Acadia & Downeast Maine Guide
Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor on Mount Desert Island are prime destinations along the Maine coast, but there's even more to draw you to this beautiful region of small, historic towns and beautiful scenery. Consider a Two-Nation Vacation: bring your passport and cross the border into Canada.
Mount Desert Island
The main attraction of Downeast Maine, Mount Desert Island is where you'll find the Victorian summer resort town of Bar Harbor and the main portion of Acadia National Park.
The great French explorer Samuel de Champlain gave Mount Desert Island its name: L'Île des Monts-Deserts, and even today the local pronunciation is "dez-ZERT", following the French style.
When steamships and railroads were opening up America in the 1800s, they also opened up Downeast Maine, and by the end of the century, Bar Harbor, a small town on rocky Mount Desert Island, boasted almost as many palatial summer "cottages" as Newport RI, although the ones here were perhaps not quite so lavish—but pretty close.
Smaller towns, such as Southwest Harbor, draw a much smaller number of visitors, those who enjoy relative peace, quiet, and the less obvious beauties of the island.
Acadia National Park takes up something like half of the land of Mount Desert Island and much of that on the smaller surrounding islands, and is one of the few national parks in the eastern United States. It draws a large numbers of visitors every year. You'll love its scenic beauty, its hiking, biking and carriage trails, its beaches and nature preserves. Ascending Cadillac Mountain (by car, bike or on foot) is a must-do—but you'll need a reservation. More...
Near the southwesternmost point on Mount Desert Island, Bass Harbor Head Light is a quintessential New England lighthouse perched on the rockbound coast of Maine.
Bass Harbor Head Light.
Bar Harbor, Maine
When steamships and railroads were opening up America in the 1800s, they also opened up Downeast Maine, and by the end of the century they reached Bar Harbor, a small town 154 miles (248 km) northeast of Portland, Maine on rocky Mount Desert Island (map).
Agamont Park and Frenchman Bay.
Today Bar Harbor is on the bucket lists of national parks visitors because it shares Mount Desert Island with Acadia National Park, the only true US national park east of the Mississippi. You'll see license plates from all over the USA, and some from Canada, searching Bar Harbor's narrow streets for parking space.
Bar Harbor is still a charming resort town, at least when it's not overrun by cruise-ship passengers. Plan your days carefully and you'll be able to avoid the crowds.
When to Visit
If you can, visit this interesting town off-season, from late October through May; failing that, June or September. At those times it's comfortable, cozy, slow-paced and welcoming. In the summer....
In high summer—late June, July, August—travelers looking to add Acadia to their life list of visited national parks come in droves. Also then, Bar Harbor is a port-of-call for huge cruise ships, which come into view at breakfast time and disgorge an average of three thousand voyagers onto Bar Harbor's narrow streets and into its T-shirt, souvenir, lobster roll and ice cream shops.
If you're looking to go on a Two-Nation Vacation by taking the car-and-passenger ferry from Bar Harbor to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, you'll have to come between June and October, because that's when the ferry operates. More...
In summer, especially on weekends, Maine Route 3, the narrow two-lane road from Ellsworth to Bar Harbor (20 miles/32 km; map), is a solid line of slow traffic in both directions. Unless you come off-season (November through May), be prepared to crawl.
What to See & Do
Gilded Age Bar Harbor
You'll enjoy the Victorian architecture of the town, including some of its Gilded Age mansions, some of which are now fine old inns. Walking trails near the town center make it easy to enjoy the rocky coastal views.
Special events are scheduled throughout the summer in Bar Harbor, and you should drop in at the information bureau on the town pier for a list of the latest ones.
The Bar Harbor Music Festival, with concerts of classical music and opera, is held from late June through July, and during the summer months free band concerts take place each Monday and Thursday evening on the village green.
Should you want to rent a bike for trips around town or into Acadia National Park, check with Bar Harbor Bicycle Shop at 141 Cottage Street, corner of Eden Street/ME Route 3 (Cottage Street is parallel to West Street but one block south of it, away from the water).
Mid-May through mid-October, the schooners sail three times daily in the morning, afternoon, and for sunset. Cruises last 1.5 to 2 hours. Tickets are available online or at the Margaret Todd ticket office at 1 Newport Drive, Bar Harbor. More...
Bar Harbor has lots of lodgings of all kinds—B&Bs, hotels and motels, campgrounds—to cater to the millions of visitors who come every summer. The Great Fire of 1947 destroyed much of the town, leaving only a small number of mansions still standing, but some of these are now nice inns. If you don't find what you're looking for in these towns, search to the north in Trenton and Ellsworth.
Be aware, however, that Mount Desert Island, Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park are accessed by the two-lane ME Route 3 (map). In high summer, especially on weekends, vehicular traffic on this narrow road can be heavy and slow. If you stay any distance away from your destination, it may take quite a while for you to get there.
