A bald eagle. A life-size rocking horse. Blueberry pop. Lifestyles of the rich and famous.
I saw them every Tuesday when we continued our adventure in Maine, in Bar Harbor. I am not the first.
Bar Harbor welcomes millions of thousands of tourists a year — many thanks to adjacent Acadia National Park — for its natural beauty along the Maine coast and bustling downtown shopping.
Maine bills itself as Vacationland, and Bar Harbor is the main reason why.
Bar Harbor, populated by about 5,000 permanent residents, is not Branson, Missouri, or Gatlinburg, Tennessee, or Ocean City, Maryland. Bar Harbor isn’t big enough for this madness. Bar Harbor is more like Lake Placid, New York, a charming town with a lot going on, but instead of a lake, you have the Atlantic and you have the national park, which not only attracts Americans from La New England and beyond, but international tourists. And cruise ships returned to Bar Harbor this year, for the first time since 2019; before the pandemic, hundreds of cruise ships docked in Bar Harbor each year.
We didn’t spend the night in Bar Harbor. We drove up from Bangor, about 45 miles inland. Bar Harbor has all kinds of resorts and hotels, but they were a bit pricey for my taste. I have a soft spot for Marriott, and Marriott hasn’t ventured into the Bar Harbor business. But I checked out the Hampton Inn; $527 a night. And the Atlantic Oceanside Hotel, located near Frenchman Bay, had rooms for around $440 a night, with spectacular views. The Atlantic Ocean might be worth it just for the view.
Still, the drive from Bangor was fun. We passed through a few small towns – Ellsworth, Trenton – that sport the New England coastal vibe. Trish the Dish and I agree; Maine is one of the most unique places in America. Almost anywhere you go, you can say, “That sounds a lot like…” You don’t say that in Maine. Maine is unlike anywhere else except Nova Scotia.
Tramel’s travel blog:Maritime Villages of Maine’s Mid Coast
How many people visit Acadia National Park?
We didn’t visit Acadia National Park, but if you like national parks, Acadia is apparently the place to be. One of the most popular national parks in the United States
Acadia drew four million people in 2021, creating all sorts of congestion issues in the park (and in Bar Harbor). Acadia, like Bar Harbor, is actually on Mount Desert Island and portions of 17 other small islands. Acadia protects the natural beauty of what Maine calls the Rocky Headlands, which include Cadillac Mountain, the tallest mountain on the entire Atlantic coast. Acadia is full of granite domes, glacial erratics, U-shaped valleys, pebble beaches, lakes, streams, wetlands, forests, prairies and coastlines. A historic system of carriage roads, funded by John D. Rockefeller Jr., criss-crosses its 49,000 acres.
Bar Harbor is Acadia’s home port. And we discovered Acadia by boat. We went straight to the Atlantic Oceanside Hotel, which is the starting point for various boat tours, as well as the huge ferry to Nova Scotia.
Our two-hour cruise skirted the coast of Bar Harbor, then among the islands just off Harbor, many of which are part of Acadia.
Bar Harbor’s shoreline is filled with gorgeous clifftop homes overlooking Frenchman Bay. Bar Harbor was an early destination for the wealthy.
By the 1880s, Bar Harbor – then known as Eden – had 30 hotels, accommodating tourists arriving by train and ferry. Eden rivaled Newport, Rhode Island as an upscale destination for the rich and famous.
Huge mansions were built along the elevated coastline. The Rockefellers donated about a third of the land that became Acadia National Park; future Vice President Nelson Rockefeller was born in Bar Harbor. JP Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt and the Astor family all built estates along the coast.
In 1918, Eden was renamed Bar Harbor, after the sand and gravel bar, which rises at low tide and provides pedestrian access to Bar Island.
The islands of Frenchman Bay are mostly uninhabited. But wildlife is abundant. We saw a bald eagle perched on top of a tree. We surrounded a community of seals; not as big or as curious as the ones you’ll find in San Diego, but still fascinating. We managed to get a few porpoises frolicking in our boat’s wake, but not with the regularity we found in the Gulf of Mexico.
