Trip Report: Bar Harbor and Moosehead Lake

Old Sep 7th, 2014, 03:30 PM
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Trip Report: Bar Harbor and Moosehead Lake

For hubby and me, the typical vacation involves exploring European capitals, touring historical ruins or mansions and similar cultural experiences. So 8 days in Maine, split between Bar Harbor and Moosehead Lake, would be a whole new kind of trip. Where to find good food in the middle of nowhere? How to plan our time without a long list of must-see sites? What to do if it rained? As lifelong city dwellers, we did not have answers to these questions. But we figured it out, more or less

Day 1

We set out for Maine before 6:30AM on the Saturday before Labor Day, hoping that this departure time would help avoid traffic. And indeed, the roads to Maine were clear with the exception of an unfortunate detour onto Route 1, which we took on a lark after determining the highway wasn’t “scenic” enough. Route 1 was of course a hotbed of bumper-to-bumper traffic, and we quickly escaped onto even more remote back roads, which added about an hour to our travel time, but led us to a delicious local Maine ice-cream parlor (Sea-Salt Caramel and Gingery Ginger ice-cream = yes please!)

Around 5:00 in the afternoon we turned onto Route 3, which leads into Mount Desert Island and Bar Harbor. I was wary: the road was dotted with motels, fast-food chains, and tacky commercial-looking attractions such as a water-slide park and a lumberjack extravaganza (??). We did see a few gorgeous glimpses of the mountains and lakes of Acadia National Park, and the contrast with the in-your-face tourist attractions lining the road was truly jarring.

Before long we were in town. Its streets were swarming with tourists and dotted with souvenir shops and eateries advertising lobster rolls. Our GPS directed us to the parking lot of a bank and beyond it to a cluster of inns. One of these, The Yellow House, was our destination. We were slightly surprised as the photos on the inn’s website made it appear to be secluded and in a beautiful setting. However, it was surrounded by parking lots and plenty of people were about. A sculpture garden advertised online turned out to be a tiny backyard. Our room was large and nicely decorated, but overall the B&B did not seem to live up to its $$$$ price tag and the 5-star TripAdvisor reviews.

We dropped off our things and went into town for dinner. Among a number of quite conventional choices (Mexican, Chinese, pubs), we found Lompoc Café – a laid-back atmosphere, an inventive menu and solid service. We feasted on Indian-style lobster and potato cakes, a falafel burger, chilled mint cucumber soup, and “Black Sheep” pizza (goat cheese with black pepper, garlic, fennel, and leeks), none of which disappointed. After dinner, it was time for an early night.

Day 2

The weather forecasts the night before had been contradictory, but all promised some degree of rain. In the morning, in the evening, showers, thunderstorms – whatever was on deck, it didn’t look good for us. But the next morning, though the forecasts remained bleak (and contradictory!) the actual weather was overcast but not rainy. Deciding to enjoy this while it lasted, we ran into town to rent bicycles (Acadia Bikes next to Rosalie’s Pizza) and caught the free shuttle from the Village Green to Acadia National Park, only a few minutes away.

Less than ½ hour later, we were riding Acadia’s famous carriage roads. Now, we are not talented bike riders and had not ridden on gravel before – but we found the carriage roads just perfect. The bike shop provided a map indicating which trails covered relatively level ground, and we stuck to those, though more challenging routes were available as well. We must warn you that, even on the “easy” trails, we found a few upward-sloping stretches where we ended up walking our bikes.

The scenery alternated between peaceful forests and idyllic lakes and mountains and it didn’t rain at all – life was good. But by about noon, the trails were getting crowded, and we were ready for a break after nearly three hours of biking. We walked our bikes to the Jordan Pond House, an Acadia institution, serving guests for nearly 100 years. Of course, the Jordan Pond House of today is not the Jordan Pond House of 100 years ago. The quaint family-owned eatery has become a veritable production, with its own gift shop, overflowing parking lot, and long waits for a table.

