As I mentioned in Part I of this post, finding stunning beauty and adventure doesn’t necessarily always have to involve a passport and an airline ticket. Nearly a week into my family’s vacation to Maine, I had yet to see a single thing that didn’t unequivocally speak to the unparalleled beauty of this northeasternmost corner of the United States. In every direction, a sea of both northern boreal and eastern deciduous forests blanketed everything as far I could see, the majestic woodland ending only where it spilled over into a dramatic coastline with tall granite cliffs falling away into the Atlantic in some places, and rocky cobble beaches fading into the sea in others.
It seemed every single vantage point was eager to offer us picturesque views of the harbor islands that dotted the horizon like gargantuan stepping stones. There was just truly nowhere to look that wouldn’t leave you spellbound, captivated by not only the beauty of what was in front of you, but also by the fact that all this was right here at home. All that this incredible experience had required was the willingness to make an easy road-trip up the New England coast.
While definitely available, serious hiking in Acadia National Park- like that found on the Precipice and Beehive trails- is probably better suited to those without littles in tow. Somehow, navigating ladders and iron rungs hammered into the mountainsides with preschoolers just doesn’t seem to fit the bill. Did this hinder our experience in any way? Absolutely not! If anything, this cautiousness only cemented our resolve to return one day when the cubs are more equally matched to the rigors of exploring mother nature.
So instead, we went with another approach to take in as much of Acadia as we could, a mode of transport we normally forego but decided to try this time considering the surroundings and standards we were dealing with- horse-drawn carriage! For one evening, we handed over the reins (pun definitely intended) for two wonderful hours in order to get a perspective of the park that was as family-friendly as it was enchanting, as only this age-old method of travel can be.
If you can, get to the stables early so that you can take in the beauty of the setting and witness the procession of magnificent horses getting walked out and hitched up to the carriages they will be pulling. Case in point? Our cubs obstinately perched on the weathered post-and-rail fence that lines the expansive enclosure, absolutely enthralled with the proceedings going on in front of them.
Eventually our carriage was brought around, pulled by Bee and Homer, two towering and elegant Clydesdales, and led by Colleen, our very friendly and knowledgeable guide. This team would be taking us up to the top of Day Mountain along the park’s historic carriage roads. While the summit alone- with spectacular evening views of Mount Desert Island’s mountains, coastline, and views of the Cranberry Isles, Schoodic Peninsula, and Isle au Haut- is certainly worth it, the real enjoyment- as in most things- was the ride itself.
Financed and constructed by John D. Rockefeller Jr., the carriage roads of Acadia National Park are truly unique. These wide trails are impeccably maintained and full of a history our guide was more than happy to relay as we sat back and relaxed. Today they are generously made available by the Rockefeller family to the public for hiking, biking, horse-riding, and even dog-walking.
Seeing them by horse-drawn carriage this way heightens the overall experience, as very few things can compare to the lulling sound of hooves hitting the ground, the horses’ gentle grunts and neighs, and the rhythmic movement of a wagon ride, all of which facilitated easy conversation, plenty of laughs, and an overall sense of tranquility that evening.
Following our carriage ride, we made a spontaneous decision to keep our exploration going well into the evening with a drive up to the peak of Cadillac mountain. A well-marked and straight-forward drive with ample parking at the top, we got there easily and just in time to catch the sunset. At the summit the mountain appears to just fall away around you, with panoramic views in every direction providing ample opportunity for stunning photographs of the breathtaking sights below.
The trail here is really more of a relatively flat, if bumpy, meandering path that takes you around one entire circuit of the mountaintop. While definitely an easy walk, it demands careful attention with little ones around. It was up here that we could finally get a truly good look at the many islands surrounding us. The horizon was absolutely littered with verdant mounds floating in the bay like enormous lily pads. We sat and we lingered, trying to string out the evening for as long as we could, not wanting this wonderful day to come to an end.
