Downtown Bar Harbor, Maine melds two worlds—island beach retreat and wilderness getaway. Once a summer colony for America’s richest families, Bar Harbor boasts millionaires’ mansions on West Street. Now families flock to stay at the 5-star hotels and inns and hike at Acadia National Park.
Bar Harbor is a tiny town (population: 5,000*) along Maine’s Frenchman Bay. It is situated on Mount Desert Island, which is Maine’s largest island. The island reminds me of a multi-jeweled necklace. Bar Harbor is the pendant but there is a cluster of smaller gems—Otter Creek, Seal Harbor, Northeast Harbor, Somesville, Hall Quarry, and Pretty Marsh villages—on the island.
Interestingly, the French explorer Samuel de Champlain named it L’île des Monts Déserts (Island of Bare Mountains) because he couldn’t see any vegetation on the summits as seen from the sea.
If you had visited a century ago, the only access was by ferry boat to downtown Bar Harbor. Wealthy families took the train from New York City. Today, most visitors arrive by car via Maine Street Road 233.
I recommend staying a minimum of three nights in Bar Harbor to explore its top attractions. The pace is brisk so don’t expect a lot of downtime. But you will enjoy an activity-filled vacation.
As readers of my blog know, I always take a walking tour as soon as I arrive at my destination. There are many reasons. I get to meet a local who is proud to talk about what is unique about his locale. And I get to “preview” all the attractions that I want to explore in greater depth on my vacation.
So I booked the A Walk Through Time in Bar Harbor: Celebrating 200+ Years to explore downtown Bar Harbor. . The two-hour tour commenced at 2 p.m. outside the Abbe Museum. Our bearded guide who originally hails from New Hampshire is a transplant who fell in love with this little town. The first thing I learned was how the great fire of 1947 almost wiped out half of the town. He also told us lots of stories about the rich people who “summered” in their “cottages” (aka mansions) on Mount Desert Island, including John and Abbie Rockefeller. We can thank Rockefeller for developing over 50 miles of carriage trails in Acadia National Park.
We strolled through the Village Green, walked down a back street to see “summer cottages,” explored Sand Beach, smelled beach roses, saw antique shops, explored Frenchman’s Bay, examined a town cannon, and visited the Civil War monument.
Now I recommend you reserve time before or after your walking tour to leisurely stroll down Main Street in downtown Bar Harbor. Meander might be a more appropriate verb as I constantly stopped to stare in store windows at paintings, artwork, clothes, and books.
This is also a great time to read menus and scout for where to eat dinner.
Eat A Lobster Roll
But my mind was thinking ahead to the evening. I wanted a lobster roll—Maine’s signature sandwich—for my late late (1:30 pm) lunch. A waiter at Two Cats Cafe recommended The Stadium on Main Street.
If you have never eaten a lobster roll, spend a little time examining the options: cold lobster with mayo, warm lobster with mayo or cold lobster with warm butter. I can’t eat mayonnaise so I recommend butter.
Walk Shore Path
Definitely, you will want some exercise after your lobster roll & potato chip lunch in downtown Bar Harbor. In fact, if you choose to enjoy a bottle of craft beer from one of Maine’s dozens of breweries, it’ll revive you. I recommend you take a walk down the Shore Path, established in 1881. The footpath extends for one-half a mile from the municipal pier.
We encountered dozens of visitors strolling along the rocky waterside path. The air is perfumed by the tea scent of Rosa rugosa hips—but called “beach roses.” The perennial, deciduous woody shrub also produces fruit.
“The orange-to-red fruits of beach rose are about 1 to 1.5 inches in diameter. These fruits, often called ‘hips,’ can be made into teas, jams and jellies, and provide food for small animals and birds.”University of Maine
Moreover, I highly recommend picking a rose to slowly breathe in its perfume. I think it smells like Maine—salty and sweet.
If time permitted, I would have grabbed a seat at a public bench. They are strategically located near the water’s edge. I could stare for hours at the water, ringed by the mountains. The bay overlooks the Atlantic Ocean and the Porcupine Islands.
Village Burying Grounds
No historical site is complete without visiting its historic cemetery. In Bar Harbor, you need to wander through the Village Burying Grounds. Interestingly, it is home to many unknow and unmarked graves. These were the men and women who set out to settle downeast Maine. The cemetery was established in 1790.
