Mount Desert Island, Maine (MDI) is a small gem of an island combining lakes, mountains, ocean, and the East Coast’s oldest national park, Acadia, into a single destination. Our good friend, Jon, travels to MDI every summer and knows all the best spots. Jon recommends you allot several days to fully explore the island, but offers these suggestions for what a perfect day might look like.
Book well in advance… Acadia attracts tons of visitors in the summer months. Many families choose to stay at the Bar Harbor Inn or at the Harborside Hotel, Spa and Marina. For a quieter stay, try the Ullikana, a B&B overlooking Frenchman Bay or The Asticou Inn, located in Northeast Harbor.
When to Go…The peak summer season runs late June through Labor Day. Fall brings spectacular foliage and winter’s the time for excellent cross-country skiing.
Early Morning: You’ll thank yourself later for getting up at dawn to catch the sunrise on Cadillac Mountain, the highest peak on the East Coast at 1,532 feet. Enter the park near Bar Harbor, drive up the winding road, and join the blanket-wrapped masses to see the sunrise before anyone else in the United States. It’s a sight you’ll long remember. Make sure to check the exact time before you go, and give yourself an extra 20 minutes for the drive up the mountain.
Morning Meal: Once the sun is up, head into Bar Harbor for breakfast. Jordan’s Restaurant opens at 5am, and will welcome you (and local lobsterman) with friendly service and quality diner fare. If you can wait until 7am to eat, other more upscale options are Café This Way and Two Cats. Blueberry pancakes are a tradition for breakfast in MDI, but lobster eggs Benedict is quickly becoming another favorite. Eat well — you’re going to need the fuel.
Hit the Trails: One of Acadia National Park’s most beloved features is the 40+ miles of carriage roads. John D. Rockefeller spent thirty years supervising and financing the creation of a network of broken-stone roads free of motorized vehicles that make the park one of the most beautiful and bike-friendly destinations in the US. You can rent bikes at the Bar Harbor Bicycle Shop, then either drive or hop on the free Island Shuttle busses to Eagle Lake parking lot. You could bike around Eagle Lake (a 6 mile loop), or if you’re feeling adventurous, continue further to Jordan Pond House, which is famous for popovers and jam.
Scenic Road: Another option is to get back in your car after biking, re-enter the park near Bar Harbor, and drive the Park Loop Road — 27 miles of postcard-worthy Maine scenery. A park pass is needed, but the funds are an important part of maintaining Acadia’s beauty. You’ll want to pull over often to take pictures and explore some of the footpaths along the coast. Keep an eye out for Sand Beach (a rarity along a rocky Maine coastline), and Thunder Hole, where waves collide loudly with land.
Lunch: Next, head to the western half of the island, known as the “quiet side.” If you’re hungry, pull over at Mother’s Kitchen in Town Hill. It’s a small stand-alone building next to a hardware store, and serves popular gourmet sandwiches made with local, organic ingredients. Another option is to drive into Southwest Harbor and stop at either Eat-a-Pita (which has much more than pita, and offers outdoor seating) or Little Notch Café, which features artisanal breads, pastries, and pizza, all made expertly in their own bakery. (There is also a Little Notch Bakery outpost in Bar Harbor.)
Get moving: Next, it’s time to work off lunch with a hike and a swim. There are many great hikes in Acadia, from easy strolls along the shore to iron-rung trails like the Precipice and Beehive trails. (Not for the faint of heart) A good guidebook with maps and descriptions is essential. On your way out of Southwest Harbor, you could explore a good moderate trail by parking at the Echo Lake parking lot and hiking up the Acadia Mountain or St. Sauveur trails. These are loops that have the advantage of ending at Echo Lake so you can swim afterwards.
Stay Moving: Another option on the quiet side is to drive to the end of Beech Hill Road and hike the Beech Mountain Trail up to the fire tower, which is a good workout and offers summit views of the surrounding islands, or the Canada Cliffs trail, which has spectacular views of the Cranberry Islands and Echo Lake. Stay on the lookout for blueberries as you hike — in late July and early August, they are all along the trails.
Farm Market: Once you’re back in the car, you’ll pass Beech Hill Farm, a sustainable 73-acre farm run by the College of the Atlantic and offering great local vegetables, flowers, dairy, other organic goodies. You could then take a quick swim at nearby Long Pond (which also rents kayaks and canoes), or the smaller Somes Pond favored by locals.
Dinner: After a well-deserved nap, it’s time for dinner, and nothing says mid-coastal Maine like fresh lobster. There are many options for great lobster on the island. Two favorites are Beal’s in Southwest Harbor, which has a fun, family-friendly vibe overlooking the harbor, and Thurston’s in Bass Harbor, which added a full bar two years ago. Thurston’s serves IslandBound Treats’ excellent berry pies for dessert. You can’t go wrong with either, but be patient because the lines can be long and cooking lobster takes time.
After-Dinner Fun: Assuming you left room for ice cream (come on, you’re on vacation), swing by Mount Desert Island Ice Cream back in Bar Harbor. Their Maine Sea Salt Caramel ice cream is amazing, but they make many unusual gourmet flavors and gladly let you try samples. Then while exploring the town’s many shops, you could check out the newly restored Criterion Theater, built in 1932, which features movies, music, and more in a 1932 Art Deco setting, or play Bocce at the Lompoc Café and grab a local craft beer while you share highlights of your day on MDI.