July 15-21 - Bar Harbor, ME
Bar Harbor felt like about as far from home as we've been, although we were probably actually more distant in Florida. Bar Harbor is the largest town on Mount Desert Island, home to most of Acadia National Park. It's officially part of "Downeast". It's one of the ports serviced by The Cat, a high speed ferry service to Nova Scotia. It's where we saw a humpbacked whale, where Judy OD'd on lobster, where the coasts are really rock-bound. We'd been told that if we only saw one part of Maine, it had to be Bar Harbor. We therefore can't speak to the rest of the state, but Bar Harbor sure is a neat place. We're not sure that it's "real" Maine, given all the tourists, and we never actually heard anybody say "Bah Hah-bah", the way we presumed they should.
About "downeast" - way back when transportation was all via ship, the name was applied to the coastal areas on the Gulf of Maine because the prevailing winds around there blew north, and you sailed downwind to get there from Boston. Conversely, you sailed upwind to get to Boston, which is why folks in Maine still talk about "going up to Boston".
Other than lobsters, we were led to believe that Maine is populated by huge numbers of moose. Every five miles or so, there are road signs warning you about moose in the roadway, moose crossing the roadway, moose being big enough to destroy your car and walk away. We never saw a moose. We think maybe the moose just have a really good press agent.
Other than feeding Judy lobster, there were a couple of things we knew in advance we wanted to do while at Bar Harbor. One was to ride that high-speed ferry to Nova Scotia, the other was to take a whale watching cruise. We managed to do both, and we both discovered an unexpected tendency toward queasiness. In retrospect, we blame some rather heavy seas (courtesy of tropical storm Cristobal) and a lot of fog, making it difficult to find a stable horizon to focus on. But we survived and enjoyed both boat rides.
We have seen several documentaries on the building and operation of the high-speed catamaran ferry that runs from Maine to Nova Scotia and back, crossing the Gulf of Maine at speeds of up to 55mph. We just had to take that ride. Plus, the odds of our otherwise getting to Nova Scotia anytime soon seemed pretty slim. The ferry can carry about 750 people, a couple hundred cars and up to 24 motorhomes or large buses (we didn't take ours). Takes about 3 hours for the 100+ mile crossing, and we boarded around 8:30AM for a 9am sailing. Our ride to Canada was totally fog-bound - from the boat you couldn't even see the water most of the time. We were within 30 feet of the dock before we ever saw land. After clearing Canadian customs and immigration and making note that we were now in the Atlantic time zone, we had about 3 hours in the charming town of Yarmouth before our return.
We had a delightful lunch in a dockside restaurant with what would have been a neat view except for the fog. We set out to wander the downtown area, handy walking tour guide in hand, when we encountered Susan Hood. Susan is an award-winning stained glass artist and glass sculptor, a harp player, and just happened to be doing a glass bead making demonstration in a local store. We wound up spending most of our shore leave watching her create marvelous decorative glass beads, a process she describes as "like sculpting taffy". The boat ride back to Bar Harbor was not fog-bound, and some folks (not us) reported seeing a whale. We watched the water whiz by, and after clearing US customs, were back home by 8pm. It was a good day.
Acadia National Park (where Deborah Kelly once interned - hi, Deborah!) covers a goodly portion of Mount Desert Island, and includes some of the more scenic areas. Fortunately for us old folks, there's a loop road that gets you to most of them without undue hiking. There's a bunch of spectacular overlooks from massive granite headlands, a "Sandy Beach" swimming area (water temp 57 degrees) that was quite crowded, and a drive to the top of Cadillac Mountain, the highest point (~1500 ft) on the island. Mount Desert is the Anglicized version of the French name for the island, which loosely translated meant "bald mountains". Because of the prevailing winds, trees and most other plants never get a foothold on the tops of these hills. Those natural clearings gave us some pretty good views. And as the island is really just a huge lump of granite, the bald spots are themselves pretty spectacular.
Our whale-watching cruise was a resounding success. There's a rather well-patronized feeding ground about 25 miles off the coast, so the tour boats know where to go. Most of the whales in the area are finback whales, but our boat happened upon a humpback whale, and we spent most of our watching time watching it. We also saw lots of harbor porpoise and gray seals. And fog. The whale guide was just starting to explain how they find whales in the fog (turn off the engines and listen for them) when we entered a "bubble" in the fog that just happened to have a whale. Our whale cruise was on the same day Bar Harbor was visited by the Norwegian Dawn cruise ship, with around 2,000 passengers. Made the town a little more crowded than usual. We didn't find out until a couple days later that the cruise ship was a gay/lesbian cruise sponsored by Rosie O'Donnell. Had we known, we'd have tried celebrity-spotting.
We spotted a building on the waterfront with a big sign on the wall that said "harps", and a large decal of a Celtic harp in an upstairs window. As it was in an area of restaurants and bars, we assumed an Irish pub. It was, in fact, a harp and music store - Song of the Sea - where Judy bought a harp T-shirt and plucked a couple harps. Nice folks. Our other "discovery" was a 90+ year old Rexall drug store with a working soda fountain. We had lunch at the counter on the way to the whale watch, and stopped again for ice cream after. There's a free shuttle bus service that covers pretty much the whole island, and the bus stopped in our campground, so using it was pretty much a no-brainer if we were heading someplace with limited parking.
Bar Harbor isn't the only "harbor" town on the island - there's also Southwest Harbor and Northeast Harbor, both of them fun towns. We had dinner one night at a place called the Tan Turtle in Southwest Harbor, a bistro-kind of place with an enormous menu (over 200 items). We discovered the Acadia Playhouse, a repertory theatre company, and got tickets to see the Neil Simon comedy "Barefoot in the Park", which was done very well. Judy found a Curves just 2 miles from the campground, so was able to get in her exercises. We managed to circumnavigate the island and see most of the lighthouses. We even went to the 50th annual "Downeast Fair" at one of the Episcopal churches. And we quickly found out that a "Lobster Pound" is not a place for homeless lobsters - it's the name applied to places that boil lobsters.
We probably missed a whole bunch of things. But we sure had a good time. Next stop: Gloucester, Mass.
There are about 100 pictures in our slideshow from our week in Bar Harbor. You'll find them here.