“I don’t think I’ve ever seen this many American flags in my life. It must be illegal not to display one in Maine”, my boyfriend said, as we drove into Bar Harbor, passing dozens of lobster shacks, cottages, and yes, endless American flags.
We were on a 5 day road trip through Maine. Our journey started in Boston, where we flew in from New York, rented a car, and drove two hours north to Portland, Maine. Never having been north of Boston, and being generally clueless about the Northeast, I wanted to take advantage of the ample vacation time around the 4th to relax but also visit somewhere new. Maine, to me, was a mystery land that beyond lobster and Acadia National Park I knew very little about.
Our 4th of July was spent with my best friend Coco and her boyfriend, Brian, at his family camp (camp = vacation house), in Belgrade on Long Pond. The mental image I had in my mind of what idyllic lakeside life in Maine looked like matched perfectly to the scene of the day. Built entirely by Brian’s grandfather, the family’s lovely wooden home overlooked the lake, where islands of pine cropped up out of nowhere and clear blue water lapped against their dock.
We took the boat to a restaurant on the other side of the lake, getting sandwiches, beer, and a healthy dose of patriotism from a man dressed like Uncle Sam in the frozen food section of the grocery store. As people started jumping in from the dock, me, a beach-raised lake amateur, eyed the water dubiously and repeatedly wondered aloud what lurked beneath. How could it only be turtles and small fish out there? There must be something, anything, that is scary enough to give me some anxiety about swimming.
Mudbugs, I soon found out, were what lurked beneath. In the vast, deep lake that is home (in my imagination) to god knows what, all I had to worry about were the slimy crawfish-gecko hybrids that scurried beneath the rocks.
I sat back in the water, took another swig of beer and felt myself really getting on board with this whole lake thing. Hours were spent soaking, sipping Allagash beer — a Portland specialty — and unwinding our fraught New York nerves in this little slice of remote backcountry.
Dinner that night was a classic lobster boil. To my horror, live lobsters were chosen and tossed into a pot of boiling water. David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster — a philosophical and ethical look at boiling lobsters alive — was churning in my head as guests shrieked and laughed as lobsters clawed at the air, one last grasp at survival. Once the human fun was over, we sat down to a laborious seafood feast (have you ever tried cracking a lobster claw?), ever-flowing wine, and the onset of a spectacular sunset.
Fireworks were viewed from the bow of the boat. In a display of true community, generations of families came out and roped together their boats, having been summering here for decades. Kids grew up together and had their own, and every year the same group settled into their camp for the summer season.
Sunburnt, dehydrated and yet still coming down from being inserted into a real life postcard, Cenzo and I set off for Bar Harbor. Driving into Mount Desert Island, we passed dozens of roadside seafood shacks, all peddling the freshest lobster in Maine. As we pulled into Bar Harbor, I remarked at how it struck me as a Northeastern Telluride or Charleston. It felt as if Bar Harbor does not allow for bad days -- there’s too much sunshine to be basked in, ice cream to be eaten, and harbor views to be Instagrammed.
We stayed at Anne’s White Columns Inn, a true B&B right in the middle of town. We participated in “social hour” which consisted of us sitting across from one other couple and the innkeeper, Collin, while shoveling cheese and crackers into our mouths and making small talk. Our dinner at Cafe This Way, a breezy outdoor eatery tucked down a gravel alleyway, was the star of the trip. After, we walked the Shore Path that runs alongside the waterfront, eventually landing at The Bar Harbor Inn for drinks overlooking the harbor — a conclusion that felt, as Cenzo put it “like we were in a Cialis commercial” but a more than ideal way to ease into a mild Northeastern summer evening.
One thing that is hard to catch is the low tide emergence of a gravel land bridge that connects Bar Harbor to Bar Island on the other side of the Frenchman Bay. In the summer, low tide occurs around 9pm and because of this the bridge was only walkable for us in the dark. We traipsed through soggy sand, phone flashlights shining on the ground in the front of us. While the darkness was not conducive to getting the full effect of the landscape, it was interesting to be walking along what just hours earlier was up to 12 ft underwater.
The give-and-take that occurs on trips with your significant other is crucial to both parties feeling like their trip was worth it. Cenzo’s “take” on Friday morning was a 3:30am wake up call to drive to Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the Northeast Coast. At the top, likeminded visitors huddled together under blankets, bracing themselves against the wind, as all hopes of seeing a sunrise were slowly dashed by thick grey clouds shrouding the horizon.
