By Wendy Wood-Prince
Mount Desert Island, Maine totally surprised me. When I ventured there late last summer with an old friend, I was instantly in awe of the coastal beauty, stunning forests, botanical magic, and rich history of this enclave. A three-ish hour drive from Portland, Maine, this island has a storied past of American Indian, French, and British influences which shaped it up until it became part of the state of Maine in the early 1800s.
The beauty and bounty of the island attracted many artists in the mid 1800s. Artists Thomas Birch and Thomas Cole of The Hudson River School were soon followed by others, including Sanford Robinson Gifford and Julia Whiting. As these painters exhibited their works and journalists wrote about the area, word spread throughout the East coast. Tourists began to flock to the area. This explosion of people created “Rusticators” – tourists who were willing to rough it in accommodations not truly prepared for guests. Put up in fisherman shacks and local cottages, these “Rusticators” enjoyed their island experiences, the rugged and lush landscape, and the local people so much that they returned year after year. Early citizens of the area worked hard to preserve the land and establish national park status for about half of Mount Desert Island beginning in the early 1900s. By 1929 Acadia National Park was established.
It didn’t take long before the secret was out, and the big guns arrived, and built their own “cottages”. Rockefellers, Astors, Vanderbilts, and other who’s who of the new money set ‘discovered’ the serenity and beauty of the area as well. They arrived and built massive estates. Lucky for us, much of this early wealth helped to refine Acadia National Park as it exists today. The park is just under 50,000 acres and still takes up about half of Mount Desert Island. John D. Rockefeller financed 57 miles of crushed stone carriage stone roads including 17 stone-faced bridges, many of which exist today, providing beautiful walking paths through mature forests that lead to the many hiking trails up the mountains making up Mount Desert Island.
My best friend from high school and I headed to Seal Harbor to drop our things and explore immediately. Our first stop was the beach at Seal Harbor, we walked and picked up rocks, looking out through the fog at the boats moored in the harbor. The salt air and clang of a distant lighthouse bell was an immediate sedative. Seal Harbor has a picturesque quality that is so mesmerizing I could have spent the whole afternoon staring out to sea. The evidence of earlier days of thoughtful planning combined with infusions of early residents’ cash are everywhere, even in the restrooms in the parking lot at the harbor. Financed by Rockefeller and Dunham in 1921, a Palladian style building houses the public toilet at Seal Harbor. Definitely the nicest public restroom I have ever seen.
By the late afternoon, we had worked up quite an appetite, luckily we had planned ahead and secured a reservation at Havana, located in downtown Bar Harbor. Havana serves some of the freshest and most delicious food on the island. Committed to serving natural and “humanely raised” meats from local farmers and produce from their own garden as well as Mandala Farm who supply the restaurant with many local fresh ingredients. Amazing cocktails accompany delights like Butternut Squash and Curry Soup and Seafood Paella that couldn’t taste fresher.
The next day, we walked through downtown Bar Harbor, bought Cranberry soaps, locally made ceramics and trinkets to bring home. The town center overlooks the large harbor and we spent hours sitting on the park’s benches, warming ourselves in the sun, watching boats and ferries come and go. We took a lazy walk along The Shore path which starts downtown at the water’s edge and winds along the shoreline for a little less than a mile.
If Bar Harbor is the most touristy of towns, Southwest Harbor could be called the sleepiest. A must visit for lunch and dinner or a luxurious stay, the beautifully and recently refurbished Claremont Hotel is located right on Somes Sound in Southwest Harbor. Bought in 2020 by hotelier Tim Harrington, this boutique hotel was totally refurbished, and the interiors designed by the New England Firm of Keeler & Co. . Fresh and cozy, with inviting nooks throughout the hotel to sit by a fire and read, play a game of backgammon, or sit on the porch and enjoy a drink with friends, this is the perfect respite after a day of hiking in Acadia National Park. Dinner by the fire in the main dining room is a treat.
Back in Seal Harbor, Keeler & Co. principal designer, Laura Keeler Pierce and her husband Vassar own a chic interior design shop called Rusticator. Open seasonally, this shop carries furniture, art and home goods that are sold to the current tony set who have set up their own summer get-a-ways on Mount Desert Island.
On our final day, we visited the Asticou Azalea Gardens. Although peak Azalea season is ideally May through June, this garden is designed as a kind of hybrid Japanese/American adaptation of a serene garden that has “rooms” inviting quiet contemplation and includes an amazing curation of plants and trees that have been collected over many years. The volunteers at this garden spend hours quietly raking paths and sand “lakes” into soothing patterns every single day. To watch them work is a study in meditation and really made me not want to walk on their masterpiece walkways!!
Mount Desert Island deserves a month of time to fully explore and even that would not be sufficient to discover all of its charms. I cannot wait to go back again and explore.