By Saul Schwartz
My wife Fern and I spent four days in and around Acadia National Park and then three days in the Portland, Maine area. Because there is no lodge with Acadia, we stayed at an Airbnb off State Road 102, about 15 minutes from Bar Harbor and Acadia. We ate our breakfasts and dinners in the Airbnb. The Shaw’s grocery store in Ellsworth offered us plenty of meal options.
Acadia is located two-thirds of the way up the Maine coast. Acadia is about a three-hour drive to Portland. The Park is often erroneously referred to as Arcadia, a past name for it.
Acadia National Park
Acadia was established as a National Park in 1929. All of its land was donated by private citizens. The Park protects the natural beauty of the highest rocky headlands along the U.S. Atlantic coastline and contains about 47,000 acres. Although Acadia consistently ranks among the most visited National Parks, we were able to experience the Park’s most popular attractions without it feeling too crowded. Although the middle of each day was the most crowded, with patience we were able to find parking close to each trailhead or site.
Acadia possesses an unusual combination of ocean and mountains. The Park includes 54 square miles or about half of Mount Desert Island. Admission to the park costs $30 per vehicle for one week. With our American the Beautiful pass, admission was free. Portions of the park are located outside of the gated area, where there is no charge. Indeed, private property is located between portions of the park.
Park rangers at Hulls Cove Visitor Center provided us with useful park information, maps and brochures. The Park’s main visitor center is about 3 miles from Bar Harbor, off state road 3. The Center is open daily except during November through March and has clean rest room facilities, as well as a very large parking area.
Park Loop Road begins near the Hulls Cove Visitor Center. The scenic 27-mile road connects Acadia’s lakes, mountains, and seashore. It provides access to most of the Park’s key attractions. It takes about one hour to drive the loop in a leisurely manner, taking in several overlooks offering marvelous views of Frenchman Bay or mountain views.
Off Park Loop Road, Cadillac Mountain Road extends to the summit of Cadillac Mountain. The 3.5 mile narrow, winding road is considered one of the most scenic drives in the United States. Although visitors can drive all the way to the rocky summit, currently time slots (costing $6 per vehicle) are required through Recreation.gov. Reservations do not require a departure time. Parking is available on two lots at the summit. There is a small gift shop called the Eco-Store with snacks, gifts, and bathrooms near the parking lots.
Cadillac Mountain has a summit of 1530 feet and offers a spectacular view of the coast. The Mountain is the highest point on the U.S. Atlantic seaboard. From a .4 scenic loop trail at the top, the panorama encompasses Bar Harbor, Freshman Bay, the Atlantic Ocean and almost all of Desert Island. Fortunately, we had a clear day and great visibility with stunning vistas. This Mountain is the Park’s most famous attraction.
With 125 miles of hiking trails to choose from, we researched options and asked for recommendations at the Visitor Center from the park rangers. The Park rangers provided us information on the Park’s pick areas where we ate the packed lunches that we brought into the park. The Bear Brook and Fabbri picnic areas had plenty of picnic tables and restrooms. The Park’s only restaurant, the Jordan Pond House, is located by Jordan Pond and has both indoor and outdoor seating options. We noticed that there were very long wait times for tables.
The Park contains 45 miles of sixteen feet wide Carriage Roads suitable for walking or biking. Theses rustic roads were a gift from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and family. Constructed from 1913 to 1940, the Carriage Roads weave around the mountains and valleys of the park, providing sweeping vistas and close-up views of the landscape.
Fern and I absolutely wanted to sample one Carriage Road, so for our initial hike, we walked along the Carriage Road with a trailhead at the Hulls Grove Visitor Center that headed to Witch Hole Pond. Portions of the hike were steep, but most of the trail was flat. The trail to the Pond was .9 miles and then we went along a portion of the Witch Hole Pond loop before heading back to the trailhead. The Pond is blue and beautiful, surrounded by mountains in the distance and wooden terrain. The leaves on the trees surrounding the Pond were just beginning to color.
