The summer holiday home of the rich and famous and the playground of the wealthy at the turn of the 20th century, this is a place that is unique among the thousands of island communities lining the Maine coast. Nestled among the mountains, forests, and the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean is the picturesque village of Bar Harbor. The masts of fishing boats tilt rhythmically back and forth as the waves lap against the rocky shore.
When the first Europeans settled the eastern side of Mount Desert Island, they named their town Eden. This was in honor of an English statesman, Sir Richard Eden. The name they chose proved to be well-suited. Even after the name was changed to Bar Harbor in 1918, the air of paradise remained.
Mount Desert Island is blessed with a unique ecology that makes it a garden of plenty. The early settlers discovered that while the soil was poor, the sea was rich, both in food and opportunity. The thin, rocky earth provided perfect conditions for the trees that were used to build ships. Seafarers also worked the frigid waters of Maine, harvesting the wealth of the sea.
In the 1840’s the sea brought two visitors who inadvertently redirected the energies of Bar Harbor. The two were the Hudson River Valley School artist, Thomas Cole and artist Frederic Church. Their artistic renderings of the sea, the forests and the majestic mountains aroused the interest of wealthy patrons in viewing first hand the locale in which these magnificent works of art originated. Suddenly, Eden was filled with visitors from around the world.
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The majestic mountains of Acadia Park, the lovely lakes, the forests, the brooks, with shady pools in which the trout love to hide; the streams leaping from rock to rock in their headlong course to the sea: in every direction there were wonderful and inspiring sights to behold. wealthy families poured in, built mansions, and settled in them with their staffs of servants during each summer season.
No longer the exclusive realm of the wealthy, Bar Harbor is now a place in which people settle and raise their families as well as a favorite summer vacation destination. Bar Harbor is a place where lobstermen ply their trade; and it is also a cultural and educational center. You can breakfast with lobstermen, explore the trails and mountains of Acadia National Park, and round out the day by dining on the catch of that morning’s companions as you listen to a jazz trio or a string quartet. A day in Bar Harbor is never boring!
For the adventurous, Bar Harbor makes the perfect base camp. Surrounded on three sides by Acadia National Park and on the fourth by the Atlantic Ocean, Bar Harbor has outfitters, guides, mariners, suppliers, and instructors whose daily work is centered upon helping residents and visitors make the most of the opportunities the incredible environment offers. Acadia maintains fifty five miles of carriage roads for walking, riding, biking, and skiing, and over one hundred miles of trails for hikers. The lakes, rivers, and oceans provide unlimited possibilities for those interested in boats, kayaks, and canoes.
The combination of the sea breeze and mountain air is revitalizing and invigorating. Some days are full of activity; while others can be spent enjoying a late breakfast, a relaxed stroll, some time browsing through stores, and later, dining at leisure. The pace of life in Maine reflects a time, when not everything had to be done “yesterday, ” and every season is beautiful.
Downtown Bar Harbor has four major streets, and an assortment of side streets, alleys, squares, and places running between them. The first street from Route 3, West Street, showcases some of the fine mansions that made Bar Harbor the queen of the east coast at the turn of the century. Some remain private homes, while others have become elegant, inns. At the foot of West Street is the working waterfront, where fishing boats, schooners, yachts, excursion boats, and even cruise ship tenders bustle with their cargoes of seafood and passengers.
It also marks the beginning of the Shore Path, which leads to the front lawns of some of Bar Harbor’s biggest “cottages”, Up the hill from the town pier, lies Main Street with its stores, restaurants, and green spaces to sit and reflect.
The first major intersection on Main Street is with Cottage Street, where there are bikes, canoes, kayaks, and skis for rent. Also available are guided trips on the water or into the mountains. This is the spot to sign up for a whale watching excursion and to look over all the latest in sporting equipment.
A trail of restaurants extends down the side streets toward the Village Green. In the summer the Green is the venue for biweekly concert series, art shows, and other cultural events. On the other side of the green lies Mount Desert Street, a national historic district filled with beautiful echoing the early days of the discovery of Bar Harbor’s natural wonders by the wealthy. Many of these homes now serve as luxurious inns. There is also an impressive trio of churches: Saint Saviour’s with its stained glass windows, the Congregational with its classic New England lines, and Holy Redeemer with it’s imposing stone architecture.
Outside of town, Main Street becomes Route 3 . Its side roads lead to the shore or up into the hills, passing beneath sheer mountain walls of bare granite and beside beaver ponds and birch stands.
The waters around Mount Desert Island, offer magnificent scenery and some of the best sailing in the world. There are excellent private and public golf courses; hundreds of clear-water rivers and lakes producing trout and salmon. There is excellent hunting for deer, moose, bear, and wild turkey. There are the mountains, islands, and trails of Acadia National Park. With seventeen mountains and four lakes, Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor are magnets that draw thousands every year. The Park and its 120 miles of hiking trails, views from Cadillac Mountain, and the roar of Thunder Hole provide visitors with memory-filled vacations. Artists flock to photograph or paint the landscape. Bar Harbor’s neighbors, Northeast Harbor and Southwest Harbor, attract visitors by land and by water.
The term “Down East” comes from the days when schooners were used to carry cargo along the coast. The prevailing winds here blow from the southwest, pushing sailing vessels downwind, to the eastward. Down East/ Bar Harbor is a source of treasure for all ages. Children love the downtown area where they can play in the parks, buy ice cream, and watch the activity on the waterfront. There are art galleries and museums including the Abbe Museum, where you’ll find native American artifacts. The July and August music festivals are outstanding.. Whale-watching cruises depart daily, and Maine seafood is freshly prepared at many restaurants. The new high speed ferry, The Cat, travels daily to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia and back.
The only problem with a vacation in Bar Harbor at any time of the year, is that it is so hard to leave. Many visitors have extended the time of their stay well beyond the intended “two weeks in August” and remain longer each year, well into the season of colorful Fall foliage and even beyond.
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