When I think of Maine, I first think of lobster. And cold. So when a ticket to Maine appeared in my inbox, courtesy of my mother, I wondered what could possibly be behind it. Turns out, Maine has a lot more to offer during the warmer months (particularly in the realm of lobster). Over the last weekend, I spent four wonderfully active days exploring Mount Desert Island and its tiny town of Bar Harbor.
The island's main draw is Acadia National Park, a land of rocky coastline and rounded mountains covered in pine forest. Most impressive was the park’s multi-generational appeal. There were smooth, level trails around ponds and meadows for people like my mother, who has an old ankle injury and has to take it easy. My teenage sister enjoyed biking on the 57 miles of old carriage roads built by J.D. Rockefeller Jr. for the glamorous families that vacationed at Bar Harbor during the Gilded Age. My friend Tyler and I took on the more challenging nature trails that carried us up and down mountains, through pine and birch forest, over scrubland, and across rocky, open balds. Several trails proved day-long endeavors, one with a vertical scramble down a 500-foot-high rock face (I was unprepared for this one but enjoyed it nonetheless).
Back to the lobster: While it is delicious and highly recommended, don’t let its celebrity status overshadow yet another (cheaper!) Maine delicacy: blueberries. Although the berry season was not yet upon us (they are usually harvested in August), canned or dried berries from last summer graced everything from ice cream to jam, the latter served alongside a regional puff-pastry specialty known as a “popover.” I ate the the little blue jewels of sweet, tart goodness every day, usually in pie form: Hiking. Pie. Biking. Pie. Shopping. Pie.
And what trip to Maine would be complete without some whale watching? We took a break from hiking one day and set out on the Atlantic. During a stop just offshore at Petit Manan Island to see puffins perched on the rocks, the captain held a radio interview with bird researchers stationed on the tiny island. Most researchers stay there for at least three months. Supplies arrive once a week, and each day starts with a bird count – not an easy task, judging by the hundreds of birds in view. The trip culminated with a 45-foot finback whale that dived and spouted next to the boat several times.
You can rest assured about the effects of such tourism on the wildlife. The boat, designed in Australia, is outfitted with special water-jet propulsion mechanisms instead of propellers that can injure whales. Several on-board researchers and naturalists-in-training use the trip to conduct field work and record sightings, while other naturalists lecture tourists about area wildlife throughout the four-hour long trip. Donations are taken for the local whale rescue organization, and books on marine life are provided for children as entertainment for the trip out and back.
Back on shore, the sleepy little town of Bar Harbor is packed with museums, cafés, and shops offering anything from moose-print pants to tourmaline, Maine’s state mineral. Most are kitschy, but altogether they contribute to the quaintness of the town. Lobster boats drifted in the harbor while bald eagles chased seagulls overhead. Foghorns sounded. Clichés abounded.
But the small-town charm goes beyond the sensory. Most of the hotels on the island are locally- and family-owned B&Bs, including ours, the Highbrook Motel. In the bicycle shop, my mother ran into the great-granddaughter of its original owner. And, on one of my various quests for blueberry pie, Tyler and I entered Café Bluefish, where the waitress seduced us with talk of a blueberry-blackberry “crisp,” hot, gooey berries topped with melted brown sugar and oats, perfect for my addiction. But when we told her we needed it to go, she informed us that she couldn’t package it for transport, as each crisp was individually baked in a teacup belonging to the restaurant. She thought for a second.
“Just take it with you and bring the cups back tomorrow,” she said. “We’ll be closed, but you can let yourself in and leave it by the kitchen door.” A nearby patron saw our surprise and smiled. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “That’s just how we are around here.”
Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co.: 1 West St. 207-288-2386.
Highbrook Motel: Rt. 3 - 94 Eden St. 1-800-338-9688.
Café Bluefish: 122 Cottage St. 207-288-3696.
Photos courtesy of Sharon Berk