Travel

8 Reasons to Drive to Bar Harbor, Maine

From Acadia's craggy cliffs to ocean-fresh lobster rolls with a view.

Jon Bilous/Shutterstock
Jon Bilous/Shutterstock
Jon Bilous/Shutterstock

To say the least, COVID-19 has been quite the vacation squasher these late two summers. Most people skipped vacations last year out of an abundance of caution-and rightly so-but there’s no time like the present to stretch your legs and take advantage of the last dregs of summer. And there’s no better place to stretch said legs than one of New England’s most beloved coastal towns: Bar Harbor, Maine. A beautiful five hour seaside drive from Boston winds you through picturesque stop-offs revealing hidden coves and lighthouses, and once you’ve turned off Route 3, an abundance of fresh lobster and impressive pink granite awaits.

No one needs a reason to embark on a maritime adventure, and New England vacations are that much better when you lean into geographical cliches-we’re talking sailing from harbor to harbor, circling lighthouses, crackin’ lobster claws, whale watching, throwing axes like a lumberjack… Bar Harbor has it all. Mount Desert, where Bar Harbor sits, is the largest island off the coast of Maine and, fun fact: From around March to October, Cadillac Mountain, the area’s tallest peak, is the very first piece of land the sunrise hits throughout the entire continental US. Who knew?

Mike Ver Sprill/Shutterstock
Mike Ver Sprill/Shutterstock
Mike Ver Sprill/Shutterstock

Packed with a delicious bounty of clams, oysters, scallops, lobster, and shrimp, Bar Harbor also serves as an entryway to the stunning Acadia National Park, known for its epic summits, seaside views, canopied trails, freshwater escapes, and sandy beaches. There are endless reasons to program this idyllic ocean town into your GPS, but here are eight tantalizing itinerary ideas guaranteed to convince you to “pahk” your “cah” in “bah habah” (sorry, not sorry).

Balance Rock Inn
Balance Rock Inn
Balance Rock Inn

Kick back in style at a cushy inn or contemporary hotel…

Nothing beats getting cozy after a long day of hiking, swimming, and lobster noshing. Bar Harbor offers an array of options, from boutique hotels to luxurious inns. Balance Rock Inn is an all-inclusive seaside resort complete with veranda dining, a private swimming pool, and modern ocean view rooms-but it’ll cost you, of course. Budget-weary travelers should consider Edgewater Motels and Suites, with its quaint waterfront accommodations teeming with that sought-after New England seaside charm.

Stay Bar Harbor spans four different cottages and inns, some with sweeping balcony views and others just steps away from the water. No matter your lodging choice, you can rest assured (literally) that they all come with a farm-to-table complimentary breakfast. And for timid urbanites, the boutique Acadia Hotel lies in the heart of downtown Bar Harbor and serves up airy, modern guest rooms plus swank amenities like hot tubs, complimentary bicycles to get around town, and even indoor golf.

Zack Frank/Shutterstock
Zack Frank/Shutterstock
Zack Frank/Shutterstock

… or snuggle up to nature at an area campground

If your idea of a sweet summer vacation is sleeping under the stars with nothing but a thin strip of nylon-or the sturdy roof of a rented RV or camper van-separating you from the night sky, you’re in luck. Blackwoods Campground, located about six miles south of downtown Bar Harbor, is a very popular option, outfitted with sites that can be reserved up to two months in advance. Oddly, the showers will cost you three dollars a pop, but, hey, that’s the price you pay to smell sweet after a long day of sweating it out in mother nature.

Five miles outside of Bar Harbor proper is Bar Harbor Campgrounds, which houses a bonus outdoor heated pool and, as if that wasn’t reason enough to snag a spot, an abundance of blueberry bushes throughout the property. Hadley’s Point Campgrounds sports a beautiful northern-facing view overlooking Mt. Desert Narrows. In addition to primitive camping, they also offer cabins with private bathrooms (!!!). The best thing about these spots is that they’re served by The Island Explorer, a trusty bus service delivering campers to both Acadia Park and downtown Bar Harbor. All these campgrounds can accommodate tents along with RVs and they’re dog friendly, to boot, so no need to leave Fido behind.

Cafe This Way
Cafe This Way
Cafe This Way

Gorge yourself at lobster shacks, scenic chophouses, & veggie-centric diners

Bar Harbor’s reputation is steeped in its bait-to-plate seafood cornucopia, but there’s a wealth of other unique cuisines available for those ready to try something new. Start out your day at Cafe This Way, where the diner-style menu has everything from healthy to hearty and the cottage-esque atmosphere will make you feel right at home. For my vegetarian and vegan folks, Jeannie’s Great Maine Breakfast dishes up tasty, meat-free classics like blueberry pancakes, home fries, and enticing egg sandwiches.

