Bar Harbor, Maine

Bar Harbor, Maine

[This article originally appeared in Better Homes & Gardens. I’ve deleted all pricing information. Please use the contact information to confirm details.]

“I am convinced that there is no air in the world like the air of Maine.”

  • Mrs. John D. Rockefeller writing from Bar Harbor in 1944

Bar Harbor by Lester Picker

Bar Harbor, the hub of Mount Desert Island, is a sleepy island community in Frenchman’s Bay for 8 months of the year, with a population of just 2,600.  But, from June through September, the island is host to some 4 million visitors, who come to take in the sights, sounds, tastes and ocean smells of Acadia National Park, which occupies the majority of the island.

Amazingly, only a tiny percentage of visitors ventures off the well-worn roads to take advantage of the eco-tourism this island paradise offers, according to National Park officials.  The spectacular beauty and ecological abundance of the Maine coast makes Bar Harbor the ideal base for the kind of hiking, biking, canoeing and kayaking, that enables the entire family to learn first-hand about our natural world.

What To Do

Whale Watching.  Each year the whales return, playing in their family pods and fattening up on the abundance of sea life just offshore. Four separate whale-watching boats make Bar Harbor their home, plying the waters of Frenchman’s Bay.  For four hours you’ll ooh and aah alongside frolicking Humpbacks, Fin, Right and Minke whales, some of them eighty feet long and breaching just yards from the ship.

Dozens of sightings are the norm from June through mid-October, and an experienced naturalist interprets events for you.  A videographer accompanies many trips, so you can purchase a lifetime of memories of your family amidst whales and the glory of Downeast Maine islands.  All boats offer money-back or exchange-ticket guarantees if no whales are sighted.  If you are prone to sea-sickness, be sure to take medication prior to departing, as seas can sometimes be choppy.

In May and June, there is only one trip a day, seven days a week.  In July, August and September, there are 3 trips a day, seven days a week.  The trip lasts approximately 4-hours.

From the Bar Harbor town pier, take the 105 foot Whale Watcher, a modern, comfortable passenger cruiser, with 360 degree decks designed for optimum viewing (contact Whale Watcher, Inc., 1 West Street, Bar Harbor, ME  04609: 207-288-3322).  Or, try the 112 foot Friendship V, the brand new, jet-powered catamaran leaving from the Blue Nose Ferry Terminal (contact Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co., 39 Cottage Street, Bar Harbor, ME  04609: 207-288-2386).  The 94 foot Acadian Whale Watcher leaves from the Holiday Inn SunSpree Resort pier, located next to the Blue Nose Ferry Terminal (contact Acadian Whale Watcher Co., Route 3, Bar Harbor, ME 04609: 207-288-9794).  Finally, the XX foot Sea Bird Watcher leaves from its West Street pier near the town pier (contact Sea Bird Watcher Co., 52 West Street, Bar Harbor, ME  04609: 207-288-2025).

Nature Cruise.  If chasing whales isn’t your cup of tea, or you have less time available, try the delightful one or two-hour sunset nature cruises offered by all four whale-watching companies.  As you cruise among the rugged islands of Frenchman’s Bay, the kids will be delighted by close-up views of seals, harbor porpoises, puffins, ospreys, eagles and other wildlife in their natural environment.  Trained naturalists accompany these cruises, patiently answering all questions. Bring your camera and wear warm clothes.  Even on warm summer days it is commonly 20 degrees cooler on Maine waters.

Sea Kayaking.  There simply can’t be a better way to explore Maine’s waters than by kayak.  You’re seated low in the water, with a seal’s eye view of the world around you.  Best of all, kayaks are more stable than canoes and easier to maneuver.

All Bar Harbor companies offer trips for novices, families, and experienced kayakers, including half-day, full-day and multi-day tours, with experienced guides.  In a typical half-day tour for beginners, you’ll start out near the Bar Harbor town pier and receive basic instruction.  In no time, the naturalist-guides are leading your group from island to island, among the dozens of picturesque islands in sight of Bar Harbor.  Be prepared to see eagles, ospreys, seals and, if you’re lucky, a rare puffin or two.

Contact Coastal Kayaking Tours, Inc., 48 Cottage Street, Bar Harbor, ME  04609: 207-288-9605;  National Park Sea Kayak Tours, Inc., 137 Cottage Street, Bar Harbor, ME  04609: 207-288-0342; or Bar Harbor Bicycle and Kayak Shop, 141 Cottage Street, Bar Harbor, ME  04609: 207-288-3886.

Bicycling.  Forget any preconceived notions about biking when you visit Bar Harbor.  You won’t have to worry about dangerous roads, noxious fumes, or sleazy scenery. Rent state-of-the-art bikes from one of the many bike shops in town and in five minutes you are cruising along the famous Carriage Paths in Acadia National Park.  Built at the turn of the century with funding from the Rockefeller family, these well groomed marvels of engineering wind around the unimagined beauty of Eagle Lake and Jordan Pond, past waterfalls, around mountains and through dense forest.  No cars are allowed on the 57 miles of Carriage Paths, so it’s truly a family haven.  Stop and have a picnic, or cool off under a waterfall at the entrance to the Deer Brook Trail on Sargent Mountain.

All bike shops provide you with safety equipment, bike racks, and a map of how to access the Carriage Paths from town.  They can also arrange to drop off the family by van.

Contact Acadia Bike & Canoe, 48 Cottage Street, Bar Harbor, ME  04609: 207-288-9605; or Bar Harbor Bicycle and Kayak Shop, 141 Cottage Street, Bar Harbor, ME  04609: 207-288-3886.