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Our guide was pretty knowledgeable, but it was a decent sized boat, probably 75 passengers, and the sound system wasn’t great. We sat in the back to take pictures so we didn’t understand everything our guide said. Still, the boat tour was a good way to learn more about the area and Bar Harbor.
Back on land, we drove into town and found a parking spot – not easy, but I paid $7.50 electronically for about six hours – and set out to explore the shopping district. Five or six blocks, built around the Village Green, a kind of public square without a courthouse.
The hotels – some quaint, some not, all set up where they could fit – lead to the commercial district. A girl was giving a concert in front of probably 40 people, scattered around the shady courtyard of a bed and breakfast.
Restaurants were everywhere, with plenty of outdoor seating, selling mainly the various Maine staples of lobster and chowder. Most seemed overpriced.
The Dish found a variety of interesting stores, including a lumber store, which states that all of its profits go to conservation and which had a life-size rocking horse. Now, life-size might refer to a Shetland pony, but still. A massive wooden rocking horse. I would have had a hard time figuring out how to mount it myself. There was no price tag, but I’m guessing at least $5,000. One of the dangdest things I’ve ever seen.
We visited an art gallery with fabulous Maine paintings, which is quite the state for artists. I have a nose for quality; my favorite painting of a Mainescape was listed at $6,000, the highest price I’ve seen in the store. And no, we’re not taking it home.
A slew of stores are based in Acadie, capitalizing on the appeal of the national park. Many sell items related to blueberries. Blueberries, of course, rival lobsters in terms of Maine identity, although lobsters create a bit more economy.
I even had a blueberry soft drink, straight out of a bottle. It’s a bit like a Grape Nehi, not as spicy. Not bad, but not likely to grab Dr Pepper or Coca-Cola anytime soon.
Soon we had covered all of Bar Harbor. Cool place. Fascinating place. But for the Tramels of Cleveland County, Oklahoma, this isn’t the kind of place we’d want to spend four or five days. Millions of people would disagree with us, and that’s fine.
But unless you’re spending several days in Acadia National Park or are lucky enough to have a spectacular view from your hotel balcony and are content enough to sit there regularly, a day in Bar Harbor enough.
We headed back towards Bangor and had spotted a potential dinner spot.
On the way to Bar Harbor, we stopped at a roadside fish shack in Ellsworth.
Dorr Seafood Market is family run, with its own fishers, with a plaza in Bangor and a small plaza along Highway 1 in Ellsworth. We stopped at the latter for lunch; a small place no larger than 40×15 feet. They sell fresh fish to locals and meals to tourists.
The Dish and I each had clam chowder and we split a $22 lobster roll. All pretty fantastic, eaten outside on a picnic table in 75 degree Maine weather. Dorr also sold small jars of lobster meat to snack on. Somehow you can get a little container of pasta salad or something at a deli, you can get a little container of lobster meat, for something like $25. We passed this time, but I won’t next time.
For dinner, we stopped in Trenton, not too far from Bar Harbor, at a place called Gateway Lunt’s Lobster Pound. A small restaurant with indoor seating but also walk-in service for people on the go or wanting to sit at picnic tables.
Turns out the flies have found their way to Maine, so all things being equal, I’m going to eat inside. I had a lobster dinner for $27 and the entree had shrimp. I told her we were far from Louisiana, and she told me where to paste my geography.
One of the waitresses said it was her 34e the summer to work at Lunt. She said Maine workers in the hospitality industry work hard during tourist season and then relax. The tourist season is probably from May to October.
We ended our dinner with a slice of blueberry pie. Very well. Not as good as Trish the Dish, but good.
Then it was back to Bangor, having done what the Rockefellers and the Astors have been doing for a long time. Vacationing in Bar Harbor, if only for a day.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or [email protected] It can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40 p.m. to 5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.