37 Hours in Bar Harbor: How to Properly Escape to Maine’s Most Famous Tourist Trap
Bar Harbor may well be Maine’s most famous tourist trap. As someone who’s been visiting on and off for ten years, I say that with affection. So much has been written about it, it’s a wonder anyone can reveal anything genuinely “new”.
Since Mrs. Vagabondish and I first visited together in 2012, it’s become our quintessential New England getaway every year. Fall is the ideal time to visit Mount Desert Island (MDI), when the leaves are just starting to turn, there’s a cool, comfortable New England nip in the air, and the tourist crowds are thinning out for the season. So this past month, we headed back up north for our annual Bah Hahbahhh vacation …
Ask ten people who has the best lobster roll on Mount Desert Island and you’ll get eleven different answers. If you fancy your lobstah with a view, Stewman’s Lobster Pound has you covered. It’s pricey for sure but, with a prime, oceanfront location on the northeast corner of downtown Bar Harbor overlooking Frenchman Bay, it’s hard to beat. We spent the better part of two hours on the top deck, watching the lobster boats and whale-watching ships go by.
At 150 feet, Jordan Pond is Acadia’s deepest and clearest lake and is the second largest at 187 acres. It is also a public water supply. Therefore, swimming and wading is prohibited.
Gulls, loons, mergansers, as well as frogs and beavers are frequently seen. At the north end of the pond look for a beaver lodge. The Jordan Pond area is an excellent place to appreciate Acadia’s glacially carved landscape.
Because it’s a loop hike, it can be done in either direction. We opted to go clockwise, taking the west side first. Allow 2-3 hours for the entire hike, assuming occasional stops for snacks and photo opps.
If you’re looking for something a little more exciting, check out the Beehive, Cadillac South, or Precipice Trail (as long as you’re not acrophobic).
After you’ve burned off lunch, stop by the Jordan Pond House for their famous popovers. These light, doughy treats are best torn open by hand and slathered in copious heaps of butter and strawberry jam. They’re obscenely expensive ($30 for 4 popovers, coffee, and tip) but worth every penny.
5p / Drive the Park Loop Road Around Acadia National Park
The 27-mile trek begins at Hulls Cover Visitor Center on the northern side of the island and travels along the park’s peaks, lakes, forests, and breathtaking coast. Allow at least an hour, two if you want to take your time to stop and take photos.
We rarely expect much from a hotel restaurant, but were extremely surprised by La Bella Vita at Harborside Hotel.
We split the Maine Lobster and Shrimp “Scampi Style” app — a pure Maine dish that blends sautéed lobster knuckles, gulf shrimp, spring peas, slivered garlic, roasted plum tomatoes, lemon butter, and crostini. I opted for the rustic fish stew with coastal Maine shellfish and Mrs. Vagabondish chose the chicken piccata with lemon, capers and homemade spaghetti. In short: hands-down the best meal we had in Bar Harbor. Possibly the best this year.
Opt for their rather romantic al fresco patio dining with a clear view overlooking Frenchman Bay. Bonus: the outdoor heaters mean you can dine outside well into the fall season.
Travelers love superlatives. So it’s worth noting that Cadillac Mountain is the first bit of land in the United States to see the sunrise. Awake early enough, make the drive to the top of Bar Harbor’s tallest “mountain” (use that term loosely), and you’ll be among the first folks in the U.S. to see the light of the sun. The view is, quite literally, breathtaking.
You have to order blueberry pancakes for breakfast in Bar Harbor. It’s the law.
You have to order wild blueberry pancakes for breakfast in Bar Harbor. It’s the law. Well, not really … but you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t at least try them.
There’s much dissension over who has the absolute best. The unpretentious Jordan’s Restaurant has long been a local favorite. If you’re not totally into blueberry pancakes (seriously?), check out the quaint Cafe This Way — our favorite overall breakfast joint on MDI.
Mini golf? Seriously?! I know, I know … but Mrs. Vagabondish has an obsession over pirates and mini golf (“putt-putt” as it’s known to pros). Plus,as far as mini golf joints go, Pirate’s Cove is pretty awesome. I mean, one of the holes is actually on a replica pirate ship. I’m a bit of a mini golf connoisseur and this is among the best places I’ve ever played. I did get a hole-in-one though, so I may be biased.
Evidently there’s nothing wrong with wine tasting at 11 a.m. (or even 10 a.m. because that’s when they open … remember this is Maine after all). Bar Harbor Cellars is well known for their wide array of fruit wines and, not surprisingly, their blueberry wine is the most popular. It’s sweet, but not as syrupy or overpowering as I expected. We grabbed a bottle for the road as it’s great for cooking too, especially pork dishes.
Noon / Lunch @ Epi’s Pizza
Let’s be honest: Maine isn’t exactly world famous for pizza. But Epi’s Pizza is a classic, no-frills joint that does relatively cheap (by Bar Harbor standards) pizza well. It’s good in a “you know it’s so bad it’s good” way – thin and just greasy enough. And their sandwiches are pretty good to boot. The perfect quick lunch before you …
Acadian Nature Cruises has been running trips out of Bar Harbor since I can remember. Their classic nature tour is:
… a two hour, fully narrated cruise of Frenchman Bay and enjoy the breathtaking scenery of coastal Maine, Acadia National Park, the islands of Frenchman Bay and the shoreline of Bar Harbor.
