There is a local saying in Maine: “We have 3 seasons: Mud, Tourist and Winter.” Travelers flock to beautiful Acadia National Park and flood Bar Harbor to thaw from a frigid winter, soak up the sun along the coastal shore, or immerse themselves in Fall foliage. Plus, there’s the fresh, succulent lobster for which Maine is famous.
When planning a trip, make sure you monitor the calendar as many of the local businesses shut down after Columbus Day for the end of the season. But despite the time of year that you choose to wander into the Resort Town meets National Forest, bring a pair of hiking shoes, some cash, a map, a jacket, and a healthy appetite.
To fully experience the town and park, I recommend a 4-day minimum and a return trip commitment. The foliage colors are best during late September-early October and if you are driving up from the south, take the longer route through Vermont and New York for a full fall immersion.
…where to crash and get some R&R
Location, location, location. Nothing beats the Bar Harbor Inn and Spa for convenience. The Inn sits right at the edge of the harbor with grand views of fishing boats, Frenchmen Bay and boasts convenience to everything in the town of Bar Harbor, including the free shuttle to Acadia National Park. If you can, get a room with a balcony overlooking the bay or order a meal to enjoy at one of the tables by the rocky shore. The Inn also offers yoga on the side lawn for all experience levels throughout the week.
If you are looking for a traditional bed and breakfast to relax and enjoy, then the Ivy Manor is your spot. The Tudor-style inn is centrally located to the town center and will provide a quaint, personal experience. Enjoy breakfast on the balcony or grab complimentary wine and cheese before walking to dinner.
Book a waterfront, platform spot if you are tent camping; you will not regret the views! The campground is huge but still manages to offer decent privacy and a half-mile trail. They do not allow trailers larger than 20 feet and you only have access to water and electricity (no hookups for sewer) at your site, so plan accordingly. (The bathrooms can get crowded and you’ll need quarters.) As a special treat, the campground sells local coffee and pastries in the morning. The closest camping spot to Acadia, the property has a bus station for the free shuttle right on the property.
If you are looking for a more rural getaway that accommodates privacy and natural beauty, then book a spot at this newer campground. You can still enjoy all the great outdoors that Mount Desert Island offers, without all the congestion. The campground feels remote (there are no showers) yet approachable. And it’s close to Winter Harbor, which is much less touristy than Bar Harbor.
…where to chow down and then unbutton the top button
If you want to eat where the locals go in Bar Harbor, Everyday Joe’s is it. In fact, it is one of the few joints that stays open year-round. Basically, a grill attached to a gas station, it’s perfect for grabbing a quick, no fuss lunch after a morning on the trails. Make time to stay and chat – the owner prides himself on making a personal connection with each of the customers. Order the Steak Bomb, Chicken Bomb or Cuban. There’s nothing wrong with getting two if you had a really long hike and across the street, you can find ice cream to sweeten the visit.
Bypass the plethora of lobster joints and drive out to Bernard for Thurston’s lobster – a waterfront spot where the lobstermen deliver the freshest catch to the restaurant daily. Trust me, you can taste the difference. In case it’s your first time, they even provide an instruction card for eating a whole lobster! You can also find baked goods onsite (like the famous Whoopie Pies of the region) and a well stocked bar. There is nothing fussy or fancy about Thurston’s so tie on your plastic lobster bib and settle in for some succulent, fresh, local seafood.
Though Jeannie’s is frequented by tourists, it is for good reason. The restaurant boasts simple food in a mostly cell phone free environment (they actually encourage you to not use your phone while at your table). Try to get there by 9 for breakfast and it’s nice to note that this place is ideal for anyone in your party with dietary restrictions as they offer gluten-free English muffins and pancakes, homemade strawberry-rhubarb jam, and a variety of nutrient-rich dishes that are not full of carbs and sugar.
If you feel like having a night of take-out or breakfast in the park, 2 Cats should be your pick. The food is delicious but the service leaves a lot to be desired. Not to mention, it is always packed. If take-out is your side hustle, don’t leave without their famous Catpaw – a popover muffin hybrid in the shape of a, well, paw.