Sand Beach is partially formed of shell fragments. Located about ten miles from the visitor center, it is the park’s only sand beach on the Atlantic Ocean. Water temperatures are very cold, but the site is very picturesque. Most visitors walked along the beach; a few ventured into the water. Sand Beach is a geological rarity. It is one of the few cold-water, shell-based beaches in the world. Sand beaches are uncommon in Maine because cold water traps gases that dissolve seashells.
Our favorite hike, the Ocean Path, began at Sand Beach. We walked by a series of cobblestone beaches. Views of the rock-bound coast and seashore are incredible.
Our first major stop on the Ocean Path hike was Thunder Hole. Thunder Hole is a wave-cut chasm producing loud reverberations and splashes of water. As wind-driven tides sweep into this narrow graphite channel, air becomes trapped, escaping with a thunderous road and waves sweep onto the viewing area. The surf booms as it crashed into a narrow tunnel in the cliff edge.
The Ocean Path trail ends at Otter Cliffs, a 100-foot pink granite buttress rising straight out of the water. These are the highest ocean-edge cliffs in the park. This 4-mile round-trip took us about two hours. The path is fairly level, on smooth gravel and often just a few feet from the ocean.
Our third hike was around Jordan Pond, perhaps the Park’s loveliest pond. Located on the western side of Park Loop Road, its waters are clear and cool. On a misty day, the views of the mountains from the pond were impaired. A portion of the hike is a challenging rock scramble, but most is flat and over boardwalks or on land. The hike took about one and one-half hours and covered 3.6 miles. The trail is very close to the water. The trail is most easily accessed at the Jordan Pond House, with several parking lots nearby.
One useful resource for hiking at Acadia is the book, Great Walks-Acadia National Park & Mount Desert Island by Robert Gillmore. The revised edition outlines 32 walks either in Acadia National Park or nearby, with plenty of helpful information.
Bar Harbor is about three miles away from Acadia. The beauty of the sea, mountains, lakes, and forest have made this region well-known as a resort. At the turn of the twentieth century, Bar Harbor had become the summer playground for wealth U.S. millionaires who owned so-called cottages and mansions. In 1947, a fire swept through the town, raving most of the estates. Several descendants of these families retain homes in the area. The resident population is around 5500. Where the millionaires’ cottages once stood, there are now inns, guesthouses, cafes, galleries, and specialty shops.
In advance we booked a two-hour walking tour of Bar Harbor called “Walk in time in Bar Harbor, celebrating 200 plus years.” We really enjoyed this tour booked through Viator at a cost of $42 per adult. The tour operator was Maine Foodie Tours, and the guide (Charlie) did an exceptional job of providing information and answering questions. There were about 10 of us on this excursion.
The tour began at 2 p.m. in front of the Abbe Museum in downtown Bar Harbor, a museum featuring Native American exhibits, associated with the Smithsonian. This museum is located on Mount Desert Street and is open daily. The Museum is across from the Village Green. The Village Green is a lovely central town square with a 17th century tiered Italian fountain.
We went inside St. Savior’s Church which features a series of twelve lovely Tiffany stained-glass windows in vivid colors. The Church is located at 41 Mount Desert Street and is built in the American Shingle style in stone and wood. Next to the Church, the burial grounds contain a very large granite civil war memorial. The monument contains the word “Eden,” the name of the town before it became Bar Harbor.
We walked by two surviving canons which had guarded Frenchman’s Bay in 1898 as part of the coastal defense. The tour finished along the Bar Harbor Shore Path, a level gravel trail with views of the islands off Bar Harbor and the town itself. One interesting feature was the balancing rock at the edge of the harbor. The large boulder on the shore sits on a ledge which moved to this location during the ice age.
Fern and I also spent some time walking around the very quaint town. There are several streets with cute stores and many restaurants. For a snack, had excellent vegan ice cream from Ben and Bill’s Chocolate Emporium at 66 Main Street.
Located on the Southern end of Mount Desert Island, we walked through this bustling little village after touring two gardens nearby. Eleven miles from Bar Harbor, this lovely low-key town has a resident population of about 500. Boats bobble at the waterfront.
