Sunday, March 09, 2014

Bar Harbor, Mount Desert Island, Maine

The village of Bar Harbor is located on Mount Desert Island in Downeast Maine and is the gateway to Acadia National Park.  It offers lots of options for shopping, dining and lodging and it makes for a great place to start your Downeast vacation.

One thing I really like about Bar Harbor and all of Mount Desert Island is the lack of runaway commercial development.  Sure there are plenty of shops, restaurants and stores, but they are all part of the community.  You won't find any Walmarts, McDonalds or anything else like that in Bar Harbor or on the entire island.  It's a refreshing escape from that seemingly endless strip commercial development you find elsewhere.

We visit Bar Harbor and Acadia almost every year and we have almost always ended up staying close to the downtown area of Bar Harbor.  There are hotels further out that are less expensive, but you are further from the all the services of downtown.  We generally stay right on the outskirts of the downtown area.  The hotels are slightly less expensive and you don't have to deal with the hustle and bustle of downtown whenever you want to leave and go to the rest of the island.

How do I find Bar Harbor?

Bar Harbor is actually quite easy to find.  Taking Route 3 south from Ellsworth on the mainland, you'll cross over onto Mount Desert Island and then several more miles south you'll enter the village area of Bar Harbor.  Route 3 skims around the downtown core of the village and then cuts through the southern portion of the town, passing by the common area.  From Route 3 there are a number of side streets that travel into the downtown area.

It's about an hour or so south of Bangor, 3 hours from Augusta and about 5-6 hours from the Boston area.

Parking is probably the biggest headache for Bar Harbor.  The majority of parking is of the on-street type except for a parking area on the pier on the waterfront.  However during busy times, it's almost not even worth seeing if there is a parking spot down there.  In the off-season, you can pretty much park anywhere, but during the busier season if you luck out with a spot that's close to downtown, you're really lucky.  We usually end up parking a fair distance away and having to walk in.

What's in Bar Harbor?

Lacking the typical strip development you'll find elsewhere, Bar Harbor is filled with unique shops, restaurants, stores and galleries.  There is a little of everything for everyone I think.  We walk around and browse various shops (which do have their share of touristy stuff), check out the various art and furniture galleries (and wish we had more money) and always enjoy our meals in town.

The vast majority of the shopping is centered on the downtown area just uphill from the waterfront along Main Street and off a few of the side streets from there.  Beyond that initial downtown area, there are other stores and restaurants scattered through the village, including north and south along Route 3 on the outskirts of town.

Since we've visited Bar Harbor many times, we don't spend hours wandering around the village, but we have our favorite restaurants and shops that we like to check out.  If you are visiting the area for the first time, I'd think it would take at least a few hours to walk through the entire village area.  That also includes quite a bit of walking, so make sure that you wear comfortable shoes.

Where to stay in Bar Harbor?

There are a number of hotels and inns within the village of Bar Harbor.  These tend to be the most expensive places to stay in the area, but they offer the convenience of being right in the downtown area and you won't need to drive or find a place to park to go out shopping or eating. 

We actually have never stayed in the immediate downtown area, just because it's so expensive for a room.  However, I would like to at some point, especially during the busy season, since you wouldn't have to search for parking or walk miles from a parking spot to get into the downtown area.

On the outskirts of town there are plenty of other less expensive options for lodging.  Not all are within walking distance of downtown (a mile or two), but to the north and south of the village on Route 3 are a number of hotels, motels and inns.  There are also a number of restaurants in these sections, so you won't necessarily have to go all the way into town to eat.

On most of our visits to the area, this is where we stay.  We spend most of our time in Acadia, so this provides us with easy access to the park without having to deal with the downtown area.  However we're close enough that it's either a quick drive or a longer walk to the village.  In general, we just drive, since the majority of hotels are at least a mile or so from the downtown area.  However with the restaurants that are in this area, especially on the north side, you don't always need to go into the downtown area.

Acadia National Park

Bar Harbor is the gateway to Acadia National Park.  The main entrance to the park is about 2 miles or so from the downtown area, but you can reach the park from a number of roads that leave the village area and go across the island.  

Everything in the park is reachable from the Bar Harbor area once you get on the park roadways.  I have always found that the Bar Harbor area makes for a good base to explore the park.  We always go to the grocery store on our first day there and stock up on cold cuts and bread so we can make sandwiches (if our hotel has a fridge in the room) and we can be out biking and hiking in the park all day.  Then we come back to our hotel, relax, clean up and hit Bar Harbor for dinner and entertainment.

Things to note...

If you want to stock up on groceries or other items like that, there's only one grocery store in Bar Harbor.  We generally stop at the Walmart or one of the grocery stores in Ellsworth before coming on to the island.  That way we can get some soda and other things to last us while we're on the island (plus we don't have to pay island prices).

There aren't too many "cheap" dining options in Bar Harbor beyond a sandwich shop, a Chinese restaurant and a few pizza places.  The majority of the restaurants are more upscale dining and the prices and representative of this.  That's why we just often use the cold cuts for sandwiches and skip having lunch in town.

Bar Harbor hosts cruise ships in season, so from time to time you'll see a large cruise ship come up into the harbor and the town will quickly be inundated with visitors from the ship.  This can make it very hard to find a place to eat or even get into some of the shops.

The Busy Season and the Off-Season in Bar Harbor

Talk about a tale of two cities.  Visiting Bar Harbor in the summer and the winter is like visiting two different villages.  The summer tends to be very crowded, busy and bustling, while the winter is much quieter and only a handful of shops and restaurants are open.

We've visited during both periods and both have their pluses and minuses.  I like the off-season because you can go anywhere and do anything without lines.  The park is still open if the roads are snow-free and you don't need reservations and you won't have to worry about any lines in Bar Harbor.

Final Thoughts

I really love Bar Harbor.  It's quaint, it's comfortable and it offers a lot for my partner and I.  We always enjoy our vacations to Mount Desert Island and we always stay in the Bar Harbor area.  On every trip we spend plenty of time in the downtown area and we never get tired of it.  Not only that, but it's the perfect place to start your adventures on the rest of the island.

If you're looking for an interesting place to stay in the Downeast region of Maine, check out Bar Harbor on Mount Desert Island.  You won't be disappointed, I know I never have been.

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