Bar Harbor, Acadia & Downeast
Bar Harbor is considered by many as the crown attraction to Downeast Maine. Filled with shops and restaurants that lure visitors by car, motorcycle and cruise ship throughout the summer, this region of Maine is actually as wonderful in the spring, fall and winter as it is filled with visitors in the summer. From a wide variety of outdoor recreation to cultural experiences and a packed events calendar, Bar Harbor offers up one of the biggest draws to a trip in Downeast in Maine.
Bar Harbor's Village Green, Town Pier, renowned Shore Path, and variety of unique shops, galleries and restaurants are all within a ten-minute walk from the center of town and members of the Inns Along the Coast. And Acadia National Park, the crown jewel of Downeast Maine, surrounds the village of Bar Harbor. Approximately 90-percent of Acadia National Park is located on Mount Desert Island. About half Isle Au Haut island is owned by the park (2,700 acres); the rest consists of the community of Isle Au Haut. The remaining portion of Acadia National Park is located on Schoodic Peninsula, 45 minutes away by ferry, or a little more than an hour’s drive from Bar Harbor.
The Bar Harbor experience changes with the seasons. The peak season, lasting from May through October, offers a bustling coastal village full of historical charm, cultural events, and scores of local merchants, most of them open seven days a week. From December through the end of March, Bar Harbor has a much different feel as a relaxed and peaceful winter destination. Frozen lakes and snow covered carriage roads are ideal for ice-skating, cross-country skiing and snow shoeing. The other two months of the year known as the “shoulder seasons”, April and November are two of the best kept secrets of Bar Harbor and Acadia. With the average high temperature hovering somewhere around 50 degrees, it’s beautiful hiking weather, yet with few people with whom to share the trails.
No matter what the season, there’s plenty to see and do in Bar Harbor. From guided nature and birding cruises and hikes to wine and beer tasting, fine restaurants and day trips to outposts in Down East, Bar Harbor is a destination on Maine’s Coast not to be missed. Be the first to see the sun rise atop Cadillac Mountain or simply sleep in and relax. It’s all within easy reach in Bar Harbor.
BAR HARBOR HISTORY
The community was first settled in 1763 by Israel Higgins and John Thomas, and incorporated on February 23, 1796 as the town of Eden, named after Sir Richard Eden, an English statesman. Bar Harbor’s long and renowned history as one of New England’s premier resort and tourism destinations, however, began in the mid 1800’s. In the beginning, it was primarily artists, scholars and writers who journeyed to Mount Desert Island for inspiration. Among them were Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School, and the school’s most accomplished artist, Frederic Church. As their paintings of landscapes and seascapes reached the big cities, soon-to-be visitors longed to see the source of this inspiration for themselves.
As the number of visitors began to increase, so too did the need for seasonal lodging. It was local businessman Tobias Roberts, who built Bar Harbor’s first hotel known as Agamont House in 1855. By 1888, eighteen hotels had been constructed to accommodate some 2,500 visitors, and the development of Bar Harbor’s rich tourism heritage began.
The rich and famous began coming to Bar Harbor and tried to outdo each other with entertaining and building lavish estates, A glimpse of their lifestyles was available from the Shore Path, a walkway skirting waterfront lawns. President William Howard Taft played golf in 1910 at the Kebo Valley Golf Club, the oldest golf club in Maine.
On March 3, 1918, Eden was renamed Bar Harbor, after the sand and gravel bar, visible at low tide, which leads across to Bar Island and forms the rear of the harbor. The name soon became synonymous with elite wealth and the destination was known as one for the rich and famous. It was the birthplace of vice-president Nelson Rockefeller on July 8, 1908 and the Rockefeller legacy played an important part in the region’s notoriety. In fact, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., son of John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil Co., donated about one-third of the land in Acadia National Park and built the carriage roads that are used for hiking and biking. But the Rockefellers were not alone in their choice of Bar Harbor as a second home. J. P. Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt built cottages in or near Bar Harbor. The well-known Astor family also owned hotels and cottages in Bar Harbor and the surrounding areas.
During World War II, Bar Harbor was used for naval practices when Bald Porcupine Island was used to fire live torpedoes. But after the war, it didn’t take long for the region to re-establish itself as a vacation haven.
Today, the region remains a playground for the rich and famous, who come to enjoy the region along with the thousands of visitors to Bar Harbor each year. The co-founder and CEO of Burt's Bees, Roxanne Quimby, has a home near Bar Harbor and is seen frequenting the downtown area. Martha Stewart has a home in nearby Somes Sound, and has also been known to frequent Mount Desert Island and been seen in Bar Harbor. Film star John Travolta has a home in nearby Islesboro and don’t be surprised if you see him from time to time in Bar Harbor.
