The king-daddy draw on Down East Maine’s Mount Desert Island is unquestionably Acadia National Park. But hey, sometimes it rains, or the kids are burned out on hiking, or you’ve just had enough grandeur for one day. MDI, as the locals know it, has plenty to offer outside the park, much of it centered around the one-time upper-crust summer colony of Bar Harbor (still picturesque, now somewhat more egalitarian). As a bonus, the bulk of the island’s best family activities have an educational bent, as MDI’s comparatively unspoiled character fosters a local obsession with natural (and, to a lesser extent, human) history. Elsewhere on the island, tiny hamlets like Seal Harbor and Southwest Harbor maintain the character of working fishing villages with a light tourism element thrown in—scenic and educational ocean cruises are big. These few MDI highlights will keep the kids entertained and make sure they go home having learned a little something about whales (for example).
The Naturalist's Notebook
“Shop + Think,” says the sign outside this Seal Harbor edutainment emporium, and that about sums it up. It’s not quite a museum, not quite a toy or book store, but a kind of whimsical amalgam with exhibits and merchandise that tries to sum up the story of the last 13.8 billion years, from the Big Bang through yesterday.
Mount Desert Oceanarium
Kids can handle live starfish, urchins, and horseshoe crabs from the oceanarium’s touch tank and get up close and personal with a few lobsters from the on-site hatchery. Outside, a boardwalk stroll through a salt marsh teaches about the complexities of saltwater ecosystems. Fill all your lobster swag needs in the gift shop.
Bar Harbor Whale Watching Co.
Choose from more than a half-dozen outings on the waters surrounding MDI, most of them in the neighborhood of three hours long. Humpback, Finback and Minke whales are out there, as are puffins, seals, and seabirds. You can even try your hand at lobster fishing. For mom and dad, the ship’s galley serves beer and wine.
Maine's only Smithsonian affiliate, the cozy Abbe Museum chronicles the history, art, and culture of Maine’s Wabanaki Nations, which include Maine’s major Native American tribes. The exhibits don’t dwell exclusively in the past, though—contemporary works by First Nations artist are displayed alongside archaeological artifacts like arrowheads and pottery shards.
As much wildlife as you can spot in and around Acadia, there are certain animals—crocodiles, for instance—that you’re just not likely to encounter. The Kisma Preserve in nearby Trenton isn’t a zoo, but a rescue operation for homeless wild animals, and an hour-long tour introduces visitors to the preserve’s resident wolves, tigers, and lynx.