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Bar Harbor Overview
The biggest draw to Bar Harbor, Maine is the 41,000-acre Acadia National Park -- one of the smallest National Parks in the country but also one of the most heavily visited. The park offers incredible mountain, sea, lake, cliff and coastline vistas, as well as an estimated 125 miles of trails, exclusively for hiking and biking. Additional highlights include the 1,532-foot-high Cadillac Mountain and the Thunder Hole water spout.
But Bar Harbor (or as the locals say it, “Bah Hahbuh”) has the charm of a quaint, New England fishing village with all the attractions of a major port, and its touristy downtown area is hard to resist. Watch the lobstermen work, browse the souvenir shops, explore a museum and, of course, enjoy a Maine lobster lunch. The town is nestled on the east side of Mount Desert Island, sheltered from the Atlantic Ocean by Frenchman Bay, and surrounded on three sides by the mountains of Acadia National Park.
Bar Harbor welcomes more than 100 ships annually, with close to 147,000 passengers going ashore. The cruise season spans from May well into October, when the fall foliage is at its brilliant peak.
Long before Bar Harbor was a popular port on Canada/New England cruise itineraries, it enjoyed a reputation as a playground for the rich and famous. In the late 1800's, frequent visitors -- such as the Rockefellers, Carnegies, Vanderbilts and Fords -- grew tired of hotel living and built their own summer "cottages" (in reality, opulent estates). Many also bought and donated additional land on the island to protect it from development, leading to the creation of Acadia National Park. Then, in 1947, a fire burned nearly half of the eastern side of Mount Desert Island and destroyed many posh estates, permanent homes and more than 10,000 acres of Acadia National Park. The surviving homes have now been converted to inns, guest houses and B&B's.
Today, Bar Harbor has a population of approximately 5,000 down-easters (a term used for the residents of coastal Maine). That number swells drastically in the summer, as the town continues its centuries-old tradition of attracting vacationers to its charming shores.
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Other Canada & New England Cruise Ports:
Bar Harbor • Bayonne (Cape Liberty) • Boston • Charlottetown (Prince Edward Island) • Halifax • Montreal • New York (Manhattan) • Newport • Portland (Maine) • Quebec City • Saint John (New Brunswick) • St. John's (Newfoundland) • Sydney (Nova Scotia)
Locally made foods, like Bar Harbor Jams, are sold at J.H. Butterfield (152 Main Street), an old-fashioned market, established in 1887. One-of-a-kind, made-in-Maine items, such as pottery and handmade jewelry, can be found at All Fired Up ( 44 Cottage Street) and Island Artisans (99 Main Street). For tasty souvenirs that may not make it home, Ben and Bill's Chocolate Emporium sells molded chocolates in the shapes of cruise ships, lobsters and moose (66 Main Street).
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
There are numerous ATM's and banks available within a five-block radius of the harbor. One of the closest ATM's is located at Bar Harbor Bank and Trust (82 Main Street). Another convenient ATM is the one at Union Trust (43 Cottage Street). Both locations can also exchange other currencies into U.S. dollars, Monday through Friday.
Where You're Docked
Ships are anchored in Frenchman Bay and tender passengers to the Town Pier, located in the heart of downtown, off West and Main Street in Bar Harbor.
The Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center is located at the Town Pier (1 West Street, open May to October). Pick up free copies of the "Acadia Visitor" and "Acadia Weekly," containing maps and lists of attractions and restaurants. Within steps of the visitor center are shops, restaurants, museums and tour operators -- many on West, Mount Desert, Cottage and Main streets.
By Foot: The town of Bar Harbor is easily navigated by foot. If you want to explore Acadia National Park, you will need some form of transportation -- either bike, bus or car.
By Bus: Explore the area independently with the Island Explorer, a free shuttle bus with routes that link the village center to attractions in Acadia National Park. To get to the park entrance and visitor center, take the Campground route (#1) bus, which departs Village Green every 30 minutes. The ride takes 10 minutes. To visit Cadillac Mountain or Jordan House, you'll need to take the Loop Road route (#4) from the Visitor Center at the park entrance. The Sand Beach/Blackwoods route (#3) departs Village Green every 30 minutes and takes about 20 minutes to get to Thunder Hole.
By Trolley: For a 2.5-hour, narrated trolley tour, Oli's Trolley takes passengers on a red and green trolley through Acadia National Park, visiting Cadillac Mountain and Thunder Hole. A running commentary addresses topics like the area's mansions, geology and more (adults, $29; kids 12 and younger, $15).
By Bike: Rent bikes from Bar Harbor Bike (141 Cottage Street, from $22 per day) or Acadia Bike (48 Cottage Street, from $21 per day), and cruise along the motorist-free, gravel carriage roads, located about 1.5 miles from downtown. You can either bike from Bar Harbor to the trails, or take the Island Explorer shuttle (bicycle express route) from Village Green to the Acadia National Park carriage road system at Eagle Lake.
