City Portrait: Bar Harbor, ME

Text: Troy Hendrick • Photography: Christian Neuhauser

Bar Harbor is located on Mt. Desert Island just north of the midway point along Maine's Atlantic coastline. The shoreline looks more like pieces of it are crumbling into the ocean than it does permanent terra firma, but this landscape typifies the storied look of the rocky New England coast where waves slamming against the seaside cliffs explode in towering jets of foam. Locals call the area "Downeast" and Bar Harbor, in addition to sharing the island with Acadia National Park, is an upscale tourist town with a decidedly New England feel.

Mt. Desert Island is a gorgeous place for riding. Instead of marathon days, your explorations are leisurely day trips around the island and into town. The best road is the park's 27-mile Loop Road winding around the eastern side of the island. View upon view of the ocean meeting the rocky seashore unfolds a seascape dotted with islands and strips of land extending to ensnare the water like a great fleet of ships anchored in every sound.

Along Loop Road is the spur climbing Cadillac Mountain. An unbelievable set of curves leads up the banks of Dorr Mountain to the summit of Cadillac Mountain. At 1,530 feet, the highest point in this area, the view is breathtaking. The only problem is, that as soon the curves become enjoyable, the dampening reality of the 35-mph National Park speed limit slows you down.

The Park was established in 1919 as the first National Park east of the Mississippi River. George B. Dorr, in an effort characterized as the "greatest of one-man shows in the history of land conservation," spearheaded the acquisition of 6,000 acres, turned the land over to the federal government, and single-handedly convinced President Wilson to establish first a National Monument, followed by the Lafayette National Park. The name changed to Acadia in 1929.

Dorr came from the glittering social set that loved to frolic in this area in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The local tax registry of the times included the names of Rockefeller, Morgan, Ford, Vanderbilt, Carnegie, and Astor. As a result, Bar Harbor experienced upscale development and was then opened to tourism with the establishment of the National Park.

On October 17, 1947, a disastrous fire attracted international attention and ravaged 10,000 acres of Acadia. It even burned its way into Bar Harbor. Beginning as a smoldering cranberry bog just west of the Hulls Cove community, it spread with such ferocious impunity there was little anyone could do to contain it and estates on "Millionaire's Row" were razed. The loss of their seasonal cottages was a devastating blow to many New England elites, and in many areas motels popped up on the newly freed real estate. Today the town retains vestiges of its earlier opulence, but the tourists are a far more socially diverse group than those who gathered here before 1947.

The ocean floor, teeming with lobster and other shellfish, provided Native Americans living on this island as many as 5,000 years ago with plenty of sustenance. The Native Americans are gone, but the lobsters aren't. Walking into one of the island's many lobster shacks, you pick your victim from several crawling in the aquarium, typically a good-sized lobster pulled from the cool Atlantic waters just that morning, and a few minutes later, he's arrayed in front of you with a side of slaw and hushpuppies. You can't get any better than this, and the price is right compared to payments extracted for the same dish anywhere else. And if there's something about the ambiance of eating a Maine lobster in Bar Harbor that makes you feel like a Rockefeller, then so be it.

As for the weather, an early or late summer day can be the perfect temperature. But winters are severe, with an average snowfall of 60 inches. The main road in Acadia National Park is closed around Thanksgiving until mid- to late-April. However, snowmobiling is very popular in the off-season for riders whose interests go beyond the road. Blackflies are sometimes numerous in the early summer, depending on how much rain fell that spring. The biggest advantage concerning the weather in Bar Harbor is that when heat is smothering most of the country, it's probably about 74 degrees with a cool breeze blowing off the water on Mt. Desert Island.

Because it sits on claw-shaped Mt. Desert Island, Route 3 is the only road into the island. It is best accessed by way of U.S. 1, crawling along most of the length of the jagged coastline. Flying is an option by booking a seat from Boston to the Hancock County Airport in Trenton, only a few miles from Bar Harbor.

Once there, riding around the island, the eye candy will keep you engaged. It's fairly crowded in the travel season, and the National Park's speed limit of 35 mph puts a crimp in the excitement of riding and relegates one riding on the pillion seat to checking out the scenery. However, not everyone was obeying that speed limit, and the best motorcycle road up to Cadillac Mountain's peak was less crowded than the main route on Loop Road. It really doesn't matter though because the views are so spectacular you don't want to zoom by too quickly.

The whole island is so tranquil and picturesque that relaxation comes easily. All over the National Park there are plenty of places to pull off the road and take a short walk along a seaside cliff or a rock-strewn beach. And if you wait until evening, there's a good chance you'll see a postcard sunset draping the coastal skies in warm, unforgettable colors.