At the turn of the century, Bar Harbor, the onetime fishing village on the eastern coast of Mount Desert Island, was Maine's premier resort—a glamorous enclave of regal cottages and lavish entertainments for the few and the wealthy. They ran it like a country club until the great fire of 1947 destroyed everything. As the upper crust migrated 10 miles south, to Northeast Harbor and Seal Harbor, what rose from the rubble was a noisy, lively resort on the move.
For mingling, shopping, necessities, and family fun, downtown Bar Harbor ("ba-hab-uh" to locals) supplies the island's action and its heartbeat. But it's the place to play, not to stay. The soul of this region lies beyond the village, in the coves and woodlands of Mount Desert (pronounced like dessert) Island's still-private places, in its hills and lakes, and in the sudden view around a bend where the silence is unbroken.
You can't approach the island and know it right away. It has a closely guarded provenance, shaped by the rush to nature of "rusticators," as the Rockefellers, Fords, Vanderbilts, and Astors dubbed themselves. Locals have a reputation for being suspicious and territorial, but if you drive up in a scuffed American-made car and look interested, they'll point you in the right direction. The walks, sights, inns, and eating places are unrivaled, and yet, even though it's a resort, the area retains a low profile.
When to Go
July through Labor Day is high season, a time of full occupancy. Fall is active, too, thanks to the spectacular foliage. Winter is for the rugged, but the cross-country skiing is superb.
The Peak Experience
Acadia National Park—one of the most popular parks in the United States—is M.D.I.'s crown jewel: some 40,000 acres of mountains, river valleys, glacial lakes, bluffs, and beaches. A network of car-free carriage roads was carved out by John D. Rockefeller Jr.
Otter Cliffs (for crashing waves), Cadillac Mountain (great sunset views from its dome), Thunder Hole (it booms at mid tide rising), and the fantastic drive along the 27-mile Park Loop Road.
Best Hikes: The dramatic two-mile oceanside climb up Gorham Mountain, the wandering footpath along the Park Loop Road, the scenic Ocean Trail beside Frenchman Bay, and the low-tide picnic walk from Bar Harbor to Bar Island (you return when the tide ebbs again).
Gardens to Explore
Wild Gardens of Acadia Sieur de Monts Spring Entrance, Acadia; open daily; no admission fee. The island's 12 ecosystems in miniature.
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden Off Rte. 3, Seal Harbor; 207/276-3330; open Thursday afternoon July 17- September 11; reservations required. A dazzling interplay of flower beds and sculpture.
Thuya Gardens Peabody Dr., Northeast Harbor; 207/ 276-5130; open 8- 7 daily in July and August; $2 donation. A cliff walk leads to a small museum and a poem to landscape gardening.
Asticou Gardens Rte. 3 near Rte. 198, Northeast Harbor; open daily May 1- October 31; no admission fee. A storybook stroll through a Japanese azalea garden in late spring and early summer, as well as raked meditation gardens, across from the Asticou Inn.
Petite Plaisance South Shore Rd., Northeast Harbor; 207/ 276-3940; open June 15- August 31; reservations required; no admission fee. Wander behind the modest house of the late novelist Marguerite Yourcenar and through the Japanese garden to the little headstone of her dog, inscribed, "A gentle heart in a small body."
On the Water
Two voyages worth taking: a naturalist-narrated cruise on the Sea Princess, lasting from 11/2 to 3 hours for the dinner cruise (207/276-5352); a whale-watching excursion on Friendship V (207/288-2386). July and August are prime months for seeing whales.
Check out the MDI Biological Laboratory (Old Bar Harbor Rd., Salisbury Cove; 207/288-3605). Six miles north of Bar Harbor, the largest cold-water research facility in the East opens its doors on Wednesday afternoons from July 2 to August 27 for tours and thrilling peeks at all manner of marine behavior. Also visit the touch-the-sea-animals Mount Desert Oceanarium (172 Clark Point Rd., Southwest Harbor; 207/244-7330; open 9- 5, Monday- Saturday; admission $6).
Where to Stay
TRIED AND TRUE Asticou Inn Rte. 3, Northeast Harbor; 800/258-3373 or 207/276-3344; 44 rooms, doubles $264- $299, including breakfast and dinner; guesthouses available. This well-appointed bastion of Maine hospitality, with a breezy terrace overlooking the harbor, offers all the basic comforts and no surprises.
NEW AND NOTABLE Lindenwood Inn Southwest Harbor; 800/307-5335 or 207/244-5335; 23 rooms, doubles $85- $195; guesthouses available. Think sea captain's house gone tropical. Jim King, an Australian, has transformed a mansion into a bright, comfortable, palm-filled inn with first-rate food. Swim laps in the terrace pool; wind down at the spa.
ON THE ROCKS Inn at Canoe Point Rte. 3, Bar Harbor; 207/288-9511; five rooms, doubles $135- $165. A Victorian estate at water's edge and among the pines. Head to the deck for the copious breakfast, and return at day's end to a high-comfort fireplace suite.
BED-AND-BREAKFASTS Heron House 1 Fernald Point Rd., Southwest Harbor; 207/244-0221; three rooms, doubles $70. Sought out for its caring owners, fresh-baked-everything breakfast, and luxuries such as French soap and blossoms on plates.
MacDonalds' 1111 Main St., Somesville; 207/244-3316; three rooms, doubles $75- $85. There's no sign out front, so you locate this 21/2-story Colonial by its pretty perennial borders. The amenities are modest, but you'll love the cove view, the antiques and books, and the homey breakfast.
Where to Eat
TOTAL HANGOUT Docksider 14 Sea St., Northeast Harbor; 207/276-3965; lunch for two $12. Midday, the deck hums as the young bike up for a sandwich while grown-ups tuck into the $14.95 special: clam chowder, steamed lobster, and blueberry pie.
SEAFOOD PURE AND SIMPLE Abel's Lobster Pound Rte. 198, Somes Sound; 207/276-5827; lunch for two $20, dinner $60. Wander up past the lobster pound and steam house, then dig into lobster and clams as you view the only fjord in the United States.
SEAFOOD WITH STYLE Burning Tree Rte. 3, Otter Creek; 207/288-9331; dinner for two $55. Find Caspar Weinberger, Robert Bork, and a smattering of Fords checking out the blackboard for the daily take. Chef-owners Allison Martin and Elmer Beal meet the fishing boats, grow those baby greens out back, and employ robust flavorings in their seafood pepper pot, house-smoked chicken, and Swiss chard, potato, and artichoke pie.
GREAT ESCAPE Redfield's Main St., Northeast Harbor; 207/276-5283; dinner for two $50. White and serene, with an imaginative menu prepared using local ingredients and presented with surprise flourishes: lobster medallions deglazed with Grand Marnier; chèvre cheesecake with wild Maine strawberries.
BEST DEAL Seaside On the pier by the Seal Harbor Yacht Club. This snack shack short-orders a succulent $3 lobster roll, while the ravenous feast on the $15.95 special: one lobster, one winkle, one crab, steamers, mussels.
JILL SPALDING is the U.S. editor of Vogue Entertaining and author of Blithe Spirits—A History of the Cocktail (Acropolis).