The graves include sea captains, fisherman, shipwrights and legislators, as well as their wives and children.
Criterion Movie Theater
The 1932 Criterion Theatre in downtown Bar Harbor is a jewel. It was built in 1932 during the Depression. This was also when Bar Harbor’s summer scene was at its zenith.
Notably, it is one of only two Art Deco theaters in the state of Maine. During my visit, it was showing In The Heights, one of the most exuberant musical of the decade. Take a virtual tour!
Asticou Azalea Gardens
Now no visit to Bar Harbor is complete without visiting the gardens on Mount Desert Island. We drove out to Northeast Harbor to see Asticou Azaleas Gardens. The cost of admission is a $5 donation.
This Japanese-style garden is where East Meets West. Today the garden is owned and maintained by the Mount Desert Land and Garden Preserve and a committee of volunteers.
But Asticou Azalea Gardens is the creation of Charles Savage, a resident of Northeast Harbor. Built in 1956 and 1957, it incorporates the architecture of a “Japanese stroll garden” with native Maine vegetation, rocks and water features.
“Savage had a great appreciation for Japanese styled gardens and the underlying philosophy.”AcadiaMagic.com
No visit to downtown Bar Harbor is complete without sitting on a porch, deck or beach watching a sunset. The colors of the sky turn into an Impressionist masterpiece. Cool yellows, greys, oranges and dusty blue melt and blend on the sky canvas. If a storm is brewing, the sky turns a dark grey studded with cotton ball clouds.
Every night, I sat on my balcony at my hotel to watch the sunset. And I knew it as even more majestic on Cadillac Mountain.
Acadia National Park
No visit to downtown Bar Harbor is complete without an early morning expedition to Acadia National Park. Whether you choose to hike nine miles to Cadillac Summit (which we did) or take the lazy man’s route and drive up to Cadillac Summit, you will see an astounding 360-degree view of the water below.
In fact, you don’t have to hike if you don’t like to struggle up craggy trails and scale boulders. Thanks to John Rockefeller Jr., you can choose to just walk or bike on the magnificent Carriage Trails. Rockefeller devoted himself to creating passageways that permitted pristine views of the desert forest.
“Pursuing an old enthusiasm, he spent hours with surveyors and engineers in designing and constructing some sixty miles of roadways and bridges.VisitMaine.com
Downtown Bar Harbor is pawsitively perfect to bring your dog. In fact, I wish my new Golden Retriever puppy could have accompanied me. But I just adopted him on June 25. He is named PARKER! Just like Peter Parker (aka Spiderman), he is a climber.
I definitely plan to take Parker hiking at Rock Creek Park, Great Falls National Park, Shenandoah National Park, and Black Hills Park. I am sure my “Spider Pup” will easily scale the heights. And I look forward to a long afternoon flinging a ball or frisbee across the National Mall in Washington DC for Parker to retrieve. To paraphrase our superhero Spiderman:
“No matter how buried it gets, or lost you feel, you must promise me, that you will hold on to [the tennis ball] hope and keep it [in your mouth] alive.”Spiderman (Spiderpup)
Chamber of Commerce
The Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce is your #1 source for information before you book your vacation. It maintains the area’s premier and most credible website—visitbarharbor.com. After you arrive in town, be sure to stop by the Chamber’s visitor information office. It is located at the corner of Cottage and Main Streets. The Chamber also seasonally staffs the Acadia Welcome Center in Trenton.
I was excited to see how Bar Harbor is such a dog friendly places. In fact, I give a “5 Paws” rating to these dog-friendly businesses in Bar Harbor. Your dog might want to nose around and then take a nap under your table!
Atlantic Brewing & Mainely Meat BBQ – on the patio
Beal’s Lobster Pier
Chartroom Restaurant – outside deck
Jack Russell’s Steakhouse & Brewery – on the patio
Jordan Pond House – In Acadia National Park – on the lawn
McKays Public House – on the patio
Looking Glass Restaurant – on the deck
Mount Desert Island Ice Cream
Paddy’s Irish Pub & Restaurant – on the patio
Seafood Ketch Restaurant – on the deck
Siam Orchid – on the patio
Side Street Café
Stewman’s Lobster Pound – on the patio
West Street Café – on the patio