Our experience getting seated was slightly comical: approaching the restaurant from the back, we asked the waitress how to get a table, and she sent us inside to another waitress. That waitress sent us to a hostess. The hostess sent us to the information desk. Finally, we were told that waits range from 15-25 minutes and put our name in. (Then they seated us in 5 minutes – go figure).

By the way, if you would like to skip this rigmarole, JPH has casual dining upstairs with a limited menu. But that means that you would be missing out on the best part – the restaurant’s iconic popovers. In case you don’t know what popovers are (we didn’t), they are soft, airy pastries made from flour and eggs, baked in a muffin tin and served with Maine butter and strawberry preserves. We highly, highly recommend trying one – we loved them so much that we made a return trip for seconds the next day.

The JPH lunch menu also offered a delectable variety of sandwiches, salads, and entrees – we enjoyed the lobster roll, crab cakes, chicken salad, and local cheese plate. A variety of blueberry drinks – blueberry iced tea, lemonade, and soda - were also delicious. If you didn’t get your fill of popovers a la carte, you could get them a la mode (in popover sundae form), which we certainly took advantage of. And I would be remiss not to mention the gorgeous views of Jordan Pond, which you can enjoy if you sit outside. However, sitting outside will also bring friendly bees to share your repast, so weigh the pros and cons carefully.
Substantially weighed down by our lunch, we waddled onto our bikes to complete our carriage-road loop. Then we took the shuttle back into town (it runs every 15 minutes – very convenient – though the schedule might be different off-season.) Biking back into town was also an option, but we were too tired after 15+ miles of carriage roads and 3 popovers.

Our next challenge of the afternoon was to find a new hotel. We had checked out of the B&B after the earlier disappointment (not usually possible, but the innkeeper had gotten a new inquiry and was able to fill our room). After a short walk around town, we found the Harborside Hotel on the water – close to the action but not right in the middle of it. This hotel was definitely a splurge but probably less so since we booked at the last minute (and still cheaper than the B&B).

Our ocean-view room was large and had a private balcony. Unlike a B&B, the Harborside Hotel is a large resort and as such, more cookie-cutter than boutique, but we were more than satisfied. Admission to the exclusive Bar Harbor Club was included (and we definitely recommend taking advantage of it).

The weather had remained cloudy and somewhat chilly all day, but despite the forecast, it had not rained, so we took advantage of swimming in the hotel’s outdoor pool (which was not as cold as you might think). After relaxing in our hotel room for a bit, we drove to Burning Tree for dinner. While not cheap, it is definitely worth the splurge. Their menu is very creative and most dishes use ingredients sourced locally (many directly from their backyard organic garden). Drinks (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic) were also inventive - one highlight for me was the Raspberry Rhubarb Ramble soda. Note that Burning Tree is a small and popular restaurant, so chances are the place will be packed and buzzing when you come. So don’t expect a quiet dinner!

Day 3

Despite more forecasts of rain, the day dawned sunny. We decided to swear off checking the weather during the rest of our trip and returned to Acadia. This time, we drove, and despite warnings of difficulty finding parking, we did just fine throughout the park.

We started off at the Hull Cove Visitor’s Center, where we purchased the required $20 weekly parking pass. The first few miles of the main 27-mile Park Loop were uneventful, as all of the scenic lookouts were obscured by fog. (But didn’t you say it was sunny, you might ask? All part and parcel of MDI weather – you drive a mile and the weather transforms completely).

We drove on and made the following stops:
• Sand Beach: very pretty in the fog. Bring flip flops if you want to wade in the water or a blanket if you’d like to spend an hour or two relaxing on the sand.
• Thunder Hole: fascinating little trick of nature; watch the waves crash for a few minutes, and, for the more adventurous, climb around on nearby boulders
• Jordan Pond House: We told you all about the food, but this is also a nice starting point for a hike; we chose a relatively easy walk to the Thuya Gardens in Northeast Harbor. Complete solitude in a sylvan setting and not too much climbing

The Thuya Garden (and arboretum, with labeled flora) was a worthwhile hiking destination, with a wide variety of colorful flowers (many of which I had not seen before), comfortable benches for reading, and a descent to an unforgettable view to Northeast Harbor itself.

