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October 20, 2021

Big Boost

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Things to Do in Bar Harbor, Maine: 8 Reasons to Make the Drive

10 min read

To say the least, COVID-19 has been quite the vacation squasher these late two summers. Most people skipped vacations last year out of an abundance of caution—and rightly so—but there’s no time like the present to stretch your legs and take advantage of the last dregs of summer. And there’s no better place to stretch said legs than one of New England’s most beloved coastal towns: Bar Harbor, Maine. A beautiful five hour seaside drive from Boston winds you through picturesque stop-offs revealing hidden coves and lighthouses, and once you’ve turned off Route 3, an abundance of fresh lobster and impressive pink granite awaits.

No one needs a reason to embark on a maritime adventure, and New England vacations are that much better when you lean into geographical cliches—we’re talking sailing from harbor to harbor, circling lighthouses, crackin’ lobster claws, whale watching, throwing axes like a lumberjack… Bar Harbor has it all. Mount Desert, where Bar Harbor sits, is the largest island off the coast of Maine and, fun fact: From around March to October, Cadillac Mountain, the area’s tallest peak, is the very first piece of land the sunrise hits throughout the entire continental US. Who knew?

Acadia National Park
Acadia National Park | Mike Ver Sprill/Shutterstock

Packed with a delicious bounty of clams, oysters, scallops, lobster, and shrimp, Bar Harbor also serves as an entryway to the stunning Acadia National Park, known for its epic summits, seaside views, canopied trails, freshwater escapes, and sandy beaches. There are endless reasons to program this idyllic ocean town into your GPS, but here are eight tantalizing itinerary ideas guaranteed to convince you to “pahk” your “cah” in “bah habah” (sorry, not sorry).

Balance Rock Inn
Balance Rock Inn

Kick back in style at a cushy inn or contemporary hotel…

Nothing beats getting cozy after a long day of hiking, swimming, and lobster noshing. Bar Harbor offers an array of options, from boutique hotels to luxurious inns. Balance Rock Inn is an all-inclusive seaside resort complete with veranda dining, a private swimming pool, and modern ocean view rooms—but it’ll cost you, of course. Budget-weary travelers should consider Edgewater Motels and Suites, with its quaint waterfront accommodations teeming with that sought-after New England seaside charm.

Stay Bar Harbor spans four different cottages and inns, some with sweeping balcony views and others just steps away from the water. No matter your lodging choice, you can rest assured (literally) that they all come with a farm-to-table complimentary breakfast. And for timid urbanites, the boutique Acadia Hotel lies in the heart of downtown Bar Harbor and serves up airy, modern guest rooms plus swank amenities like hot tubs, complimentary bicycles to get around town, and even indoor golf.

Acadia National Park
Acadia National Park | Zack Frank/Shutterstock

… or snuggle up to nature at an area campground

If your idea of a sweet summer vacation is sleeping under the stars with nothing but a thin strip of nylon—or the sturdy roof of a rented RV or camper van—separating you from the night sky, you’re in luck. Blackwoods Campground, located about six miles south of downtown Bar Harbor, is a very popular option, outfitted with sites that can be reserved up to two months in advance. Oddly, the showers will cost you three dollars a pop, but, hey, that’s the price you pay to smell sweet after a long day of sweating it out in mother nature.

Five miles outside of Bar Harbor proper is Bar Harbor Campgrounds, which houses a bonus outdoor heated pool and, as if that wasn’t reason enough to snag a spot, an abundance of blueberry bushes throughout the property. Hadley’s Point Campgrounds sports a beautiful northern-facing view overlooking Mt. Desert Narrows. In addition to primitive camping, they also offer cabins with private bathrooms (!!!). The best thing about these spots is that they’re served by The Island Explorer, a trusty bus service delivering campers to both Acadia Park and downtown Bar Harbor. All these campgrounds can accommodate tents along with RVs and they’re dog friendly, to boot, so no need to leave Fido behind.

Cafe This Way
Cafe This Way

Gorge yourself at lobster shacks, scenic chophouses, & veggie-centric diners

Bar Harbor’s reputation is steeped in its bait-to-plate seafood cornucopia, but there’s a wealth of other unique cuisines available for those ready to try something new. Start out your day at Cafe This Way, where the diner-style menu has everything from healthy to hearty and the cottage-esque atmosphere will make you feel right at home. For my vegetarian and vegan folks, Jeannie’s Great Maine Breakfast dishes up tasty, meat-free classics like blueberry pancakes, home fries, and enticing egg sandwiches.