Well it was bound to happen, wasn’t it? On our final morning in Acadia, the day we’d set aside for the bulk of our trail exploration, Mother Nature quite literally decided to rain on our parade. We didn’t let it stop us, however. We simply changed up the day’s agenda! So after a cozy and dewy campsite breakfast huddled together in our screen tent, hot mugs of coffee in our hands, hoods pulled up over our heads, and the pitter patter of raindrops on the canopy above, we drove into town to explore the inviting shops that lined the quaint streets of Bar Harbor, as we really hadn’t had a chance to since we’d arrived.
Shrouded in a fine layer of mist coming in over the bay, Bar Harbor’s allure seemed to somehow only intensify under the rainfall. Umbrellas in hand, we poked around, picking up mementos and gifts in the form of handmade greeting cards, handpainted ornaments, and even a few sweatshirts at places like Stone Soup, Fair Trade Winds, and Geddy’s Down Under. There was no shortage of shops in town that showcased local artisans, quality finds, and handmade local products. Some even provided space for the littles to keep busy while we perused.
For lunch that day we sat down at Paddy’s right on the corner of West and Main streets. Paddy’s, as you might tell from the photos above, is indeed an Irish-American restaurant. I know, I know. But after nearly a week on a lobster-centered meal plan, could you really blame us for wandering? And, trust me, we were well aware that there was plenty more food of the crustacean persuasion in the forecast! A break was definitely in order.
This waterfront establishment had a modern yet traditional pub vibe going on and fantastic food to boot. From the Blue Hill Bay mussel starter to the traditional corned beef and cabbage, Paddy’s hit every morsel out of the park. While we warmed up over a veritable luncheon feast indoors, outside the rain began tapering off just enough.
Perfect for what we had planned next.
Inspired by the beauty we’d found under cloud cover in Bar Harbor, we decided to hit the road for the Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse, one of the original items on that day’s agenda. Admittedly, it was a bit of a trek- about forty five minutes down to the southwestern tip of Mount Desert Island- but it did make for a perfect post-lunch siesta for the cubs! Plus, while they slept, we got to enjoy even more spellbinding vistas of jagged shorelines, boats bobbing in wind-whipped harbors, and lobster trap buoys floating in the chilly gray waters.
Once there, a short trek in the surrounding woods took us to a steep set of wooden steps and then onto a viewing platform from which you could take in the lighthouse. The view here is one that I will have etched in my mind forever. Everything else went away. There was only the sodden wooden perch that clung to the side of a rocky outcrop, the smell of the salty air, wet earth and pine, the way the same shade of gray seemed to blanket both the sky and the frothy seawater, the ocean spray on my exposed face, the chill cutting through our layers, and the sounds of an incessant fog bell tolling furiously, in tune with the swells around me.
It was absolute perfection. Would it have been equally stirring on a bright sunny day? Probably. But personally, I wouldn’t want to have experienced it any other way.
We couldn’t leave Acadia without a stop at the iconic Jordan Pond House. After all, it was our last night at the park, and thus, our last chance. We’d originally planned to hike the Jordan Pond Path in the morning and then stop over at the House for their signature tea and popovers, but things didn’t quite turn out that way. No matter, we were happy to take a small, late evening meal instead.
Luckily for us, we got there just in time to enjoy the incredible views through the House’s enormous windows overlooking Jordan Pond, before warming up with some soup, coffee, and- of course- popovers! Eventually, however, we succumbed to the fact that our days on Mount Desert Island had come to a terrific and memorable end (for now) and left, taking the long winding road back to our campground for our last night in Acadia National Park.
The next morning, our gloom as we drove out of Acadia was tempered only by our excitement at what lay ahead of us in Boothbay Harbor. A little over two hours away, this town has a character and identity all its own that is easily discernible from the moment you arrive. Boothbay has less of an exclusive, touristy resort town feel, and more of a lived-in, busy fishing village vibe instead.
Small, private fishing boats were moored all around the harbor, and lobster traps absolutely littered the water everywhere you looked, the buoys bobbing up and down every few feet. We couldn’t afford to stop and peruse the tight winding streets and eclectic array of shops and restaurants just yet, however. We had to head straight to Fishermans Wharf to board the Bennie Alice for a day of recreation, relaxation, and clambakes on nearby Cabbage Island.