This goes for the many motels and camping areas ranged along Route 3. Even though you're on Mount Desert Island, if your hotel is several miles from Bar Harbor and/or Acadia National Park, you may still have a slow "commute."
My advice: check your itinerary and calendar, and the main hotel areas, and use the Hotel Map with Prices below to choose a lodging place, calculate the distance from it to the places you'll want to go, and take the time of day into consideration. (In the morning, traffic on ME Route 3 is heavy southbound; in the late afternoon and evening, heavy is northbound.)
Use this handy Hotel Map with Prices to find any hotel in the Bar Harbor/Mount Desert region, including on the mainland:
You'll find all types of lodging in Bar Harbor and surrounding communities: deluxe hotels and inns, cozy B&Bs, highway motels, full-service resorts.... While there are plenty of rooms in and near Bar Harbor to handle the millions of visitors who come here each year, the challenge is to get the room you want rather than one you're forced to take, because most lodgings fill up, especially in summer and on weekends and holidays.
Main Hotel Areas
Bar Harbor Center
In the center of Bar Harbor, Mount Desert Street is dotted with fine old inns (for example, the beautiful Thornhedge Inn), and there are several on Cottage Street as well (map). These are all walking distance to the center, as are the several hotels near Agamont Park, including the prime Bar Harbor Inn & Spa, perhaps the town's fanciest (and certainly convenient) place to stay. For the budget-minded, I like the comfy, aptly-named Central House Inn, also very convenient, and thrifty.
Eden Street & Bar Harbor Road (ME Route 3)
The access highway to Bar Harbor (ME Route 3) has dozens of lodgings. The Bar Harbor Motel is directly across Route 3 from the International Ferry Terminal from which the car-and-passenger ferry departs for Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.
The larger town 21 miles (34 km) to the north of Bar Harbor at the intersection of ME Route 3 and US Route 1 (map), has nearly a dozen lodgings, and you can save money by staying here, and perhaps find a room when all others appear to be booked, though in the high summer season the drive along ME Route 3 to Mount Desert Island can be slow and long.
Bangor International Airport (BGR), in Bangor ME 52 miles (84 km) northwest of Bar Harbor (map), just over an hour by rental car, handles flights by Allegiant, American, Delta, and United Airlines to/from Chicago, Detroit, New York City (LaGuardia and Newark), Philadelphia, Sanford/Orlando FL, Tampa/St Petersburg FL, and Washington DC (Reagan National).
Follow US 1 to Ellsworth, then ME Route 3 south to Bar Harbor.
Distances from Bar Harbor
Bangor ME: 46 miles (74 km) NW, 1.25 hours
Boston MA: 285 miles (459 km) SW, 6 hours
Ellsworth ME: 20 miles (32 km) NW, 40 minutes
Kittery ME: 211 miles (340 km) SW, 5 hours
Montréal QC: 425 miles (684 km) W, 8 hours
New York City: 500 miles (805 km) SW, 9 hours
Portland ME: 161 miles (260 km) SW, 4 hours
Québec City QC: 275 miles (443 km) N, 6 hours
Bus & Train
Concord Coach Lines runs buses from Boston and Portland to Bangor where, from Monday through Friday, you can transfer to a Downeast Transportation regional bus to Bar Harbor. (No regional bus service on Monday holidays).
The Bar Harbor to Winter Harbor Ferry crosses Frenchman Bay several times daily from mid-June through September to give visitors a chance easily to visit the "other" side of Acadia National Park: the Schoodic Peninsula. More...
If you don't want to ship your car between Maine and Nova Scotia, or at least not both ways, you can easily drive from Bar Harbor to New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Québec, Canada. Just remember, whether going by road or ferry, to bring your passport or other acceptable official proof of nationality. More...
Greeting the dawn on Cadillac Mountain.
By the late 1800s, summer visitors began to arrive here in force, and it became obvious that this natural beauty needed to be protected.
Founded as Lafayette National Park in 1919, renamed Acadia National Park in 1929, it was well along to its present size of over 30,000 acres (12,141 hectares) by the end of World War II. The park controls about half the land on the island; the other half is in private hands.
Admission to the Park
You must have a park entrance pass to enter, drive in, park in, and explore the national park: $20 per person or cyclist, or $35 per motor vehicle. Order it online at www.recreation.gov and print it at home to take with you to the park, or buy it at a park entrance (Hulls Cove or Sand Beach), at the Village Green Information Center, Thompson Island Visitor Center, or at one of the campgrounds.
