Mount Desert Island, Our Favorite Weekend Getaway

Long before we travelled abroad, we camped. We bought our first tent at tent at LL Bean on our way to celebrate our first anniversary on Cape Cod. It wasn’t the first of many tents because LL Bean tents are made to last. We have had a total of three in thirty years, all purchased at LL Bean. We camped in our original tent for years. Eventually, it was too cramped for our family and we upgraded to a bigger tent. We’ve had very few issues over the years but when we did, LL Bean always took care of us. It’s why we keep going back.

We’ve camped all over New England but have spent the most of our time along the coast of Maine. It has many beautiful places to explore but our favorite by far is Mount Desert Island. It’s the home of Acadia National Park and where I learned to put my fear of heights aside. (Well, mostly aside.) There’s so much to see and do. We are still discovering new favorite places.

So here’s our list of favorites for MDI. This is just our humble opinion, no sponsors here.

Favorite Campground

You can camp within the Acadia National Park but our favorite campground is Bar Harbor Campground. It boasts that it is the closest to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park. They don’t take reservations or credit cards but that’s okay. We’ve only been turned away once in all the years we’ve been going there. It was on a Friday night during the 100th anniversary celebrations of Acadia National Park. We should have known better. We took the last tent site at a campground down the road so all was good. I wouldn’t try looking for a trailer site on a Friday night but they’ll always squeeze in a tent if they can.

Favorite Drive

The Park Loop Road is a 27 mile route through Acadia National Park. Much of it is one way and, since it goes through the park, you will need a park pass to travel it. It passes Thunder Hole, Sand Beach, Wildwood Stables, Jordan Pond House as well as many places to stop with and enjoy the view. You’ll get a good view of Bubble Rock as you pass South Bubble Mountain.  

Favorite Town

It’s not a trip to MDI without visiting Bar Harbor. Everyone is welcome. It’s an odd mix of a quaint New England town, seaside resort and hiker’s refuge. You can be wearing hiking boots or high heels and still fit in. There’s something for everyone. It’s crawling with tourists and cruise ship passengers in the summer and leaf peepers in the fall. There’s the Village Green town square surrounded by fun shops and restaurants, and Agamont Park with benches to watch the harbor. You never know what will be in port. There’s even a couple of walking trails within the town limits. It’s a tiny town with a huge heart.

Bar Harbor

Favorite Accommodations in Bar Harbor

We mostly camp in the summer but take advantage of reduced rates in town in the spring and fall. We’ve stayed at a few different places but we keep going back to Manor House Inn on West Street. It’s within walking distance to everything in town. They have a variety of rooms available, including two cottages and rooms in two separate buildings. We haven’t stayed in the main house rooms but have tried the cottages and they are quite nice. We prefer the rooms in the Acadia Cottage behind the main house. It’s private and quiet. The rooms are a good size, nicely decorated and the beds are comfortable. Our favorite is the Acadia West suite. It’s a little more but worth the extra cost. There’s a nice breakfast and afternoon tea in the main house. Sipping tea on the verandah while watching the world go by is a great end to the day. The accommodations outside town are cheaper and the Island Explorer shuttle stops at some of them so you don’t have to worry about parking in town.

Favorite Restaurants

This is where I have to make a confession. I’m not a big fan of lobster. It’s not that I don’t like it but there are other things I’d rather eat. My husband likes a good lobster roll but it’s not his favorite either. There are plenty of places to eat lobster on MDI but I’m afraid we can’t recommend any. Fortunately we do like blueberries, which are in everything. Trying new blueberry cocktails is a favorite evening activity.

All our favorite places to eat are in Bar Harbor and Havana tops the list. It’s American fine dining with a Latin flair. The wine list has won the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence every year since 2004 and we can see why. We enjoy eating in the restaurant, however; we prefer the Parilla Outdoor Tapas Bar and Grill in the summer. It’s a neat place to sit outside, enjoy a drink and share a few plates.

For pub food, a B&B owner once sent us to the Thirsty Whale and we can see why. The fish and chips are simply done and some of the best we’ve had. There’s no dessert offered but you won’t have room anyway.

We also like the Side Street Cafe for drinks, burgers and blueberry pie. Their specialty is mac and cheese made your own way. We’ve never had it but have seen many people ordering it. If you want a fun place for a snack try Geddy’s for a hubcap full of nachos. It has been a favorite of our kids from way back.

Our favorite place for ice cream is Ben and Bill’s Chocolate Emporium. They offer a wide selection of flavors which even includes lobster ice cream. We always pick up a few truffles while we are there too.

Ice cream from Ben and Bills

Favorite Shops

There’s lots of tourist shops in Bar Harbor. We don’t spend much time in them but we do like the Acadia Park Company store. It’s where we purchased our maps and hiking guides as well as patches for the trails we’ve hiked. The smell of balsam needles when you walk in the door is amazing. There are several shops selling jewelry made with Maine tourmaline. It’s a pretty stone in the colours of watermelon. One place we always visit is Fiore Olive Oil. We stock up on olive oils and balsamic vinegar when we are in town. The roasted butternut squash seed oil is delicious, especially on roasted brussels sprouts. As for groceries, there is a small Hannaford store in town that, despite its size, has pretty much anything you could need.

