Maine Road Trip
Road Trip to the Quiet Side
by guest writer Sarah Crisp
For some it’s Block or Nantucket, for others its BVI or St. Thomas, but for the last ten years Mount Desert Island in Maine has been my go-to place for a complete island headrest. In my opinion, Bar Harbor can compete with the Vineyard for a visit any day, but we prefer to stay at Southwest Harbor on “the quiet side” of MDI. The most difficult decision we have to make is whether to bike in the morning and kayak in the afternoon or vice versa and most of the time that decision is made for us by the tides.
On The Way and Where To Stay
Freeport is one of those places you either love for its designer outlets and the inimitable LLBean Flagship Store, or you hate it – for all of the same reasons. For me, it’s the start of our vacation – even though we still have another few hours to drive before we get to our #happyplace. We hit the highway on Friday night, fully loaded with four bikes, three kayaks, often two dogs and an audio book or two, knowing that when we arrive at Freeport, our vacation has begun. Saturday morning we mosey around town.
Bridgham & Cook – Freeport
Not great shoppers, my husband and sons disappear off to LLBean to pick up two or three of the same color and design of pants (maybe just an inch or two longer in the leg than last year), two or three of the same polo shirt they have on, or more of the socks that they bought last year … you get the picture.
But Freeport is not all about LLBean and the designer village. There are some great independent stores and the one that we love best (unsurprisingly) is Bridgham & Cook. Over the 10 years we have been stopping in Freeport, this tiny, packed treasure trove of all things Anglophile has moved across the street and developed into both a place to snag the best of British (the latest Barbour goods or pair of Hunter Wellies) or, like my kids, to indulge your BREXIT regrets with Maltesers instead of Whoppers, a packet of real Jaffa Cakes – or Mr Kipling’s Battenburg or Bakewell Tarts. This year did not disappoint and I came away with two vintage Union Jack waistcoats and a vacation tuck-box worthy of Hogwarts.
Talking of tuck-boxes, one of my boys has flown the nest up to Maine, which has been far more difficult for me than him. But if I do get the odd “homesick” text, my first call is to Heather who will box up a care package of British goodies and send it off post-haste to Colby, bringing a smile back to his face and mine.
Other fun stops in Freeport include an indulgent plate of Rudder Chips at the local’s favorite, The Muddy Rudder (I promise you that only your personal trainer will be disappointed). the Topside Tavern & Maine Kitchen for lunch or dinner – I still have to get my head around the Lobstickles (marinated lobster tail on a stick!), but their hummus plate is fantastic and Linda’s passion for supporting sustainability in Maine’s Lobster Industry is evident throughout. Another of our favorites is the Maine Craft Distillery for “Farm to Flask” libations.
Bar Harbor Acadia Cottage Rentals
When, as complete newbies to the U.S. we decided to take our first vacation to Maine, an eight-hour drive to Mount Desert Island seemed ridiculous. We could get from London to Edinburgh in that, but we all wanted to visit Acadia National Park and so I started searching for vacation cottages. Pre-air-b-n-b and even before VRBO was widely used, I stumbled across a site for Cottage Rentals and gave Rebecca Richardson a call.
The thing about booking with Rebecca is that she knows every property inside out. You can explain that you like a firm King sized bed and she will point you in the direction of five specific cottages where the bed is neither too hard nor too soft. Small children? She will be very clear about whether getting to the water is via 150 steep steps, or a gentle wander out from the family room. She differentiates between oceanfront, lakefront and ocean view/walk to the water so there is no question that if you book oceanfront, you will be able to step out of your house and be on the water.
Rebecca’s business has grown significantly – when we first met her she had maybe 20 places on her books. Now there are more than 130 to choose from ranging from a bargain downeast camp just off the island (think bunk beds and a stove) to The Station; your own lighthouse on one of the outer islands, accessible only by ferry. Looking for a multi-family home to sleep 14 or a romantic studio for two? There is something in her listings for everyone. The only time we have not had a fantastic Acadia vacation, was when, early on, Rebecca had sold out for the week we needed and we used VRBO. The owner failed to mention the lobster processing plant next door, which started at 4:00am each morning. In the world of horses that I come from we say caveat emptor – buyer beware. From my first booking through Rebecca I have never had to worry about what I was getting.
Other places that visiting friends have spoken highly of:
The Bar Harbor Inn, an iconic staple of Bar Harbor perched right on the Harbor with views out across Frenchman Harbor and the classic tall ships that anchor there. No car needed, walk everywhere.
Although there are many camping grounds on the island from wilderness to glamping, Blackwoods is the only site located within Acadia and is run by the National Parks Service. Reserve early for tents or RVs.
