In its heyday, Bar Harbor was a rich man's playground. Today, the barkers in Day-Glo sun visors along West Street will just about absolutely, positively guarantee that you'll see a whale. Their offices boast Technicolor videos of the leviathan breeching right out there in Frenchman Bay off the Porcupine Islands.
But you may prefer to take the Cranberry Isles mail boat, which sails pretty much regardless of the weather out of Northeast Habor for a swing through some of Maine's most beautiful offshore islands, typical of the many that dot the state's jagged 3,500-mile shoreline -- farther than the distance from Boston to San Francisco.
The round trip aboard the Sea Queen costs only $6 for an adult and $3 for a child, and while they don't absolutely, positively guarantee that you'll see a whale, you will see a bit of the real life along the Maine coast. If you happen to pass a whale out in the channel, well, Maine being Maine, the pilot will have no objection to circling the beast a couple of times so that the tourists from New Jersey or the natives coming back from a visit to the podiatrist in Ellsworth can say that they, too, had an authentic Maine coastal whale-watching experience. And, Maine being Maine, they had that experience at a sizable discount over what they'd have spent had they gotten mixed up with a lot of fast talkers in sunglasses and Day-Glo sports clothes down there among the fudge stands and discount T-shirt outlets in Bar Harbor's tawdry commercial district.
Over in Northeast Harbor, the folks at Beal & Bunker, which operates the mail boat and ferry service to the Cranberry Isles, have a pretty much no-nonsense approach to things.
The Sea Queen is about the business of bringing the mail, spare parts for a generator, boxes of groceries and the Boston Globe or Ellsworth American to those far-flung Down Easters, native and summer visitor alike, who live offshore on Sutton Island, Little Cranberry Island (which most folks call Isleford) or Great Cranberry.
From the Sea Queen, the island's craggy and spruce-studded shorelines are bordered with a natural jetty of gray rocks at high water. The summer flower-flecked meadows -- dotted with the remains of an abandoned apple orchard or the swaybacked remnants of a barn or outbuilding -- roll down to the cold Atlantic's waters. Regardless of the weather, the sky behind the lobstermen out pulling their traps off Bear Island Lighthouse trails a wake of circling sea gulls.
The great old summer houses, many dating from the 19th century, stand sea-weathered, facing Mount Desert, the lawns hedged with great overgrown tangles of rose hips and lilacs, the sweeping porches decked with battered wicker furniture, the flag of the State o'Maine flapping from a pole in the front yard.
Seen from the rolling Sea Queen, a lone cyclist on a battered bicycle winds languidly along the gray gravel lane, a pickup truck piled with lobster traps and brightly painted buoys pulls into the yard next to a distant boathouse on the shore, and the solitary clam digger bent with his short rake and black high-water boots is patiently at work on a faraway mud flat at low tide. If the wind is right, the distant horizons are etched with the white sails of sloops moving off into the Gulf of Maine. Far off, too, the surf breaks on the Ledges.
Once the mail boat clears the dock at Northeast Harbor and passes the Bear Island lighthouse, the breeze off the ocean is sharp and cold. A stack of war surplus issue blankets is kept at DTC the ready for especially cold mornings.
Although the crew of the Sea Queen good-naturedly takes along all comers, passengers who have actual business on the islands are understandably given preference. And since the crew knows all year-round residents and many of the longtime summer people on a first-name basis, this is an easy matter to determine.
Maine's offshore islands, numbering in the hundreds from tiny rock ledges to islands capable of supporting several villages and hundreds of residents, are still among the places Down East where it is possible to get away from the bump and grind of the summer-season tourist crush along the coast. They represent, too, a genuine link with Maine's past, for many of the islands were among the first places along the rocky coast to be settled.
So if Route 1 is not the real Maine, traveler, it's the road to the real Maine. Cheer up, you can get there from here.
If you go . . .
Tourist information is available by calling the Maine Publicity Bureau, (800) 533-9595, or by writing the bureau at 97 Winthrop St., Hallowell, Maine 04347.
For the Cranberry Isles mail boat and ferry schedule, write Beal & Bunker Inc., Cranberry Isles, Maine 04625, or phone (207) 244-3575 or 244-7485. Mail boat and ferry service to the Cranberry Isles from Northeast Harbor is scheduled every two hours during the summer months.
For further information about Maine's offshore islands accessible via ferry or mail boat, call the Maine Department of Transportation, Ports and Marine Transportation Division, (207) 289-2841), or write the Maine State Ferry Service, P.O. Box 645, 517A Main St., Rockland, Maine 04841; (207) 596-2202).
Universal Press Syndicate