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Alone among the thousands of islands of the Maine coast, Mount Desert Island has been blessed with a unique ecology that truly makes it a garden of plenty. For the early settlers, while the soil was poor the sea was rich, both in food and opportunity. The thin, rocky earth, so frustrating for the farmer, provided perfect conditions for the trees that were transformed into ships. The grace and beauty of these vessels echoed the island that gave them life. The ships and boats of Downeast Maine plied the oceans of the world, transporting the best of America and returning with exotic treasures from distant ports. Seafarers also worked the frigid home waters of Maine, harvesting the wealth of the sea.
In the 1840's the sea brought two fateful visitors who launched Bar Harbor down a new path. The two were the Hudson River Valley School artist, Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, who not only translated the magical light and texture of the ocean onto canvas but also turned their attentions to the majestic mountains of the interior. Their art turned heads in the salons of the wealthy of the east coast, and soon their patrons followed in the painters' footsteps. The hardscrabble fishing village of Eden, not yet incorporated for a century, developed a tradition of welcoming arms for visitors from around the globe.
Not everyone though, wants to be so active on vacation. After all, isn't it a time to rest? If you are looking to unwind, the very conditions that capture the daring also paradoxically create a haven of relaxation. This can be a town for late breakfasts, gentle strolls, browsing through stores, and dining at your leisure. The pace of life in Maine reflects a more genteel time, where not everything has to be done yesterday and the only demands on your schedule are self-made. All year, Bar Harbor is recognized as a place to retreat to. Come and pause among the lupines of spring, enjoy the dog days of summer, relax among the russet tones of fall, or revel in the quiet snow blanket of winter. For those in search of a place to recharge their batteries, Acadia is a balm for the eyes and spirit. Let someone else look to the chores of life; the cooking, the cleaning and all; instead devote your energies to gentle exploration and lingering evenings under the starlight.
Indeed, Bar Harbor is a town for all seasons for both active and contemplative pursuits. Each phase of the year offers something unique for visitors. At times it is as if Bar Harbor is four different towns, each reveling in the particular charms of the changing seasons. Spring is a time of reemergence, a time of growth and return. While the dazzling fireglow of fall trees is the color display normally associated with New England, spring is a secret time of bold primary shades. It is also the for "off-season" bargains and the reawakening of Bar Harbor's seasonal businesses.
Summer is the traditional "high-season", the town offering a full menu of vacation options from July through September. Being on an island, Bar Harbor is blessed with a benign summer climate making it the perfect escape from urban humidity. The temperature averages out to around eighty degrees and the ocean provides a cooling breeze to take the sweat out of more active pursuits. The long evenings and early dawns allow for full days and nights, followed almost invariably by deep sleep!
Fall is inevitably thought of as "foliage season". The leaves begin their magnificent transformation in mid to late September and peaks in early October. Leaf peeping has become a steadfast tradition and there are few places in New England that can offer a juxtaposition of fall color and ocean scenery as stunning as that of Bar Harbor and Acadia. In addition, almost all the same activities offered in the summer now continue on through the Columbus Day weekend. Winter brings a blanket of hush to Bar Harbor, and often by late December a wondrous blanket of snow. The ambiance is quieter, drawing winter sports enthusiasts who come to ski or snowshow in Acadia National Park; or romantics who see the magic of crunching snow underfoot, and a warming fire at the inn. There are several accommodations that offer a welcome in the winter, alongside restaurants, stores, and of course Acadia National Park.
As with all things, in enjoying Mount Desert Island's interpretation of Eden, we follow where nature leads. Perhaps it is some innate instinct that draws us here. The great whales know the value of this place. Between April and October humpbacks, finbacks, minkes, and a multitude of dolphins come to the waters off the island to break their winter fast.
The oceanic abundance also lures seals and a variety of rare and beautiful birds to our waters, including the much loved puffin. On land, it is not unusual to see deer, an occasional moose, beavers, foxes, eagles, hawks, and a special Acadia success story, the peregrine falcon. The island ecosystem is such that plant species from climate zones as diverse as the tundra to the New Jersey Coastal Plain can be found growing in close proximity. Surely then, there is something benignly magical about this place. As Shakespeare wrote, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet", so it is with Bar Harbor. Our town may no longer be called Eden, but it still has the feel of that garden. Generations of people, from the Wabanaki Indians through to the visitors of today have recognized the special spirit and beauty of this place. Now you can, too.