Where to Eat
I admit it, since moving to Lyme, I have become a coffee snob. Before I moved to the U.S. I had no problem in differentiating between a cup of Darjeeling from a Lap Sang Su Chong or even a Waitrose Early Grey from Twinings. But since moving to this very special part of the world I have wholeheartedly adopted “Coffee Culture”. With my Nespresso at home and Ashlawn now just a short drive over the bridge, what is a girl to do when she is on vacation?
SIPS in Southwest Harbor: A full take-out barista bar complete with Danish pastries or home-baked scones for those on the run, or stay for a leisurely breakfast to set you up for peddling around the Lakes. My youngest chooses from their crêpe menu (and I mean real crêpes not pancakes), whilst my husband goes for their extensive omelette menu with a distinctively Mediterranean flavor. For me, the “only on a Sunday” Lobster Eggs Benedict is non-negotiable. SIPS is named for the fact that they sell their wine by the bottle, by the glass or by the 2oz “sip”.
I am not quite sure how they manage to fit 40+ covers, a very extensive bar, live music, an efficient kitchen and the coffee bar into such a small place without making it feel crowded, but they do – and they even add live music on a Saturday night.
When we decided to rent a cottage rather than stay in a hotel on our annual trip to MDI, my condition was that I would not plan, shop or cook any meal for the week. I could choose a restaurant, or let my family know of my preference for the evening, but I was not going to go near the kitchen. Over the last ten years, Fiddlers Green – a fantastic restaurant just outside of Southwest Harbor became our go-to place to eat. Even though we only visited once a year (maybe 3 times in that week), maître d’ Sarah and Chef Derek always greeted us as long lost friends. We were all devastated to hear that the property had been sold and Fiddlers Green was no more. But, there is a silver lining to every cloud and it forced us out of our comfortable habit to find and rediscover some other great eateries. Don’t get me wrong. If Sarah and Derek decide to start up again we will be waiting on the doorstep, but try Bar Harbor’s The Side Street Café for imaginative (if a little pricey) burgers and an extraordinarily rich lobster casserole or Red Sky in Southwest Harbor for a family meal or a romantic dinner à deux.
Our first visit to Red Sky a few years ago included an unforgettable moment when the waitress brought one of my sons his cocktail (a virgin version of their Signature Red Sky, Raspberry Sorbet-based Cocktail) except it was not so virgin. The waitress grabbed it back horrified, my son was somewhat confused and my husband and I could not stop laughing at the surprised look on both of their faces.
This year we had a last minute college friend to add to our party, but owner Elizabeth Lindquist did not bat an eyelid and switched up our table with no question or problem. Nobody’s plate is sacred when it comes to eating out in our family – we all taste everything that comes out of James Lindquist’s kitchen, from the roasted quail starter to their home baked bread, lobster and mushroom risotto and perfectly pink breast of duck. Everything is seasonal and as local as you can get on an island in Maine. White tablecloths and mismatched wooden tables combine with large-scale local pieces of art on the walls to make Red Sky the sort of elegant yet casual place I love. Dress up or turn up in hiking boots and a bandana – anything goes but don’t forget to book – in high season, this place fills up fast. You can always drop in on spec to see if there is a seat at the bar for you and your hunny, but if you are eating en famille, make sure you make a reservation.
Jordon Pond House
For someone like me who spends much of their life at a keyboard or behind a lens, the opportunity to completely unplug is a godsend and the 47,000 acres of Acadia National Park is the place I like to do that best. The six-mile loop around Eagle Lake is popular, but be prepared to wander just a few hundred yards off the beaten path and you feel like you are the only person in the world. The park is crisscrossed by hiking paths of all grades and also by the Carriage Trails. Built by John D. Rockefeller Jr. between 1913 and 1940, they are (I am told by those in the know), the finest example of broken stone road engineering in the country. For me, they provide a once-a-year opportunity to see how much fitter (or less fit) I am compared to the previous year as I ride (my new Electra bike thank you Pedal Power in Essex, Ct) around Witch Hole Pond (apparently the first family’s favorite when they visited), Paradise Hill or along glorious Jordon Pond to the Jordon Pond House.
A tourist favorite, but one that should be experienced at least once in every lifetime, is Tea and Popovers at Jordon Pond House. To me, a “popover” is actually a Yorkshire Pudding, and as the daughter of a Yorkshire man, it should be sacrilegious to eat them with strawberry jam and cream (rather with roast beef and gravy). But flying in the face of my heritage is worth every last calorie! Be sure to book well in advance (especially if you want one of the prized lawn tables overlooking the bubble mountains and Jordon Pond), or be prepared to wait up to an hour to be seated. Want to try them at home? Jordon Pond popover mix is available online or follow this recipe.
