Bar Harbor is perhaps best known as the home of Maine’s biggest tourist attraction—Acadia National Park. Acadia’s mountains, lakes, beaches and hiking/biking trails are the primary reasons some 2.7 million people visit the 47,000-acre park every year. So, if you want to avoid the crowds, the key to enjoying a relaxing cruise to Bar Harbor is to make port anytime except between July Fourth and Labor Day.
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Crowds or no crowds, Bar Harbor is a beautiful place. Upon entering Frenchman Bay you’ll likely see waves crashing dramatically at the foot of the rocky headlands along the western shore, making you understand why Schooner Head (called “Oak Hill Cliff” on nautical charts) is such a popular overlook. With Acadia’s dramatic hills in the background, this sight is impressive no matter how many times you see it.
Here’s another Bar Harbor secret: When the tides run particularly high, or when there is a sizable southerly or easterly swell running, the main anchorage in front of town gets pretty lumpy for about an hour on either side of high tide, so it’s best to avoid it. If you’re lucky, you can pick up a mooring near the Bar Harbor town docks. Otherwise, head west of Bar Island, where there are often vacant guest moorings and calmer waters.
Boaters can leave their dinghies at the municipal docks at the town landing at Bar Harbor (on the righthand side of the Municipal Pier). From there, you have immediate access to the town’s smorgasbord of entertainments and diversions, starting with harbormaster Charlie Phippen’s command post, where visiting boaters from all states and nations tend to gather. Moving up the street, you’ll find lots of downtown shops that are no less eclectic and cosmopolitan. Wacky, offbeat stuff abounds, from windup lobster people to children’s slippers in the form of grinning crabs. Wind chimes, magic crystals, maple syrup, authentic didgeridoos, bobblehead dolls, single-malt scotch and books on unicorns, Zen fishing and the Kama Sutra are just some of the things for sale.
As the park’s highest peak at 1,522 feet, Cadillac gives viewers the first peek of the rising sun in the United States.
After examining these treasures of local commerce, you may develop an appetite, and the variety of local eateries are as amusing as the gift-shop circuit. Bar Harbor offers any meal you cared to imagine—and some you couldn’t.
Another of Bar Harbor’s high points is the free bus to Acadia National Park. The white, blue and green buses, known collectively as the Island Explorer, depart Bar Harbor’s Village Green every hour. The low-pollution, propane-driven buses were introduced in response to declining air quality in and around Acadia.
If you like to hike, a climb up Dorr Mountain comes highly recommended. Dorr is semi-secret destination among Acadia hikers, enjoyed primarily because it’s the slightly shorter, somewhat quieter nextdoor neighbor to famous Cadillac Mountain, the top of which is often overrun with folks who drive up or arrive via several daily tour buses. As the park’s highest peak at 1,522 feet, Cadillac gives viewers the first peek of the rising sun in the United States. At 1,265 feet, Dorr is almost as impressive.
As you hike one of the many trails in Acadia, you can imagine what Mount Desert must have been like when French explorer Samuel de Champlain discovered and mapped it in 1604. The barren tops of Cadillac, Dorr and some other mountains of Acadia looked then pretty much as they do today, sans all the people. Somewhat unimpressed, Champlain named it all “L’isle des Monts Deserts,” or the Island of Barren Mountains. Local pronunciation of Mount Desert Island today is still predominately like the word for a very arid place, although more and more people are pronouncing it like it’s après-supper cake and ice cream.
In any case, a modest amount of fishing and farming was the lifeblood of Mount Desert residents until the 1850s, when regular steamboat routes to Maine were extended to Mount Desert. Well-to-do New Yorkers soon made it their private hideaway for the summers—until a fellow named George B. Dorr came along in the early 1900s. Dorr had a vision of turning parts of Mount Desert Island into a park that would be available to the rich and poor and everyone in between. Over the years he bought and donated large tracts of land, and convinced other wealthy landowners to do the same. In 1916 he succeeded in creating the forerunner to Acadia—the first National Park east of the Mississippi.