I grew up in Bangor, Maine, and graduated from college in Waterville, Maine. I couldn’t wait to leave Maine. And I did, but with the exception of two years in Japan, I came back every year, sometimes more than once a year. First just by myself, a few years later with Noel and then with our two children.
When my father died and my mother started to decline, my brother Richard and I would take turns trekking up to Maine every three weeks or so until he finally had to bring her to live with his family in Maryland. Maryland temporarily became Maine until our mother died. We brought her body back to Maine to be buried with our father. I didn’t go back for a few years relying on Uncle Bill to put a Christmas wreath on the family grave and then he died and Richard and I made another journey to Maine for his funeral.
I stayed away for a few years after that, but then Noel and I started going back to Maine again, called back no longer by duty to family, but by love for the state.
This year I went to my 50th high school reunion, Bangor High School, class of 1963. Noel totally dismissed going to his high school reunion (also this year). He grew up a nomad, changing schools every few years when his Navy father was transferred. When I told him I was going, with cautious enthusiasm he agreed to come along when I mentioned Bar Harbor. Outside of our home in Oak Park, Illinois, Maine is as close to emotional roots in a place as Noel has, Bar Harbor, in particular. We honeymooned there. Noel and I impetuously got married in grad school at Purdue when the lease on his apartment was up and I was looking for a roommate. We had two weeks left before the fall semester began and what better place to go for a honeymoon than Maine. My poor befuddled parents wanted to give us some semblance of respectable tradition, so my father hauled their Airstream trailer to Barcadia, a tourist campground on the edge of Mount Desert Island, lent us a car and we stayed there for a week.
The Town on Frenchman Bay
We have been driving from Bangor to Bar Harbor for over forty years. Aside from some widening of the highway and a rotary linking Route 1A to Route 3 in Ellsworth, not much has really changed. Just before crossing the bridge onto Mount Desert Island on Saturday after the reunion, we stopped at the Trenton Bridge Lobster Pound for a lunch of boiled lobster “in clean sea water over a wood fire.” A pound and a half each is good. As honeymooners, we had bought boiled lobster from this same restaurant. Trenton Bridge also serves steamed clams and mussels and lobster out of the shell in the form of lobster sandwiches, lobster stew and lobster cocktail as well as traditional sides like corn-on-the-cob, potato salad, and blueberry pie. Nothing is grilled or fried. We like our lobster boiled in the shell with drawn, unclarified butter. It’s important to note that the butter has to be unclarified. Nothing ruins a good boiled lobster more in my mind than serving it with clarified butter. It might as well be peanut oil as far as I’m concerned. It’s the junk in the butter that makes the lobster taste so good. You can also get a beer. The dining room is a sheltered outdoor patio with picnic tables. Trenton Bridge Lobster Pound is open from Memorial Day through Columbus Day, closed most Sundays. There are two or three other lobster pounds nearby, but this is our place.
On the other side of the bridge from the lobster pound is our honeymoon spot, no longer Barcadia but now a KOA campground. We drove past tidy groupings of familiar 1950’s retro tourist cabins that still look kept up after all these years and now offer WiFi along with cable TV and past the greatly expanded pirate themed miniature golf course that our children would hound us to play. We had reservations at the Bar Harbor Inn for two nights.
The Bar Harbor Inn is perfectly located, overlooking beautiful Frenchman Bay right in the middle of town and very close to one of the entrances to Acadia National Park. It also has a very good restaurant and bar and a fine spa. Overall, the resort is quiet, comfortable and luxurious enough without being pretentious. The Inn offers less expensive rooms overlooking the really lovely grounds, but we think it’s definitely worth the extra money to book a room in the Oceanfront Lodge where each room has a private balcony overlooking the bay. Dawn from our room was breathtaking and early. There is a really nice shore path that passes in front of the lodge for about ¾ mile. It used to pass by some of the old mansions that characterized Bar Harbor in the early 1900’s, but most of them have been razed.
