Whenever the opportunity arises to take some time off and get away with the family, it is so easy to want to go far, isn’t it? You diligently put aside some funds and some time, and when the moment arrives, your first inclination is always to run off to some place far and away to explore to your heart’s content. Or at least to some place a little less familiar. Maybe lounging somewhere in the tropics is your own idea of a getaway? Or perhaps a week on the ocean onboard a cruise? I get it. I’m right there with you. A break from the quotidian just doesn’t fulfill its relaxing and re-energizing goals, it seems, unless I put quite a few thousand miles between my laundry room and I.
At least that’s what I thought.
In reality, our predilection for long-range travel was only blinding us, causing us to squander opportunities to witness and enjoy breathtaking beauty right here at home. Year after year, our stateside bucket list only continued to grow unchecked with every trip we chose to make elsewhere instead. This year, we finally decided to change that. We stopped dreaming big long enough to realize that we would never make even a small dent in our burgeoning list of domestic destinations if we didn’t make a conscious decision to forego the foreign and keep it local for a change. We therefore declared 2015 the year of the road trip.
Now figuring out exactly where to begin was the logical next step, a decision make substantially easier by the prevalence of those understated U.S. National Park maps we had started to notice everywhere from Etsy to Uncommon Goods. Considering the timeframe we had to work with, the choice was quite obvious.
Acadia National Park in Maine was the winner.
Over the ensuing months, we began cobbling together an itinerary that we finally put into action a few weeks ago. We started our trip by way of the Bridgeport & Port Jefferson steamboat company, which carries passengers and vehicles across the sound between Long Island and Connecticut daily. Over the years, this ferry service has become synonymous to us with efficient and reliable travel, saving us countless hours in traffic and plenty in gas by not having to wrap it around the city multiple times a year as we drove up and down the New England coast to visit each other when Kat still lived in New Hampshire. Plus, the ferry- with its mighty foghorn, the sea spray, and the open water views- has the added bonus of adding a seafaring adventure element to the trip which children still find captivating at this age.
Since we couldn’t make it all the way up to Maine from New York in one day (without driving ourselves insane), or maybe because we were just looking for any old excuse to stop overnight at one of our favorite haunts, we broke our drive up into two days and stayed overnight in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The destination of Paul Revere’s first hasty ride north, this seaport city has rich history running through every one of its Federalist style buildings and in each one of the bricks that make up its busy sidewalks.
This is only one of the reasons we love it, however. We relish in its quaint charm that serves as a lovely setting for its more modern indulgences. We particularly enjoy visits to Treehouse Toys and G. Willikers Toy Shop for their thoughtful and eclectic mix of quality and imaginative toys and activities for kids, as well as the diverse array of restaurants in the area, serving up everything from tapas to freshly shucked oysters. On this day, however, we went with an old favorite, something to welcome us back like an old friend, the Portsmouth Brewery.
The next morning, our drive north became very scenic, very quickly. There was no doubt in our minds as to the natural beauty that awaited us as we drove on. We arrived on Mount Desert Island a few hours later, an island almost entirely comprised of Acadia National Park land. Heading straight for the southeasternmost point of the island to Blackwoods Campground, we immediately noticed the impeccable facilities and state of the grounds. Thoroughly impressed, we immediately got busy setting up our tents and supplies for when we would return later that evening. We were anxious to get this vacation started already and wanted to head into nearby Bar Harbor for some quick exploration before our excursion that night.
Bar Harbor is a quintessential seaside community if there ever was one, with views on Frenchman Bay that are truly stunning. This singularly quaint New England town was bustling with tourists when we arrived, drawn to the area by the combination of beauty and a wide range of outdoor activity options. For our part, we were famished after a long day of driving and setting up camp and sat down to dinner at Stewman’s Lobster Pound, getting a table right on the water with stunning views of the surrounding harbor islands. We feasted on absolutely amazing steamed shrimp and clams, clam chowder, lobster bisque, and lobster rolls, all of which we enjoyed with a truly fantastic and unique blueberry lemonade made by a local New England company. Refueled and ready, we headed out for our first adventure in Maine.
Docked at the College of the Atlantic, the 54-foot long Starfish Enterprise is the launching point for Diver Ed’s Dive-In Theater, a two and a half hour marine education boat cruise. Run by Diver Ed, a master diver and ecologist, and his family, this hands-on boat cruise is perfect for children of all ages. Diver Ed dives down into the waters of Frenchman’s Bay with special video and sound equipment that allows guests to follow along in real time on a large screen on deck. Once he comes back to the surface, however, the real fun begins!
Possessing one of those uniquely effervescent personalities that kids are naturally drawn to, Diver Ed makes the whole experience exceedingly entertaining with the kind of silly jokes and goofy antics that keep kids in a fit of laughter the entire time. After teaching everyone about the animals he brings up to the surface through wildly humorous and exciting anecdotes and shenanigans, the children are encouraged to use the touch tanks for up-close exploration- an invitation none of the children shy away from after an introduction like that! We loved every second of this genuinely one-of-a-kind cruise!
