The Downeast Maine town of Bar Harbor is situated on Mount Desert Island (pronounced like everyone's favorite after-dinner treat). Most folks "from away" know Bar Harbor as the best home base for exploring Acadia National Park. This bustling coastal town is also an increasingly popular cruise ship port with more than 150 annual ship landings by major cruise lines like Norwegian and Royal Caribbean. Even if Acadia is your primary reason for visiting — and it should be on every New England traveler's must-see list — allow an extra day or two if you can to experience Bar Harbor's one-of-a-kind charms and attractions. Here in the shadow of Cadillac Mountain, there is more to do year-round than you may realize.
From witnessing a sunrise from the summit of Cadillac Mountain to taking a horse-drawn ride on John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s crushed-stone carriage roads, there are experiences within New England's oldest national park that Bar Harbor visitors simply shouldn't miss. If nothing else, drive the Park Loop Road, stopping to take photos of iconic spots like Otter Cliffs and Thunder Hole. Your private vehicle admission fee ($30 as of 2020) is valid for seven days, so you can return to the park day after day to hike, bike, swim and see majestic scenes. Just keep in mind that summertime traffic will slow your journey to and through the park. The free, seasonal Island Explorer shuttle is an awesome alternative way to travel between Bar Harbor and Acadia.
Seeing whales in the wild should be on every traveler's to-do list, and Bar Harbor's a fine spot for spying on these amazing mammals. Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co. has taken more than a million guests out into the Gulf of Maine over the past 25-plus years to observe and photograph humpback, finback and Minke whales. Sightings are guaranteed, or you'll receive a voucher for another tour. Opt for the slightly longer Puffin and Whale Watch excursion, and you'll also get to see those bright-beaked sea birds that love Maine's cold waters.
The Abbe Museum in downtown Bar Harbor and its satellite location within Acadia National Park offer a thought-provoking and engaging look at this region's original Native American population. The People of the First Light, as the Wabanaki are known, have a 12,000-year history here, and their descendants work with the museum to preserve the arts, culture and stories of their ancestors. Founded in 1928, the Abbe is the only Smithsonian-affiliated museum in Maine, and in addition to permanent and changing exhibits, it hosts a range of events each year including the Indigenous Film Festival and the Abbe Museum Indian Market.
Rich, sweet, perfectly cooked Maine lobster isn't something most people get to eat every day. So, while you're in Bar Harbor, you'd be remiss if you didn't make the half-hour drive to Thurston's Lobster Pound in Bernard for the ultimate "lobster in the rough" experience. You'll dine on the water overlooking the working harbor, where lobster boats rest at night after spending the day hauling in the state's signature catch. You won't find fresher lobster anywhere, and the view's tough to top, too. And Thurston's lobster prices are more affordable than many competitors'.
Sunrise is the most magnificent time for a walk along Bar Harbor's Shore Path: an easy seaside promenade that begins at the Town Pier. But even if you're not an early riser, make a point of stretching your legs and filling your lungs with salt-tinged air on this walk, which follows Mount Desert Island's eastern shore. You'll be following in the footsteps of visitors who have loved this trail for more than a century. It's a bit over a half-mile long, and as you stroll, you'll be charmed by sights on both sides of the path including private summer "cottages," the iconic Bar Harbor Inn, the Porcupine Islands, Balance Rock and Egg Rock Light.
Laugh the night away, as a cast of improv masters—including many with ties to Chicago's comedy scene—make spontaneous mayhem inspired by audience members' suggestions. There are one or two shows most nights during the late May through mid-October season including both family-friendly and decidedly adult performances. Enjoy snacks, locally made desserts and drinks from the full bar: It's the perfect wind down after an active day outdoors. Reservations are a must during Bar Harbor's peak tourism months, July and August.
There are plentiful opportunities to get out on the water in Bar Harbor, and Diver Ed's Dive-in Theater Boat Cruise is probably the most unique. Spend two hours aboard the "Starfish Enterprise," and while Ed dives in Frenchman Bay, you can sit back and marvel at live underwater video. These interactive trips also feature the chance to touch a variety of creatures Ed brings up from the ocean including crabs, starfish and sea cucumbers.
Taste Beers and Wines Made in Bar Harbor
Atlantic Brewing Company's Town Hill tasting room is just minutes from downtown Bar Harbor and a worthy stop, where you can sample distinctly Maine beers and tour the operation any day during the late May to mid-October season. Beer geeks will also want to know about Atlantic Brewing's latest venture: a small-batch brewery in the heart of town, where guest brewers can experiment and collaborate to produce limited-edition beers. Order a flight and try the diverse line-up. Prefer wine? Bar Harbor Cellars is the town's lone winery, and you can stop by daily mid-May through late October for a taste of their red, white, fruit and ice wines, as well as their latest hard cider. Blueberry wine is their top seller.
When in Rome, you eat gelato. When in Bar Harbor? Well, where else can you savor vanilla ice cream with chunks of lobster in it? Consider this your dare if you need a push to try this oh-so-Maine flavor. Lobster ice cream isn't the only reason to stop into Ben and Bill's Chocolate Emporium on Main Street in the middle of Bar Harbor's shopping district. This sweet shop is known for its variety of more than 70 homemade ice cream (and gelato!) flavors, plus homemade fudge and buttercrunch and distinctly Maine candies, truffles and molded chocolates.
Step inside Bar Harbor's oldest and tallest public building — St. Saviour's Episcopal Church — for a look at one of New England's finest collections of stained glass by Tiffany and other makers. Year-round, there are opportunities to see the 1878 church's vaulted sanctuary on a self-guided tour. During the summer season, guided tours are offered on Sundays following the 10 a.m. service, as well as at times that coincide with cruise ship arrivals.