Bar Harbor Beauty
PORTRAIT OF PLACE – August 2014
By Sophie Nelson | Photography Nicole Wolf
The summery spirit of Mount Desert Island’s beloved town at the edge of Acadia National Park
It’s hardly an island, that upside-down, heart-shaped pennant of land hanging off of the Maine coast. The bridge from Trenton to Mount Desert is so short many visitors fail to notice that it’s a bridge at all. The crossing is surrounded by unofficial distractions—the picnic tables of lobster pounds piled high with red shells, the views of water and spruce and balsam, sun-dried seaweed tracing the shoreline, subtle hints of the beauty to come at Acadia National Park. People who visit MDI often, though never fail to notice the bridge. Especially after plane rides and car rides down long coast-bound roads, the crossing is an experience to relish: here you have permission to abandon an everyday outlook, to revel in all the exceptional gorgeousness and good times this island has to offer.
A good portion of MDI is officially Acadia National Park territory, but several villages dot the coast along Frenchman Bay and Blue Hill Bay and in the crevices of Somes Sound, and each has its own unique personality. Bar Harbor is the largest town on the island and undoubtedly the liveliest, with a year-round population of approximately 5,000 that swells to 18,000 in the summer. Nearly two million vacationers pass through each year, many on cruise ships that dock right in the heart of the town’s commercial district.
“Everyone goes a little crazy with anticipation in the spring,” Bar Harbor-bred Kim Swan tells me over iced tea at the Thirsty Whale, a cozy joint that stays open all year, “but once summer comes and the crowds are here, you just run with it. It’s lots of fun.” Over the decades, Swan has seen the town expand to accommodate more and more tourism to the area. Bar Harbor is now home to some of the most outstanding restaurants in the state, along with countless T-shirt shops and souvenir shops and ice cream shops. Especially on a sunny afternoon when a cruise ship is in town, the lines for ice cream spill out onto the sidewalks and happy kids race around with melting cones. On a sunny day in June, Agamont Park is filled with couples on unfurled blankets, dogs snoozing in that shade and readers on those benches, no doubt distracted by the view of Frenchman Bay and its collection of tiny islands thick with pine.
Certain things, like this quintessential summer scene, look more or less the same across decades. And particular smells remain: the woody exhale of the handcrafted toys at In the Woods, fudge cooling at Ben and Bill’s Chocolate Emporium. The mountains of Acadia still swell into view when you turn down long streets.
In general, hints of old and new (and even newer) happily coexist in Bar Harbor. The town has a storied past, evident in rambling wooden mansions-turned-bed-and-breakfasts on the edge of town—throwbacks to a time when this was the summer escape of some of the wealthiest families in the country—and the gleaming, modern hotels built up at the corner of West and Main Streets near the pier. Down the street from the Art Deco Criterion Theatre are Americana-inspired restaurants with names like Route 66 Restaurant, the word “lobster” lit up in neon coils on the entry way. The amount of signage, the plethora of businesses filling in the nooks and crannies of Bar Harbor’s compact downtown, is almost overwhelming. And just as suddenly, you can escape it all on an in-town walk down the Shore Path, or down one of the quieter, residential side streets. The fire of 1947 wiped out many of the ornate “cottages” of early twentieth century Bar Harbor, but some remain still, facing the water in all their splendor. Other, equally impressive homes have been built up in the years since.
The Ullikana Inn is one of a few nineteenth-century, in-town residences that feels tucked away, because it is, on a gravel road officially known as The Field, reached by foot on a path behind the bank, or through the entranceway of the Bar Harbor Inn by car. The Inn’s owners, Roy Kasindorf and Hélène Harton, moved from New York City to Bar Harbor 24 years ago after traveling up and down the coast of Maine. Their answer to the question, “Why Bar Harbor?” is simple: Acadia National Park. They visit every day. And why wouldn’t you, if you could? If Acadia was basically your backyard? The park is filled with hiking trails, miles of historic carriage roads, beaches, lakes, and epic views everywhere you look. Kasindorf and Harton love the park in the summer, filled with people—many of whom have traveled long and far to bear witness to this unique beauty—but they also love Acadia in the winter, when it almost seems as if they have it to themselves. Most year-round residents welcome the change of pace, as fewer and fewer cruise ships and out-of-state plates come around, as the leaves color and fall and there is a hush across town. “It’s a time when people who live there get to see their friends again,” says Kasindorf.
On Halloween, Bar Harbor’s Ledgelawn Avenue, a classic residential street running north to south, away from the hubbub, is the place for trick or treating, and kids come from every corner of the rural island to make their door-to-door rounds. Residents often spend several hundreds of dollars on candy. (Apparently real estate agents provide fair warning about this annual expense to anyone interested in buying property on Ledgelawn.) Other off-season traditions include the Pajama Party Sale in November, when, from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., local merchants sell their wares at a significant discount (with extra five percent off for shoppers in their pajamas), and trips to Reel Pizza Cinerama—a two-screen theater/restaurant—when a new movie comes to town. A handful of businesses stay open, and there is always somewhere to go for a drink or a bite to eat. The College of the Atlantic is an important town centerpiece, as well as The Jackson Laboratory, both large employers in the area that are making waves in the fields of environmental education, and genetic and oncology research, respectively. Small neighborhoods have grown up around the lab, as well as the local hospital, and there are sweet, modest homes lining the roads splintering off of the commercial district. Still, though, a sense of grandeur dominates this small, seaside town.
In an age when most with the means to build summer homes seem to value privacy above all else, there is something unique about the visibility of the mansions along West Street, known as “Millionaire’s Row,” and it is fun to imagine the opulence of a bygone area, when Bar Harbor was home to families like the Morgans and the Vanderbilts—a summer resort town of incredible wealth, of wild, glitzy parties and afternoons at the Bar Harbor Club, cocktails on impossibly wide verandas with ocean views. Bar Harbor has transitioned into a different sort of summer destination, but it is just as well loved as always, now by far more people from all around the world. And still, there are plenty of people who call Bar Harbor home all summer or all year long, who enjoy the energy and walkability of this bustling little town. A certain kind of social spectacle may be history here, but the real spectacle—Acadia National Park—will never go out of style, will always be a draw. And so will Bar Harbor, as the fun-loving gateway to this island of unmatched natural beauty.