Galyn’s is your one-stop-shop for seafood fettuccine, lobster enchiladas, and the accurately described “lazy lobster” for those not wanting to throw their backs out de-shelling dinner. Galyn’s has indoor and outdoor dining, but you can also order to-go and take your feast across the street to beautiful Agmont Park.

We all know that seafood is delicious smothered in melted butter, but Havana offers a Latin spin on local ingredients with originals like tempting seafood paellas and coconut broth Lobster Moqueca. They also proudly value sustainable practices when sourcing their menus and pair it the whole shebang with an extensive wine list to satisfy any budget.

At patio-ready Peekytoe Provisions, hungry patrons load up on overstuffed sandwiches, salads, clam chowder, and lobster bisque. And with an array of locally and sustainably sourced products including fresh Maine fish, raw oysters, yummy signature sauces, and heart-friendly granola, Peekytoe has all your picnic-worthy pantry items covered.

Beal's Lobster Pier
Beal’s Lobster Pier

For a more refined suppertime experience, check out the Chart Room, a haven for digging into surf and turf, choice steaks, and belly-warming pasta dishes while gazing out over Hulls Cove. Elsewhere, the Travelin Lobster whips up incredible cold and hot lobster rolls, sourced directly from local fishermen and served in a charming shack-like locale. Don’t leave without indulging in the blueberry ice cream and pie—it’s palette-cleanser from heaven. A short drive outside of Bar Harbor reveals Beal’s Lobster Pier, where lobster and cocktails dominate the tables dotting a patio overlooking Southwest Harbor. And if you want to go the extra casual route, visit Ted’s Take Out, a not-to-miss food truck parked in the northwest Harbor. There you’ll find Ted himself peddling fresh lobster, but make sure you check his Facebook page for updates on his precise location and hours of operation.

Bar Harbor whale watching
Bar Harbor whale watching | Darryl Brooks/Shutterstock

Earn your sea legs along the wildlife-rich coastline

Nautical fanatics, you’ve arrived. Bar Harbor Whale Watching Co. offers a variety of cruises, all of which include floating alongside Mount Desert Island’s magnificently rugged shores. Expert nature guides are on hand to share a wealth of regional history and geography while you scan the waters for sharks, porpoises, puffins, seals, and even gargantuan whales. Birders, make a beeline for the company’s Puffins and Lighthouse Cruise, where you will visit a puffin colony and comb the skies for eagles and waterfowl before turning your binoculars to a dazzling lighthouse. New England is home to over 100 historic lighthouses, and Egg Rock Light in Frenchmen Bay is one of the region’s most pristine examples. Built in 1875, the beacon also showcases an unusual square structure where the light keeper once slept. For birdwatchers, Bar Harbor Whale Watching Co offers a Puffins and Lighthouse Cruise where you will visit a puffin colony , but also see eagles and other coastal birds.

Thunder Hole
Thunder Hole | kurdistan/Shutterstock

As the name implies, Thunder Hole creates a monstrous roar when the crashing water, tide, and atmosphere are just right. And even if you don’t happen to catch it at that right moment, witnessing the power of the Atlantic Ocean kissing the edge of the bay is a truly spectacular sight

Bar Harbor aptly got its name from the fluctuating tide along the sandbar from the mainland to Bar Island. See for yourself with a trip down Bar Harbor Island Trail, though be sure to mind the parking signs if you bring your car. The expanse is drivable at low tide, but too many have made the mistake of abandoning their vehicles along this expanse only to find their bobbing along the waves after returning from a hike.

Cottage Street Pub
Cottage Street Pub

Embark on a Bar Harbor bar crawl

After a long day cruising the coastline and trails of Acadia National Park, the area’s many local breweries and pubs will undoubtedly be calling your name. Cottage St Pub is a neighborhood joint stirring up quirky cocktails with a smile. For something a tad more posh, Project Social Kitchen & Bar clearly knows how to mix up a harmony of flavors, with creative cocktails spiked with infusions like grilled pineapple mezcal and strawberry-basil gin. Go for a cocktail or two and you may be tempted to try their similarly boundary-pushing dinner menu.

Fogtown Brewing Company
Fogtown Brewing Company

Atlantic Brewing is a top-notch craft outfit cranking out quality small-batch brews like Blueberry Ale and Cadillac Mountain Stout. Don’t forget to come hungry—they also have an extensive food menu you don’t want to miss, with plenty of vegetarian options available. Sticking to beer, Fogtown Brewery’s new Bar Harbor tap room features live music on Wednesdays alongside small plates that pair well with their innovative lineup of brews made with foraged ingredients like sweet fern and local berries. Devoted hopheads should note that their production brewery is up in Ellsworth, Maine, about a 20-mile drive from Bar Harbor and fully worth the excursion.