By Car: No rental car agencies are located in town. If you really want to rent a car, Hertz and Enterprise are represented at the Hancock County Airport in Trenton, a 45-minute ride away on the Island Explorer bus (Campground Route). But, given how long it will take you to travel between the cruise port and the rental car office -- and considering the fact that the free Island Explorer bus goes most places you'd want to visit -- we don't really recommend the rental car option.
By Taxi: Taxis line up on the street by the pier. At Your Service Taxi Company is Bar Harbor's oldest and largest taxi service. They also provide custom narrated tours (207-288-9222).
Watch Out For
Black flies are a nuisance from mid-May to mid-June. Unlike mosquitoes that tend to draw your blood, these pesky insects have teeth that can take a bite out of you. Although you won't be bothered in downtown Bar Harbor or close to the ocean's shoreline, be aware if you are exploring the wooded areas of Acadia National Park. To prevent being bitten while visiting the park, wear light-colored clothing, and use a DEET-based insect repellent.
Acadia National Park: The park offers both active and more relaxed ways to enjoy its splendors, and it's accessible by a 27-mile loop road. You can hike, bike or even drive the 0.3-mile paved pathway that encircles Cadillac Mountain to a summit of 1,532 feet -- the highest point on the eastern seaboard of the United States. It is the first spot in the U.S. where the sunrise can be seen, but its 360-degree views can be enjoyed all day long.
Another highlight is Thunder Hole, accessible by the Island Explorer bus (Sand Beach/Blackwoods route). Watch water surge and spout as high as 40 feet with a thunderous boom as waves rush into a small inlet, naturally carved out of the rocks. If you're interested in archaeology, visit the Abbe Museum's collection, devoted to Maine's Native American heritage (26 Mt. Desert St.). More than 50,000 objects span 10,000 years of history.
Bar Harbor's Art Scene: Walk through downtown, and poke into art and craft galleries and top-notch boutiques, showcasing the works of Maine artists, sculptors and photographers. Recommended stops include Eclipse Gallery (12 Mt. Desert Street), featuring blown glass and ceramics; Alone Moose Fine Craft (78 West Street), specializing in wildlife sculptures; Bar Harbor Gallery (49 Eagle Lake Rd), selling one-of-a-kind, clay, miniature teapots; and Argosy Gallery (110 Main St.), displaying art by 36 artists, who reside or paint in Maine.
Bar Harbor Historical Society Museum: A former convent, built in 1916, is now home to the Bar Harbor Historical Society Museum. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, visitors can view a collection of books, maps, antique clothing, photos and other memorabilia from Bar Harbor's past. An interesting exhibit includes photos of opulent summer estates, prior to the 1947 fire. The museum is located a couple blocks from Main Street (33 Ledgelawn Ave., open from 1 p.m.).
Been There, Done That
Lobster Fishing: The Bar Harbor Whale Watch Company and Lulu Lobster Boat are independent tour operators that take guests onboard a lobster boat for their lobster-fishing and seal-watching tours. Watch crew haul lobster traps from the ocean floor, as the captain explains about the lobster industry. The tour also passes an island where harbor seals bask on rocks.
Mount Desert Oceanarium: At the Mount Desert Oceanarium, visitors can tour the Maine Lobster Museum and a lobster hatchery for an up-close experience with lobsters, baby starfish and seals. To get there, take the Island Explorer free shuttle, Campground route (open mid-May to late October).
Sailing: Enjoy a two-hour sailing trip with Downeast Windjammer Cruises & Ferries on a 151-foot, four-mast schooner, the Margaret Todd. A park ranger provides a narrative, while passengers can help crew hoist sails (purchase tickets at 27 Main St.).
Brewery Tours: Located downtown, Bar Harbor Brewing offers tours of its microbrewery (8 Mt. Desert St.). Alternately, located about 10 miles from Bar Harbor in the village of Town Hill, The Atlantic Brewing Company offers free tours of its brewhouse. Although it only brews 60 kegs per day, you will have an opportunity to taste award-winning ales. There is also a restaurant onsite (15 Knox Road, daily tours at 2:00, 3:00 and 4:00 p.m. until Columbus Day).
Asticou Azalea Garden: The Asticou Azalea Garden is a public Japanese garden. Originally built in 1956, the garden allows visitors to meander through pathways and breathe in the aroma of the azaleas. It is located about 15 minutes from the tender pier, near the Northeast Harbor, accessible by the Jordan Pond bus route.
Seacoast Fun Park: About 30 minutes away in Trenton, the Seacoast Fun Park is exciting for kids and doesn't involve hiking, sightseeing or marine life. The park features go-karts, mini-golf, a climbing wall, water slides, a slingshot trampoline and paintball (233 Bar Harbor Road).
Maine is the only state that certifies the quality and origin of its lobster, and restaurants throughout Bar Harbor serve it up fresh. From a classic lobster roll to a 1 ¼-pound steamed lobster, there is no shortage of restaurants that offer the popular crustacean. If you're not a lobster fan, don't worry -- restaurants offer plenty of delicious options that don't involve the state's signature shellfish.
