Sleepy yet historically rich, Bar Harbor is an island escape few think of but everyone should experience. Off the central coast of Maine, the friendly hamlet offers countless opportunities to tour historic sites, trek through natural preserves, and relax. If you haven’t yet taken a long weekend in Bar Harbor, it’s high time you did.
History of Bar Harbor
At 63 square miles, Bar Harbor isn’t what you’d call a metropolis – but that’s part of its draw. While only about 5,000 people call it home, this northeastern mainstay has been around since the 1600s. It first served as a “clam-gathering place” for the Wabanaki Indians and, for a brief time, a respite for French explorer Samuel de Champlain. But incorporation wasn’t in the works until several decades later when, in the 1700s, the British claimed it for their own.
The two early draws of Bar Harbor were fishing and scenery. The former proved lucrative for the city, while the latter gave it a touch of notoriety. Famous artists of the 18th century, including Thomas Cole and William Hart, were inspired by the harbor’s surroundings and shared their depictions of the coast with the rest of America. What ensued was good and bad for the town: Moneyed magnates soon poured in, constructing estates and building hotels to attract tourists. In fact, some of America’s most revered businessmen made Bar Harbor home (at least for a time); this included the Astors, the Rockefellers, and the Morgans.
The transition to luxe vacation spot was a hard one for once-sleepy Bar Harbor to process, though it wouldn’t be a permanent change. In the mid-1900s, a fire devastated the area, destroying cottages, hotels, and estates – by some estimates, a third of all residences. Following the fire, Bar Harbor rebuilt, but returned to a more relaxed, outside-the-spotlight character. Today, the harbor frequently welcomes tourists but isn’t mobbed by the elite – a seemingly happy resolution to a brief period of celebrity.
Given its semi-remote location, Bar Harbor is most easily accessible by car. We recommend flying into Bangor International Airport, about an hour northwest of the harbor, then renting a car and driving down. You’ll likely want to make day trips out from the city anyway, so a rental car is the best option. Most major rental chains are available at the airport and can help you find an economy sedan for $50-60/day.
Also, while most places in Bar Harbor take credit cards, be sure to have some cash on hand. You may find you need it if you make treks out to more remote locations around the harbor or aim to enjoy streetside snack stands.
Lastly, come prepared for rain, wind, and humidity. Pack some robust shoes, an umbrella, and a windbreaker – or at least a waterproof jacket. You’ll thank us.
Where to stay
Given its history as a tourist mecca, it’s little wonder that Bar Harbor still boasts some hotels. Prices run from about $100/night to $300+, on par with a larger city.
We recommend living it up and finding some digs by the water. That’s why you came, right? The Harborside Hotel, Marina & Spa would be our first choice – it’s got a touch of last-century charm while still delivering all the modern amenities. Standard rooms are available, of course, though we suggest reserving a boathouse suite and bringing the family. You’ll get sprawling balconies that look out on the water, multiple bedrooms, a kitchen, and a hot tub – plus a full suite of pampering treats. (Summertime rates can be steep at more than $1,000/night, so we recommend coming in early spring or late fall when prices drop to half that.)
For something a little less indulgent and far less pricey, consider the Ivy Manor Inn, only a block or so away from the water. Rates run about $110/night and rooms include basic comforts – WiFi, TV, air conditioning, and the like. In the evening, wander downstairs to the William Tell Lounge where whiskey is generously poured and conversation buzzes. We love this place for its funky mansion-esque character and proximity to just about everything in Bar Harbor.
Our last pick, and definitely worth a nod, is the Bar Harbor Grand Hotel on Main Street. To be honest, we didn’t like the personality of the BHGH as much as we did the two above, but it does have a colorful history that dates back to the 1800s. Plus, it’s got a few loveable offerings – like a sumptuous continental breakfast (gotta love those bagels); an onsite pool, jacuzzi, and gym; and a front porch that’s perfect for unwinding after a long day of … relaxing.
What to do/see
While you could happily spend your stay in Bar Harbor lingering by the pool or walking the streets of town, we recommend you take the opportunity to enjoy the natural wonders that surround the harbor.