After making said descent, the idea of returning all the way to JPH seemed overwhelming, so we returned to Route 3 and hailed the free Island Explorer Bus, which, after a detour in Northeast Harbor, took us back to our car. By the way, these free buses, with 7 routes covering the entire island, are a super-useful amenity, even for those with a car.

Back in our car, we completed the Park Loop, including a drive to the Summit of Cadillac Mountain. We hear the sunrise here is gorgeous but we never quite mustered up the energy to see it for ourselves. The afternoon views in all directions, though, did not disappoint. The little puffs of mist around the various smaller nearby islands were unlike anything we had seen before. By the way, the temperature at this point in the afternoon was in the mid-80s – a pleasant surprise, as we’d been told to expect much more autumnal temperatures.

As the afternoon came to a close, it was back to the hotel for a break and dinner at Havana, another local standout. For drinks, we recommend the non-alcoholic sangria (if you like your drinks tart and fruity), and the alcoholic Periodista (if you would like to try Cuba’s citrusy lesser-known national drink). The feta-blueberry bread with grilled pineapple butter was the best bread we had on MDI (and possibly ever)! The menu was fresh, local and organic in the vein of Burning Tree, but with a Cuban/Latin American twist. Portions were large and we ended up not having room for dessert. If you like dessert, plan accordingly.
isemida is offline  
Old Sep 7th, 2014, 03:43 PM
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Enjoying your report--looks like you found some of my Bar Harbor favorites.

~Liz
elberko is offline  
Old Sep 7th, 2014, 03:44 PM
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Thanks for the report, as I love Mt. Desert Island and Acadia. I'm glad we opt to stay outside Bar Harbor though. Our rental Deer Run Cottage) was a perfect getaway from the crowds.
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Old Sep 8th, 2014, 04:50 AM
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Sounds like a nice introduction to nature and the beauty of the country outside of cities and museums. Thanks for the report.
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Old Sep 8th, 2014, 09:58 AM
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Glad to hear it's enjoyable! Here are the rest of our Bar Harbor highlights/lowlights and our time in Moosehead Lake.

Day 4:

Our weather luck ran out this gloomy Tuesday, but we bundled up and walked over to the Morning Glory bakery for breakfast. Our bagel, muffin, and “make-your-own” tea were a bit lackluster, though the place was full of locals, so maybe we ordered the wrong items. After Morning Glory, we stopped by A&B Naturals, a health food store with a juice and smoothie bar. The juice was fresh and tasty, but the prices make Manhattan dining look cheap!

The blah breakfast and weak weather put a damper on our moods by that point, so we headed to our hotel room, where we spent the rest of the morning chatting. By early afternoon, our desire to explore had returned, and we ventured back out into town, where we discovered a little shop offering tastings of local beer from the Atlantic Brewing Company. Hubby enjoyed a flight of 4 local beers, including one with a blueberry infusion. The flight cost just $3, and came with a $3 coupon, which we used to stock up on some of his favorite beers as souvenirs.

We had lunch at Blaze, which we stumbled upon by chance and chose because it smelled great. And our noses did not lead us astray – we enjoyed delicious duck fat fries, a brisket sandwich, and a Jamaican hanger steak taco. Great beer selection as well. The blueberry pie we got for dessert was the only disappointment.

Our next destination was the auto museum in Seal Cove – a surprise highlight of our trip. Though I have no particular interest in cars, I found this small museum fascinating.