Dinner can get pricey here, so if you are looking to save a buck or two, go for breakfast in the morning. They often repurpose ingredients from the previous night’s specialties into creative breakfast dishes. The Café is closed for lunch and if you are planning to go for breakfast, get there by 8 am.
Sure, you can go here for a sweet treat, cup of coffee, or your morning bagel. After you do that, come for the Thanksgiving inspired sandwich and thank me later. If missing mom’s holiday home cooking was the only thing keeping you from moving to the area, the sandwich may make you think twice.
… where to drink up and get down
This outdoor, walk-up restaurant isn’t the club scene, but depending on your travel buddies, you could turn it into one. The casual, patio-like establishment offers a variety of appealing options besides affordable lobster. Bring your own alcohol and breakdown with their karaoke machine or grab a squirt gun and have a fight. They have pet goats out back and wild deer that feed in the field at dusk. If you feel like having a backyard party while in Bar Harbor, find yourself a spot at Charlotte’s. It’s as fun as you are.
Like Jeannie’s, this place will have tourists, since it’s a real crowd pleaser. Kids are welcome, they have non-alcoholic drinks (get the blueberry soda), and they open at 10 am; you don’t have to wait too long to get the party started. Like most breweries, tours are offered throughout the day.
Pack a cooler with your drink of choice, grab some blankets, a flashlight, and hop in the car an hour before sunset. Make your way to Seawall Beach and run your own party. Parking is free and the rocky beach is one of the darkest places in town, perfect for stargazing after the sun goes down. Sometimes, you can even see the slight red glow of Mars or clusters of falling stars.
ANTS IN YOUR PANTS
…what to do when you can’t sit still
NOTE: There are essentially 3 main activities while on Mount Desert Island: Eat, walk through Bar Harbor, and explore Acadia National Park. There is a lot of ground to cover and the park accommodates a variety of skill levels and interests. You can take the free shuttle (The Island Explorer) to bus you to the park and back in an eco-friendly way, compliments of L.L. Bean.
Not a lot of National Parks allow dogs, but Acadia does! If you need a place to watch your pup while you are adventuring through town or on a boat tour, check out the Acadia Woods Kennel.
This is the main navigation channel to see all the highlights of the park without too much walking. The 27-mile road takes 2-3 hours to explore (drive, stop, walk, take pictures) and is best after 2 p.m., in my opinion. Park your car at Sand Beach (bonus: there’s a restroom and showers to rinse your feet from the sand) and take the Ocean Path Walk all the way to the Otter Cliffs. There will be a bunch of side trails to your left on your way — take every single one for more private views of the rocky, cliff coastline and exploding waves. If you are still around at sunset, make your way to Otter Cove for an all-encompassing experience.
Have time for a short hike and want to maximize your views? Bubble Rock it is! Start out first thing in the morning. This 1-mile hike has a parking lot nearby for convenience. The incline is a little steep, but the views on top are worth the heavy breathing.
Want to really soak in the sights? Hike Cadillac Mountain South Ridge for incredible views of the water and islands, amazing granite-face footpaths, and a more private experience of Cadillac Mountain. Start near Blackwoods Campground (this trail access is free), bring snacks and water, and plan on a half-day of hiking. Bonus points if you wake up super early, complete the first half in time to watch the sunrise at Cadillac Mountain (it’s the first place to see it in the fall). Be prepared — the place gets PACKED for sunrise, even when it is cloudy (about 50% of the time) and cold.
If you go when it is warm, choose a trail around Eagle Lake and pop in for a quick swim. You cannot swim in Jordan Pond (but you can fight the crowds to get a popover at the restaurant if you are desperate), so the lake is an option to have a semi-private splash (as Sand Beach is often very crowded).
If the weather is right (meaning not too cold) and you are not too exhausted from a day of hiking (or eating), then book a bioluminescent tour for an evening kayak ride. The bay’s ecosystem has tons of magical, glow in the dark organisms (otherwise known as phytoplankton). The tour is 2-3 hours of enchanting moments, surrounded by the stars in the sky and the glow of the water.