Our Nature Cruises leave daily from Bar Harbor, Maine in search of eagles, porpoises, seals, and other interesting marine mammals and birds. We also feature views of timeless mansions, Egg Rock lighthouse and occasionally migrating birds that have ventured into Frenchman Bay.
Their rates and schedule change with the season, so be sure to check the latest info. Adult admission available for around $30 (USD).
There’s just enough tourist kitsch in the store windows of Bar Harbor to remind you that you’re not the only traveler who knows about this place. Look past the collectible maple syrup bottles and cheeky “GOT MOOSE?” t-shirts. The town has eschewed many of the ubiquitous national chain businesses and maintains a healthy dose of original, small town New England charm.
Take a stroll around its very walkable downtown core to peruse its many artisan shops, observe original Tudor and Victorian-style B&Bs, sample fresh, local chocolates and treats, and witness the calming natural beauty of Frenchman Bay.
6p / Dinner @ Guinness & Porcelli’s
Guinness & Porcelli's Restaurant in Bar Harbor
Guinness & Porcelli’s is the spot in Bar Harbor for casual fine Italian dining. It’s got just the right amount of class and atmosphere for a romantic night out, but not so much that you need to borrow a sport coat from the maître d before sitting down to dinner.
Mrs. Vagabondish loved G&P’s take on the Caesar salad that’s prepared with roasted red peppers, taking a rather simple dish up a notch. She also raved about their chicken parmesan with some of the best house-made pasta either of us has ever had in New England. Bonus: their all-Italian wine list boasts more than 200 different choices of vino.
Two minutes from G&P is Ben & Bill’s Chocolate Emporium. They regularly stock 64 hard-serve flavors in peak season, along with Italian ice cream and 12 flavors of Gelato, all made in-house. But the big get — the weird get — for foodies and other curious travelers is their own butter-flavored, lobster ice cream. They take cooked lobster meat from a local lobster pound, chop it up, butter it, and fold it into the ice cream. Surprisingly, it’s quite good. And, for the low, low price of $22 (USD), you can take home a half-gallon for yourself.
Overnight / Lay Your Head Here …
Having overnighted in Bar Harbor on many occasions, I can say that there’s no shortage of accommodation options in town. But if you’re looking for a hotel that’s immediately downtown, here are two with excellent oceanviews, located within walking distance of virtually everything you might want to see and do in town.
Harborside Hotel, Spa & Marina
Harborside Hotel is situated about as close as you can get to the ocean in Bar Harbor without actually being in it. Jutting out into Frenchman Bay, it offers some of the best water views in town and, for that reason alone, has long been our favorite hotel.
Inside, the hotel blends classic New England B&B charm with all the trappings of a legitimate spa resort. Most rooms include:
King or queen Beds
Feather pillows and plush comforters
Semi-private balconies with harbor, island, or sunset views
Wireless internet access
Opt for an east facing oceanfront suite and you’ll be greeted every morning with some of the most stunning sunrises on the east coast. Among my favorite treats of staying at Harborside was that our bed actually faced east, so we could literally sit up and watch the sunrise without even climbing out of bed.
Guest Room at Harborside Hotel, Bar Harbor
What’s more, suites include a full kitchen with electric stove, microwave and full-sized refrigerator/freezer. There’s also a choice of optional upgrades available including gas-burning fireplaces and Jacuzzi tubs.
Pool at Harborside Hotel in Bar Harbor
As a true resort, other onsite amenities include the recently restored Bar Harbor Club, dining at the aforementioned La Bella Vista, clay tennis courts, a modern fitness center, an oceanfront swimming pool and optional spa & massage treatments at The Spa at Bar Harbor Club.
West Street Hotel
Just across the street sits West Street Hotel — the “new kid on the block”, literally. Opened in 2012, it’s the newer, modern, boutique luxury counterpart to the Harborside. The big gets here: the only rooftop pool in Maine (!), sweeping views of Frenchman Bay, the outer islands, and Acadia National Park. Oh, and a fantastic Irish Pub.
The atmosphere can best be described as lux sailor chic. Modern amenities abound, from iPod docking stations and flat-panel televisions to in-room wifi access. Also:
Private balconies overlooking the harbor & ocean
Lexington Tommy Bahama mahogany furnishings
There’s even a food and refreshment station on every floor. Here, guests can fix a free coffee, tea, or hot cocoa from their industrial-sized Keurig machine. There’s also fresh fruit and bottled water throughout the day. And just before dinner time, they lay out a helping of fresh, hot cookies to boot.
Floating in the aforementioned rooftop, adults-only, infinity pool is enough to make you feel (almost) like you’re in the Caribbean. Sure it’s a bit cooler, but where else in the state of Maine (or New England for that matter) can you legitimately imagine yourself sipping a neon Mai Tai on the beach? If that’s not your thing, there’s also plenty of lounge chairs and sun beds to wile the day away.
As an added bonus, guests of West Street Hotel also have access to the Harborside Hotel’s Bar Harbor Club just across the street. There you’ll find an oceanfront pool and oversized hot tub in addition to a designated children’s splash pool. The Club is also home to a beautiful two-story Pool House, which serves a variety of light fare and affords excellent views of the Harbor and sandbar.
It’s worth noting that, like many businesses in Bar Harbor, the West Street Hotel does close for the season. So be sure to check the website for the latest availability.