The town of Bar Harbor, Maine, thrives in the shadow of Acadia National Park. The name of the street that leads into town is Eden, which pretty much says it all. Cadillac Mountain looks over 44,000 acres/17,806 hectares of pine forests stretching all the way to Bar Harbor. To the south, waves crash against steep, rocky cliffs. Dozens of smaller, wooded isles dot the deep blue water.
Bar Harbor sits on Mount Desert Island (pronounced duh-ZERT, as in what follows dinner). Almost half of Maine's largest isle is part of Acadia National Park, thanks to industrialist John D. Rockefeller Jr. and other wealthy summer residents who bought and donated land to protect it from development. The national park, the country's first one east of the Mississippi River, is the island's main attraction, but few visitors leave without sampling the hustle and bustle of nearby Bar Harbor. The town's sprawling mansions, delightful cottages, eclectic shops, international cuisine (not to mention the justly famous lobster) and nearby lighthouses add to its appeal.
Bar Harbor is a small coastal town on Mount Desert Island, the largest of more than 3,000 islands off the Maine coast and the largest rock-based island on the Atlantic seaboard. The town is surrounded on three sides by Acadia National Park, one of the country's most-visited national parks, and has rocky shores abutting the Atlantic on its fourth side. The town itself is 27,000 acres/10,926 hectares and enjoys about 28 mi/45 km of coastline.
After you cross the bridge from the mainland, there are two routes into Bar Harbor: Route 3 leads to the downtown section and is considered the more direct and traditional route. Route 102 winds through the quaint village of Town Hill, with its farm-to-table restaurants and artists' studios, and from there to the ultra-exclusive summer community of Northeast Harbor.
Mount Desert Island's first seasonal visitors were Native Americans who lived on the mainland and ventured to the coast for its mild temperatures and abundant food resources. French explorer Samuel de Champlain was the first European to visit the island when he ran aground there in 1604. He named the island Isle des Monts Deserts for the rocky, barren mountain summits he saw.
For centuries, the Native American Abenaki people had stalked deer, fished, dug clams and paddled birch-bark canoes along the island's shores. It wasn't until 1763 that English fisherfolk and farmers settled the area. In 1796, they incorporated the town they named Eden. The last Native Americans left the island by the end of the 19th century, and the town was rechristened Bar Harbor in 1918.
In the mid-1800s, Bar Harbor attracted poets and artists, who were soon followed by wealthy U.S. tycoons who visited each summer to rusticate, as they called it, in the wild, albeit in many cases in sumptuous surroundings. The area's blossoming tourism development can be credited mainly to Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, notable and influential artists of the Hudson River School. Soon, wealthy art patrons with a desire to explore the area they so often saw captured in paintings began to seek respite in the area's dramatic landscapes.
The first significant hotel catering to the influx of visitors was built in 1855. Although many hotels followed, there was a limit to how rustic these visitors were willing to get. Still desiring the comforts of home, many visitors built their own palatial Newport-like cottages to serve as their summer residences.
This world of privilege was wiped out by the Great Fire of 1947, which leveled most of the mansions and took nearly a month to extinguish. A definitive cause of the fire was never discovered, although evidence points to a rubbish fire at a tow dump; but rumors that the fire was intentionally set by townspeople disgruntled with the community's growing opulence were unfounded.
The devastation forever altered the island's landscape and character. Bar Harbor was rebuilt as a more democratic resort, with hotels and motels largely replacing the summer palaces. Almost all of those same inns are chock-full these days during the Maine summer and into autumn, when the village's permanent population nearly quadruples with present-day rusticators.
Although the natural attractions of Acadia National Park are the main lure of Mount Desert Island, the town of Bar Harbor itself is a very pleasant place to spend some time. The Rockefellers, Astors, Fords, Carnegies, Vanderbilts and other elite, moneyed families made the island their summer home between the late 1880s and World War II. Their enormous shingled cottages eventually fell into disrepair, but many of them have been turned into bed-and-breakfasts. A very few still remain in the hands of the original families who had them built.
A simple walking tour will allow you to take in the finest features of Bar Harbor. The major downtown streets are unabashedly touristy, with souvenir and gift shops, small restaurants and ice-cream stores. But the rest of Bar Harbor remains much as it ever was. From little Agamont Park at the foot of Main Street, head for the Shore Path, which begins next to the Bar Harbor Inn. In a casual stroll of less than 10 minutes, you'll have fine views of Frenchman Bay and the Porcupine Islands on one side and, on the other, several turn-of-the-20th-century mansions that survived the 1947 fire. One of the grandest, the Balance Rock Inn, was built in 1903 and now serves as an upscale bed-and-breakfast. An alternate, more comprehensive walking tour is the Bar Harbor Historic Walking Tour. Self-guided, there are signs along the way in English and French (Canadians comprise about 35% of Bar Harbor's visitors), and you'll come away from it knowing more about Bar Harbor and Mount Desert Island than you'd imagine.
Bar Harbor's pubs are the main source of nightlife, with a few offering live music and dancing during the high season. As with its restaurants, the majority of Bar Harbor's pubs are only open during the summer. Closing time is generally 1 am.
Bar Harbor's fisherfolk harvest soft-shell clams and ply the waters for lobster, scallops, bluefin tuna and flounder. But most visitors want lobster, which is plentiful. Maine shore dinners are traditional feasts of lobster, clams, delicious side dishes, and blueberry cake or pie. Lobster rolls are good, too; they are a kind of a lobster-salad sandwich. The local fruit of choice is the wild Maine blueberry—tiny but delectably intense—that grows only on the thin, acidic soil of the area.
With few exceptions, dining is very casual. Most Bar Harbor restaurants close or have reduced hours during the off-season—call ahead if you're visiting in winter or early spring.
Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$20; $$$ = US$21-$50; $$$$ = more than US$50.
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