Crossing the bridge from the mainland, one is faced with a choice of two routes into town. The traditional way is to follow Route 3 to the left, the more direct choice. However, there is another part of Bar Harbor that you should try to visit during your stay. It is the village of Town Hill, which lies down the right hand fork, Route 102. Town Hill is home to a melange of inns & cottages, artist's studios, little stores, and restaurants. You will also find bucolic lanes, homey old houses, and stately farms which date to when this part of town was called West Eden. On summer evenings, village life centers on the commons and the firehouse, where people come to watch the little leaguers, eat ice cream, or listen to the local pipe & drum corps practice as the sun sets.
The majority of visitors to the island follow Route 3 to the downtown section, but without pausing to enjoy three of Bar Harbor's most charming rural districts: Eden, Salisbury Cove, and Hulls Cove. Eden begins at the Trenton Bridge and encompasses creeks, rivers, and forests, as well as Hadley Point Beach. This public beach is found on a quiet sideroad and curves along Thomas and Frenchman Bays and is the perfect spot for a mid-afternoon picnic, or somewhere to let the kids run free. For aircraft buffs, bring your binoculars and watch small planes and private jets take off from Hancock County Airport. As the road unfolds, many catch their first real close-up of the mountains of Acadia, shadowed against blue sky with a carpet of green meadows at their feet. Eden has several motels, inns, campgrounds, and cottages that share this view, and other vistas just as spectacular. There is also an oceanarium and a creek perfect for putting in kayaks or canoes for a trip to the island's interior or out to Frenchman Bay. You might see a seal, gracefully wading herons, or soaring osprey as you paddle along.
Hamilton Pond on the right marks the beginning of Salisbury Cove. A popular place to stay away from downtown with a full range of accommodations, the village also houses a "summer camp" for some of the world's finest scientific minds; the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory. The lab provides space for research teams to escape the bustle of their universities and institutions and helps add a unique international flavor to Salisbury Cove. Like much of the island, life in Salisbury Cove seems to move at a more civilized pace. Mail your postcards at the quaint little post office, stroll the streets, or walk along the shore of the cove and just look across the light reflecting off the rocks on the far side of the bay. All year, there are all manner of waterfowl on both Hamilton Pond and the cove; and of course the ever-present birds of prey watching over the other birds and fish with an eye to a meal.
Hulls Cove is where Bar Harbor begins to grow more populated (by our standards at least). Again, the range of places to stay is broad and there is a varied choice of restaurants. Hulls Cove is home to both the temporal and the spiritual; the exclusive Pot & Kettle Club finds a home in Hulls Cove, as does the exquisite Episcopal Church of Our Father. Built of stone, the church looks as if it were transplanted from the English countryside. Each year, its very active congregation stages the Downeast Church Fair. The fair takes place in July each year and is a real island institution with all the trappings of New England Village life, including a world beating bean supper. The village continues as you climb the winding side lanes. At the crest of the rise, the splendor of Frenchman's Bay, hinted at in views of its upper reaches, unfurls before you. The crescent of Hulls Cove sits alongside the road, the water dotted with both pleasure craft and working lobster boats.
Ahead of you, the road rises again and Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor begin to intermingle. The main park entrance is located in this district, with its excellent visitor's center and myriad trail heads for both hikers, cyclists, or in the winter, skiers. This is also a great place for those who wish to explore in a more leisurely fashion to begin their circuit of the Park Loop Road by car. At this stage of Route 3, Hulls Cove begins to give way to the village of Bar Harbor. A discrete element of the Town of Bar Harbor, the village comes into view as you pass the Bluffs, a granite cliff formation that towers over the road, with a precipitous drop to the ocean on the other side. From here, you can see the Schoodic Peninsula on the far side of Frenchman's Bay, the Porcupine Islands, and boats coming and going from Bar Harbor's busy waterfront. Route 3 becomes Eden Street, a road dotted with hotels and motels to meet every pocket, each one offering traditional Downeast hospitality and comfort. Here you will also find the College of The Atlantic, voted by Princeton Review to have the most beautiful campus in the United States.
Back on Main Street, the road slowly winds out of town towards Otter Creek, part of this settlement being in Bar Harbor and part in the neighboring town of Mount Desert. On the way there, Main Street reverts to Route 3 and hidden gateposts hint at yet more mansions and oceanside hideaways. Staying on Route 3, you pass the world-renowned genetic research facility, the Jackson Laboratory and a scattering of houses as the population thins out once more. Off to the side of Route 3 you will find side roads that interlock with Acadia's traffic system, leading you to the shore or up into the hills as you pass beneath sheer mountain walls of bare granite and alongside shimmering beaver ponds and birch stands.
So there you have it, 28 miles of Maine at it's finest, all in one town. Bar Harbor is the state in microcosm; the sea, the mountains, old and new growth forests, hidden villages, fantastic shopping, a cornucopia of food, and finally a good night's rest, all in the same small town. Have you allowed enough time to see Bar Harbor?