The collection features examples of the very first automobiles, before the Model T and mass production. During this period, the Brass Era, dozens of former watchmakers, sewing machine makers, bike builders, and self-taught tinkerers tried their hand at building a self-driving challenger to the horse-and-buggy monopoly. Not surprisingly, a lot of these vehicles looked a lot like carriages.

Most of these early vehicles were steered with tillers, like boats. The concept of a steering wheel appeared only later in the era, and they were initially placed on the right side of the car, with Henry Ford pioneering the switch to the left almost by chance. Also, the early automakers had not yet settled on gasoline as the appropriate fuel for their creations – gas, steam, and electricity all make an appearance in these early models. And this was just a small piece of what we discovered. There were racecars and motorcycles, stories and photographs – well worth the $6 admission fee.

The museum closed at 5, and we jumped into our own self-driving vehicle for a leisurely return to Bar Harbor. We took the scenic Route 102A – nothing extraordinary but did offer a few pleasant stops such as a lighthouse and a little hiking trail to a beach of pink granite (part of Acadia National Park).

Bar Harbor was all aflutter when we returned. One of the restaurants had caught on fire and crowds swarmed the disaster scene. Some spectators settled in on benches with ice-cream cones! We didn’t stay in the area long – we had a reservation at Red Sky restaurant in Southwest Harbor and returned there for a late dinner.

Red Sky is another of these fresh, local, organic places and turned out to be our favorite meal on MDI. House-made ginger-lime soda, bread right out of the oven, Spanish salad with yellow cucumbers, lobster risotto, fresh gingerbread – every dish was a standout. This was another very popular spot (and rightfully so), so make reservations and don’t expect a quiet dinner, even on a weekday night.


Day 5

Our last morning in Bar Harbor came too quickly. As we prepared for checkout, we decided to take advantage of our last chance to use the facilities at the Bar Harbor Club next door. We hadn’t played tennis for years, but decided to borrow some rackets (no charge) and try out the club’s outdoor clay courts.

Cavorting in the club made us feel like modern-day Rockefellers – the ocean breeze, gorgeous views, elegantly manicured grounds, fancy poolhouse with a sunny deck (where we had a very un-Rockefeller-like pillow fight!) And it turned out our tennis skills hadn’t completely abandoned us either.

We also discovered the crossing to Bar Island right behind the club. This is the nearby island that you can walk to during low tide on a pebbly sandbar. We walked about halfway over when the tide began to turn and the sand we were walking on was immediately flooded by water! (A few centimeters of water, but still a dramatic surprise.) We raced the tide back to shore and watched the sandbar slowly disappear from a safe distance.

Before leaving Bar Harbor, our last stops were Jeannie’s Great Maine Breakfast on Cottage Street, Ben and Bill’s Chocolate Emporium (ice cream seemed overpriced, but nice truffles) and souvenir shops (hand-made personalized Christmas ornaments make lovely Maine souvenirs!)

And with that, we bid farewell to Bar Harbor and set forth to our next destination: secluded Greenville on the shores of Moosehead Lake. We found the two destinations to be a perfect pairing: oceanside bustle vs. lakeshore solitude. While Bar Harbor had a rough-around-the-edges, salty, lobster-fishin’ air about it, our days in Moosehead Lake had a more exquisite and refined vibe. Not that the area, famous for lumber and woodsmen and local businesses with taglines like “No complaining”, was particularly fancy. Rather, it was our choice of lodging that set the five-star tone for this part of our stay: the Blair Hill Inn overlooking the lake.

Now, before discovering the Blair Hill Inn, I did not realize it was possible to spend that much money on a bed and breakfast room. Well, it is. But, oh, what a room! Tasteful pastel tones and fresh-cut flowers, a supremely comfortable king-sized bed, plush wall-to-wall carpet, and best of all, a large window seat with a VIP view of Moosehead Lake. The cozily elegant common areas on the ground floor also did not disappoint. Breakfast tables by the windows, rocking chairs and couches, an inviting board game collection, and a huge porch with a porch swing which we claimed for the majority of our visit. Not to mention, the inn offers a full bar and 5-course prix fixe dinner on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights.

