Down East: Bar Harbor is the essence of Maine. it's perfect for families seeking a vacation getaway in and around the great outdoors.


May 24, 1998|By Les Picker | Les Picker,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"I am convinced that there is no air in the world like the air of Maine."

- Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, writing from Bar Harbor in 1944

Standing at the summit of Sargent Mountain, deep in the heart of Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island, Maine, I am conscious of every breath I take. It is an early summer morning, I've been hiking since daybreak, and the dense fog is just beginning to burn off, helped by the stiff ocean breezes coming up the mountain from Frenchman's Bay.

Each breath is laden with scents so thick you can taste them on the back of your throat. First, there is the cool moisture of the fog just dense enough to magically turn the distant island landscape into a Monet or Renoir. Then I taste the saltiness of the ocean on my tongue. Finally, I savor the deep herbal scents of pines and spruces and blueberry blossoms and rich earth coming from the forests and sub-alpine meadows that surround and are part of the spectacular mountain. I breath deeply again and again, each time thankful to be back in a place that refreshes my spirit for the rest of the year.

And so it is that my love affair with Maine is rekindled. Maine, where I lived 10 years, trying to tease its natural secrets from hundreds of hikes, canoe trips and camping adventures, only to realize how precious few secrets I know; where my children grew from newborns to little people, reveling in the natural beauty around them; and where I landed my first professional writing assignment, which celebrated Maine's coastal ecosystem.

If there is any one place in Maine that embodies the Maine experience to outsiders, it is Bar Harbor, the hub of Mount Desert Island. For eight months of the year, MDI - as locals call the island - is a sleepy community in Frenchman's Bay, with a population of just 2,600. But, from June through September, the island is host to nearly 4 million visitors who come to take in the sights, sounds, tastes and ocean smells of Acadia National Park, which occupies the majority of the island.

To understand how important tourism is for the Pine Tree State, you need to recognize that the entire state has a population of just 1.4 million.

What has always been amazing to me is that only a tiny percentage of visitors venture off the well-worn roads to take advantage of the eco-tourism this island paradise offers. A study done two years ago for the National Park Service showed that more than 90 percent of visitors to Acadia never climb a trail. Most simply take the 11-mile-long Park Loop Road, stop at famous tourist attractions like Thunder Hole and Sand Beach, then wind back to Bar Harbor to amble through the eclectic mix of shops. Not that there is anything wrong with that approach to vacations.

But, for those who want the entire family to learn firsthand about our natural world, nothing can compare with the spectacular beauty and ecological abundance of the Maine coast. That makes Bar Harbor the ideal base for the kind of active hiking, biking, canoeing and kayaking that marries physical activity with appreciation of our environment.

The active approach

* Whale watching: Each year the whales return, playing in their family pods and fattening up on the abundance of sea life just offshore. Four separate whale-watching boats make Bar Harbor their home, plying the waters of Frenchman's Bay. For four hours you'll ooh and aah alongside frolicking humpbacks, fin, right and minke whales, some of them 80 feet long and breaching just yards from the ship.

Dozens of sightings are the norm from June through mid-October, and an experienced naturalist interprets events for you. A videographer accompanies many trips, so you can purchase films of your family amid whales and the glory of Downeast Maine islands. All boats offer money-back or exchange-ticket guarantees if no whales are sighted. If you are prone to seasickness, be sure to take medication before departing, as seas can sometimes be choppy.

In May and June, there is only one trip a day, seven days a week. In July, August and September, there are three trips a day, seven days a week. The four-hour trip costs about $30 for adults, $27 for seniors, $20 for ages 6-14, with children under 6 getting a free ride.

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