Echo Lake Beach
Echo Lake Beach | Eric Cote/Shutterstock

Search for seashells on the sea (or lake) shore

Since Bar Harbor is literally surrounded by water, one might think everywhere along the coastline is a good place to swim. But, truth be told, swimming is only allowed in designated areas, so you need to know where to look.

Town Beach, a quaint respite located near Agamont Park, provides a quick and convenient place to get your feet wet. But, pro tip: It’s best to reserve the full submersion for Sand Beach, Little Hunters Beach, or Echo Lake Beach. A free shuttle bus called the Island Explorer (masks are required and service is limited) drops you off at Sand Beach, where you can gaze out at Newport Cove while enjoying a refreshing dip or spend the whole day relaxing in the sand. If you’re already on the Park Loop, make a stop at the lifeguard-less Little Hunters Beach, which can be a little less crowded and has a beautiful rocky view of Hunters Cove. Echo Lake Beach is another go-to swim spot. Located about 20 minutes inside Acadia National Park, this serene stretch is bordered by a dreamy pine tree grove spanning the perimeter, making for a magical New England-meets-desert island experience.

Sea kayaks in Bar Harbor
Sea kayaks in Bar Harbor | Leonard Zhukovsky/Shutterstock

Set out on an adrenaline-fueled adventure

The area’s naturally wild topography lends itself well to all sorts of heart-pumping activities. Grab your harness, muster up some confidence, and get ready to take on the rocks at Atlantic Climbing School, where each expedition is led by American Mountain Guides Association-certified guides. Whether you head out on a half- or full-day quest, summiting Acadia’s breathtaking granite mountain sides is both beautiful and exhilarating. The guides offer a slew of courses for all skillsets, with beginners and families hitting up less rigorous South Bubble and more experienced climbers attempting to conquer the oft-intimidating Precipes.

Prefer to get your thrills on the water? Sail Acadia will give you your maritime fix aboard a picturesque historic 1899 sailboat. And if you feel like making yourself useful, book a ride on the Elizabeth T, a functioning lobster boat primed and ready to give you a taste of fisherman life. You can also pick up some paddles from Coastal Kayak Tours, where experts guide kayakers along the rocky coastlines of the Porcupine Islands in Frenchman’s Bay.

And while it’s tough to beat a stroll around the coastline, those looking for a little more speed can zip through Bar Harbor’s village streets and the carriage roads of Acadia by renting an e-bike or scooter from Acadia Outfitters.

Diver Ed's Dive-In Theater
Diver Ed’s Dive-In Theater

Dry off and dive into a little local culture

Are you not entertained? Survivor star and logging sport expert Timber Tina has built up a mecca for regional axe-wielders with the Great Maine Lumberjack Show, a fascinating expo that has been rolling, climbing, and chopping giant hunks of wood in nearby Trenton, Maine for the last 26 years. Don’t forget your flannel!

Sometimes log rolling competitions can get a little too hectic, especially for some of us less inclined to work up a sweat. Enter Wild Gardens of Acadia, a peaceful place for idling away an afternoon discovering native gardens and basking in the region’s diverse flora and fauna.

If you want to see some sea life without diving into the deep yourself, Diver Ed’s Dive In Theatre is your jam. Marine ecologist and commercial diver Ed will do the dirty work for you during this educational tour, resurfacing with eye-catching creatures like sand dollars, sea peaches, and brittle stars before safely returning them back to the watery depths. And in other theatrical happenings, Agamont Park puts on an outdoor Seaside Cinema every Wednesday evening throughout the summer months, complete with free popcorn and plenty of lawn space.

You can certainly spend the majority of your trip immersing yourself in New England’s fabled past. Among top destinations is Maine’s first and only Smithsonian Affiliate, Abbe Museum. The celebrated institution’s exhibits and interactive workshops aim to teach visitors about the Wabanaki Nations, indigineous peoples that have inhabited the region for upwards of 12,000 years.

Looking for some retail therapy? Stock up on good reads from Sherman’s Bookstore, useful and decorative pieces of art at In the Woods, handcrafted artisan wares at Faire Trade Winds, and all things rock, fossil, and taxidermy at The Rock and Art Shop.

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Elanor Bock is a Chicago born, New York-based professional dancer, writer, and renaissance woman. Follow her on instagram @rathernotthanks.

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