Unfortunately, we had arrived on a Wednesday, so we had to leave our slice of paradise for dinner. We checked out a local pub: the Stress-Free Moose. This casual spot is probably more representative of Greenville life than the Blair Hill Inn. But we didn’t love it, even compared to other similar establishments. Veggies weren’t fresh, hubby’s Avocado BLT sandwich came sans avocado, and when asked to tell us about their award-winning chili, the waitress replied, “Oh, I don’t know, I’m just a waitress.” We ate quickly and returned to the B&B.

By this point, it was dark, and we peeked out onto the roof deck to do some stargazing. Wow! This sky was like nothing I had never seen before - just covered with constellations. The evening was full of firsts: first time seeing the Milky Way, first timing seeing a shooting star (bad-luck hubby looked down just at that moment and missed it), and first time operating a telescope (it was complicated – but we finally figured it out and managed to see a close-up of the moon and some unidentified stars).

Day 6/7/8

I don’t have a ton to say about the rest of our days on Moosehead Lake, because, in completely uncharacteristic fashion, we spent them doing almost nothing. Not that there isn’t a ton to do in the area – kayaking, hiking, scenic drives, and looking for moose are just some of the options we pondered. But we loved our inn so much, we found ourselves loath to ever leave it.

After about 10 hours of sleep and a fantastic breakfast served by innkeeper Ruth, we’d usually wander out onto the porch swing and spend the day reading, watching movies, and playing board games. We have been reading War and Peace for months and absolutely loving it – and there is no better place for this kind of intense, immersive novel than a quiet porch away from all the distractions of life.

When the afternoon heat would nudge us off the porch, we’d grab lunch in town and retire to our room for more reading and/or a nap. We found two great food options in the strip of casual eateries and souvenir shops that constitutes downtown Greenville: the bright orange crepe cart, offering both sweet and savory goodies, and Flatlander’s, with its excellent fried, or “broasted”, chicken (good for Weight Watchers and people on a diet, they claim. I’m doubtful, but it was delicious).

In the evenings, we treated ourselves to fancy meals. Twice at our very own Blair Hill Inn, where the food was just divine. While the rooms here are super-expensive, the dinner is really, really reasonable. The menu changes every weekend, but we loved the carrot-ginger puree, the lobster-crab cakes, the avocado-cucumber-crab soup, the halibut with yellow curry sauce…really, every dish was perfect. And one night, we tried Greenville Inn, another nearby B&B with a restaurant. This menu was also excellent – very fresh ingredients, creative combinations, and the beautiful backdrop of the former home of a Maine lumber baron.

We were quite lucky with the weather during this part of the trip as well, by the way. Friends told us that Moosehead Lake would be freezing by September, but it was warm and sunny every day but one, when a brief rainstorm brought the perfect sunset (so no complaints there). And we were pleasantly surprised to meet no mosquitoes at all on our trip, even though we were close to the water.

I have to admit I had my misgivings about going to Maine for our summer vacation, probably because it is so different from how we usually travel. But as we enter the last leg of our 8-hour drive home (and as I come to the end of this trip report), I am completely satisfied. There are times for Istanbul and Dublin and Moscow…and there are times when all you need is some lobster rolls, trails to explore, and a porch swing with a view.
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Old Sep 8th, 2014, 06:55 PM
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Thanks for sharing your very enjoyable report!
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Old Sep 8th, 2014, 07:31 PM
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We’re the same kind of travelers as you are, but needed to postpone a European vacation and so went to Maine and Bar Harbor a few years ago and loved it. We stayed at the Bass Cottage Inn, which we liked very much, and used the buses you’re talking about to get around the park (we also loved the Thuya Gardens).

We want to return to Maine and your experiences there and at Moosehead Lake sound great! Thank you so much for sharing!
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