Acadia National Park -- one of the smallest National Parks in the country -- is the biggest draw in Bar Harbor, Maine. The 41,000-acre park is also one of the most heavily visited, drawing more than two million travelers per year.
The park offers stunning mountain, sea and lake vistas and craggy cliffs that plunge to the surf, as well as an estimated 125 miles of trails for hiking and biking. Additional highlights include the 1,532-foot-high Cadillac Mountain and the Thunder Hole waterspout. Beyond the park, Bar Harbor (or as locals say: "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 bake.
The town is nestled on the eastern 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 175,000 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 1800s, frequent visitors -- such as the Rockefellers, Carnegies, Vanderbilts and Fords -- grew tired of hotel living and built 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. 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 been converted to inns, guesthouses and B&Bs. Today, Bar Harbor has a population of approximately 5,000 Downeasters (a term that refers to residents of coastal Maine who live north of Penobscot Bay). That number swells drastically in the summer, as the town continues its centuries-old tradition of attracting vacationers to its charming shores.
The Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center is located at the Town Pier, where you can pick up free copies of "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.
Acadia National Park: This 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.
Thunder Hole: Another natural highlight, 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.
Abbe Museum: If you're interested in archeology, visit this collection, devoted to Maine's Native American heritage. More than 50,000 objects span 10,000 years of history. (26 Mount Desert Street)
Art: 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 Mount Desert Street), featuring blown glass and ceramics; Alone Moose Fine Crafts (78 West Street), specializing in wildlife sculptures; Art and Soul Island Gallery (112 Main Street) for limited edition prints, original paintings and photography representing primarily Maine artists; and Argosy Gallery (110 Main Street), displaying art by 36 artists who reside or paint in Maine.
Bar Harbor Historical Society Museum: This museum is housed in a former convent, built in 1916, that's 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 Avenue; open from 1 p.m.)
Lobster Fishing and Seal-Watching: The Bar Harbor Whale Watch Company (1 West St., 207-288-2386) and Lulu Lobster Boat Ride (55 West St., 207-963-2341) are independent tour operators that take guests onboard a lobster boat for tours. Watch crew haul lobster traps from the ocean floor as the captain explains the lobster industry. The tour also passes an island where harbor seals bask on rocks.
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, Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
Sailing: Enjoy a two-hour trip with Downeast Windjammer Cruises on the 151-foot, four-mast schooner Margaret Todd. A park ranger provides a narrative, while passengers can help crew hoist sails. (Purchase tickets at 27 Main Street; $37.50 adults; $35 seniors; $27.50 children ages 6 to 11; $5 children ages 2 to 5; free, children under 2)
Brewery Tours and Tastings: Bar Harbor Brewing Company offers tours of its downtown microbrewery with tastings (8 Mount Desert Street). Also, located about 10 miles from Bar Harbor in the village of Town Hill, 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. Mainely Meat BBQ offers food to enjoy with your brews. (15 Knox Road; daily tours at 2 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. until Columbus Day)
Asticou Azalea Garden: Built in 1956, this public Japanese garden allows visitors to meander through pathways and breathe in the aroma of azaleas. It is located about 15 minutes from the tender pier, near the Northeast Harbor, accessible by the Jordan Pond bus route. (Open daily, May 1 to October 31; daylight areas)
Cooking Classes: Learn to recreate classic Maine dishes at home. Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef Sharon Joyce offers cooking classes that focus on local specialties like lobster, blueberry muffins, chowder and popovers at her Ambrosia Cooking School. And there's lots of sampling involved. Classes last from one hour to two-and-a-half hours and cost about $30-$50 per person. (19 Rodick Street)
On 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 (No. 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 (No. 4) from the Visitor Center at the park entrance. The Sand Beach/Blackwoods route (No. 3) departs Village Green every 30 minutes and takes about 20 minutes to get to Thunder Hole. The shuttle is free, but you'll pay a small per-person fee to enter the park.
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. (Tours daily June through October at 10:15 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 2:15 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Adults, $16; children under 12, $11; children under 5, $6)
By Bike: Rent bikes from Bar Harbor Bike (141 Cottage Street) or Acadia Bike (48 Cottage Street) 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. 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).
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 20-ounce 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.
Side Street Cafe: Looking for vegan fare, gluten-free eats, or any combination of the above? This cafe has got you covered. At this friendly neighborhood joint, you can get your lobster mac and cheese with gluten-free pasta (or design your own mac and cheese with other add-ins). Lobster quesadillas and shepherd's pie are other popular options. (49 Rodick Street; open daily, 11 a.m. to midnight)
Galyn's: Built in the 1890s 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. It offers a simple menu, including veggie foccacia and lobster rolls (17 Main Street; open daily 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.)
Stewman's Lobster Pound: Brazenly touristy, but lots of fun, this waterfront restaurant is just steps from the town pier. Nearly everybody springs for a lobster roll, but you'll find all the usual suspects on the menu, like clams, mussels and blueberry pie. (35 West Street; open mid-May to Columbus Day, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.)
Route 66: Chock-full of 1950s nostalgia, this diner-style restaurant has 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 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily)
La Bella Vita: Located at the Harborside Hotel, Spa and Marina, this Italian dining experience comes 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 Street; open daily 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.)
Jordan Pond House: About a 20-minute drive from Village Green in Bar Harbor, this restaurant at Acadia National Park 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 and tea served daily, 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Dinner 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. end of June through end of August; 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., end of August through mid-October.)
Trenton Bridge Lobster Pound: Approximately 20 minutes from the cruise ship's tender pier, just after the bridge from Mount Desert Island, there is a no-frills lobster shack that's been in business for more than 50 years in Trenton. It's 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. (1237 Bar Harbor Road. Open Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.)
Ships anchor in Frenchman Bay and tender passengers to the Town Pier, located in the heart of downtown, off West Street and Main Street in Bar Harbor.
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.
You'll find numerous ATMs and banks within a five-block radius of the harbor. One of the closest ATMs is located at Bar Harbor Bank and Trust (82 Main Street). Another convenient ATM is at Camden National Bank (43 Cottage Street). Both locations, open Monday to Friday, exchange other currencies into U.S. dollars.
English is spoken everywhere.
Like Disney and its mouse-eared everything, Bar Harbor celebrates the lobster, on infant onesies, pottery, you name it. We've even seen chairs made from lobster pots, a marvel of repurposing. But there are non-kitschy treasures aplenty in downtown shops. Among the most sought-after souvenirs is a piece of jewelry made from "watermelon" tourmaline, a uniquely beautiful pink-and-green stone mined in Maine. Jack's Jewelry (23 Main Street) has a good selection. One-of-a-kind, made-in-Maine items, such as pottery and decorative items, can be found at Island Artisans (99 Main Street) and the Acadia Shop and Gallery (85 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). While you're there, try a sample of lobster-flavored ice cream if you dare, but for an actual cone, go for the blueberry.