Since we were up, we decided to do Acadia National Park's Park Loop, a 27 mile road that runs along the coast of the park before the mid-morning onslaught of visitors. Our first stop was Thunder Hole, a small inlet that, when the waves hit it correctly, makes a noise like a clap of thunder. We pulled over at Sand Beach, where we were the only souls in sight, running onto the beach and marveling at the dramatic rocky ledges jutting out from the tree-dotted coastline. A few miles down the loop, we scrambled over rocks along the Ocean Path, taking advantage of the deserted park highlights in the early morning hours.
Open every morning at sunrise, Jeannie’s Great Maine Breakfast (my “take” of the morning) greeted us back in Bar Harbor, an early-bird feast of blueberry pancakes, vegan breakfast scramble and toast with homemade preserves. Once full and aware of our exhaustion, we got back into bed at our B&B and slept right through a morning rainstorm.
Not quite ready to conclude the seafood bender we were on, we had a quick lunch of lobster rolls and haddock tacos at Peekytoe Provisions. Biking proved to be the best way to explore more of the park so that afternoon we made our way to the Rockefeller Carriage Roads, a 57 mile collection of biking, walking, and horseback riding trails that run throughout the park. Taken with the beauty of Acadia, John D. Rockefeller spent ample time there and established these car-free trails that wind through forests, offer lakeside views, and connect points of interest. We rode from the center of Bar Harbor to Jordan Pond House, where iced coffee and a classic popover — a croissant-muffin hybrid, unique to Maine — was our post-bike reward. The free park bus system proved to be reliable, picking us up from Jordan Pond House and depositing us back at the Village Green in Bar Harbor.
With enough energy for one last hike of the day, we drove to Southeast Harbor where the first stop was the congested albeit beautiful Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse. Making use of the endless rock skipping ammo and navigating over kelp-filled tidal pools, we walked along Ship Harbor Trail, whose loop path winded through a dense forest and spit out at a coastal overlook, before heading back down the other side. Little Notch Bakery, a surprise gem on Main Street in Southwest Harbor, provided a pit-stop on the way out for sandwiches. Sunset-chasing yet again, we ascended Cadillac Mountain once more for a fiery view over the water.
The next morning, we embarked on the hike we had chosen after a couple chats with park rangers and many debates over the map. Popular trails such as Precipice Trail and Beehive Trail were closed for peregrine mating. (“I can’t believe no one can do these hikes all summer because these birds decided to have sex up there”.) Beech Mountain in Northeast Harbor was our best option. With ladder rungs in some spots, the trail was short but rather strenuous — from the top, we could see both the Atlantic and the lake beach below.
Stretching out on the sandy beach at the base of the mountain, Cenzo, brave (and then cold), swam out to the buoys, past little kids splashing in the shallow water and locals taking an afternoon swim. Heading into town, the Main Street drag of Northeast Harbor is different in many ways from Southeast Harbor, most noticeably a Hamptons-like genre of shops and clientele. In stark contrast to Southeast Harbor’s campsites, tourists, and working class spirit, Northeast Harbor boasted sleek boats in a cramped marina, and mega-mansions hidden behind gates.
My favorite find of the trip was Wikhegan Old Books, an antique book, ephemera, art, and print store. We spent about an hour skimming the shelves of this magical little bookstore, rummaging through early 20th century postcards and travel guides, and chatting with the owners who ran up to the attic with our requests. Sadly, the owners are in the process of selling the shop and its contents. But the fruit of our time-traveled hour was a 1970 Hong Kong cookbook (all the Font Vibes!) and a 1927 guide to New Orleans (perhaps my favorite purchase ever)
We said goodbye to Mount Desert Island as we made our way back to Portland for the night. Stopping in right before closing time, we stopped off at Portland Head Lighthouse, one of the more iconic lighthouses along the Maine coast, where we caught the tail end of sunset before being mega-phoned out by a park ranger. This final scene of the trip was quintessentially Maine; the stark white lighthouse contrasted against a bubblegum pink sunset all complemented by the blues and greens of the coastline below it.
Exhausted but still wanting to explore Portland, we ate at Green Elephant, an amazing vegan restaurant, still crowded close to 10pm. Portland’s nightlife lends itself to live music so we strolled down to Wharf Street, a cobblestoned pedestrian-only alley bustling with people and live music streaming from every other bar. The following morning we made our way to Boston for our train back to NYC.
A road trip through Maine takes time, patience, and flexibility. We knew we wanted to spend the 4th at the lake and explore Acadia National Park. Beyond that, we enjoyed the ride, planning as we went and taking sudden rainstorms and frisky peregrines in stride. Our five day journey demystified this rugged state that offers up terrain, industries, and towns that are unique to this small section of the country. Outdoorsy yet built for comfort with a splash of Americana, Maine is a place I would always be down to go back and visit — maybe with a little less lobster next time.