November 10, 2016
Down East Eden: Bar Harbor, Maine
Stunning coastal scenery, easy access to Acadia National Park and great food are just a few reasons to call on the famous resort port of Bar Harbor.
By Ken Textor • Photography by Joe Devenney
Maine’s best-known summer retreat is a small town with big possibilities. Bar Harbor’s slim year-round population of 5,200 swells to more than 18,000 in the summer, with another two million visiting nearby Acadia National Park. But don’t worry: It still manages to look and feel like a small port, and maintains much of its “Maine-ness” from June through September—and beyond.
“I think the most frequently asked question is, ‘Where can I get the best lobster roll?’” assistant harbormaster Jimmy Differ says of mariners who come ashore at the town pier. Although Differ is reluctant to nail down “the best,” he notes that all 75 restaurants in Bar Harbor do serve a lobster roll of one description or another. “We don’t get many complaints,” he adds.
For boaters, the desire for Maine’s signature crustacean usually begins during the impressive approach to the town’s anchorage. From offshore, it’s impossible not to be inspired by the vertical promontories of Great Head and Thunder Hole cliffs, with perhaps a view of Cadillac and Sargent Mountains in the background. Nestled to the east of this grand, high-stepping landscape is the port that’s been a popular summer retreat since the mid-1800s. So when you finally land at the town pier, it’s no surprise that the walk to the heart of Bar Harbor, and the lobster roll you seek, is decidedly uphill—and worth every step.
As you stroll south on Main Street, you’ll notice that Bar Harbor is no sleepy little New England hamlet. Depending on whether there’s a cruise ship in town or not, the streets will be busy (no cruise ship) or thronged (large cruise ship). But the farther you’re willing to walk from the town pier, the thinner the crowds get, and pretty much anywhere along the way you can stop for that lobster roll.
Actually, many visitors choose to leave downtown Bar Harbor altogether and head straight for Acadia National Park. “The park is a pretty big attraction,” harbormaster Differ understates, noting that access to it is another top question on visitors’ minds. But like the lobster roll inquiry, it’s pretty easy to answer.
Since the 1990s, a free bus system known as the Island Explorer has been offering non-polluting trips to virtually any destination inside Acadia Park and most points around greater Mount Desert Island. The bus runs on propane, an approach that was adopted when air pollution on Mount Desert in the early 1990s reached city-like levels. Bus timetables can be found at most businesses in Bar Harbor. There are also bicycle rentals and guided tours available elsewhere in town.
Visiting Acadia usually requires a stay in Bar Harbor of at least several nights, mainly because the Island Explorer only takes you to the beginnings of hiking trails, beaches and carriage roads. The rest is up to you, as my wife and I discovered recently when we decided to finally see Great Head and the Thunder Hole up close rather than from just offshore. All Acadia trails are rated from “very easy” to “strenuous.” Great Head’s difficulty was rated “moderate,” and we can attest to that. It was good to catch a ride back to Bar Harbor when we finished our hike.
After a day in Acadia, finding something more to eat than a lobster roll back in Bar Harbor is pretty easy, too. The entire downtown is confined to about four city blocks in any one direction. Even with some streets being steeper than others, it’s all a relatively easy walk, with the more formal Harbor Walk being a big attraction for many strollers. This walking trail follows the waterfront and offers spectacular views of Frenchman Bay and some of the fine old hotels still occupying the town’s strand.
The buildings along the Harbor Walk and in most of Bar Harbor may look extremely old, but many were built less than 70 years ago. This anomaly is due to the Great Fire of 1947, which consumed most of Bar Harbor’s wooden buildings and a fair portion of Acadia Park. Famous mansions of the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and other tycoons of the time went up in smoke, with some evidence of the disaster still around today. The Jesup Memorial Library, a stone building on Mt. Desert Street, survived easily and now houses an impressive collection documenting the period and the town’s complete history going back to its founding in 1796, when it was incorporated as “Eden.”
Another survivor of the fire was the residence at 231 Main Street, which today houses McKay Public House, a restaurant that my wife and I have frequented for years. It serves excellent pub grub, as well as some classier dishes, all in a relaxed, residential-like atmosphere. Indeed, Bar Harbor has all sorts of restaurants, from foodie favorites like Mache Bistro, with its fusion-Mediterranean dishes, to Jeannie’s Great Maine Breakfast, where many locals choose to start their day.
Did we ever find the best lobster roll in town? Turns out harbormaster Differ was right: You can hardly miss with any purveyor of Maine’s signature seafood in this coastal burg. That said, the name Side Street Café did come up among locals quite often. Just sayin.’