The calendar says January, but if you're planning to head to Acadia National Park this coming summer it's not too early to begin laying the groundwork for that adventure.
More and more I keep hearing that folks are waiting longer and longer to make their vacation plans, whether they involve heading to ski country in winter or a park in the summer. But I've long believed in planning as far in advance as possible. And when you're heading to a national park, it just seems that the sooner you can lock up a place to stay, the better off your trip will go. Plan early and you'll get to stay where you want to stay when you want to stay there.
With that philosophy in mind, here are some suggestions for how to put together a great summer vacation to Acadia.
* Where Will You Stay?
Acadia is a park without any lodging inside its borders. As a result, you'll have to look in the small towns -- Seal Harbor, Northeast Harbor, Southwest Harbor, Hulls Cove, and Bass Harbor -- that fringe the park. Bar Harbor, located on the northeast corner of Mount Desert Island right next to the park, is the most prominent "gateway" to Acadia and has a great number of options when it comes to accommodations.
There are a few properties in the Bar Harbor area that offer cottages that might seem like a throwback to the 1950s and 1960s. Those at the Edgewater Motel and Cottages are decidedly cozy, (ie., small) but they continue to draw families year after year after year. And really, you come to Acadia to explore the park, not sit in your room. Edgewater offers both daily and weekly rates that are pretty reasonable throughout the summer months. What's reasonable? The highest price they list for the coming summer is $995 a week for a two-bedroom suite that can sleep four and comes with a kitchen. That's a pretty good deal.
Another setting with cottages and cabins is Tide Watch Cabins, which, like Edgewater, offers quaint, but not exactly spacious, waterfront cottages and cabins. Knotty pine interiors, small porches with gas barbecue grills, and a location just a tenth of a mile from the national park make this Hulls Cove property a good base-camp. The Chart Room restaurant next door, which is popular with locals and visitors alike (I recall fairly large and tasty portions from a 2005 visit), is a plus for those nights when you really don't want to cook. However, Route 3 runs right past the property, and that might be something to keep in mind.
Price not an issue? Then consider one of the grand hotels in downtown Bar Harbor, such as landmark Ledgelawn Inn, a "summer cottage" dating back to the early 1900s that now offers 21 rooms ($150-up in August) in the main "mansion" and another dozen in the Carriage House. Or maybe the iconic Bar Harbor Inn and Spa ($200-$390/night in summer) that fronts Frenchman Bay and provides walking access to downtown. Or you could look to rent a house somewhere in the area. Check with Acadia Cottage Rentals, the Davis Agency, or Mount Desert Properties to see what's available.
For other properties in the Bar Harbor area, check out the chamber bureau's lodging directory.
Beyond Bar Harbor, the Claremont Hotel in Southwest Harbor long has a tradition with catering to Mount Desert Island visitors. Located near the mouth of Somes Sound, the Claremont first opened its doors in 1884 and has been greeting friends and families ever since. Along with offering hotel rooms, the Claremount has guest cottages, some of which can sleep seven.
If you're into tenting, there are two campgrounds in the park -- Seawall and Blackwoods. Seawall ($14 walk-in tent sites; $20 drive-up tent, camper, and motor-home sites) offers 214 campsites, all in the woods, all within 10 minutes of the Atlantic Ocean, and all taken on a first-come, first-served basis. There are no hookups, but there are showers, for a fee, nearby, and the campground is on the Island Explorer (see Getting Around section) route. Blackwoods Campground has 306 sites ($20/night) and accepts reservations from May 1 to October 31. As with Seawall, there are no hookups, showers for a fee are nearby, the campground is served by the Island Explorer, and the ocean is a ten-minute walk away.
An oft-overlooked part of Acadia is Isle au Haut, a small island southeast of Mount Desert Island. Head there and you'll find the Duck Harbor Campground with its five rustic lean-to sites. You need to land a reservation for these sites, and the application fee is $25, which is returned if they can't fill your request. Also on Isle au Haut is the Keeper's House, which offers some charming rooms housed within an old lighthouse.
Unfortunately, there is no lodging and no camping is allowed on the Schoodic Peninsula, a not-quite 2,300-acre slice of the national park that can be found on the mainland of Maine just northeast of Mount Desert Island.
* Getting Around the Park
Navigating Acadia is incredibly easy, as there's one main road -- the Park Loop Road -- that loops the park. There's one spur off this route that leads to the top of Cadillac Mountain, and an inner route that leads to Otter Cliff and the Fabrri Picnic Area.
An option to taking your own rig is to take advantage of the Island Explorer, a fleet of propane-powered shuttle buses that operate from late-June to early October. The shuttles stop at many of the scenic spots along the Park Loop Road, campgrounds, and trailheads.
Of course, you also can explore the park by bicycle by heading down the network of Carriage Paths that wend through the forests of Mount Desert Island. On our last trip to Acadia my wife and I pedaled all the way from Bar Harbor to Northeast Harbor, where we stopped for lunch and some shopping, and on back to Bar Harbor. These paths are perfect for youngsters, as you'll encounter no vehicle traffic.
* What Can You Do in Summer?
Hiking, biking, paddling, puffin-watching, fishing, climbing, tide-pooling, swimming, and bird-watching all mesh well with an Acadia vacation. The park has 26 "official" mountains, topping out at 1,530-foot Cadillac; two dozen lakes and ponds, some open to power boats, most not, some open to swimming, wind-surfing and scuba diving, some not; 125 miles of trails (see attached list), and; horseback riding, including carriage rides.
Sand Beach is the only sandy beach on the park's Atlantic Coast for swimming, but unless it's a really, really warm day you'll probably spend more time here looking at the water than getting into it. But almost right across from the beach is the trailhead to the Beehive, a trail that at times can be demanding but which pays off with great views of the Atlantic, Frenchman Bay, and the outlying islands dotting the waters.
You can also time the high tide with a stop at Thunder Hole, a coastal crevice in the park's granite foundation that resounds with a thunderous clap when waves pound it. Be careful of the pounding surf, though, as rogue waves can at times threaten your safety. Last summer a 7-year-old lost her life near here.
There are several opportunities to leave the park, and you definitely should take one to head to Southwest Harbor to visit the Wendell Gilley Museum, where you'll be amazed at the intricacy of the miniature carved birds. If you time your visit right, you might find one of the resident master carvers at work.
When night comes, you can head to the Jordon Pond House, which is famous for its afternoon tea and jam-smeared popovers, for dinner, which also features those luscious popovers, as well as lobster, of course. In Bar Harbor, among the fun, tasty restaurants are Rupununi, Mama DiMatteo's, and Poor Boy's Gourmet. After dinner, enjoy the nightlife and art shops in Bar Harbor.
* What Do You Need to Pack?
Think summer casual, but plan for an occasional shower. In general, sneakers and sandals, shorts and T-shirts, hats with brims to shade your face and neck, perhaps nice slacks and a casual shirt or sundress for dinners out. Hiking clothes, a good walking stick, swimsuits, sunscreen, and bug repellent come in handy, too.
* Helpful Websites
Acadia National Park: www.nps.gov/acad
Acadia Cottage Rentals: www.acadiarental.com
Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce: http://www.barharborinfo.com/
Bar Harbor Inn: www.barharborinn.com/
Claremont Hotel: www.theclaremonthotel.com
Davis Agency: http://www.daagy.com
Ledgelawn Inn: www.ledgelawninn.com/
Mount Desert Properties: www.barharborvacationhome.com
The Edgewater Motel and Cottages: www.edgewaterbarharbor.com
Tide Watch Cabins: www.tidewatchcabins.com/cabins.html