Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, Fire Island; you’ve probably heard these names before. However, an image of Maine’s Mount Desert Island, far to the north of her more famous counterparts, is perhaps difficult for most American’s to conjure. Fear not, my fellow Gogoboteers, if you be among these confused yet intrigued vacationers. Follow me, a Mt. Desert “summer person” of twenty years, on an insider’s tour of this timeless land.
The island has long been recognized as a place of beauty and natural energy. Local Native American tribes spent summers on the island, and early explorers from France described its granite peaks (from which the island takes its name) and lush forests with novel excitement.
The first Americans to show a real interest in Mount Desert were painters, many from the Hudson River School, who became enraptured by stunning vistas and dramatic oceanscapes. Word quickly spread through the art-savvy elite, and the island became a vacation mecca for wealthy New Englanders, among them Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Fords. A few of these barons set their sights on protecting Mt. Desert for future generations. For many years, an elite group of men, led by George Dorr and Charles W. Eliot (for forty years the president of Harvard University, and this author’s great-great-great grandfather) worked tirelessly to earn the island a National Park designation. Their efforts paid off, and in 1919 President Woodrow Wilson approved Lafayette National Park, which was soon renamed Acadia.
Today, Acadia National Park is the second most visited park in the country, second only to Yellowstone. Each summer, millions of visitors fill the sleepy towns and quiet trails with bustle and energy. In 2010, President Obama and his family paid a visit! The park comprised over 47,000 acres of woods, lakes, beaches and mountains, all linked by rustic trails and an extensive system of scenic carriage roads built by John D. Rockefeller Jr. At the center of the park sits Cadillac Mountain, famous as the first place in the United States that the rising sun touches each day.
I have spent every summer of my life in the park, living in a house built by my ancestors and passed down through generations. Much of my extended family lives year round on the island as part of a tiny community greatly overshadowed by the masses of summer visitors. So, I know a thing or two about where to go and what to see on the island.
Hiking is one of the most popular activities. With so many choices, choosing a trail is often a random process for those glancing over a map for the first time. My favorite hike combines three peaks, each offering different views and unique attributes. Begin at the base of Parkman Mountain, a small, quick climb with fantastic views of Somes Sound, a massive fjord that cuts deep into the island’s heart. Continue on along Grandgent trail to the summit of Sergeant Mountain, one of the island’s tallest peaks. The next stop is Sergeant Mountain Pond, a hidden gem that functions as a magical swimming spot for those who care to take the refreshing plunge. From the pond, a few steps takes you to the peak of Penobscot Mountain, whose wide granite slopes offer stunning vistas of Mr. Desert’s small off-islands.
At the bottom of Penobscot Mountain sits the Jordan Pond House a true island establishment. This classic restaurant, perched on the shore of sparkling Jordan Pond and endowed with a timeless view (the twin Bubble Mountains), is known for its afternoon tea (though they do offer full service lunches and dinners). A typical tea includes one beverage (I always order lemonade; super sour!) and two popovers. For those who do not know, a popover is a light puff pastry made complete by healthy doses of butter and strawberry jam.
Maine is known for its excellent lobster, often fresh caught just hours before consumption. The best lobster on the island can be found at Thurston’s Lobster Pound (http://www.gogobot.com/thurstons_lobster_pound-bernard-restaurant) in Bass Harbor. Not much to really describe here: eat your fill of juicy lobster, steamers, mussels and whatever else may tickle your fancy in a quiet shore location.
Bar Harbor is Mt. Desert’s largest town, and home to most of the island’s casual shopping (shopping in other towns consists predominantly of expensive art galleries) The iconic shopping destination is without question Cool-as-a-Moose, which can only be understood with a visit. Of particular note are their tie-dye shirts, which bond their wearers the world over.
Best Under the Radar Spots (aka The Good Stuff):
Do not miss Thuya Garden. It is quite hidden, sitting deep within the woods on the slopes of Eliot Mountain. Enter through a small driveway off of Peabody Drive, Northeast Harbor. My other under the radar recommendation is the Echo Lake ledges, a fantastic spot for sunning on warm granite slabs and jumping into cool fresh lake water.
Also of note:
- Sunset boat tours on the Margaret Todd
- The Park Loop Road (Sand Beach, Otter Cliffs, Thunder Hole)
- The Burning Tree Restaurant
- Asticou Azalea Garden
- The Beachcroft trail, Champlain Mountain
I hope this information will prove useful to any planning a trip to my beloved Mt. Desert Island. This land should be shared with all people, and the more people who fall under its captivating spell, the better. See you on the trails!