September 14, 2020
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.’
Bar Harbor Names & Numbers
Charts: NOAA 13302, 13312
Bar Harbor is about 100 nautical miles northeast of Portland, and 38 nautical miles southeast of Bangor. To reach it from the south and west, head first for Matinicus Rock Light (43°47.04’ N, 68°51.34’ W), marked by a white light flashing every 10 seconds. From the Matinicus Rock light, steer approximately northeast for 35 nautical miles to Great Duck Island Light (44°08.51’ N, 68°14.84’ W), leaving it to port while getting on a new heading for the red whistle buoy “BBI” (44°13.64’ N, 68°10.90’ W). Next, head for the red bell buoy “4” (44°20.34’ N, 68°08.60’ W), which will put you in position to run right into the Bar Harbor Breakwater entrance light, which is 3.5 nautical miles away from “BBI” on a northwesterly course. Be aware that the breakwater is submerged at high tide, so use caution in this area. From the east, it’s best first to find lighted red bell buoy “2S” (44°19.12’ N, 68°02.15’ W), which is about a half-mile south of Schoodic Island. From there, proceed to red bell buoy “4” described above and in to Bar Harbor.
Note: When approaching and leaving the harbor, watch out for the 140-foot, high-speed catamaran used by the Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co.
- Dockage and moorings are plentiful in Bar Harbor. Contact the Harbormaster’s Office (207-288-5571; VHF 9, 16 or 68) for dockage at the Bar Harbor Municipal Pier or for one of the town’s 3 guest moorings. There is no launch service, so you’ll need a dinghy. There is a small landing for offloading passengers on the right side of the pier. Dinghy tie-up is available as well. Be aware that there are no public showers, no ice at the dock and that fuel cannot be purchased when a cruise ship is using the dock.
- At the nearby Harbor Place, managed by the Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co. (207-288-2386; VHF channel 16), dockage and moorings are available first-come, first-served basis.
- Harborside Hotel & Marina (800-328-5033): Offers slips in the harbor.
- Bar Harbor Regency (207-288-9723): A gated resort with 2 marinas and dock space capable of handling boats up to 185′. The town dock and marinas have a depth of 13′. Most offer water, electricity, showers, ice and similar amenities, including pump-out service and fuel.
- Fisherman’s Landing (207-288-4632): Offers fuel but no dockage and just a few moorings. The fuel float is available at high tide only.
- According to many boaters, the Bar Harbor anchorage (marked on charts) is far from ideal. The anchorage affords limited wind protection and the wakes of other boats can make for an uncomfortable stay on the hook. Note that you must contact the harbormaster before anchoring.
- A second, more protected spot (at least in southerly winds) to anchor is on the northern side and western sides of Bar Island, although this puts you farther from town. The north-side anchorage is marked on charts, with depths of 56′ to 77′. There is a shallower spot just west of the island, but watch the rocks close to shore.
- Bar Harbor’s only improved launch ramp is adjacent to the town pier. No fee, but be aware that launching can be challenging amid the busy downtown traffic. You can find parking along West Street.
- Another launch ramp is located in Lamoine, on the mainland north of Bar Harbor. It is a good ramp with access on most tides and space for 12 vehicles. No fee.
Coastal Kayaking Tours (800-526-8615): Offers kayak rental, as well as guided half- and full-day harbor and sunset tours in and around Bar Harbor and Mount Desert. Also sells used kayaks.
- Bar Harbor Bike Shop (207-288-3886): Bike-rental shop 1/2-mile from the waterfront on Cottage Street.
- Acadia Bike (800-526-8615): Offers bike rentals and group tours in Acadia National Park.
- At Your Service Taxi (207-288-9222)
- Oli’s Trolley (207-288-9899): Narrated tours of Bar Harbor and Acadia.
- National Park Tours (207-288-0300)
- Island Explorer (207-667-5796): Free propane-fueled shuttle buses running between the Village Green on Cottage Street and almost anywhere inside Acadia National Park.
Hannaford’s (207-288-5680) is a large grocery store on Cottage Street, a few blocks up from the town docks. If the grog locker needs restocking, check out the varieties at Bayside Liquors (207-288-2772) on Main Street.
- In Bar Harbor, the most popular diversion is unquestionably Acadia National Park (207-288-3338), which is accessible in any number of ways. A $10 admission ticket gives visitors access to the park for 10 days and includes unlimited rides on the free Island Explorer (207-667-5796), which provides several propane-fueled shuttle buses running between the Village Green on Cottage Street and almost anywhere in the park. If you’d like to see the park by kayak, try Aquaterra Adventures (207-288-0007), based right on the town wharf. If you’d like to visit Acadia’s highest peak and elsewhere, effortlessly, contact Oli’s Trolley (207-288-9899) or National Park Tours (207-288-0300).
- Aquaterra Adventures (207-288-0007): Offers guided coastal kayaking trips and lessons from the town wharf.
- Whale watching is available via the Friendship V, a 112-foot, jet-powered catamaran run by the Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co., (207-288-2386).
- The George B. Dorr Museum of Natural History, (207-288-5015): Part of the College of the Atlantic at 105 Eden Street, the Dorr Museum offers a fine collection of whale bones and seabird displays.
- Lulu Lobsterboat Rides (207-963-2341): Harbor tours and sightseeing aboard a working lobster boat.
- Diver Ed Dive-In Theatre (800-979-3370): Diver Ed and his crew take children and adults on the water and show them live footage of Ed’s dives below the surface of Bar Harbor. Later, Ed surfaces with all sorts of treasures from the bottom, including urchins, starfish, and lobsters. Fun, entertaining and educational.
- Mount Desert Oceanarium (207-288-5005): Explore the wonders of Maine’s waters, marshes and forests through live-animal exhibits and trail walks. Great “kid-friendly” learning experience.
In Bar Harbor, restaurants of nearly every description are within easy walking distance of the waterfront. Here are a few:
- McKay’s Public House (207-288-2002): Located at 231 Main Street, McKay’s offers an eclectic menu combined with a homey atmosphere at reasonable prices.
- Looking Glass Restaurant (800-445-4077): Upscale American cuisine with all the trimmings.
- Thirsty Whale (207-288-9335): On Cottage Street, the Whale serves good, inexpensive pub food and a half-dozen choices of local draft beers.
- Morning Glory Bakery (207-288-3041): Gourmet baked goods and coffee.
- Fish House Grill (207-288-3070): Seafood and more on West Street near the water.