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North by Northeast

Main street notwithstanding, Northeast Harbor, unlike other summer towns, is not about shopping and eating. Ever since those first skinny-dippers, it's been about healthy outdoor activity. In the early 1900's, leading members of summer society decided that the island's rugged wilderness needed to be preserved. Over the course of decades several of them, including John D. Rockefeller, bought up parcels of land that would eventually become Acadia National Park. Part of their motivation, certainly, was to preserve the scenery for the edification of the common man. Probably another consideration was that if it weren't protected, the wilderness would soon be thickly settled with those same common men. Today, there are 30,300 acres of natural buffer between Northeast Harbor and hoi polloi in Bar Harbor to the east.

Fronting one of the most beautiful anchorages on the Maine coast, Bar Harbor was once home to many of the island's elite. Then, in 1947, fire devastated the eastern side of the island, razing the town and most of the large cottages. The last of the rich evacuated to Northeast Harbor, leaving Bar Harbor to the encroaching hordes. Today some 4 million Americans visit Mount Desert each year, and most of them stay, eat, and shop (for fudge, T-shirts, and lobster-emblazoned paraphernalia) in Bar Harbor.

The real draw, though, is the park. It may lack the drama of the Grand Canyon and the scope of Denali, but Acadia has a striking beauty all its own. At the top of the tourist hit parade is a drive up Cadillac Mountain, the only peak in Acadia accessible by road (and often clogged with traffic). The highest point on the Atlantic coastline, it's said to be the first place in the continental United States to see the light of each day's sun. From there many tourists head to the Thunder Hole, a rock formation on the eastern shore that spews up geysers of salt spray during high seas.

Those who most appreciate the park's charms, however, dive headlong into the wilderness, away from the crowds: climbing its hills, hiking and biking through its forests, paddling its rocky shores. Such purposeful exertion doesn't jibe with the sporting ideals of the old guard, who are frankly bemused by Lycra, Gatorade, and PABA. They prefer cotton, cocktails, and a deep tan. As Peggy says: "On Mount Desert, we climb the hills for the views, not for exercise."

On a warm and sunny morning I drive to the edge of town and hike the nearest peak, Sargent Mountain. Pine and spruce boughs arch overhead as I follow the Maple Spring Trail up a steep gorge filled with a jumble of stream-tossed boulders. As I climb on, the rocks grow smaller, the ascent gentler, the tree cover thinner, giving way to blueberry bushes and slabs of lichen-clad rock. I rest on a rock shelf to take in the view. Forests spread below me, sweeping down toward the coast in a dark, shaggy coat. Whatever Rockefeller's motives, he made the right call.

The next day, Wes invites me for a picnic on his water taxi. On Mount Desert, as on Macmahan Island, excursions to nearby islets are a favorite pastime. I remember picnicking with my family on a windswept arc of sand called Powderhorn. No matter how hot and muggy it was everywhere else, Powderhorn was always bitterly cold. As a point of honor everyone had to swim, even if the water was so frigid that it gave you an ice cream headache.

I find Wes in the stern of his boat, Ripples, puffing on his pipe. We cruise down the coast, surveying the cottages that poke out at intervals along the seafront cliffs. The term cottage carries a certain poetic license, as each costs many millions and has been constructed to hold generations in simultaneous comfort.

It's only from the sea that one gets a sense of their scale: the turrets, the gables, the porches and balconies stacked over one another. "See that house?" Wes asks, indicating a clapboard mansion. "Dodie Ford, Walter's widow, lived there," he says. "The sightseeing boats out of Bar Harbor used to come past quite close, and one day she finally got fed up. I hear she walked outside, dropped her drawers, and mooned the whole boat." He chuckles. "This, at eighty-odd years of age."

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