Don’t pronounce it, "Bah-ha-bah" unless you are actually from Maine. The natives don’t find it funny. As John Steinbeck reported in Travels with Charley, they may even give you faulty directions to get even.
Only 5,000 people live in Bar Harbor, but the town swells with fair weather visitors. No surprise, the town formerly known as Paradise claims Eden as its main street and thrives on the tourist trade. Peeking into Bar Harbor’s shops and restaurants it’s obvious that cosmopolitan visitors influence the sophisticated selection of goods and services here. Still, the lingering memory of Rusticators, early vacationers content to take a room in a good natured home when hotels were non-existent, managed to leave the area with an aura of relaxed elegance even by today‘s standards.
It would be difficult to be stuffy in Maine where lobster fishermen, shipbuilders and locals run the show in the shadow of glorious, Cadillac Mountain. Acadia National Park’s rugged, unspoiled landscape simply wouldn’t accommodate pretense and Bar Harbor obviously won’t tolerate chain outlets, tacky t-shirts or franchises. This careful stewardship results in an environment that seems to have popped out of an idyllic past, landing intact and authentic in the twenty-first century.
Where in the World?
Bar Harbor is located off Maine‘s craggy southern coast on Mount Desert Island, of which Acadia National Park comprises about half its acreage. Former rusticator, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., purchased 11,000 acres of land on the island and between 1915-1940 oversaw the building of the famed "carriage roads" offering 57 miles of vehicular-free stone roadways for bikes, snowmobiles, hikers and carriages. Rockefeller subsequently bequeathed the land and its amenities to the park services and encouraged many of his wealthy neighbors, Morgans, Fords, Vanderbilts, Carnegies, to do the same. Now millions of visitors annually enjoy the National Park Services’ gem in the ocean, the furthest most eastern point in the United States and the highest point on the Atlantic coast north of Rio.
If Maine seems a bit different from the rest of New England, it could be due to the fact the area came close to being called New France. In 1604 Samuel de Champlain explored the region finding native inhabitants who had successfully fished, farmed and crafted birch canoes for some 6,000 years prior to his arrival.
Long before the landing at Plymouth Rock, a European settlement was established at the mouth of the Maine’s Kennebec River in 1607. However, the timing was unfavorable and a particularly harsh winter forced colonists to retreat the following year. Undaunted, French Jesuit missionaries jumped onboard, heeding the call to spread the holy word in the wild, and in 1613 established the first French mission in the New World. It was destroyed by the British shortly afterward.
Over the next 100+ years, territorial disputes between England and France made the area in-between undesirable for settlement. A veritable Gaza strip, only Antoine Laumet, who had ambitiously given himself the title Sieur de la Mothe Cadillac, seized opportunity by taking land no one else seemed to want in hopes of building a grand estate on the glorious granite dome of Mount Desert. He and his wife lasted only a short time in the conflict-riddled lands before moving on to found the city of Detroit. Hence, his name became synonymous with luxury vehicles and the highest peak on the eastern seaboard, Cadillac Mountain.
Following the American Revolution, settlers poured into the resource rich area and prospered. In the mid 1800’s painters from the Hudson River School glorified the local landscapes, resulting in a bourgeoning tourist business as people flocked to the area’s natural beauty. During the "gilded age" Bar Harbor, like Newport, offered summer seaside pleasures for the well-to-do during an unparalleled age of opulence and ostentation not to be experienced again. The stock market crash of 1929 brought the party to an end and the fire of 1947 rang a death toll to the homes of the lavish past when most of the grand "cottages" burned to the ground. As a result, Acadia National Park seems even more remote and unspoiled today.
Love at First Sight
I first traveled to Acadia Park in the late ‘80’s and hiked the 7K trail to the top of Cadillac Mountain during an unseemly hot spell. The views of thousands of islands speckling Maine’s rugged, craggy seacoast, of great granite boulders and tall timberlands, were strong enough to call me back.
This time around, fall foliage season beckoned. Honestly, I’d have climbed the mountain again, were it not for unseasonably cool temperatures, brief shore time, the wrong shoes -- okay, I admit it. I’m sixteen years older than I was my first time ’round these parts, and I just wanted to take the civilized route and drive the park loop, have a nice lunch at Jordan’s Pond and still have time to shop downtown Bar Harbor.
Trouble is, there are no car rentals in Bar Harbor.
What to do? By the time we tendered from the cruise ship anchored in Bar Harbor, hiked up Eden to Testa’s and accepted the unbelievable news that Bar Harbor had no Avis or Hertz, we found that the last tour arriving back to the ship in time for our departure was overbooked. Typically the Park Services route buses would offer many options and continuous service through the park but that service ended just days before our arrival.
Hanging Out in Town
"That’s okay," Sweetie encouraged, "I’m happy to just look around town."
Although I appreciated his attitude, I couldn’t stop gazing upward at the mountain that had beckoned me back to Bar Harbor. I’d bragged about that view one too many times and now it haunted me.
"Oh," I sighed, "I did want you to see the views from up there."
It was not to be. I resigned myself to fate and soon enough felt downright happy to be strolling the unique retail therapies provided for just such disappointment. In no time at all I was feeling rather chipper, realizing we’d happened upon that merriest of occasions, the end-of-the-season close-out sales. Cashing in on the shopkeepers’ eagerness to board up before heading to Florida for the winter season, we scooped up armloads of bargains.
Soon, it was time for lunch.
What may have otherwise rolled out as a perfect day in the crisp, sunny autumn weather gracing Bar Harbor was interrupted once again by the sight of the mountain, that persistent reminder of my dashed dream, of stopping at Jordan’s Pond for lunch. Shaking it off, we wandered further a field off Eden, seeking to avoid our shipmates who had stopped at the first al fresco venue they encountered. Tourists! We, taking the road less traveled, found a perfectly respectable but decidedly low-key lobster shack called Maine Street Restaurant, where giant lobsters and all the trimmings weighed in at about $12 and blueberry crisp was so delicious we briefly considered relocating to Maine.
This moment of triumph over finding the best lunch spot overcame my disappointment temporarily. Yet I’d lost the desire for any more shopping, and what else was there to do without wheels? Perhaps we’d go back to the ship early -- an unthinkable suggestion on such a beautiful day, but I had to learn to accept disappointment.
Or did I?
Just as we rounded the corner of the docks and our waiting tender, Sweetie spotted what would become the day’s redemption. Rattling down the street was the Spirit of Acadia, Oli’s Trolley offering one hour tours of Acadia, Bar Harbor and Cadillac mountain.
We jumped aboard in the nick of time as the seasoned entertainer/driver/guide launched into his fascinating spiel, filling us in on Bar Harbor‘s history, the unique flora and fauna of the area and the prominent citizens who summered here. Even Jackie Kennedy’s parents owned a surprisingly modest bungalow!
Up the mountain Oli’s Trolley chugged as the driver regaled us with lore and legend. At Cadillac’s peak we had the chance to brave the ferocious, chilly winds and take a short hike where long-promised views were the payoff.
After snapping more photos we raced back to the bus to ward off chill.
"There you go! You got your wish," Sweetie said.
"We have to come back."
"Okay. Jordan's Pond, this summer?"