The Maine Attraction
Discover Bar Harbor’s Golden Age while exploring its modern-day charm.
By Earl Brechlin
Despite Bar Harbor’s many current charms, its reputation remains rooted in its Golden Age, more than a century ago — long before the creation of Acadia National Park, in a time when the clomping hooves from elegant horse-drawn carriages echoed down gas-lit streets. Music poured from the verandas of 200-room summer hotels and grand 30-room summer “cottages” lined the shore.
The attributes that attracted visitors then — cool sea breezes that take the edge off humid days; a diverse, worldly social scene; and the lure of long “tramps” (walks) on trails that scale the nearby mountains — were more than enough to convince this then-recent college graduate to stay long past the end of a stint as a summer bartender.
More than 30 years of editing local weekly newspapers has provided me with a front-row seat as the island has learned to cope with the pressures that come with hosting more than 2.5 million visitors annually, some 150,000 who arrive by cruise ship. Welcome ashore.
The standard bus tour provides a great introduction to Acadia, but definitely disembark at the Village Green when you return to downtown. The cruise pier is only a block and a half away (all downhill) and you’ll get to visit scores of shops and restaurants along the way.
Or, hire one of the taxicab services for a private tour. You’ll find out more about the area, although the veracity of the eminently entertaining tales may be somewhat suspect.
If It’s Free, It’s For Me
Take a stroll along the historic Bar Harbor Shore Path, which starts at the municipal pier, adjacent to the cruise ship tender dock. Look for the ghosts of the Golden Age as you walk past vintage residences, some of which have been converted to inns. Children used to play with the Hope Diamond on the lawn of one mansion.
Check out the “Museum in the Streets,” which allows visitors to stroll through town and learn local history. Pick up a free self-guided map at the information kiosk as you exit the cruise tender pier.
Off the Beaten Path
Hiking 150 miles of trails, or biking nearly 60 miles of carriage roads, is a great way to see Acadia. Head uptown to Cottage Street where there are three mountain bike rental places. Forget grinding uphill to get out of town. The nearby Village Green is the hub of the free Island Explorer shuttle bus. The Bicycle Express runs every half-hour to carriage roads around scenic Eagle Lake.
The Explorer also has routes throughout Acadia. Experienced hikers can be dropped off at a trailhead, traverse open rocky ridges with spectacular views, and then catch a return bus at the other end without having to backtrack.
How Not to Look Like a Tourist
The good news is that nearly everyone you see downtown and in Acadia are tourists. Locals, those 5,000 or so people who, like it or not, share their tiny town with those millions of visitors, just want vacationers to understand that not everyone has the day off. (Hence the T-shirt that states “I’m not on vacation. I live here. Don’t ask me any questions.”) Actually, folks are all pretty friendly and will gladly answer questions and give directions.
Please don’t stop in the middle of crossing the street to point or take a selfie, thereby stopping traffic cold. Likewise, don’t obstruct the sidewalk, especially if you are wearing one of those $2 disposable rain ponchos.
Eat Around the Town
Everyplace serves lobster. ’Nuff said. But for the world’s best fried haddock sandwich (regular or blackened), head to the Thirsty Whale Tavern on Cottage Street, where you can also enjoy 14 beers, including local microbrews, on tap. Buy one of their sweatshirts and you might get mistaken for a local.
The Best $10 You’ll Ever Spend
Acadia, like all U.S. National Parks, celebrates its centennial in 2016. Head to the Window Panes shop on Main Street for the best selection of related merchandise including hats, mugs, flags, pins, posters, and temporary tattoos.
Forget “What do you do around here in the winter?” or “Have you lived here all your life?” (Answer: Not yet.) Instead, “Can I buy you a beer?” works every time.
Wild ocean surf at Thunder Hole on…
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Photo: Alamy/Aurora Photos