Visitors 62 and older can buy an America the Beautiful National Parks & Federal Recreational Lands Senior Pass ($20 annual, $80 lifetime) which admits you and others in your private, non-commercial vehicle to 2,000 national parks and other federal recreation lands. The Senior Pass does not cover all special recreational permit fees (for camping, boat launch, etc.) and fees charged by concessionnaires (for tours, etc.), but it may entitle you to discounts on those fees.
Just display your pass through the windshield of your vehicle whenever you are in the park. (Annual passes: signature & barcode side up.)
Free Buses & Paid Tours
Free propane- or electric-battery-powered Island Explorer buses circulate on ten routes through Bar Harbor, the national park, and Mount Desert Island stopping at many hotels, all the major sights in the park, and indeed pretty much anywhere a rider wants to get off or on, if it's safe to stop.
Various companies operate guided tours of the national park and its attractions. Acadia National Park Tours, 53 Main Street, Bar Harbor ME 04609 runs two tours daily from Bar Harbor.
The 2.5-hour tour takes you through the town of Bar Harbor and stops at many of the mansions left from its heyday, then continues into the national park, stopping at Thunder Hole, Jordan Pond House, Sieur des Monts Spring, (Wild Gardens of Acadia), and of course the summit of Cadillac Mountain.
Tour fee is $30 for adults, $15 for children 12 and under.
Traditionally the tours have left at 10 am and 2 pm, but call in advance to check the times, and to make a reservation.
A focal point of park activities, and the must-climb goal of nearly every visitor, is Cadillac Mountain, named in honor of Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac. At 1,530 feet (466 meters), the mountain's summit is the highest point on America's Atlantic coast.
Visitors enjoying the view from the summit of Cadillac Mountain.
Drive, bike or hike to the summit for the panoramic views. Note that traffic to the summit, especially for sunrise and sunset, can be heavy, especially on weekends. At some peak times in summer and foliage season, you may need to make a reservation for your motor vehicle with a set time to enter the road to the summit. More...
Those who see the sun break forth on the horizon from Cadillac Mountain are the first people in the United States to greet the new day—at least from October 7 through March 6. At other times of year, the point and angle at which the sun rises makes it first visible at West Quoddy Head in Lubec, Maine, or at Mars Hill. (And, after all, Atlantic Canadians have already seen the sun by that time...).
Never mind! Sunrise and sunset are still pretty sights on a clear day. Check the weather report before you plan your ascent—rain and/or fog will significantly dampen the visual experience; and in June you will have to awaken by about 4:00 am to make the drive to the summit in time for sunrise. (In mid-October, you can arise around 6:00 am to make it to the summit in time.)
The Loop Road
Stop at Thunder Hole when the surf's up to feel the bashing and pushing of the waves, or at Sand Beach for a chilly ocean swim.
There's national park camping at Black Woods (follow the signs). This is the only campground where you can reserve ahead, which you do through www.recreation.gov.
On the island's western peninsula, Echo Lake is the park's freshwater swimming area.
There's a lookout tower atop Beech Mountain, and a park campground is down near the peninsula's southern tip at Seawall.
Hiking, Biking Horseback Riding
Throughout the park are more than 150 miles (241 km) of hiking trails—here's a map. Paper maps are sold online and at locations in the park), and 45 miles (72 km) of well-engineered crushed-stone carriage roads good for hiking, bicycles, or horseback riding (horses can be rented in the park).
Carriage roads: suitable for hiking, biking or riding.
Note that you can take the free Island Explorer buses to some of the trailheads in the park, eliminating the need for a private vehicle or finding a parking space in the limited-capacity trailhead lots.
Not far from the town of Bar Harbor, in the park at Sieur des Monts Spring, is the Abbe Museum of Stone Age Antiquities, a wildflower garden, and a nature center.
Seal Harbor Beach
The beach at Seal Harbor is very fine, and open to the public for free. It is one of Mount Desert Island's poshest summer resorts, with all sorts of famous and wealthy people inhabiting the big houses secluded along the forested streets of the village. Park in the lot across the street.
A visit to Acadia National Park wouldn't be complete without tea and popovers at the Jordan House (tel 207-276-3116). A tradition for almost 100 years, the restaurant serves lunch on the porch from 11:30 am to 2:30 pm, afternoon tea on the lawn from 2:30 to 5:30 pm, and dinner by the fireside from 5:30 to 9 pm.
You can get snacks and beverages on the overlook throughout the day from 9 am to 6 pm. Whether you dine or not, you are invited to stroll around the gardens and spacious grounds; the view of the lake and mountains from the lawn is stunning. Open late May to late October.
East of Mount Desert Island across the water, the Schoodic Peninsula is a more remote part of Acadia National Park, with a 7.2-mile (11.6-km) Shore Drive loop road, good for biking.
Jonesport & Beals Island
Two traditional Maine fishing-and-lobstering towns near Great Wass Island, a nature reserve and bird-watchers' mecca owned by the Nature Conservancy.