Favorite Hikes

This one is tough. When we started “hiking” in the park, we asked the very helpful park rangers for suggestions. We started with the easier hikes, some of which are more walks than hikes, and used the free map they gave us at the information center. Several years ago, we bought a good map and a trail guide after wandering around looking for a view we never found. Turns out that we were almost there. Since then, we try at least one new trail each trip and are always finding new favorites. Here’s a few of our favorite tried and true trails:

One of the easiest, but also trickiest to time, is the Bar Island Trail that starts off West Street in Bar Harbor. At low tide, you are able to walk across a sand bar to Bar Island. You can continue your walk on the island, just be sure to get back before the tide comes back in.

The first trail we tried is the Jordan Pond Path. It follows the edge of Jordan Pond. One side is easy walking and the other has a stretch with boulders to scramble over. There are wooden planks to help through the wet spots. We’ve never tried the popovers at the Jordan Pond House but, based on the crowds, they must be good. We’ve walked around Jordan Pond many times and have also used it as a way to access South Bubble Mountain. You can also access this trail from the Bubbles parking lot off the Park Loop Road but get there early as it fills quickly. Make sure you take a look at Bubble Rock while you’re up there. It’s a large rock that seems to balance on the edge of the cliff but is very solid and makes a fun photo op. One word of advice, don’t try going up the south side of South Bubble Mountain if you are more of a walker than a hiker. It’s a bit of a tough climb in places and has one particularly hard spot for beginners. We learned this the hard way. We did North Bubble Mountain on our last trip. It’s more of a moderate hike. The views are supposed to be spectacular but all we saw was fog.

Our view from North Bubble

Another moderate hike we’ve done more than once is the Great Head Trail. You have to cross Sand Beach to access it. Sand Beach is popular in the summer so the parking lot is often full. It’s a bit of a climb up the side of the hill then a trail around the top to some great ocean views. Just follow the blue trail markers on the rocks. You return to the beach through a shaded beech grove.

Gorham Mountain Trail was the first summit hike we did. It starts at the Gorham Mountain parking lot. There is an option to walk along Cadillac Cliffs as part of this hike but my fear of heights has kept us from doing this part. After reaching the summit you can return the same way or continue on to meet up with the Bowl Trail and head back down to the Park Loop Road. Look up at this point as you cross the Bowl Trail and you can see the brave hikers going up the iron rungs on the Beehive Trail. I’m doubtful I’ll ever do that one. You then follow the Ocean Path back to the parking lot. Along the way you pass Thunder Hole. If the waves are high, they make a roaring crash as they hit the rocks in the chasm.

Last summer, we hiked up the Cadillac South Ridge Trail. It wasn’t too tough but it was longer than any trail we’ve done. It’s about 7 miles round trip. It was so foggy that we couldn’t see much which wasn’t a bad way for me to do it. We had driven up Cadillac Mountain before so I knew what I should be seeing but you can’t be afraid of what you can’t see. The shuttle doesn’t go to the top of Cadillac Mountain so, unless you have someone picking you up at the top, you will have to hike back down. There are other trails down but we did the same route back to our car which we left on Route 3 by Blackwoods Campground. Cadillac Mountain is the highest point along the North Atlantic seaboard and the first place to view sunrise in the United States from October 7 through March 6. You can drive up and walk the short Summit Trail around the top if you just want to see the views.

Favorite Easy Strolls

Between 1913 and 1940, John D. Rockefeller Jr. had 57 miles of carriage roads and stone bridges constructed for carriages, walkers, cyclists and horses to enjoy without worrying about automobiles. Most of these are within Acadia National Park and easily accessible. These are a great way to walk in the park without having to scramble over rocks or avoid cars. They are also very popular with cyclists. You can rent bikes if you don’t have your own.

Favorite Way to Get Around

You have to pay to enter and park in Acadia National Park. We buy an annual pass for our car but you can also buy weekly passes. Passes can be purchased at the visitor information centers, park campgrounds, the Bar Harbor Village Green or at the park entrance at Sand Beach. Parking is hard to find during peak times and most of the parking lots are small. You can park along the Park Loop Road in some places. A good alternative is the Island Explorer Shuttle which runs during the tourist season. It includes ten bus routes connecting Bar Harbor as well as some hotels, inns, and campgrounds outside of Bar Harbor to stops in Acadia National Park and neighboring villages. It’s clean, efficient and free! They’ll even take your bike and pets. LL Bean provides funding for this shuttle.

So that’s about it for us. We’ve barely scratched the surface of all the things you can do on Mount Desert Island. There’s ranger led walks, whale watching, island cruises, canoeing, sea kayaking, rock climbing, museums, horse drawn wagon rides… The list goes on and on. You’ll just have to visit and find your own favorites!

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