OUTDOOR ADVENTURE AND WILDLIFE
A trip to Bar Harbor would not be complete without exploring Acadia National Park, considered by many to be one of the nation’s true treasures and a must-see on your Coastal Maine getaway. Bordered by Acadia on three sides and Frenchman Bay on the fourth, and less than three miles from the main entrance to the Park Loop Road and Visitor's Center, the town of Bar Harbor makes an ideal base for the outdoor enthusiast. Explore the park at your own pace, or solicit one of Bar Harbor's professional guides, outfitters, mariners or instructors to help make the most of the opportunities available in this unique environment. The 27-mile scenic Park Loop Road, 45 miles of carriage roads (for walking, biking, and cross-country skiing through the heart of the park), and 125 miles of hiking trails ensure that you will never run out of new destinations and miraculous discoveries. The Park is truly one of the region’s biggest draws and the perfect inclusion for a trip Along the Coast of Maine.
Banned to motorized vehicles, the roads are ideal for hikers, bikers, walkers, joggers, and every occasionally, a horse-drawn carriage. Amongst the 45-mile network of carriage roads are 17 bridges clad in native Maine granite spanning streams, waterfalls, roads, and cliffsides. Each bridge is a unique work of art, and a wonderful place to stop for a snack during your journey. Bicycles are available for daily or weekly rental from The Bar Harbor Bike Shop, and other outfitters. Be sure to bring your camera.
For your convenience, the Island Explorer shuttle service features eight bus routes from the Bar Harbor Village Green and one from the Hulls Cove Visitor's Center to destinations in Acadia National Park and the neighboring villages of Mount Desert Island. Clean, propane-powered vehicles provide visitors and residents free transportation to hiking trails, carriage roads, island beaches, and in-town shops. Service is seasonal from late June through Columbus Day. It’s funded in large part by a sizable grant from LL Bean.
To fully appreciate the magnificence of Acadia and the 27 peaks of Mount Desert Island, consider taking a voyage on one of Bar Harbor’s sea-going vessels. Whale watching, schooner rides, nature cruises and sea kayaking are a few off-shore adventures to enjoy in Frenchman Bay. Local innkeepers know all the special places, natural gems and trusted shops for just about anything you might want to buy or rent.
ART, CULTURE & TOURS IN BAR HARBOR
Explore the historic landmarks in Bar Harbor on a self-guided walking tour aptly named the Museum in the Streets. Bar Harbor offers renowned music festivals featuring string orchestras, steel drums, chamber music, jazz, and the Bar Harbor Town Band which was founded in 1898. As for Bar Harbor nightlife, bars and clubs host a range of bands and solo artists that complete the musical mix. Improvisational comedic theater is available too. Visit the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce calendar of events for art shows, weekly band concerts, farmer’s markets, and other Bar Harbor and Island events.
Maine Foodie Tours operate in Bar Harbor offering informative and tasty tours throughout the downtown section in the late spring, summer and fall. Take the tour and enjoy local delicacies at several of the most popular eateries while strolling through the town on a leisurely walk. Tours are limited in size to offer a personalized, highly interactive culinary adventure. Meet the local talent and taste your way through town!
The historical culture in Bar Harbor dates back thousands of years. Today, the cultural history of the Wabanaki "People of the Dawnland" Indians (comprised of the four Maine Indian tribes: the Maliseet, Micmac, Penobscot and Passamaquoddy) can be discovered at the Abbe Museum. Open year-round the museum contains about 50,000 items, some over 10,000 years old. The main branch of the museum is located in downtown Bar Harbor and there is a second “seasonal” location in Acadia National Park, just 2 miles from Bar Harbor.
A free self-guided tour of local art galleries, studios, museums, and alternative art venues is all part of Bar Harbor’s First Friday Art Walks beginning in June. The festive evenings include galleries hosting special events featuring demonstrations, artists, exhibits and receptions for local, state and national artists and craftspeople along with special theatre, musical and art events throughout the village. For a complete schedule and info, click here.
DINING & SHOPPING IN BAR HARBOR
With fresh seafood, fine international cuisine, vegetarian alternatives and festive brews, Bar Harbor offers a diverse selection of restaurants and other dining options including locally owned gourmet restaurants, pubs and all the lobster you can eat. And speaking of lobster, or as the natives say, “lobstah”, Bar Harbor’s got it all. Steamed, baked, stuffed, grilled, chilled, served over rice, served over pasta, served in a roll or in a scoop of vanilla ice cream (it’s an acquired taste), you can’t come to Maine and not eat a lobster. One of the best places to do that is at a lobster pound like Thurston’s Lobster Pound, Beal’s Lobster Pier, Abel’s Lobster Pound or Trenton Bridge Lobster Pound, all within an easy drive from Bar Harbor. In downtown Bar Harbor, there are also several great restaurants where you can get your lobster fix. Some of the more popular include Poor Boy’s Gourmet, Side Street Café, Fish House Grill and the Cottage Street Bakery. If you’re looking for more of a fine-dining experience, fear not. You’ll find that here too. There’s even a real Tea House right on Main Street, with beautiful Japanese Gardens at Tea House 278.
The majority of Bar Harbor’s shops are open seven days a week from Memorial Day to Columbus Day. Don’t expect to find a chain or department store in Bar Harbor’s vibrant downtown. The streets are lined with eclectic shops selling everything from locally made crafts to books, apparel, specialty foods, t-shirts and toys. Bar Harbor offers up a fun experience for those who enjoy discovering that one-of-a-kind find.
