There aren’t any moose in Bar Harbor, at least not in town. But that doesn’t stop tourists from asking where to find them.
Understandable, given that from gift shops to rooftops, moose are pretty much everywhere you look.
Just not the real kind. Even so, they serve as an unofficial mascot for one of the most picturesque destinations in New England.
So lovely, in fact, that the town was named “Eden” until 1918, when its name was changed to Bar Harbor to reflect the expansive sandbar that appears twice daily in the harbor during low tide.
Set off the coast of Maine, Bar Harbor once served as a retreat for wealthy families like the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts, who built luxurious vacation “cottages” around the island and spent summers hobnobbing there.
The Great Depression, followed by a historic fire in 1947, took a toll on the enclave. But, with its idyllic setting and many attractions, Bar Harbor remains a popular vacation destination.
A Frenchman’s ‘Dessert’
Mount Desert Island was named by Samuel Champlain, an explorer who arrived in the early 1600s. Finding the area rocky and desolate, the Frenchman dubbed it “Isles des Monts Déserts,”or island of barren mountains.
Often visitors don’t realize that it actually is an island, which explains why they frequently ask locals for directions on how to get there, without realizing that they’re there.
And, it’s pronounced, “dessert,” but no one seems to mind if you get it wrong, and most out-of-towners do.
Eclectic with a small-town vibe, Bar Harbor has about 5,000 residents. Come summer and the leaf-peeping months, that number rises dramatically as tourists descend on the area to visit the town’s neighboring attraction, Acadia National Park.
Covering more than 47,000 acres, Acadia is a heady mix of ocean, mountains, lakes, forest and rocky coastline.
With more than 3 million visitors annually, it’s one of the most visited parks in the U.S.
Loop De Loop
Starting at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center, the 27-mile Park Loop Road is a must-do and the ideal primer for getting to know the area. It takes three to four hours (depending on how often you stop for photos — and you will stop) and much of it is one-way, a good thing to note before you go.
There’s a park entrance fee that runs $30 per car, $25 for motorcycles, and $15 for pedestrians and cyclists, valid for seven days. Passes can be purchased at the park’s entrance, Hulls Cove Visitor Center, at various locations throughout Bar Harbor, as well as online (https://www.nps.gov/acad/planyourvisit/fees.htm#CP_JUMP_4007841).
A popular stop along the way is Sand Beach.
Though small, its location nestled amid the rocky bluffs makes it a breathtaking place to while away an hour or two, or even spend the day. Fog rolls in frequently during the summer months, but far from being a buzzkill, it’s moody and cinematic, adding to the beach’s overall appeal.
Though many people arrive in swimsuits, few swim for long as the water temp rarely exceeds 55 degrees, even in the summer.
Also on Park Loop Road is Cadillac Mountain (www.nps.gov/acad/learn/management/cadillac.htm).
Boasting the highest point on the East Coast, the summit is considered an essential Bar Harbor bucket-list item.
Visitors often go for sunrise or sunset, but any time of day you’ll find unparalleled views of the island. It gets seriously crowded, however, so arrive early to secure a good spot.
Another bucket-list item is Thunder Hole. Depending on the tide, waves crashing into a fissure along the rocky coastline produce a thunderous boom and water explosion. It’s a mesmerizing natural wonder, especially during stormy seas when waves can reach up to 40 feet high.
Ideal viewing is midway between low and high tide, and can be determined by checking local tide charts (https://me.usharbors.com/monthly-tides/Maine-Downeast/Bar%20Harbor).
Jordan Pond is a notable spot not only for its tranquil, scenic views, but also for the afternoon tea and popovers served at the Jordan Pond House (www.jordanpondhouse.com), the only full-service restaurant in Acadia National Park.
A tradition since the 1890s, the popovers are considered some of the best in the area, rivaled only by those served up at the picturesque Asticou Inn (www.asticou.com), a few miles away in Northeast Harbor.
To avoid traffic and parking hassles during the busy season, hop aboard the Island Explorer (www.exploreacadia.com).
The free shuttle bus provides service throughout the park and surrounding areas (including Bar Harbor) beginning the third week of June and running through Columbus Day.
Ready, Set, Hike (And Bike)!
With more than 125 miles of trails, Acadia is a hikers’ paradise. From casual to down-right strenuous, there’s something for every skill level.
Among the most notable hikes are Ocean Trail, an easy, leisurely walk along rocky shores with ocean-front views, which begins from Sand Beach and ends at Otter Cliff.
