Monday, July 1, 2013

Party Like It's 1985 on Mount Desert Island

My latest adventure in Maine this summer took me to Mount Desert Island, also known as “The Island of Lost Tourists”.  Actually, it’s a beautiful place, and while it is no doubt touristy, it is certainly worth visiting.  The home of the resort town of Bar Harbor and world-famous Acadia National Park, Mount Desert Island is 108 square miles in area, and the 52nd largest island in the contiguous United States.  It is accessible by car via the Trenton Bridge on Route 3, and also by boat.  The nearest airport is on the mainland in Trenton, just a few minutes away.  Blimps, trains, and flying saucers to MDI are not currently available.

There are many, many resources to help you plan your trip to Mount Desert Island.  Just Google it.  This post is intended to give you my casual, tourist-on-a-budget point of view.

Theme music: In my last post, I explained how I like to choose a specific type of music as my soundtrack for a road trip.  For this one, I chose the music of 1985, a high-water mark year in my life, as it was the one when I started in radio and also when I got my driver’s license.  Some of the major acts on the charts in 1985 include Bruce Springsteen, Dire Straits, Tina Turner, and Sting.  It was a good year for cool music,.  While it is by no means a requirement to have theme music on your trip to MDI, I highly recommend it.
         *Official 1985 Tune for Theme Music tip: "Freeway of Love" by Aretha Franklin.  The Queen of Soul’s comeback song from that year sets just the right tone when driving on a warm summer day.   “So let’s drop the top baby, and cruise on into that better-than-ever street.” (Okay, so it’s not Shakespeare.)

Pronunciation and Meaning: There's no real consensus on this.  Many locals call it Mount “De ZERT” (emphasis on second syllable), though you will hear plenty of references to Mount “DEZ ert” (emphasis on first syllable).  Neither pronunciation will get you voted off the island, though turning your vehicle around in a private driveway just might, especially if it is Martha Stewart’s.  (She had an incident with someone doing just that a few years back.  It was not “a good thing”.) Personally, I switch back and forth between the two pronunciations, though “MDI” is an easy shortcut and the most common term for the island. 

The island was named "île des Monts Déserts" by explorer Samuel Champlain way back when.  It means “Island of the Lonely Mountains”.  Apparently, when approaching it from the sea, the mountains appear much sooner than any other land, and they seem to be alone in the ocean.  Hence the name.

        *Official 1985 Tune for Pronunciation and Meaning tip: "Miami Vice Theme" by Jan Hammer, because, like Mount Desert Island, Mr. Hammer has problems with people pronouncing his name properly too. In his case, Jan rhymes with “lawn”, not “fan”.

View from the top of Cadillac Mountain, as taken by me.

Traffic: The Trenton Bridge is the only way onto and off the island by car, so it can be a bottleneck.  It’s a good idea to allow yourself plenty of time to get on and off MDI if you are keeping a schedule.  There is always construction on that stretch of road in the summer.  At what exact point that seemed like a good idea, I do not know, but it happens every single summer like clockwork.  Plus, there are many roadside attractions on that stretch of road, including a zoo, which can get passing motorists’ attention and slow them down or cause them to make an unplanned turn.  Driving Route 3 onto MDI is a lot like making your way down a busy sidewalk in New York City: just go with the herd and watch the guy in front of you at all times.

Ellsworth is a city on the mainland that acts as a gateway to the island.  You almost have to pass through Ellsworth to get to MDI by car, unless your car floats.  Ellsworth itself is a beautiful place with great people and a wealth of amenities.  I lived there for a year in the mid 1990s and loved it. The only downside is that the traffic can be maddening in the summer, especially on the main drag, which is Route 3, locally known as High Street.  If you aren’t sure where you are going in Ellsworth, pull over and check a map or ask someone.  It’s no place to make a wrong turn, as the domino effect of such an action could result in an embarrassing traffic clog at best, or your accidentally ending up in Canada at worst.

Don’t give up hope though.  Once you are on the island, you can just park your car and leave it for the whole day.  The Island Explorer is a network of buses that hit all the high points on MDI all day long at regular intervals for free.  L.L. Bean helps fund this free service, and it really makes your day a lot easier to negotiate.  Just study the schedule before you start your day, and make sure you wear a watch.

Last thing about traffic: Never, ever try to make a left turn onto Route 3 unless you are at a traffic light.  There is a special place in Hell for people who do (or try to).
        *Official 1985 Tune for Traffic tip: "Things Can Only Get Better" by Howard Jones.  You’ll have this song going through your head as you sit in construction traffic for what seems like a geological epoch and stare at the skinny guy with the great tan and bottle of Mountain Dew holding a STOP sign.

Bass Harbor Light on a foggy day, as taken by me.