Thuya Garden is accessed via a gravel parking lot across the street from the terraces to the gardens. The landing and dock on the shore of Northeast Harbor border the lot off route 3. The steep .25-mile terraces trail affords beautiful views of Northeast Harbor from several lookout points along the granite hillside. It includes 200 granite steps, and the hillside is covered with native vegetation. At the top, there are semi-annual English gardens, eastern Maine woodlands, winding paths and a reflection pool. Donations are accepted. The gardens are open Wednesdays through Sundays, June through October.
Thuya is one of several land and garden preserves in the Seal Harbor/Northeast Harbor area. These gardens, covering 24 acres, are named for the white cedar trees native to the site. The native woodland gardens and formal woodland gardens are surrounded by a series of trails. Much of the landscape was built in the 1950s with plants obtained from noted landscape gardener Beatrice Farrand and through the collaboration of several wealthy donors, including John D. Rockefeller, Jr. During September, the gardens were still very colorful.
Asticou Azalea Garden is another garden and land preserve in this area. Influenced by design elements of classic Japanese gardens, the three-acre garden was created in 1958 to highlight the similarities between the scenery of Mount Desert and of Japan. A freshwater stream flows through the garden from nearby mountains, offering ample reflection and quiet spaces. These gardens are off route 198. They are open daily from May through October.
During our September visit, trees and shrubs carefully selected for their call provide a display of vibrant hues, especially in dark maroon. Again, Beatrice Farrand ‘s well-loved plant collection was preserved and expanded here. One unusual feature is a sand garden. This garden is both smaller and flatter than the Thuya garden and, therefore, can be covered in a shorter period. There are several Japanese sculptures on the grounds.
After touring the gardens, we stopped for a light lunch at the Acadia Outdoor Center in Seal Harbor at 18 Main Street. We ate outside on picnic tables. Although the food and drink menu is limited (focusing on drinks and ice cream), the owners were very friendly and helpful with directions about local attractions.
After four days in Acadia, we drove three hours to Portland, Maine for the final three days of our trip.
On the way to Portland, we stopped at the L.L. Bean Flagship store. The store is contained in several buildings, and it is enormous! The town of Freeport is small, but cute and contains several historical buildings. Harrington House was built in 1830 by merchant Enoch Harrington in a Greek Revival style. It is now the headquarters of the Freeport Historical society. Also on Main Street, the Bartol Library had housed a public Carnegie library, beginning in 1905. The building features a Classic Revival style. We ended the visit with a stop for coffee/tea at Zestea, a bakery and café, with plenty of outdoor tables, at 32 Main Street.
The largest city in Maine, with a population of 66,000, Portland is very easy to navigate around. We stayed at an Airbnb in Falmouth, where we ate most of our meals. The Shaw’s grocery store in Falmouth offered us plenty of food options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
The Old Port by the waterfront was the heart of Portland’s nineteenth century commercial activities. After fire leveled this area in 1866, the district was reconstructed in a classic Victorian style. The architecture ands cobblestone streets recapture the flavor of Portland’s early seaport days.
Pete Lyons was a great tour guide for a one hours walking tour of the Old Port area. His company is called Portland Maine Walking Tours. We met at Monument Square, 456 Congress Street. The large civil war monument is called “Our Lady of Victories” and honors Portland’s civil war soldiers. The bronze statue on a granite base was dedicated in 1891. The statue depicts a female figure, clad in armor, and covered with flowing robes and is an allegorical representation of victory.
We next walked by a bronze sculpture entitled “The Maine Lobsterman.” Victor Kahill designed this sculpture for the 1939 New York World’s Fair and it was moved to Portland in 1977. This sculpture is a commemoration of the Mainers who have dedicated their lives to fishing. It depicts a lobsterman kneeling while banding a lobster claw. The statue is in Canal Plaza. Peter explained how Maine’s lobster industry plays a central economic role.
During the tour, we stopped at several Portland freedom trail markers. Each marker explains the location’s anti-slavery role. One marker depicts the location of the Portland Union anti-slavery society. It was within a secondhand clothing store that assisted African American passengers on the underground railroad by providing warm clothing.