Jordan Pond Path, is another easy, family-friendly stroll that provides amazing views of South and North Bubble Mountains.
South Bubble Mountain is a more moderate hike offering breathtaking views of Jordan Pond, as well as a chance to get up close and personal with Bubble Rock, a massive boulder deposited by glaciers that hovers precariously over the edge of a cliff.
More experienced hikers will want to try Pemetic and Penobscot Mountains. Both are challenging, requiring some decent climbing and hiking skills, but definitely worth it for the adventure and scenery.
Finally, Beehive and Precipice Trails are far and away the most difficult — and arguably the most popular. Anyone suffering from a fear of heights or who prefers not to scale exposed cliff walls should steer clear.
But those brave enough to conquer either one will be rewarded with expansive vistas, unrivaled views and serious bragging rights.
In addition to hiking trails, there are also 45 miles of carriage roads installed by John D. Rockefeller Jr. in the early 20th century.
Tightly packed with gravel and closed to motorized traffic, they’re a biker’s dream come true.
Cyclists can opt to take it easy and enjoy the surroundings on some of the flatter trails, or go hard core and cycle any number of more mountainous routes. (www.nps.gov/acad/planyourvisit/upload/crummap.pdf).
To enjoy the carriage roads without the work, Wildwood Stables, off of Park Loop Road (www.acadiamagic.com/wildwood-stables.html), offers seasonal horse-drawn carriage rides.
Starting at about $9 for children and $22 for adults, the tours last one to two hours and should be booked in advance.
Charming and pet-friendly, Bar Harbor itself is a destination in its own right, with no shortage of things to do.
The 1-mile Bar Harbor Shore Path, which starts at the Bar Harbor Inn, is a lovely stroll that provides scenic views of Frenchman Bay (yep, named for Champlain), and other sights including a few of the remaining luxury “cottages” from days gone by.
Various cruises depart from the pier, including sailings aboard the Margaret Todd (www.downeastwindjammer.com), a four-masted schooner that leisurely ferries passengers around Frenchman Bay. The sunset cruise is most popular and deservedly so. Guests are invited to bring food and wine and enjoy live guitar music while taking in one of Bar Harbor’s best attractions, its incredible sunset.
Acadian Boat Tours (www.acadianboattours.com) offers different trips including a two-hour nature cruise where passengers can see seals, porpoises, eagles and other local sights.
Dive-In Theater (www.divered.com) is a fun, educational boat cruise great for kids and families. Hosted by “Diver Ed,” a former Bar Harbor harbormaster and Smithsonian marine ecologist, it’s an entertaining show-and-tell with live sea creatures.
Whale-watching tours (www.barharborwhales.com) ferry passengers out into the open ocean in search of a variety of whale species (bring Dramamine and warm clothes regardless of season), along with Bar Harbor’s other unofficial mascot, the Puffin.
Tourists often confuse the black and white seabirds with penguins, which they aren’t.
What they are, however, is super cute. So cute, in fact, their image is on pretty much everything the moose isn’t, including untold numbers of gift shop T-shirts emblazoned with the tongue-in-cheek “Stud Puffin.”
Lobstah And Other Foodie Delights
Bar Harbor has some great places to eat and drink.
Rosalie’s Pizza (http://rosaliespizza.com) is an ultra-casual pizza joint that’s easy on the taste buds, and the wallet.
For pizza and a movie, visit Reel Pizzeria Cinerama (www.reelpizza.com). Along with stadium seating, the theater offers couches and tables, making it feel just like home.
The best mac and cheese, along with a whole lot of other good stuff, can be found at Side Street Café (www.sidestreetbarharbor.com). If the homemade blueberry basil margarita is on the menu, do not, for any reason whatsoever, miss the opportunity to order it.
And of course, since it’s Maine, lobster is practically mandatory.
Ask 10 locals where to find the best lobster, and you’ll likely get 10 different answers.
Having said that, Geddy’s (www.geddys.com), a casual sit-down restaurant, is widely known for its lobster, along with the iconic moose that beckons from the roof.
And Peekytoe Provisions (www.peekytoeprovisions.com), is popular around town for the lobster rolls.
Finally, serious lobster aficionados can try lobster ice cream (um, no thanks?) at Ben & Bill’s Chocolate Emporium (www.benandbills.com). If it’s not your thing, and it probably isn’t, there are plenty of other flavors and homemade candy treats available at the sweet shop.