It took me a while to figure out why, if I was heading to the north east of the contiguous United States to visit Maine, everyone was referring to my trip as Down East. Surely it should be Up East? Or were the Canadians exerting some kind of hold over their neighbour’s tourist literature? Well, neither, as it turned out. The name originated from the time when ships used to sail from Boston. With the wind at their backs – down wind – they would head along the coast to Maine, hence the term Down East. As Boston was up wind, many Maine residents say they are going “up to Boston” when in fact they would be travelling south.
Geography settled, let me tell you why, if you haven’t been here already, you should book a holiday to Maine as soon as you can. Specifically, plan a trip for Mount Desert Island and base yourself in Bar Harbor. This quaint little town, named after the sandbar that links the island to its smaller neighbour Bar Island, is the kind of place that on a sunny day you could easily see yourself staying for good. I’m reliably informed that last winter I’d have thought differently given that they had 130 inches of snow. My southern England brain cannot compute such weather statistics but I’m pretty certain that visiting between June and September is the way to go. I was there in mid-June, when enough tourist facilities were open to make it a pleasant vacation, but to take advantage of sunset tours and Acadia shuttles you should leave it until July.
As we basked in temperatures in the mid-twenties under blue skies, Julia, our guide on the Miss Samantha Lobster and Seal tour, told us that this was the best weather they’d had this year after a wet spring. The water was calm enough for the skipper to cut the engine while we took a closer look at the harbour seals on Egg Rock and the sea flat enough for the mums and dads on board not to have to fret when their kids got near the sides when peering into the lobster traps.
At a little under two hours, this tour doesn’t head out into the open water like the four-hour whale watching trips do, but there haven’t been many sightings recently. In fact, we got to see an 11 year old dead specimen being towed back to the lab for an autopsy; this particular humpback had become entangled not once but three times in nets and lobster pot lines, so it was likely this may have at least contributed to her death.
The humpback had been found washed up on Sand Beach, Acadia National Park’s longest stretch of sand, a week or so earlier. Acadia may not have the wow-factor of parks like Yosemite or Yellowstone, but its granite coastline has been eroded into blocky cliffs and fringed by evergreens, provides picture postcard views to show the folks back home. A short distance further on from Sand Beach was the park’s show stopper: Thunder Hole. There, the sea has eroded a narrow crack into a cave. As the tide enters, air is trapped in the cave and later forced out with a boom. It’s worth hanging around as the sight can vary from a bit of white water to a full on wave explosion.
A little further on, round Otter Point, hides a tiny cobble beach called Little Hunter’s Beach. It isn’t signed, so most people drive right by it, but if you know to look out for it, you won’t be disappointed. The cobbles are a pretty sight, ranging in colour from white to pink through to ochre and grey. Take a cushion and the bay is the perfect place to linger, though a sharp undertow makes it unsafe to swim.
Continuing on Acadia’s Loop Road, another must-stop is Jordan Pond House. Backing onto Jordan Pond, its cafe on the lawn has a view of North and South Bubble, two rounded peaks that look like a woman’s chest. It’s also the place to try a popover, a kind of cross between a sweet Yorkshire pudding and unfilled choux bun. Served warm, with butter and strawberry jam, they are deliciously more-ish. Of course, you can buy a packet of the mixture to recreate the moment back home.
Having rented a hire car with less power than a solar light in an Arctic winter, I pondered the wisdom of driving to the top of Cadillac Mountain. A Model A Ford rally was taking place, and seeing an 85 year old classic safely back down, I decided to give it a go. I needn’t have worried. The road was an easy climb and the views from the top over Frenchman Bay and the Atlantic were splendid. There was something wonderfully American about building a car park at the top of a mountain.
Back in Bar Harbor, I was happy to browse the gift stores, especially the excellent Bark Harbor pet shop. There was no hiding the fact that I was an out of towner in my Cool as a Moose T-shirt, never more so when I ate my first whole lobster. Diane, my server, was patient as she showed me where to twist and what to crack. The lobster was sweeter and juicier than anything I’d ever tasted before, though admittedly that amounted to lobster tails in chain restaurants. Butter dripping off my fingers, I washed it down with glasses of the local ale and stout on the verandah of the West Street Cafe. Did I really have to leave in the morning?
Need to know how to keep your costs down?
I travelled from Boston to Bangor with Concord Coach Lines, whose return ticket including free WiFi onboard cost $73. I stayed at the very central Mount Desert Street Motel in Bar Harbor at $87 per night for a room sleeping up to four. A budget but brand new rental car from Alamo via rentalcars.com worked out at £23 per day including recovery. A one day vehicle pass for Acadia NP cost $25 and the Lobster and Seal Tour was $29. Most places in Bar Harbor do early bird discounts if you eat before 6pm, meaning you can eat a lobster dinner for less than $20.
From the most recent TripAdvisor reviews, I’d been a little trepidatious. I’d used Booking.com, my usual site when I’m looking for hotels, and found a little place right near the centre of Bar Harbor for an affordable price – when the average price was way out of my budget. It was called the Aurora Inn and Motel and it looked OK, nothing fancy but OK. The reviews were variable, but there were plenty of decent reviews to balance out the duds, so I booked. A few weeks later I had an email from the Quality Inn up the road saying that the hotel was being sold and did I want to transfer my booking? I chose not to, as the Aurora was closer to town, but as my travel dates got nearer, so the reviews got worse. Significantly worse. Pretty much every single one implored the traveller to stay away. I figured I’d see for myself, thinking that having rented a car, I could always stay further out of town to find something within my budget if the reviews were right.
I reached the address to find that the motel that matched the pictures now had a new name, Mount Desert Street Motel. There was a little confusion when I pitched up in the office bearing a booking for the old place, but the new owner, Stephen Coston, was quick to reassure me that if there was an billing issue, he’d sort it. It seemed that, because the previous owners had already decided to sell, my booking, though recognised by Booking.com, had never been transferred onto the system, and therefore the new owners didn’t know to expect me. Fortunately, being early in the season, there were plenty of rooms.
The Aurora Inn and Motel used to consist of three buildings. The rooms at the motel part of the Aurora Inn and Motel now form the Mount Desert Street Motel. Stephen and his mom Nancy run the place with the enthusiastic help of Gadget the dog. What was the Aurora Inn is being remodelled and will form an extension to another place, the Primrose Inn. And the rooms by the cafe, the part of the hotel that generated all the bad reviews, will now come under the Quality Inn, but hopefully with some improvements.
My room, I have to say, was an absolute steal at $87 per night, for a room that would sleep four. (Even better, my original booking was for a rate of $109, yet unprompted Stephen still let me have the discount rate.) For that I got the best night’s sleep of the trip so far, a genuine welcome and everything you’d expect from a US motel, including WiFi, loads of TV channels and a coffee machine and microwave in the room. The rooms have been remodelled with new soft furnishings and fresh paintwork. Most welcome was a decent hairdryer that actually dried hair. It was just a five minute walk into the heart of Bar Harbor. After a long but rewarding day exploring Acadia National Park, I was able to savour a much-wanted Allagash stout – something I couldn’t have done if I’d have stayed on the edge of town and driven in.
The new owners have got some work to do to build their business, but I wish them well.
You can find them at 68 Mount Desert Street, Bar Harbor, Maine, just a few minutes’ drive from Acadia National Park. Reserve via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone on 207-288-8300.