Where to Stay on a Trip to Acadia National Park: A Profile of Mount Desert Island’s Villages

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May 062012

Mount Desert Island is shaped like a pair of lungs.

On the eastern side are Bar Harbor and some of the most popular places in Acadia National Park, including Eagle Lake, Cadillac Mountain, Thunder Hole, and Jordan Pond.

The western side, known as the “Quiet Side,” also has two glacial lakes, Echo Lake and Long Pond, as well as mountain hiking. Its best-known landmark is the Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse, and its largest town is Southwest Harbor.

In the area between the two “lungs” is Somes Sound, seven miles long.  This glacial bay, often referred to as a fiord, is the geological star attraction of many hikes on both sides of the island.

But, in the most practical sense, Somes Sound makes navigating around Mount Desert Island a challenge and consideration of where to stay a key component of successful vacation planning.  Choosing the village in which you’ll be based should be your first step before researching any particular inns or real estate rentals.

Start by looking at a map and considering your priorities:  Which is more important — quiet or convenience?  Proximity to shopping or swimming?  Will you always eat out or sometimes cook in?

Also having a sense of the particular activities you want to pursue on vacation, from napping on the porch to sampling the local micro-brews to sightseeing (or maybe all three, but in the reverse order), will be very helpful as you familiarize yourself with Mount Desert Island’s diverse towns and villages.  Each has its unique personality.

The town of Bar Harbor has six villages — Town Hill, Eden, Salisbury Cove, Hulls Cove, Otter Creek, and downtown Bar Harbor.  It’s no wonder that Bar Harbor has
greater name recognition than Mount Desert Island itself because it is where the cruise ships drop anchor and where you’ll find the greatest concentration of shops, restaurants, lodging, and important community facilities such as the Mount Desert Island Hospital and the Mount Desert Island YMCA (which, by the way, offers
day passes and temporary memberships – great options for rainy days in Acadia National Park).

While detractors complain that Bar Harbor can be “choked with people” when cruise ships come in during July and August, others wouldn’t stay anywhere else, citing the convenience of being close to so many restaurants, shops, and night spots.  Hospitality options are the greatest here, ranging from Victorian mansions in the village to chain motels along Route 3.

Ben and Bill's Chocolate Emporium Bar Harbor Maine


South of Bar Harbor, still on Mount Desert Island’s eastern side, is the tiny, charming village of Seal Harbor.  It has a lovely village green and harbor showcasing the classic yachts of its summertime residents.  Among those with homes in Seal Harbor are long-time resident David Rockefeller and relative newcomer Martha Stewart.  Her house, called Skylands, was owned by Edsel Ford and sits on 63 acres overlooking the harbor.

Northeast Harbor is also a wealthy summer colony, with roots dating back to the late 1800s.  Its village center has antiques shops, art galleries, and several stores (The Kimball Shop and Boutique is a personal favorite for tableware).  Another key attraction is Asticou Gardens, featuring both the Asticou Azalea Gardens on Route 198 and Thuya Garden, accessible to both autos and walkers from Route 3.

Thuya Garden Northeast Harbor Maine


If you want to base your vacation in Northeast Harbor, there are certainly memories to be made at the Asticou Inn, located at the north end of Northeast Harbor, a classic resort with much history and no TV’s in the main inn.  Rentals in Northeast Harbor can start as low as $2000 weekly and soar to $50,000 monthly for grand shorefront homes.

The western side of Mount Desert Island is home to many year-round residents, including lobstermen and artists.  It also has a large stock of attractive rental

Somesville is the first village you’ll see coming south on Route 102 along the western side of Somes Sound.  Somesville is where I live, in a house where Teddy Roosevelt reputedly was a guest in 1880.  Founded in 1761, the village has a library, museum, repertory theatre, and one of the most photographed spots on the island – the Somesville bridge.  Renters in this area have easy access to Acadia’s Echo Lake and Acadia Mountain.

Somesville Bridge Mount Desert Maine


Southwest Harbor is one of my favorite places on the island.  The home of Hinckley Yachts, it’s known for boat building, unique shops, great restaurants and cafes, and a beautiful working harbor.   I particularly like the hardware store, which reminds me of the Maine state slogan: The Way Life Should Be.  In Southwest Harbor it’s possible to rent a place where you can see the harbor and still walk to town.  There are charming inns, as well as another classic summer refuge, The Claremont Hotel, which has a restaurant overlooking Somes Sound that is open to the public.

Claremont Hotel Southwest Harbor Maine


Bass Harbor is an authentic fishing community, widely recognized for its lighthouse, great lobster pounds, and get-away-from-it-all inns.   It is my favorite place on Mount Desert Island to visit at sunset – not to see the sun itself descend, but to witness its beautiful work on the harbor and its boats.  My first rental on Mount Desert Island was a sunny condo overlooking the harbor.

Lobster boat Bass Harbor Maine


Just on the other side of Bass Harbor is Bernard, home of Thurston’s Lobster Pound, a “must” for any visit to Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park.

Tremont, Seal Cove, and Pretty Marsh are the quietest villages on the “Quiet Side”!  The distance from Bar Harbor discourages many visitors, who miss out on picnicking at Pretty Marsh, hiking the quiet trails of Western Mountain, and kayaking on Long Pond.   Rentals here include cottages and cabins overlooking Seal Cove Pond or the quiet coves of the western shoreline of Mount Desert Island.

In love, real estate, and where to stay on Mount Desert Island, there are always trade-offs.  I invite you to join the conversation and comment on which villages you’ve enjoyed on your visits to Acadia National Park.