On a humorous note, Pete explained that Portland’s sister “city” in Japan is just a part of Tokyo, a ward. A pair of red Japanese mailbox markers notes that in 1984, Shinagawa, Japan, became Portland’s sister city. It is in a pocket park on Middle Street. This ward of Tokyo was selected as a sister city because of its seaport connections.
Our final stop was to look at City Hall at 389 Congress Street. This building was built in 1909 and occupies an entire city block. A 200-foot tower rises in the center of the U-shaped granite structure. City Hall was designed by the same New York design firm that created the New York public library and it has a similar look.
Pete thoroughly covered Portland’s history, sights and people. He was willing to answer all sorts of questions. Pete identified Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as the city’s most famous resident. There is abundant street art in Portland and a lovely street art quotation from Longfellow is painted in one alley within Old Port.
At the northeast end of the peninsula, Eastern Promenade provides scenic views of the Fore River, Casco Bay, and many boats. This 68-acre recreational area was perfect for walking with a great panorama. At the top of the park, there is a monument to George Cleeves, the founder of Portland. This is the first public monument of Portland, erected in 1883. It is an obelisk in the foreground of Casco Bay, made of granite.
Lighthouses are scattered throughout the Portland area. We visited three of the five lighthouses close to Portland. Portland Head Light in Cape Elizabeth is particularly attractive. This lighthouse is contained within Fort Williams Park. Parking was free and plentiful. First operated in 1791, it is one of oldest lighthouses in continuous use in the U.S. There are great Casco Bay views behind the lighthouse, as well. The lighthouse is not open to climb up. Signage indicated that Longfellow often walked from Portland to visit this lighthouse and write poems.
The Portland Breakwater Lighthouse is also known as “Bug Light.” Bug Light Harbor offers expansive views of Portland Harbor and the city skyline. As the park was the center of shipbuilding activity during World War 2, a liberty ship memorial explains how about 30,000 people were employed at this site during the war, building liberty ships. Built in 1875, this elegant lighthouse was modeled on an ancient fourth century Greek monument. Built with cast iron plates, it was dubbed Bug Light due to its small size. Free parking is available. A paved walkway along the shore led us right up to the lighthouse itself, which is not open to climb.
We also stopped at the Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse. This caisson-style lighthouse was built in 1897 to warn mariners of the dangerous ledge in Portland Harbor upon which it sits. Free parking is available nearby. As the walkway to the lighthouse itself was labeled hazardous on the day we visited, we did not walk right up to the lighthouse itself.
We had one lunch downtown with friends at the waterfront on an outside patio at Becky’s Diner, 390 Commercial Street. We had a very long wait for a table. The prices were reasonable, but the healthy food options (such as salads and fruit) were very limited. Also, we stopped by The Holy Donut (with two locations) to sample the very popular Maine Potato Donuts. The line was long and by the time we got to the cashier, many varieties were sold out. The donuts, made with fresh Maine potatoes, are massively popular.
In Falmouth, we were able to purchase several food items at the Town Landing Market. Located at 269 Foreside Road, the market had an extensive menu.
Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens were a one-hour drive from Portland. The 275-acre botanical garden contains 91,000 plants spread over a vast system of paths. Waterfalls and sculptures are spread throughout. The gardens are open daily, but currently a reserved advanced time slot is necessary. They are located at 105 Botanical Garden Drive in Boothbay. Adult admission is $22 per person. There is a large parking lot near the Visitor Center.
Throughout the gardens, there are five trolls built on site designed by Thomas Dambo, who lives and works in Copenhagen, Denmark. A self-labeled “recycle art activist,” his trolls can be found worldwide, telling a story of sustainability. The trolls are made of recycled wood and volunteers at the Gardens told us about the troll stories.
The grounds of the Gardens are quite large, and the paths are often hilly. Shuttles were available to get around within the Gardens.
After seven days in Maine, Fern and I felt that we had experienced some great highlights of Maine. We really enjoyed the Needham, the Maine Potato candy that consists of potato, coconut and a gourmet chocolate blend. Our only disappointment was not seeing any of the 76,000 moose that can be seen throughout the state, supposedly!