Cabbage Island Clambakes is a Boothbay Harbor tradition since 1956. Actively run by the Moore family, the excursion begins with a tour of the coastline aboard the Bennie Alice en route to the five and a half acre Cabbage Island about forty five minutes away. Once there, guests have a multitude of recreational activities at their disposal, from horseshoes, badminton, volleyball, and even a short trail along island’s edge.
To be perfectly honest, we were not quite sure what to expect when we booked this trip, hesitant to be devoting our entire day in Boothbay to this one excursion. What we ended up finding, however, was an incredibly tranquil and serene setting for a family outing for the day that brought together all of the best that the area has to offer.
In the center of the island, the turn-of-the-century guest building is the center of all the feasting. Here, wide open windows a deep wraparound porch, and stone fireplace make for a cozy setting rain or shine. It was to this spot that we all made our way when the matriarch figure of the Moore family rang the dinner bell, bringing us all in from our island-wide festivities.
This “downeast” traditional clambake is undoubtedly the highlight of the day. Beginning with preparation right by the water, where an incredible catch of lobsters and clams is cooked in the area’s time-honored method of steaming under a layer of seaweed, tarps, and rocks in order to seal in that trademark juicy flavor. The massive meal is then served with a delicious fish chowder, and sides of corn on the cob, onion, and potatoes. For dessert, a decadent blueberry cake is served with tea or coffee as well.
By the time we climbed back aboard the Bennie Alice, I had no doubt in my mind that we’d spent our day in Boothbay Harbor in the best way possible.
The next day, we did get a chance to peruse a few shops and indulge in a bit of the area’s charm before leaving town. We even stopped for breakfast at a local favorite, Mama D’s Cafe. This delightful little breakfast spot has a comfortable, homey feel with a self-serve coffee bar and made-to-order breakfast favorites.
Our littles were even encouraged to practice their writing on the specials board. For the rest of the day they held onto their pride at having “helped” Mama D’s! We didn’t linger very long, however, because the last stop on our Maine journey awaited. We were off to Portland.
The oldest lighthouse in Maine, the Portland Head Light is located in the over ninety-acre Fort Williams Park. Once we got there, we fell right in with the rest of the visitors who were busy enjoying the many recreational and leisurely pursuits available in the area. We spent the day visiting the lighthouse, taking photographs, and walking along the path that skims the rocky shoreline where the children pretended to climb mountains beside incredible views of Casco Bay and the Ram Island Ledge Light in the distance.
For lunch, we stumbled upon a particularly amazing food truck right in the park. Bite into Maine serves up what they refer to as “Mainecentric food,” and left an indelible impression on us all. Starting with the fresh Maine lobster rolls served in a few different styles with your choice of wasabi, curry, or chipotle preparations, the bar is set extremely high. Sides of creamy red potato salad, and Maine Root Co. blueberry soda rounded out an unexpectedly, incredible foodie treat that day.
Content and satiated, we headed back to our cars that evening, ready to say good-bye to Maine as we headed south to New Hampshire for the night, the first stop on our drive back home.
The end of a vacation always goes the same way, doesn’t it? After a certain point, your mind inevitably stops thinking about how many days you still have left and instead begins to focus on how few you have remaining. Focusing too much on this can easily end up marring the remainder of your trip. But it’s not entirely unhelpful. This acute sense of time tends to add a certain weightiness to your experiences, forcing you to live in the moment and relish every detail more so than you normally would if you had no end date on the horizon.
Overall, Maine was a wonderful new experience. For once we decided to keep our annual vacation relatively local and airport-free and it turned out to be a great decision. In the end, not only did the sights and activities turn out to be experiences I will never forget, but there was also another element I didn’t expect. Throughout the week, I felt a sense of connection with the region and a camaraderie with the people we met there. I believe there is a certain sense of pride and added appreciation when exploring a place of natural beauty that is so close to home. So while it hasn’t booted off the many international destinations on my bucket list, our family vacation to Maine showed me that stateside and local adventures are well deserving of prominent spots on that very same list.