The town of Bar Harbor has definitely had its ups and downs. When I was a child, I remember seeing acres of burnt timber from the horrible 1947 fire that nearly destroyed the town and half of the eastern side of Mount Desert Island. Up until then Bar Harbor rivaled Newport, Rhode Island, as the summer home of the very wealthy who kept up a rivalry of who could build the most extravagant summer “cottage.” Nelson Rockefeller was born in Bar Harbor (as was Garry Davis, longtime peace activist and “dean of the One World movement”). Nelson’s father, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., donated about a third of the land in Acadia National Park and built the carriage roads that are now used for biking and hiking. The fire ended that extravagant era. Very few of the “cottages” were rebuilt. Few of the wealthy summer people returned.
Slowly, Bar Harbor renewed itself. It went through a long period of tacky souvenir shops downtown and a few decent restaurants serving lobster, fried clams and chowder. Some of the few remaining millionaire “cottages” became bed-and-breakfasts. The Mount Desert Reading Room which had become the Shore Club expanded into a 40-room hotel called the Hotel Bar Harbor and in the late 1980’s was resold, redeveloped and renamed the Bar Harbor Inn. Today the small houses and apartments around the center of the town are being replaced by high-end condos and the Bar Harbor Inn now has two or three competitors. The town has also become a prime port for cruise ships since the 1990’s.
The increased economic activity has certainly improved the quality of the shopping. I’m a Christmas freak and I shop all year round for the holiday. I was thrilled to discover the Christmas Spirit Shop, 80 Main Street, Bar Harbor. The shop sells Christmas ornaments, both clichéd and sublime and everything is made in the USA, even the packaging. The prices are very reasonable. Island Artisans, 99 Main Street, Bar Harbor is a very classy shop owned by five local artisans and carrying the works of 100 Maine artisans, very nice traditional work of textile, pottery, basketry, glassware, jewelry and more. Some of the baskets are made by Native Americans. Right next door is Native Arts Gallery, also 99 Main Street. This shop is owned by Native Americans. I was impressed by the range and quality of the Zuni fetishes they carry. [I’m not sure the shop still carries Zuni fetishes. There weren’t any on their website. It’s shame if they don’t. 01/26/17]
One place we always have to go when we visit Bar Harbor is the Abbe Museum, 26 Mount Desert Street, Bar Harbor. The mission of the museum is to educate the public about the Wabanaki Confederacy, the Native Americans living in New England, Quebec and the Canadian Maritime provinces and to encourage research about them. The museum is now affiliated with the Smithsonian. When we were there, we saw a very interesting traveling show from the Smithsonian called “IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas.” Actually, the museum has two locations. The original is located at Sieur de Monts Springs outside of Bar Harbor, off Route 3 toward Otter Creek, just past the Jackson Lab. This location is only open seasonally from late May through mid October.
Attached to the Abbe Museum in town is a really wonderful gift shop that offers fabulous baskets made by four of the Wabanaki tribes – Passamaquoddy, Micmac, Penobscot and Maliseet. I have purchased several baskets over the years. In addition to the gift shop, the museum co-sponsors a Native American Festival and Basketmakers Market every year the first Saturday after the 4th of July. I’ve just added this event to my bucket list if not for next year, then the year after.
We had reservations for dinner at the Reading Room Restaurant at the Bar Harbor Inn. The dining room is really beautiful. It’s actually a large curved granite front room surrounded by glass windows overlooking the bay. If you can score a table on the west side of the dining room, you will have a perfect view of the sunset. The first time we ate there we had a great table by a window on the west side and were treated to an awesome light show that seemed to bathe the whole room in the colors of the setting sun. It was almost a religious experience. This last time was not quite like that but the evening was delightful, none-the-less. One of the house specialties is lobster pie, “fresh Maine lobster meat baked in a rich sherry cream topped with a butter crumb finish” with some sautéed vegetables on the side. It is as yummy as it sounds, but I think the fresh Maine haddock is just as tasty. We opted for the haddock with creamy lobster bisque as our starter. The next night we chose to eat outside at The Terrace Grille also at the hotel. It’s actually must easier to watch the sunset from there than it is in the Reading Room and the menu is much the same. But I have to say that the service in the Reading Room is much better. The servers at the Grille are clearly summer help, well-meaning, but not as professional.