First adventure: Acadia National Park. Literally in Bar Harbor’s backyard, this 49,000-acre expanse is a beautiful hodgepodge of natural features, including cliffs, forests, beaches lakes, plains, and mountains. We recommend picking one or two destinations within the park and enjoying them thoroughly without feeling like you have to traverse the entire thing. Entry fees are $15 for pedestrians and $30 for cars, which is well worth it if you make the most of your time in the park.
Start with a hike. Pick a mountain under 1,000 feet you can climb fairly easily – like The Whitecap, Great Hill, or Kebo. Leisurely make the climb, then relish the 360-degree views when you’re up top. After several minutes appreciating the natural surroundings, descend and head to the water; we like Bunker’s Head Cove or Marsh Head for its rocky outcroppings, intense vistas, and breezy atmosphere. These two adventures are probably enough for one day, but if you want to come back, keep in mind that your entry pass is good for seven days.
For a bit of sun and sand, head to Sand Beach south of the harbor (10 minutes away by car). You’ll uncover a protected cove that hides a 290-yard stretch of beautifully sanded shoreline. The water can be a little chilly – even in the summer – but it’s a delightful way to refresh on a leisurely afternoon. If you’re feeling like a hike is more in order, consider following the oceanside trail to the south then returning back to the beach for a picnic or an hour in the sun.
Okay, enough of landlubbing shenanigans. How about really enjoying that water? Start with a kayaking cruise courtesy of Coastal Kayaking Tours. You can book up to six tandem kayaks at a time – plenty for the family – or just join a cruise with other nature-lovers. Also, be sure you pick the cruise type that best suits your preferences; they offer sunset cruises, harbor tours, and multi-island tours that showcase the uniquely jagged Porcupine Islands. Tours last between 2-1/2 and 4 hours, so plan accordingly. Prices start at $49/person.
Want to do less work as you ply the seas? Take a leisurely puffin and lighthouse tour, giving you a breathtaking glimpse of wildlife and some of the area’s most historic maritime landmarks. Bar Harbor Whale Watching Co. regularly takes curious visitors out on rides, touring the Egg Rock lighthouse, the second-tallest lighthouse in Maine, and flocks upon flocks of birds – specifically, puffins, gulls, and cormorants. Tickets are $54 for adults.
Where to eat
Time to refuel? Lucky for you, Bar Harbor knows a thing or two about good food.
Breakfast is a staple here, so if you firmly believe this is the most important meal of the day, head to Everyday Joe’s. It’s not fancy, but it is delicious – and the staff is always cheery. The curious Grilled Blueberry Muffin is a must, but we’ve delighted in the Breakfast Wrap, too (filled with eggs, sausage, cheese, home fries, and peppers, it’s the perfect on-the-go fix if you need to grab something as you head out for a hike).
The Choco-Latte Café can fix you up with some delicious caffeine, thanks to their locally-roasted beans. Order your beverage of choice and grab a pastry or two to go – you’ll get hungry, and the tender scones will undoubtedly be calling to you. And the housemade bagels.
Come lunch, there’s no question where to head: The Travelin’ Lobster. This waterside seafood haven brings locals and tourists in throngs every lunchtime. Come early to get a seat on one of the picnic benches – and be sure you get either a Lobster Roll or a Crab Roll. Simple is good here; the focus is the fresh-off-the-boat seafood. Close your indulgent, breezy meal with a slice of Blueberry Pie because yes and you’re on vacation.
By our rulebook, dinner must feature two things: Mind-blowing cuisine and incredible views. To wit, look no further than The Reading Room, a veritable institution in Bar Harbor. Nestled in Bar Harbor Inn, this bay-windowed beauty treats you to New England classics impeccable crafted. The Crab Cakes with chili-lime aïoli are a top-notch way to start your meal, necessarily followed (in our humble opinion) by the surf-and-turf Filet Mignon and Lobster with bearnaise, smoked cheddar mashed potatoes, and asparagus. Cap the meal with a Fresh Berry Shortcake and a Cognac as you soak in the ebb and flow of life in the harbor beyond.