DOWNEAST DAY TRIPS & LIGHTHOUSES
Take a 30-minute drive west of Bar Harbor, and you can easily spend the entire day among the villages of Southwest Harbor, Tremont, Bass Harbor and Bernard, or what locals affectionately refer to as “The Quiet Side” of the island. Take a dip in the crystal-clear waters of Echo Lake, Somes Pond, and the south end of Long Pond. Discover more of Acadia’s magnificent walking/hiking trails such as Wonderland, Ship Harbor, Beech Cliff Loop, Flying Mt, and Acadia Mt. Enjoy more local delicacies prepared to your liking at wonderful restaurants like Red Sky Restaurant, which many say is the best dining on Mount Desert Island. There’s also Sips and Coda, plus lobster pounds on the water at Beal’s and Thurston’s. Check out some of the tide pools and the stunning ocean-side picnic area at the Seawall section of Acadia National Park on Route 102A, just a stone’s throw from the iconic Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse which happens to be featured on the Maine state Quarter and one of the most photographed locations on the island. On your way back from the Light, stick to the western roads and visit the Seal Cove Auto Museum, Pretty Marsh Picnic Area, and the Indian Point-Blagden Nature Preserve.
Be one of the few to venture a little more than an hour’s drive further down east from Bar Harbor to discover Schoodic Peninsula. Accounting for approximately 2,500 of Acadia’s acres, with its own hiking trails, carriage roads and gorgeous seven-mile scenic ocean drive, Schoodic is a miniature version of the Park’s main attraction on Mount Desert Island. At the end of your Schoodic adventure, stop by The Pickled Wrinkle in Birch Harbor for a local brew and a plate of their namesake pickled sea snails, an old Downeast Maine delicacy.
About 40 minutes north of Birch Harbor is the Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge. The Birch Point Trail and the Hollingsworth Trail are both pleasant strolls with great bird watching opportunities and scenic vistas. Petit Manan is off the beaten path, and that’s why we love it.
And if you have time, another 1-1/2 hours north of Petit Manan brings you to the town of Lubec, Maine. Lubec is home to Quoddy Head State Park, 541 acres of land purchased by the state in 1962 with five miles of hiking trails, forests, bogs, and the postcard-worthy red-and-white striped lighthouse tower of the renowned West Quoddy Head Light. If you have your passports, take the trip across the FDR Memorial Bridge to Roosevelt Campobello International Park (end of May – mid October), the summer home of America’s 32nd President and home to the East Quoddy Lighthouse.
FESTIVALS & EVENTS
Spring kicks off with Acadia's birding community invites you and your family to celebrate the ecological wonders of the birds of the Gulf of Maine at the Acadia Birding Festival, in May. Explore the island and its native bird species through numerous events and venues. Greet the warblers on early morning birding walks, visit with puffins and pelagic birds at sea, and observe Peregrine Falcons at active breeding sites in Acadia National Park. A combination of lectures, walks and adventures will connect you to Downeast Maine’s many bird species, diverse habitats and local experts.
The events continue with the Annual Taste of Bar Harbor in June. Take in four nights of restaurant specials, tastings, cooking classes and theme nights such as Dessert Night, Pub Tour, Chef’s Tables, Sidewalk and Craft fairs and the infamous Waiter Races draw visitors for early season culinary fun.
Also in June, the longest running art show in Bar Harbor, to celebrate the town’s artistic heritage, takes place. The Annual Art in the Park show is a time when more than 30 painters and photographers display and sell their original work.
Bar Harbor’s Fourth of July Festival has been voted the best Fourth of July celebration in America by the Today Show, and recognized by National Geographic as one of the top ten in the U.S. The long-held traditions and new vibrant additions have made the Fourth a very special and memorable day in Bar Harbor.
Acadia National Park and the outskirts of Bar Harbor are ideal venues for some of the most pristine, star-filled night skies in the eastern United States. The Milky Way galaxy shines bright in the largest expanse of naturally dark sky east of the Mississippi. For this reason, the town offers up one of the most premier night sky events on the eastern seaboard during the annual Acadia Night Sky Festival in September.
As Bar Harbor winds down from the busy summer and fall seasons, the locals get a little kooky at the Annual Pajama Sale and Bed Races in November. The festivities begin at 6:00 am. Dress is casual. And by casual, we mean pajamas. Seriously, wear your pajamas if you want the best deals at Bar Harbor’s finest retail establishments. A Pajama Parade followed by the Bed Races at 10 a.m. caps off a fun filled November morning.
In December, Bar Harbor rings in the holidays with the Annual Christmas celebration and Midnight Madness Sale. Santa Claus kicks off the evening with the lighting of the Christmas Tree in the Village Green, followed by the Midnight Madness Sale from 8:00 pm until midnight! Make a night of it with dinner at one of Bar Harbor's many restaurants before shopping the generous discounts and sales from participating businesses.
And just to be sure that you stay warm and hydrated, the Annual Bar Harbor Beer Fest will return in January.