Autumn color works its way down the east coast, starting earlier in the north. This makes making early October the best time to see Bar Harbor, Maine, at its autumn best.
Small towns, a national park and the sea
While Bar Harbor is the largest town on Mount Desert Island, don’t expect a metropolis. But for a small town it is filled with things to do, places to stay, shopping and top-notch restaurants. Bar Harbor drew the wealthy east coast elite to its pristine coast during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and their mansions still dot the coastline and byways. It was the work of these “summer people” — principally George B. Dorr and Charles W. Elliot — that led to the creation of Acadia National Park in 1919.
Mount Desert Island has enough to keep anyone busy for an entire summer, never mind a few days or a week, and Bar Harbor enjoys its share of the attractions. As you might expect, its focal point is the waterfront, where wharfs that once served fishing boats now serve seafood to hungry visitors. A large working fishing and lobstering pier also provides a great place for viewing this busy and vibrant harbor, as well as Bar and Porcupine Islands. During the hour and a half either side of low tide it is possible to walk to Bar Island, but do watch the clock. From a large park there, the view stretches across Frenchman’s Bay and the Schoodic Peninsula. There are also plenty of chances to get out onto the water. Kayaking is available from the waterfront and Lulu’s Lobster Tours has trips out to the breakwater and Egg Rock Lighthouse, way out on the breakwater.
Bar Harbor is home to the fascinating Abbe Museum, known for its collections, scholarship and research of the Wabanaki tribes of Maine, composed of the Maliseet, Micmac, Penobscot and Passamaquoddy. It is the place to explore native culture, crafts and art both before and since the arrival of Europeans. Another, but less-known gem, almost opposite the museum, is a collection of Tiffany stained glass windows in St. Savior Church on Mt Desert Street. Not all the windows are Tiffany, but even those that are not are stunningly rich in color and artistry.
Acadia National Park
First a National Monument (1916) and then a National Park (1919), Acadia National Park is the oldest east of the Mississippi. More than 120 miles of hiking trails wind through its forests and along its shores, including the 5.5 mile Day Mountain Loop that provides access to the top of Cadillac Mountain and views of the Cranberry Isles, Northeast Harbor and Southwest Harbor.
A particularly scenic driving loop follows Route 3 south from Bar Harbor through Seal Harbor to Somesville, following Route 102 south to Seawall Road. It makes a circle through Manset, Seawall and around to Bass Harbor. Take the time to stop in these small towns, particularly Somesville and Bass Harbor, and at other places along the route.
Plan to spend some time visiting the part of Acadia National Park that most folks miss. At Ellsworth, where Routes 3 and 1 split, take Route 1 northeast to Route 186, a right turn. This road leads out along the Schoodic Peninsula, a magnificent wild part of the National Park that is virtually unknown. Look for the trail to Raven’s Nest on the right-hand side of the road, where a short trail leads to clefts that the sea has cut into the rock cliffs. Be careful and wear appropriate shoes, as a slip could be tragic. Take time to stop in the small town of Corea for a glimpse of what Maine fishing towns once were. If you plan to stay on the peninsula, reserve a cheery room at Elsa’s Inn in Prospect Harbor.
Sleeping and dining
The options for eating and lodging on Mount Desert Island are plentiful, and Bar Harbor makes a good base. Annie’s White Columns Inn is nicely located, a short walk uphill from the harbor and close to the museum (and they serve a splendid breakfast). Galyn’s Restaurant, opposite Agamont Park on Main Street, is excellent and known for its Frenchman’s Bay Stew, a bouillabaisse of shrimp, scallops, fish and lobster served surrounded by steamed mussels.
I-95 will take you north through southern New Hampshire and on north to Portland. At Portland take I-295 north to shorten the trip a bit (although during rush hour you may want to stay on I-95 north). I-295 rejoins I-95 close to Gardiner. At Bangor take the exit for I-395 and Rte 202 east. These become Route 1 (and Rte 1A for a section). On the other side of Ellsworth take Route 3 to the right into Bar Harbor. The trip will take about five and a half hours to Bar Harbor.