With a population of about 2,300, a campus of the University of Maine, and being the seat of Washington County, Machias is the most important town along this part of the coast, with a historic district at its center and some services for travelers as well.
At the very eastern limit of the USA, Lubec is where you can cross into Canada to Campobello Island. A quaint and historic small town, Lubec has several good places to stay and dine, whale watching cruises, popular summer arts workshops, and the iconic West Quoddy Head Light, the easternmost point in the USA.
"The easternmost town in the USA" is Lubec's claim to fame, but that's not the main reason you come here.
Tipping a narrow peninsula jutting into Johnson Bay at the very eastern tip of Downeast Maine (map), Lubec (loo-BEK) is surrounded by water...and wonderful views. The Maine forest comes right to the water's edge, and the changing boreal climate makes for constant, beautiful variety.
Fishing boats at rest in Johnson Bay...
What to See & Do
West Quoddy Head Light
If you need a goal, that would be the iconic West Quoddy Head Light in Quoddy Head State Park, the very symbol of the eastern limit of the USA.
In June, the sun rises a good 25 minutes earlier at Quoddy Head than it does in Boston. Unfortunately, you can't stand at West Quoddy Head Light to see the first rays of the sun strike the soil of the USA because the State Park doesn't open until 9 am in summer.
Summer Keys Arts Workshops
Whalewatch & Boat Cruises
Several captains offer cruises of the bays and islands during the summer months, as well as sea-going whalewatch cruises.
Lubec, Castport, Calais and St Andrews have good small inns and hotels, but they may fill to capacity in summer, so reserve your room(s) in advance. Use this handy Hotel Map with Prices to find lodgings in or near Lubec. (Don't see the map? Click here!)
Aptly-named Eastport, Maine, on Moose Island in Cobscook Bay on the US-Canada border (map), is one of the easternmost towns in the USA.
In the late 19th century, Eastport was famous for sardines. Local fishermen brought in boatloads of the tasty little creatures daily, and 18 fish canneries packed them for shipment around the world.
Today Eastport is noted for its classic Maine maritime town center with some fine buildings from its heyday in the late 1800s; for its car ferry to Deer Island, New Brunswick; and for the extreme Fundy tides it experiences.
The Tides Institute & Museum of Art in the center is worth a visit, and behind it the, simple Quoddy Bay Lobster Restaurant serves some of the best, freshest and most authentic seafood dishes in Maine. It's a simple place with excellent lobster, scallops, clams, crabs, mussels and Maine shrimp (in season).
Cutting the Mustard
Eastport's sardine canneries are long gone, but a pungent survivor of that area is Raye's Mustard Mill. Opened in 1903 to produce the tangy flavoring used in some sardine products, Raye's is still at it, the only mustard mill in the USA to produce mustard by the traditional small-batch, cold-stone-ground method.
Mustard grains from Saskatchewan are ground on the traditional French quartz grindstones driven by the original 19th-century belt-power system. Because Raye's mustard is slow-ground and never heated, it preserves all the horseradish-like tang and zip of real mustard, something lacking in all the big US brands. More...
Moose Island is connected by a causeway to the mainland south of Calais, Maine, so you can drive to Eastport. In summer you can also take a car ferry to Deer Island, New Brunswick, Canada, and from there another ferry to Campobello Island or to the New Brunswick mainland at L'Etete in order to reach the resort town of St Andrews by-the-Sea. More...
Calais (rhymes with "palace"), Maine, is right on the St Croix River, the border between the USA and Canada (map).
For breakfast or lunch, there's Karen's Diner & Korner Pub, a classic American diner with quick, friendly service, hearty food, and budget prices.
For insights into the history and arts of Washington County's indigenous peoples, have a look at the Wabanaki Culture Center in the Maine Visitor Center at 39B Union Street (tel: +1-207-454-2211) in Calais (map).
View of St Stephen, New Brunswick, across the St Croix River from Calais, Maine....
A Bit of History
With the success of the American Revolution, United Empire Loyalists flocked across the frontier into Canada so as not to be disloyal to the monarch.
But things are different in Calais, and its neighboring city, St Stephen NB (map). Folks in these two towns, cheek-by-jowl on the St Croix River, make a point of telling visitors how they ignored the affinities of both sides during the War of 1812, and St Stephen even supplied powder-poor Calais with gunpowder for its Fourth of July celebrations.
In fact, by the time the war came, families in the twin towns were so closely intermarried that no one wanted to take the time to sort out who should be loyal to whom.
These days residents celebrate this unique plague-on-both-their-houses philosophy with an International Festival in the first week of August. The two bridges over the river between the towns are thronged with merrymakers moving back and forth—through the watchful but benevolent eye of customs and immigration authorities, of course—and Canadian and American flags fly everywhere.