Hiking.  Hiking the peaks and valleys of Acadia National Park is an experience every family will cherish.  Very few of the Park’s millions of annual visitors stray beyond the familiar tourist attractions.  In thirty easy minutes a family can hike to the top of Flying Mountain for a picnic and breathtaking views of Somes Sound, the only true fjord in the eastern United States.  Its deep, blue-green water set among towering cliffs is a photographer’s dream.

More adventurous families might try The Beehive, overlooking Sand Beach, with its narrow paths, steep drops and iron ladders hammered into the cliff face to enable you to climb to a secure landing.  Or, for an all-day, strenuous treat of forests, islands, and ocean vistas, hike the Dorr Mountain granite stairs trail to Cadillac’s summit.  There are dozens of mountains and hundreds of trails to choose from in Acadia.  Just bring along plenty of water.

Park maps are available from Acadia National Park, P.O. Box 177, Bar Harbor, ME  04609: 207-288-3338.  Detailed trail guides, which Park experts recommend if you are hiking into the National Park, are for sale at the National Park Service Visitor Center, and at every bookstore and gift shop in Bar Harbor.

For a special treat, hire a personalized nature guide to show you scenic locations for photography, or to reveal the best birding locations or spots to watch beaver repairing their dams.

Contact Down East Nature Tours, P.O. Box 521, Bar Harbor, ME 04609: 207-288-8128 or Photoscenics, Inc., 566 Church Road, Bangor, ME 04401: 207-942-0021.

Where To Stay

Accommodations in Bar Harbor range from opulent to modest.  The following are two good examples of the range of accommodations available.  For peak summer season, book at least three months in advance.  Camping is also available, both within the National Park and in private campgrounds outside.

Immediately next to the Bluenose Ferry Terminal sits the Holiday Inn SunSpree Resort, a family-friendly haven with child sitting services and a full-day of children’s activities, 3 restaurants, a whale watching boat, plus all the amenities to satisfy adults, children and teens. Contact the SunSpree Resort at 123 Eden Street, Bar Harbor, ME 04609: 207-288-9723.

For families seeking a quiet retreat with picturesque views, nothing beats the quaint Edgewater Motel & Cottages which, true to their name, sit on the shore at Hull’s Cove, only ten minutes from downtown Bar Harbor.  Look out your cottage window at the working lobster boats and fishing seines, and you’ll swear you’ve gone back 200 years to when current owners David and Fran Bowden’s ancestors originally bought the land.  Rooms range from $49 to $105 per night for a double, depending on season and amenities.  Cottages include dishes, linens and other amenities. Contact the Bowdens, Box 566, Bar Harbor, ME 04609: 207-288-3491.

Eating Out

After a day of hiking, biking, or just plain sightseeing, Bar Harbor offers a surprisingly wide range of eating choices, from inexpensive lunches to higher priced dining.  Lobster dinners are as endemic as beef dinners in Kansas City, but for out-of-the-ordinary experiences you’ll have to be adventurous.

Start your day with Jordan’s Famous Wild Maine Blueberry Pancakes or Blueberry Muffins at Jordan’s Restaurant on Cottage Street.  This Bar Harbor institution draws both locals and tourists in a comfortable mix that’s easy on the wallet.  Four can eat breakfast for under $30.

Don’t miss out on a rainy-day lunch at the West End Drug Company on Main Street, run by the Gilfillan family since 1917.  Where in today’s modern world, can you sit on bar stools at a luncheonette counter in a turn-of-the-century working pharmacy, and order a kid-pleasing grilled cheese or pb & j sandwich for just two bucks?  And don’t forget to order their old-time chocolate frappe, mixed before your eyes with fresh milk, chocolate ice cream and chocolate syrup.

On selected weeknights, have an early dinner, then take in the Town Band concert on the Village Green at 8:00 PM.  The Norman Rockwell experience will make an indelible mark in your family’s memory lane, as adults sit on the lawn sipping coffee, kids run around the band shell, and the deep-throated sound of the Bluenose ferry echoes through the still Maine night as it leaves Bar Harbor for its overnight cruise to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

No visit to Mount Desert Island can be considered complete without “high tea” served at white tables on the lawn at the Jordan Pond House.  Dress ranges from hikers and bikers in shorts to people in sport jackets.  Sitting squarely at the edge of picturesque Jordan Pond, nestled solidly between towering Sargent Mountain and The Bubbles, the Jordan Pond House has been in continuous operation since the 1870s.  Time your bicycle ride around the Carriage Paths or your hike up Sargent Mountain to arrive between 2:30 and 5:30 on a bright, sunny day and enjoy their famous popovers with fresh Maine strawberry jam.  While waiting for your treats, roam their famous wildflower garden along the edges of the building.  It is an eating experience your family will never forget.  Reservations are not required, but to be sure, call 207-276-3316 on the day you plan to visit.

Getting to Bar Harbor

For those unwilling to make the family car trek all the way to Bar Harbor, major airlines such as Continental and USAir connect to Boston or Bangor, Maine.  From either airport, Colgan Air connects directly to Bar Harbor via small commuter planes.  The Bangor to Bar Harbor run is an hour-long, traffic-free jaunt by car.  Car rentals are available at Bangor and Bar Harbor airports.  Reserve well in advance on Colgan and for car rentals on peak vacation weeks.

For More Information

Contact the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 158, Bar Harbor, ME 04609-0158: 207-288-5103.