 1780), framed by the white footbridge over the pond. Just across the road is the
, set in a 19th-century ship's chandlery and specializing in Maine books, with views of Somes Cove out the back.
Few hikes in the park compare to the Flying Mountain/Acadia Mountain loop, which the Appalachian Mountain Club calls "perhaps the greatest reward on the island for a small effort." They're not kidding: It takes just 15-20 minutes to reach the summit from the Fernald Point Road parking lot in Southwest Harbor.
If you're feeling energetic, though, keep going. The trail descends, through the dense forest along Valley Cove (where 19th century ships gathered fresh water at the outlet of Man O'War Brook), and then climbs steeply to meet Acadia Mountain Trail after about an hour. Continue up that trail, opening up incredible coastal vistas, from a bird's eye view of Somes Sound all the way out to the open Atlantic and the Cranberry Islands. From the summit of Acadia, you can make a loop hike using the Valley Peak Trail or the St. Sauveur Mountain Trail, each of which offers views to the west, over Echo Lake. Or you can head straight back, limiting the hike to less than three hours.
Bar Harbor has many options, including the high-end, Latin-themed Havana. But Manset, down island from Southwest Harbor, offers the island's best Mexican food. In fact, XYZ Restaurant ((207) 244-5221) offers what may be the best rustic, real Mexican food north of Boston. The menu changes often, but it's usually filled with salsas, seasonings and sauces that are made from scratch, on the premises, geared toward the foods people eat in the Mexican countryside. Call ahead for hours, reservations and directions -- it's not the easiest place to find.
For an oceanfront lobster feast, head to Bass Harbor.
in Bernard, featured briefly in the movie
The Cider House Rules
, offers clams, mussels, lobsters in the shell, on a roll, and every other which way, along with chowders and all the sides. The eats are all served on a pier that hangs over Bass Harbor.
Time dinner at Thurston's right, and you can hit Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse at sunset. The only lighthouse on MDI, originally constructed in 1858, the site features little more than a parking lot and a few short trails to the tower and along the cliffs. But the views of the surrounding islands and open ocean are spectacular, especially at sunset.
The Bike Ride
Acadia's 45-mile carriage road system, developed by John D. Rockefeller from 1913 to 1940, is confined to the eastern part of the island, but can be accessed via Route 198. The network is a well-marked, mostly gently sloping collection of trails marked by remarkable stone bridges, forest landscapes and views. Built for horse-drawn carriages, it's great for hiking, jogging, walking, or horseback riding.
Pick up a map of the carriage roads from a bike rental place, or get a copy of
. A favorite route: The Giant Slide Loop, leaving from the Parkman Mountain parking lot on Route 198 in Mount Desert, climbs higher than any other carriage road, with tremendous views of Somes Sound from the top.
Acadia is best explored without burning fossil fuels. For motorized transportation, check out the free, propane-powered shuttle buses of the Island Explorer (
) network. For bikes, try Southwest Cycle (
) in Southwest Harbor. For kayak rentals or tours, try Maine State Sea Kayak (
), also in Southwest Harbor, and specializing in "Quiet Side" tours. The Southwest Harbor/Tremont chamber Web site's
On the Water tab
offers other options, from deep sea fishing to whale watching cruises.
Mike Woelflein has lived in Maine since 2001, and travels to Acadia National Park at least once a year. He first went to Mount Desert Island as a boy in the late 1970s.
Woelflein is a business and personal finance freelance writer. A former senior industry specialist with Standard & Poor's and managing editor of ColoradoBiz magazine, he has also written for The Denver Post and American Express.
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