We had made reservations to go sea kayaking the next morning. Neither one of us had been kayaking before, but we were told no experience was necessary and that the emphasis would be on seeing the wildlife, not the kayaking. We chose National Park Sea Kayak Tours, 39 Cottage Street, Bar Harbor. Our group met at the tour office in the morning, a half hour before the start of the tour which lasted four hours including the drive to the western side of Mount Desert Island. That side is much less developed than the eastern side where Bar Harbor is situated.
We spent roughly three hours actually paddling plus a fifteen minute break towards the end. Our group consisted of eleven people in six kayaks including the guide. Each boat had at least one person who was an experienced kayaker except for us. The more difficult position in the boat is the stern position. Our sea kayaks had rudders. The person in the back not only has to paddle in coordination with her/his partner but also she/he has to steer using the foot pedals inside the kayak that are attached to the rudder at the rear. We pretty much trailed everyone else throughout our excursion because of our lack of experience, but after an hour or so I had the steering pretty much under control. Noel kept telling me I was “veering right.”
That’s the first time anyone ever accused me of that!
I was so busy trying to keep us on course and paddling at the same time that I didn’t notice just how far out on the water we were. We did see a few seals sunning themselves, but we weren’t allowed to get too close so we wouldn’t disturb them. And a harbor porpoise made its appearance at one point, but overall I was disappointed at the lack of wildlife sightings. However, the primeval coastline was beautiful when I could tear myself away from steering with my feet. Neither of us felt any particular fatigue from paddling 6.5 miles nor did we fight. Our guide told us how he actually had to intervene when one couple he took out just wouldn’t cooperate with each other. Now I can take kayaking off my list. Well, I might do it again when we return to Key West and the mangroves are calling me.
A Restored Old Port and the Museum
The next morning was Monday and we drove to Portland, Maine, taking Route 1 most of the way until we reached Freeport where we hopped on to I-95 into the city. We did make one stop in Camden for lunch at Marriner’s Grill. Camden is a beautiful little harbor town worth a few hours of exploration.
We love Portland, Maine, and want to become more acquainted with it. We stayed at the Portland Regency Hotel and Spa, 20 Milk Street, Portland for two nights. The Regency is a repurposed armory built in 1895 and converted into a hotel in 1984 to accompany the city’s restored Old Port. Maine’s commercial center, Portland itself is a restored city, not the city I remember visiting as a child. We used to stay at the Eastland Hotel, now renamed the Eastland Park Hotel and closed for renovations until spring 2014. The Old Port was someplace no one went. It was just abandoned warehouses and derelict buildings. In the 70’s and 80’s it was rebuilt and is now a great area with lots of boutiques, restaurants and bars.
The rooms at the Regency are large with balconies and you can have complimentary coffee delivered to your room in the morning. Weather permitting, there is a nice outdoor dining area across from the hotel’s entrance as well as an indoor dining room where we had breakfast. For the first time in my life I was asked how I wanted my corn beef hash cooked. Crispy! The bar, appropriately named The Armory Lounge, offers live jazz by The Lounge Project on Tuesday nights from 6:30 to 9:30 and, of course, fine cocktails every evening as well as small plates.
We spent most of our one full day in Portland at the Portland Museum of Art. It’s one of the best small American art museums I’ve ever been in. Because our attention span is only good for about two hours, we focused on two shows that were really outstanding – the William S. Paley collection of modern art, a traveling show from MoMA, and Shangaa: Art of Tanzania. Moving from one show to the other, we caught intriguing glimpses of the permanent collection. We will definitely return when Maine calls us again. The museum acquired the Winslow Homer studio in Prout’s Neck in 2006 and offers limited tours. The tour includes van transportation from the downtown museum. Reservations are a must and the 2013 summer tours were sold out. According to the museum’s website, several Portland hotels including the Regency offer tour packages. Some future July this would work out really well with the Native American Festival and Basketmakers Market in Bar Harbor.
We finished our day in Portland and our journey with late afternoon massages at the Regency’s spa followed by a lovely non-fish dinner at Vignola Cinque Terre restaurant. The spa offers a full panoply of facials and foot and body massages that can be enhanced with exfoliations, masks, and various oils, mud and paraffin. It was a perfect day. And we didn’t walk back to the hotel in the rain.