Galyn’s is your one-stop-shop for seafood fettuccine, lobster enchiladas, and the accurately described “lazy lobster” for those not wanting to throw their backs out de-shelling dinner. Galyn’s has indoor and outdoor dining, but you can also order to-go and take your feast across the street to beautiful Agmont Park.

We all know that seafood is delicious smothered in melted butter, but Havana offers a Latin spin on local ingredients with originals like tempting seafood paellas and coconut broth Lobster Moqueca. They also proudly value sustainable practices when sourcing their menus and pair it the whole shebang with an extensive wine list to satisfy any budget.

At patio-ready Peekytoe Provisions, hungry patrons load up on overstuffed sandwiches, salads, clam chowder, and lobster bisque. And with an array of locally and sustainably sourced products including fresh Maine fish, raw oysters, yummy signature sauces, and heart-friendly granola, Peekytoe has all your picnic-worthy pantry items covered.

Beal's Lobster Pier
Beal’s Lobster Pier
Beal’s Lobster Pier

For a more refined suppertime experience, check out the Chart Room, a haven for digging into surf and turf, choice steaks, and belly-warming pasta dishes while gazing out over Hulls Cove. Elsewhere, the Travelin Lobster whips up incredible cold and hot lobster rolls, sourced directly from local fishermen and served in a charming shack-like locale. Don’t leave without indulging in the blueberry ice cream and pie-it’s palette-cleanser from heaven. A short drive outside of Bar Harbor reveals Beal’s Lobster Pier, where lobster and cocktails dominate the tables dotting a patio overlooking Southwest Harbor. And if you want to go the extra casual route, visit Ted’s Take Out, a not-to-miss food truck parked in the northwest Harbor. There you’ll find Ted himself peddling fresh lobster, but make sure you check his Facebook page for updates on his precise location and hours of operation.

Darryl Brooks/Shutterstock
Darryl Brooks/Shutterstock
Darryl Brooks/Shutterstock

Earn your sea legs along the wildlife-rich coastline

Nautical fanatics, you’ve arrived. Bar Harbor Whale Watching Co. offers a variety of cruises, all of which include floating alongside Mount Desert Island’s magnificently rugged shores. Expert nature guides are on hand to share a wealth of regional history and geography while you scan the waters for sharks, porpoises, puffins, seals, and even gargantuan whales. Birders, make a beeline for the company’s Puffins and Lighthouse Cruise, where you will visit a puffin colony and comb the skies for eagles and waterfowl before turning your binoculars to a dazzling lighthouse. New England is home to over 100 historic lighthouses, and Egg Rock Light in Frenchmen Bay is one of the region’s most pristine examples. Built in 1875, the beacon also showcases an unusual square structure where the light keeper once slept. For birdwatchers, Bar Harbor Whale Watching Co offers a Puffins and Lighthouse Cruise where you will visit a puffin colony , but also see eagles and other coastal birds.

kurdistan/Shutterstock
kurdistan/Shutterstock
kurdistan/Shutterstock

As the name implies, Thunder Hole creates a monstrous roar when the crashing water, tide, and atmosphere are just right. And even if you don’t happen to catch it at that right moment, witnessing the power of the Atlantic Ocean kissing the edge of the bay is a truly spectacular sight

Bar Harbor aptly got its name from the fluctuating tide along the sandbar from the mainland to Bar Island. See for yourself with a trip down Bar Harbor Island Trail, though be sure to mind the parking signs if you bring your car. The expanse is drivable at low tide, but too many have made the mistake of abandoning their vehicles along this expanse only to find their bobbing along the waves after returning from a hike.

Cottage Street Pub
Cottage Street Pub
Cottage Street Pub

Embark on a Bar Harbor bar crawl

After a long day cruising the coastline and trails of Acadia National Park, the area’s many local breweries and pubs will undoubtedly be calling your name. Cottage St Pub is a neighborhood joint stirring up quirky cocktails with a smile. For something a tad more posh, Project Social Kitchen & Bar clearly knows how to mix up a harmony of flavors, with creative cocktails spiked with infusions like grilled pineapple mezcal and strawberry-basil gin. Go for a cocktail or two and you may be tempted to try their similarly boundary-pushing dinner menu.

Fogtown Brewing Company
Fogtown Brewing Company
Fogtown Brewing Company

Atlantic Brewing is a top-notch craft outfit cranking out quality small-batch brews like Blueberry Ale and Cadillac Mountain Stout. Don’t forget to come hungry-they also have an extensive food menu you don’t want to miss, with plenty of vegetarian options available. Sticking to beer, Fogtown Brewery’s new Bar Harbor tap room features live music on Wednesdays alongside small plates that pair well with their innovative lineup of brews made with foraged ingredients like sweet fern and local berries. Devoted hopheads should note that their production brewery is up in Ellsworth, Maine, about a 20-mile drive from Bar Harbor and fully worth the excursion.