Our first evening at the park, we attended the Stars Over Sand Beach event at Acadia’s Sand Beach. This late evening program is one of the many hosted regularly by rangers throughout the park, and which can easily be found on their website. This particularly beautiful strip of beach is nestled in a tiny inlet and surrounded by tall granite cliffs. We brought a blanket and some sweaters to combat the evening chill and laid down in the pitch dark. Staring at the night sky illuminated above us, our feet digging into the cool wet sand, and the rhythmic sound of the surf just a few feet away, it was impossible not to be awed by the grandeur of our surroundings.
The rangers pointed out planets, stars, and even satellites. Occasionally, they punctuated their talk with the mythological stories behind the clusters of lights we know today as the constellations. Our cubs were just at the cusp of being able to appreciate (more like tolerate) this event. They vacillated between laying with us and watching the stars, and playing contentedly in the sand- keeping it together just long enough at that hour to get us all through in one piece. I’m glad that they did, because it made for one of the most magical evenings of the entire trip.
Close to the entrance to Blackwoods Campground you’ll find the Otter Creek Inn and Market. The shopkeeper, Randy, is quite possibly the friendliest and most attentive person on the whole of Mount Desert Island! With an approach and personality that is neighborly and welcoming, he runs an exceedingly tight ship over at Otter Creek, with neatly stacked shelves and refrigerators containing damn near everything you could possibly need while camping and hiking. During our time at Acadia, we made quite a few stops in to see Randy for everything from s’mores supplies to firewood to ice. Our first morning, we stopped in to pick up a few of his freshly made sandwiches and fresh fruit to take with us for our trailside lunch that day.
The Ocean Path trail was our first introduction to hiking in Acadia and we found it perfect for exploring with small children. It involves no climbing or precarious heights, just a leisurely paced, scenic- if long- walk along a beautifully rugged coastline- nothing a few well-timed breaks can’t handle! The cubs were especially elated at the prospect of a grand adventure. They needed no introduction, no explanation. Their imagination automatically took over. The trail is full of plenty of breathtaking vantage points and viewing spots including Thunder Hole and Otter Cliff, all perfect spots to stop and enjoy a picnic lunch or even just a water break. For the return leg, we boarded one of the propane-powered Island Explorer buses that run throughout the park and which are available to visitors fare-free.
Just outside of Acadia is a place we’d read rave reviews about during our vacation planning. Timber Tina’s Great Maine Lumberjack Show is a logging sport entertainment show that feels perfectly situated for the logging history and sylvan wilderness of Maine. We had a vague idea of what to expect from having seen these sorts of competitions on ESPN years ago, but little did we know that the owner of the show and our host that evening had served as the MC of those very televised competitions for fourteen years among many other notable accolades!
The skill and speed of the entire lumberjack team was impressive to say the least, and they all really put on a great show. We witnessed axe throwing, log rolling, obstacle pole relays, pole climbing, and much more. All of these highly entertaining feats, however, were second only to Timber Tina herself. A funny and confident woman with an infectious smile, Tina’s razor sharp wit and spunky personality truly make the show what it is. That evening, we all had a magnificent time; we cheered on our respective teams, tried our hand at cross-cut sawing ourselves, and the cubs were even awarded certificates for their sawing efforts! It’s worth mentioning that those same certificates are still hanging proudly on our refrigerator today.
One morning after breakfast, we set out to Bar Harbor to do something we’d been looking forward to since we’d arrived. Having verified the low tide schedule ahead of time, we walked through town and made a right onto Bridge Street. Stretching out in front of us at the shoreline was the exposed Bar Island trail and a truly unique experience. The trail itself consists of a natural gravel land bridge that serves as the only connection between Mount Desert Island and the much smaller Bar Island on the other end.
What makes it so wonderfully unique, however, is that this trail is only visible (and accessible) during low tide, requiring that visitors plan their walk accordingly during that approximately three-hour window so as to avoid being stranded when the returning tide swallows it up once again. We took our time crossing, stopping to take photographs and to skip rocks into Frenchman Bay along the way. Once on the other side, Bar Island contains a mile-long trail that winds gradually up to the highest point of the island from which you can indulge in a magnificent panoramic view of the stunning town of Bar Harbor across the bay.
So far, Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor had lived up to every single expectation we’d had coming into this trip, and we still had plenty more to see and do, including taking a horse-drawn carriage ride through Acadia and making a trip up to Cadillac Mountain. We also planned to spend some time in other beautiful parts of coastal Maine, including Boothbay Harbor and Portland. All of those adventures, however, would be too much for just this one post, so we’ve dedicated another one entirely to them. Check out Family Vacation to Maine (Part II) to read about how we wrapped up our time in the gorgeous state of Maine.