Lompoc Cafe & Brewpub: This locals' hangout offers seasonal menus and microbrews. Start with warm pitas and hummus, and then order the lobster and avocado quesadilla for your main course. For a nonlobster option, the chicken chorizo, wrapped in flatbread with Jack cheese and homemade salsa, is tasty (36 Rodick Street, daily from 11:30 a.m.).
Galyn's: Originally built in the 1890's as a boarding house for local seafarers, this restaurant offers fresh, quality foods at affordable prices. Five dining rooms, throughout the two-story house, are adorned with original artwork and tin ceilings. They offer a simple menu, including veggie foccacia and lobster rolls (17 Main St., open daily from 11:30 a.m.).
Gringo's: This takeout restaurant specializes in burritos, quesadillas, homemade salsas and smoothies. Take your lunch to go, and have a picnic at Agamont Park, overlooking the town pier (30 Rodick Street, from 11 a.m.).
Route 66: Chock-a-block full of 1950's nostalgia, Route 66 is a diner-style restaurant with an extensive menu, featuring everything from lobster to burgers. There's even a kids menu, cutely named Munchkin Land. Memorabilia is crammed into every inch of the restaurant, so you can't miss the large collection of metal toys, trains and neon signs that adorn the walls and shelves (21 Cottage Street, open daily from 11 a.m.).
La Bella Vita: Located at the Harborside Hotel and Marina, La Bella Vita offers an Italian dining experience, complete with an authentic wood-fired brick oven and the freshest ingredients. Spectacular harbor views complement menu selections, such as flatbread pizza, Mamma's Handcrafted Gnocchi and Maine lobster ravioli (55 West St., open daily from 7 a.m.).
Quarterdeck: This prime location is the ultimate in waterfront dining. Add the views of Frenchman Bay to Downeast Maine seafood classics, and you have a memorable combination. The Quarterdeck features a raw bar that includes a large variety of oysters on the half-shell, but they also offer such selections as steamed lobster, pan-seared halibut and a choice of steaks or pastas for landlubbers (1 Main St., open daily from 11 a.m.).
Casual, Out of Town:
Acadia National Park: About a 20-minute drive from Village Green in Bar Harbor, the Jordan Pond House property traces its history from 1847 as a logging operation. Today, the restaurant serves lunch on its porch or in the dining room. Selections include chowder, lobster stew, crab cakes and pasta, all served with the establishment's famous baked popovers -- an American version of an English Yorkshire pudding (lunch daily from 11:30 a.m.).
Trenton, Maine: Approximately 20 minutes from the cruise ship's tender pier, just after the bridge from Mt. Desert Island, there is a no-frills lobster shack that's been in business for more than 50 years. The Trenton Bridge Lobster Pound is nothing fancy, but that's part of the charm. Select the lobster of your choice to be prepared in front of you, in seawater, over wood-fired cookers. Then, don a plastic bib while you squeeze your crackers, use a pick, and try to get more in you than on you. Don't worry -- they have lots of paper napkins, just in case. Kids may prefer the peanut butter and jelly or ham and cheese sandwiches instead (1237 Bar Harbor Road).
Staying in Touch
Free wireless Internet is available at the Town Pier and Village Green. The Opera House Internet Cafe (27 Cottage Street) offers 35 high-speed computer terminals, along with an espresso menu and fresh baked goods.
Best for First-Timers: Many of the cruise lines offer some sort of combination tour that encompasses the best of what Bar Harbor has to offer. Holland America's "Best of Both Worlds" excursion includes visits to Acadia National Park, Cadillac Mountain and the Oceanarium (approximately 4 hours).
Best for Foodies: "Acadia National Park and Lobster Bake" combines the highlights of Acadia National Park with a true downeast lobster bake. Drive by opulent summer cottages, journey along the park loop road, and stop for photos at Thunder Hole. End the tour with lunch, featuring Maine lobster that's drizzled with butter (approximately 3.5 hours).
Best for Adventurers: Follow famous carriage trails on a 24-speed mountain bike in Acadia National Park as part of the "Bar Harbor Guided Bicycle Tour" (approximately 2.5 hours). Alternatively, get a different perspective of Acadia's beauty on the "Sea Kayaking Harbor Tour." Participants paddle the calm and protected waters of Frenchman Bay in two-person kayaks and have the opportunity to see marine life, such as harbor seals and bald eagles (approximately 2.5 hours).
For More Information
On the Web: Bar Harbor (800-345-4617) and Maine Tourism (888-624-6345)
Cruise Critic Message Boards: New England
The Independent Traveler: New England Exchange
-- updated by Renee Ruggero, a Canada-based freelance writer. Her articles have appeared in Porthole Magazine and Cruise Travel magazine.
Photos appear courtesy of the Maine Office of Tourism