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Bar Harbor: A Different Kind of Island Time

I’m embarrassed that it took me this long to get to Maine. I grew up in New Jersey, not that far away, for Pete’s sake. But now that I’m in Bar Harbor, the pleasures multiply. The coastal town on Mt. Desert Island is the epitome of New England, and it’s all about scenery, food and most of all, upscale charm. Artists and vacationers have been coming for 150 years, so for me, it’s about time. No wonder it’s a highlight of any New England cruise.

I begin, as one should, on Main Street. It would be difficult to find a Main Street that looks more like the iconic American “main street” than the one in Bar Harbor. And it’s a main drag with an especially seafaring flavor, with kayaks hoisted atop SUVs and a waterfront park where you can sit on a hill to watch four-masted ships ply the waters of Frenchman Bay. This is slow living in a human-scale environment.

Main street

To spend time downtown is to enjoy a mom-and-pop economy almost entirely housed in cottages — lovely Cottage Street actually runs perpendicular to Main. Under the wooden eaves are galleries, antiques shops and furniture stores. I take photos of purple wooden boutiques and buy maple syrup in maple leaf-shaped bottles and a tiny scrimshaw on a whale’s tooth.

The eating here is top-notch. Three things are ubiquitous: blueberries, baked goods and lobster. What’s not to like? Local blueberry products fill the shelves (check out the jams, butters, syrups, and even soap from the historic Acadia Country Store). And because blueberries occupy such a place of pride here, breakfast — featuring blueberry pancakes — is a really big deal. Some homey joints serve breakfast all day. One morning I find my way to Jordan’s, where I ask if I can peek inside the kitchen to see the blueberry muffins as they emerge from the oven, which more than whets my appetite for their pancakes drizzled with wild blueberry syrup.

I throw away my diet, because sweets are serious business here. Of course, fudge shops, bakeries and ice cream parlors are part of the landscape of many Mid-Atlantic and New England seaside towns, but not at this level. My sweet tooth is always active but also discerning, and I can say unequivocally that the brownies at Downeast Deli are the best I’ve had since childhood, if not ever. And Ben & Bill’s Chocolate Emporium has quality to match its impressive stats: 14 kinds of fudge (yes, including blueberry) and 350 types of chocolates — from turtles and clusters to gels and truffles — that are hand-dipped right in the window. And even aficionados who’ve never been to Bar Harbor know that Mt. Desert Ice Cream is regarded as one of the country’s finest artisanal ice cream makers. I sample berry ice cream from a happy berry-haired server in a berry-colored T-shirt.

Now, on to lobster. Luckily, I overhear a seasoned Mainer offering recommendations to a visitor: “You have to go Thurston’s Lobster Pound.” I make a mental note, find it on a map of Mt. Desert Island in the village of Bernard, and plot the route: 18 miles in a rental car from Bar Harbor. Some people use Mt. Desert Island and Bar Harbor synonymously, but the former is Maine’s largest island; on a map it looks like a pair of ears. I see this silhouette replicated on T-shirts and captured on local art.

My map tells me that Thurston’s sits on a harbor at the lobe of Mt. Desert Island’s left ear. The ride — to the west on 233, then straight down 102 — unfolds lazily, the essence of rural quaintness. Shiny creeks make elongated S-shapes through the New England marshlands. I pass a lot of lobster shacks in the half hour it takes to drive to Thurston’s. Mt. Desert Island feels like the crustacean capital of America, and I have yet to enjoy a claw.

That soon changes when I pull up to Thurston’s. Lobster traps are stacked high, buoys are everywhere, and steam rises at the entrance, almost obscuring the establishment’s sign. Just inside the door, Derek Lapointe, a ginger-haired fifth-generation Mainer, is pulling lobsters from a tank, entertaining hungry visitors. “I used to be a lobsterman when I younger,” he says to a rapt little crowd of onlookers. “I’ve had a license since high school.” Now Derek runs the wharf, and his wife, Christina Radcliffe Lapointe, owns the restaurant. When I ask him to describe the spirit of the island, Derek’s answer comes quickly: “Hardworking.”

Lobster

Nearly half the American lobsters caught each year are pulled from the state’s waters, and there’s nothing like being at the source. It’s because of guys like Derek that this economy continues to thrive; the restaurant draws diners from as far away as Asia — and as close as the bay off the deck. I watch as the lobstermen come in for lunch. They exude the well-earned but casual pride of New England islanders—setting the traps and getting their hands wet, day after sea-salted day.

THAT MOMENT ON MOUNT DESERT ISLAND WHEN…
… I find a perfect scene that’s not on any map.

That Mt. Desert Island, on a map, looks like a pair of ears is ironic, for the 108-square-mile land mass is actually one of the most quietly beautiful places I’ve ever been. It’s a fine place to be alone with my thoughts, and I notice my other senses being heightened in appreciation. I inhale the sweet, clean sea air, and most of all, I “rusticate.” So in the middle of my leisurely drive to find Thurston’s, I pull over to take some country photos, and behind an old shack, a hillside slopes sharply upward toward a stately white house. And in the midst of overgrown grass, a rough-hewn wooden chair sits like it’s waiting for me. “Postcard-perfect” is an overused phrase, but this time it’s warranted.

Chair on a hill

If you’re looking to visit Bar Harbor with Holland America Line, check out these cruises that call at the charming port in 2019 and 2020.

Drew LimskyDrew Limsky is the founding editor-in-chief of Holland America Line’s award-winning Mariner magazine and currently is a contributor to the publication, making him an ideal writer for Holland America Blog. As a travel journalist for outlets including The New York Times, Drew quickly realized that destination writing not only was a way of experiencing beautiful places, but also a way of meeting people from all over the world and hearing their stories. Drew broke into journalism as a book reviewer for The Washington Post and an op-ed writer for The Los Angeles Times.

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