3½oz plain flour
¼ tsp salt
3 large free-range eggs
8fl oz milk
Preheat the oven to 425F
Measure the flour and salt into a bowl and make a well in the centre. Add the eggs and a little milk. Whisk until smooth and gradually add the remaining milk. Pour the mixture into a jug.
(for best results leave batter to stand for 2hrs in the fridge).
Measure a dessertspoonful of oil into each hole of the 12 muffin pan. Transfer to the preheated oven for five minutes, or until the oil is piping hot.
Carefully remove from the oven and pour the batter equally between the holes or the tin.
Return the batter quickly to the oven and cook for 20-25 minutes or until golden-brown and well-risen (do not open the oven door during cooking or they’ll collapse).
It is very important to get the oil piping hot. As soon as the batter is poured in it will set and start to cook giving you crisp well-risen popovers.
Good to Know & Freebies
MDI is not inexpensive, like most vacation areas, islanders are forced to make most of their income during the months of July, August and September and as such, prices do tend to be on the expensive side. You can bank on paying about 30% more than the Connecticut Shoreline for restaurants or specialty food shops. So it’s good to know that there are a few freebies (or less expensive options) to take advantage of on your trip.
Free Concerts in the Park – Freeport, ME
If you are in Freeport overnight during July and August treat yourself to a free concert – Summers in the Park. Pitch up with your lawn chair, grab a Lobster Roll from Linda Bean’s take-away counter or one of a gazillion flavors at the Ben & Jerry’s outlet and you can enjoy sounds as diverse as Lyle Lovett and his Big Band, The Ballroom Theieves accompanied by Maine Youth Rock Orchestra or Indie/Folk/Gospel/Country inspired The Lone Bellow. Word of warning – it’s a bit late for this year, the last scheduled concert is September 3rd, but good to know if you are planning a trip in 2017.
Although there are charges for some of the activities run from LLBean’s HQ, there are others that are completely free and will keep your younger teenagers safely engaged while you shop Freeport. Hand over your driver’s license and your younger teenagers can spend an hour or so Geocaching.
$25 Park Pass
To enter the National Park you will need a $25 park pass. This will give you access to walk, bike or hike the carriage roads, kayak the crystal clear lakes or drive the scenic and very accessible Loop Road. With it you can also:
See the Sunrise on Cadillac Mountain
I have always known Cadillac Mountain as the place where the sun first rises on the East Coast of America. This year I found out that that is only the case from March to October when the sun rises south of due East, but that does not stop us making our once a year pilgrimage. You can hike, bike, or join the local high school x-country team as they run to the top, but at that time in the morning I admit to driving up. Take a warm blanket (you won’t be alone – even at the height of the summer). Get there early 4.30am-ish to snag the best spot for your camera and to see the amazing colors that precede the first break. Don’t expect to be alone – it is popular, but oh so worth it.
Ride the Free Island Explorer
For MDI locals and visitors, pop your bike on the front of one of these eco-friendly propane-gas run buses to get about the Island or to do a one-way bike or hike. The schedule changes after September 1st, so be sure to check their site.
Southwest Harbor Galleries
Southwest Harbor is a center for art and you will find a range of galleries featuring local and national photographers, watercolors, oils and ceramics. Spend a chill Saturday morning there and you can also drop in for the Art Tent Sale – pop up galleries on the village green.
Bar Harbor Whale Watch
It took 7 years for me to persuade my family to go on a whale-watching tour from Bar Harbor. I have no idea why it took so long, but maybe it was because, having been practically brought up on a 25ft boat on the Irish Sea I can ride out the roughest seas on a boat that’s under 40’, but put me on something that is big enough to pitch and roll and it’s only a matter of time (you know what comes next). But this year we each had the choice of one activity and mine was a whale watch, so off we went to Bar Harbor. I asked a couple of locals which operator they would go with if they were taking a relative and they all said the Bar Harbor Whale Watch Company.
One of the things that I liked most about this company (apart from their very professional operation) was the fact that they have a no-quibble guarantee. No whales and you get another trip for free. Their high-speed “big cat” catamaran took us straight out to the whale feeding grounds about 20 nautical miles off shore but it was not a good day for us. We did see a huge sunfish breach and then, just before we were due to start our return trip there was a quick sighting of a hump back whale. I was a little disappointed and, I admit not a little cynical that this “sighting” had occurred right at the end of our trip. But as we were on our way back the Captain told us that they did not consider this to be a “sighting” trip and if we returned to the office we could get our tickets stamped and have the option to return again any time in the next 3 years! In my book that is a no-quibble guarantee. And importantly it is one that it is possible to take up. My family is looking forward to watching me pack my rucksack with all manner of seasick prevention devices, before heading out again on our next visit.
If you want the boat ride without the big waves, consider their more sedate Lighthouse, Acadia Nature, Lobster Bake and other tours.