Eric Cote/Shutterstock
Eric Cote/Shutterstock
Eric Cote/Shutterstock

Search for seashells on the sea (or lake) shore

Since Bar Harbor is literally surrounded by water, one might think everywhere along the coastline is a good place to swim. But, truth be told, swimming is only allowed in designated areas, so you need to know where to look.

Town Beach, a quaint respite located near Agamont Park, provides a quick and convenient place to get your feet wet. But, pro tip: It’s best to reserve the full submersion for Sand Beach, Little Hunters Beach, or Echo Lake Beach. A free shuttle bus called the Island Explorer (masks are required and service is limited) drops you off at Sand Beach, where you can gaze out at Newport Cove while enjoying a refreshing dip or spend the whole day relaxing in the sand. If you’re already on the Park Loop, make a stop at the lifeguard-less Little Hunters Beach, which can be a little less crowded and has a beautiful rocky view of Hunters Cove. Echo Lake Beach is another go-to swim spot. Located about 20 minutes inside Acadia National Park, this serene stretch is bordered by a dreamy pine tree grove spanning the perimeter, making for a magical New England-meets-desert island experience.

Leonard Zhukovsky/Shutterstock
Leonard Zhukovsky/Shutterstock
Leonard Zhukovsky/Shutterstock

Set out on an adrenaline-fueled adventure

The area’s naturally wild topography lends itself well to all sorts of heart-pumping activities. Grab your harness, muster up some confidence, and get ready to take on the rocks at Atlantic Climbing School, where each expedition is led by American Mountain Guides Association-certified guides. Whether you head out on a half- or full-day quest, summiting Acadia’s breathtaking granite mountain sides is both beautiful and exhilarating. The guides offer a slew of courses for all skillsets, with beginners and families hitting up less rigorous South Bubble and more experienced climbers attempting to conquer the oft-intimidating Precipes.

Prefer to get your thrills on the water? Sail Acadia will give you your maritime fix aboard a picturesque historic 1899 sailboat. And if you feel like making yourself useful, book a ride on the Elizabeth T, a functioning lobster boat primed and ready to give you a taste of fisherman life. You can also pick up some paddles from Coastal Kayak Tours, where experts guide kayakers along the rocky coastlines of the Porcupine Islands in Frenchman’s Bay.

And while it’s tough to beat a stroll around the coastline, those looking for a little more speed can zip through Bar Harbor’s village streets and the carriage roads of Acadia by renting an e-bike or scooter from Acadia Outfitters.

Diver Ed's Dive-In Theater
Diver Ed’s Dive-In Theater
Diver Ed’s Dive-In Theater

Dry off and dive into a little local culture

Are you not entertained? Survivor star and logging sport expert Timber Tina has built up a mecca for regional axe-wielders with the Great Maine Lumberjack Show, a fascinating expo that has been rolling, climbing, and chopping giant hunks of wood in nearby Trenton, Maine for the last 26 years. Don’t forget your flannel!

Sometimes log rolling competitions can get a little too hectic, especially for some of us less inclined to work up a sweat. Enter Wild Gardens of Acadia, a peaceful place for idling away an afternoon discovering native gardens and basking in the region’s diverse flora and fauna.

If you want to see some sea life without diving into the deep yourself, Diver Ed’s Dive In Theatre is your jam. Marine ecologist and commercial diver Ed will do the dirty work for you during this educational tour, resurfacing with eye-catching creatures like sand dollars, sea peaches, and brittle stars before safely returning them back to the watery depths. And in other theatrical happenings, Agamont Park puts on an outdoor Seaside Cinema every Wednesday evening throughout the summer months, complete with free popcorn and plenty of lawn space.

You can certainly spend the majority of your trip immersing yourself in New England’s fabled past. Among top destinations is Maine’s first and only Smithsonian Affiliate, Abbe Museum. The celebrated institution’s exhibits and interactive workshops aim to teach visitors about the Wabanaki Nations, indigineous peoples that have inhabited the region for upwards of 12,000 years.

Looking for some retail therapy? Stock up on good reads from Sherman’s Bookstore, useful and decorative pieces of art at In the Woods, handcrafted artisan wares at Faire Trade Winds, and all things rock, fossil, and taxidermy at The Rock and Art Shop.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Elanor Bock is a Chicago born, New York-based professional dancer, writer, and renaissance woman. Follow her on instagram @rathernotthanks.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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