Stephen King is the one that first introduced me to Maine.
He didn’t really paint the best picture of it (you know – child eating clowns, zombie pets, Vampires etc etc) but through his books I first saw this weirdly named State mentioned.
Coming from the far flung land of New Zealand, I didn’t know much about the geography of America when I was a kid. I had heard of California (because that’s where Disneyland is) and New York (Home Alone 2, of course), but that was about as far as my knowledge stretched.
As I got older I became a lot more interested in the United States. About 85% of the shows on New Zealand TV were American and I was determined to go there to see what life was really like in this far away country.
New England became a region that I dreamed of visiting. The genteel villages, rugged coastlines and iconic lighthouses were so beautiful – and so different to New Zealand.
I finally made it there in Autumn 2012.
We planned almost three weeks travelling around New England including a road trip and a few nights in Boston. But the place I was looking forward to the most: Mount Desert Island in Maine.
Mount Desert Island looked to embody the landscape that I love the most: coastal wilderness and mountains, perfect for hiking. Throw in some gorgeous lighthouses, lobster pounds and friendly towns and I was gagging to visit.
We decided to splurge on accommodation and booked a cabin in Salisbury Cove, at the Northern end of Mount Desert Island. Our cabin was so cute, and had a gorgeous view over the rocky beach and still waters of the cove.
Being this far north, there was a definite chill in the air. I sat on the front porch of our cabin each morning of our stay and admired the view accompanied by bluebird skies and blissful silence. The trees were in their fall foliage regalia, and the colours were incredible.
The main town and tourist hub of Mount Desert Island is Bar Harbor. Once a playground for the obscenely rich of the Gilded Age, it is now a quaint resort town full of classy souvenir shops, historic Inns, a walkable main street and a myriad of eateries including a fun dive bar we frequented called Carmen Verandah. It is a delicious mix of affluent and relaxed, a mix that I loved.
Wandering past the elegant stately homes and the well-tended town square, at times it feels like you have stepped back to a time when the Astor’s and Rockefeller’s vacationed here. Then you see the relaxed bars like the Thirsty Whale, and quirky shops like Cool as a Moose and you are brought back to the present. It could feel waspy like Kennebunkport but it has a wisp of the working class fisherman about it which sets it apart and is infinitely more welcoming, in my opinion. There are also no chain stores, well not that I saw. Not a Starbucks or McDonalds in sight which was a refreshing change, especially for the US.
Did I mention it was right on the water?
I really loved that town.
But Bar Harbor isn’t the only attractive harbour village on Mount Desert Island. We stopped by tiny North East Harbor in the South of the Island when we were exploring one afternoon. There wasn’t much to it but there was an amazing (and very busy) Restaurant on the Main Street where we stopped for lunch. Colonel’s Restaurant sure does a great Haddock Burger. My mouth is watering just thinking about it!
Driving around the scenic Somes Sounds, we also visited South West Harbor which has a scenic marina with impressive sailing boats and views over the water to the forested coastal mountains of the east side of the island.
You can’t visit Maine without going to a Lobster pound. We didn’t visit one on Mount Desert Island, instead stopping at Portland Head on the way up there for our crustacean fix, but there are many to choose from. Just be warned it gets messy as you have to tear the little red guy apart yourself. I have eaten lobster before but only when it has been prepared all ready for me to devour so it was an interesting experience trying to get out the meat, despite having instructions (with pictures) on the place mats that demonstrated how to do it. It was all part of the fun. Just make sure you scrub your hands really well after because they WILL stink like fish.
Another Maine delicacy is the humble blueberry. This is blueberry growing county right here. I tried blueberry soda, blueberry beer, blueberry pie and a blueberry Danish and it was all blueberry good.
Acadia National Park is also located on Mount Desert Island and was one of the main reasons for us to go there. The National Park is consistently rated as one of top national parks in the USA and envelops coastal wilderness, conifer woodland, tranquil lakes and granite mountains with everything coming together to form a natural wonderland.
We started out hiking the 3.2 mile Jordan Pond loop trail to stretch our hiking legs. It is a gentle trail around a quiet pond, through the brightly coloured trees.
As we did it reasonably early in the morning, the sun hadn’t reached the shores of the lake yet so there was a low mist settled over the water and the air was especially crisp.
We stopped by the Jordan Pond boat house where it is an Acadia tradition to enjoy tea and popovers (like Yorkshire puddings) on the grassy lawn with views over the pond. The Adirondack chairs out by the water looked inviting but we didn’t partake.
After the ease of the Jordan Pond loop we decided to do the 4 mile Ocean Drive Trail, which earned its name because most people drive it. It is a stunning drive but nothing beats walking it; following the coastline, high above the ocean along the pink granite cliffs.
We ate our packed lunch cliff side, looking out to sea, then sat on Sandy beach to rest up. It is a shame that it was too cold to swim as it is a beautiful stretch of sand.
Our Pièce de résistance hike was the Canon Brook trail, a 10km loop up Cadillac Mountain, the highest mountain within 25 miles of the coast on the Eastern seaboard. We hiked past a beaver dam on a wooden boardwalk above a swamp, around a lake then up a trail through the woods, beside a trickling stream.
The path slowly became steeper before we reached a magnificent waterfall. The path continued, climbing the steep rocky slopes beside the waterfall, basically scaling it. It was hard going, and slightly scary at times as the rock was slippery in parts but we finally made it to the top.
The path continued through the woods and along a stream to a clearing where we ate our packed lunch (mmm blueberry danishes). The last ascent was over smooth rocks, joined together like a jigsaw puzzle.
Then we were at the top of the mountain.
The views were incredible in every direction. The rugged coastline, the blazing trees, the forested islands of Frenchman Bay and the Gulf of Maine.
While we had been hiking in near silence, apart from the soothing sounds of nature, suddenly as we reached the top there were hundreds of people around. They had taken the easy way to the summit and had driven up in their cars.
It was pretty crowded at the top so after a well-deserved rest, we started back down again, although on a different path. The new path was steep so we took it slowly, over large rocks, before entering the woods.
There was a bit of boulder jumping involved over large fallen rocks in a gully before re-joining the path we had started out on for the last mile.
The Canon Brook trail was a fantastic all-round hike and one of my favourites. Very varied and exciting. Even hair-raising at times.
A visit to Mount Desert Island would not be complete without a stop at an iconic East Coast Lighthouse. There is something so romantic about them, don’t you think?
We went to the exceptionally photogenic Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse, located at the southern tip of Mount Desert Island. It was just a short walk from the car park to discover this beauty. It stood solitary, at the edge of a cliff above the crashing surf and jagged rocks below. Still in operation today, its light a comforting beacon to all it has guided.
Quintessentially New England, Mount Desert Island is one of the most beautiful places I have been to in the USA, if not the world (seriously). Its spectacular and rugged beauty, exceedingly friendly locals and local delicacies make it somewhere very special and I hope it never changes.