Accommodations: If you need a place to stay, there are hotels, motels, inns, bed-and-breakfasts, cabins, cardboard boxes and bus benches to fit nearly any taste or budget on and near MDI.  However, the closer you are to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park, the more likely the accommodation will be a) fully booked and b) expensive.  I am a fan of both camping and being cheap, and there are numerous campgrounds on MDI and nearby which are almost always cheaper than getting a room.  They are generally well-maintained, but often quite busy and booked well in advance.  I personally recommend Lamoine State Park campground, which is about 20 minutes off the island, just outside of Ellsworth.  It is clean, beautiful, quiet, has a nice view of MDI, and most importantly for me, away from the hustle and bustle.  The cost of a campsite per night at Lamoine State Park will be less than what you will find for a campsite on the island itself.
        *Official 1985 Tune for Accommodations tip: "One More Night" by Phil Collins, because that is what you will want as you are packing up to leave Lamoine State Park. It’s really a nice spot that could be a whole trip in itself.
A scene from the campground at Lamoine State Park, taken by me.

A view of MDI in the distance from the campground at Lamoine State Park, as taken by me.

Food: The two things of which you must partake while on MDI are ice cream and lobster.  You might even try lobster ice cream, which I am sure is a thing somewhere.

There are lots of roadside ice cream places on Route 3, but it is pretty much tradition that you get at least one cone in one of the shops on Cottage Street, the main street through downtown Bar Harbor.  The most famous is Mount Desert Island Ice Cream, where President Obama had a coconut cone during a vacation there a few years back, though they serve Republicans and independents too. 

Lobster is served almost everywhere you look on MDI and vicinity.  My favorite place for lobster, hands-down, is the Trenton Bridge Lobster Pound, which is on the right just before you take the bridge onto MDI.  They boil their lobsters in sea water, over wood fires, with a stunning view of the narrows between the island and mainland.  Even if I am not stopping for lobster, I always roll down my windows to get a whiff of the woodsmoke and seafood smell that emanates from this local gem.  The clams are great there as well, and they ship around the country!  Just remember, they are not open on Sundays.

Whatever I eat when I am out of town, I try hard to buy from local operators, like the two businesses I just mentioned.  The locals give you a unique flavor for the place you are visiting, and depend on visitors like us to keep themselves financially afloat.  I recently saw a funny but poignant sign outside a “Mom and Pop” restaurant that I liked a lot which said “Stop in to eat or we’ll both starve.”
        *Official 1985 Tune for Food tip: "Fresh" by Kool and the Gang, because the lobster on and around Mount Desert Island is just as fresh as you can get without actually boiling it up on board the lobster boat itself.  Local lobstermen are resistant to letting us flatlanders do that, I’m told. Something about "being in the damn way".

Sand Beach, as seen from the Loop Road, taken by me.

Sightseeing: If you are planning a trip to Mount Desert Island, there are four things you absolutely must see, and about a million others that you really ought to.  
  •         Cadillac Mountain: The highest point on the eastern seaboard of the United States, you can drive, bike, or hike to the top.  Cadillac Mountain is the spot where the sun first touches the United States in the morning.  It tends to be busy, but the amazing views are totally worth it.  Be sure to bring a sweatshirt if you are prone to the cold though.  It gets chilly up there.
  •         Sand Beach: While it’s usually too busy for my taste, Sand Beach is a gorgeous spot of sand along the Atlantic.  I can sit and watch the ocean waves for hours, but here you can also see outstanding mountain vistas at the same time, including “The Beehive” right behind you.  One of the most entertaining aspects of any Maine beach is watching the tourists think that they are going to actually swim in the Atlantic.  On purpose.  For fun.  Yeah, right.  The water temps rarely get above 60 degrees, so it’s always good for a few laughs from those of us on shore, especially when some macho goon is trying to impress his wife or girlfriend as his lips turn blue.
  •         Thunder Hole: This is an indentation into some seaside cliffs where the waves make a resounding boom during high tides, especially when the waves are really rolling.  It really gives you a clear picture of the sheer power of the ocean.  I went there a day before a hurricane rolled in back in 1997, and will never forget it.
  •          Downtown Bar Harbor: Over the years, the center of Bar Harbor has evolved into a series of gift shops, restaurants, art galleries, inns and the like.  There is a waterfront park which makes a nice spot for a rest or a picnic.  Short ocean cruises to view whales, puffins, seals or lighthouses leave from the pier in the downtown area.  The shorefront walking path is a nice cool place to explore on a warm day.  And folks visit Bar Harbor from all over the world, so the people-watching is fascinating.  Remember to get the obligatory ice cream cone.  I think it’s a law or something.

Among the million other things you should see are Seawall, Bass Harbor Light, Wild Gardens of Acadia, the Oceanarium, Echo Lake, the College of the Atlantic campus, the land bridge to Bar Island, the schooner Mary Todd, Abbe Museum, Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, horse-drawn carriage tours, and more.

        *Official 1985 Tune for Sightseeing tip: "Don’t You Forget About Me" by Simple Minds.  No matter how full your sightseeing itinerary is, you will forget something, I’m sure.  All the more reason to go back to MDI for another visit.  I am going to make at least one more trip there myself this summer.  Maybe I’ll see you there.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Chris,

    My name is Jocelyn and I am with Dwellable. I am looking for fun and authentic blogs about Mount Desert Island and yours happened to catch my eye. If you’re open to it, shoot me an e-mail at jocelyn(at)dwellable(dot)com.

    Hope to hear from you soon!
    - Jocelyn