It may be called Mount Desert Island, but this Maine island is almost the farthest thing from a desert one could imagine.
Hosting part of Acadia National Park, Mount Desert Island is 108 square miles of rocky shoreline, mountains, valleys, lakes and forests, about two-thirds of which is national parkland. The most arresting features of Acadia, and the reason private landowners began acquiring and donating its acreage to the federal government in the early 1900s, are the craggy seaside cliffs and granite-domed mountains that thrust straight up from the sea. Formed by glaciers about 18,000 years ago, the area once laid claim to the eastern United States’ only true fjord — a narrow, deep sea inlet between high cliffs. (It has since been slightly downgraded by geomorphologists to a lower-relief “fjard,” but is still dramatic.)
At more than 47,000 acres, Acadia stands apart from destinations like coastal Alaska and northwestern Washington — also known for sea-and-mountains landscapes — in its accessibility and family-friendliness.
The stunning 27-mile Park Loop Road, which includes the park’s highest peak — 1,528-foot Cadillac Mountain — is also home to more than 45 miles of carriage roads. The vision of John D. Rockefeller and other philanthropists, the gently winding crushed-stone roads are used by hikers, cyclists and horseback riders, and are a virtually effortless way to experience the park’s interior. There are even horse-drawn carriage rides. All trails seem to end (or begin) at Jordan Pond House, where afternoon tea has been a tradition since the late 1800s. Hike the sedate Jordan Pond Loop or jump on a cycle to explore Bubble Pond and Eagle Lake.
There are 120-plus miles of hiking trails in Acadia at all levels of difficulty. Many are perfect for families, such as the one-mile hike up South Bubble to Bubble Rock, a 14-ton boulder left perching in what looks to be a precarious position by receding glaciers. The Goat trail is easier if you’re hauling kids. It was — once you get through the initial third-of-a-mile scramble straight up the side of 850-foot Norumbega Mountain. On your ascent of Norumbega, don’t miss the “ladder trails,” which incorporate ladders with rungs drilled into rock faces.
OUTSIDE THE PARK
Bar Harbor, a village of about 5,200, is the island’s social hub, where shops and restaurants serve as satellites to the Village Green. Highlights include Spruce and Gussy, a quaint gift shop; Bar Harbor Hemporium, with everything hemp, and Stone Soup, a fun toy store. For a meal, Cafe This Way is renowned for its ample brunches, but shouldn’t be overlooked for supper. (The Maine seafood spring rolls are superb.) For dessert, Mt. Desert Island Ice Cream has a host of intriguing flavors, such as Vietnamese coffee, Atlantic brewing stout with fudge and Callebaut chocolate wasabi.
A VISIT TO GARDENS
The Asticou Inn was one of the few Victorian buildings to survive Bar Harbor’s great fire of 1947, which wiped out 60 of the island’s summer estates. The inn, which once served the likes of the Astors and Rockefellers from its manicured perch overlooking Northeast Harbor, has been carefully preserved, with a vintage telephone switchboard and other antiques. Meals are delicious, with such temptations as lemon-ricotta pancakes topped with blueberry compote or lobster frittata. Across the road are the Asticou Azalea Garden, modeled after a Japanese garden, and Thuya Gardens, an English-style perennial garden, which can be toured gratis.
THE QUIET SIDE
A jaunt along Sargeant Drive to take in Somes Sound, Acadia’s fjard, leads to the island’s so-called quiet side, or its western half. Take a break at the arched Somesville Bridge in the oldest permanent settlement on Mount Desert Island (dating to 1759).
For slightly warmer water temperatures and a gently sloping beach for young swimmers, Echo Lake is a popular freshwater swimming area.
After a dockside meal of boiled lobster and corn cooked in its husk in lobster water at Thurston’s Lobster Pound in Bernard, be sure to visit to the Bass Harbor Head Light, the only lighthouse on Mount Desert Island.
If you go:
ACADIA NATIONAL PARK
A park protecting more than 47,000 acres of rocky shoreline, beaches, mountains, valleys, lakes and forests on the Maine coast. A weekly car pass is $20.
Acadia is about 264 miles from Boston and 40 miles from Bangor International Airport. Drive there along Route 1A and then Route 3, across the bridge at Trenton and onto the island. New York-Bangor round-trip airline tickets usually run $350 to $500.
WHERE TO STAY
There are hotels and campgrounds, but renting a home can be very economical (vrbo.com, airbnb.com and homeaway.com). Small cottages run $70 to $100 a night, and large homes sleeping a dozen or so may run $500 to $1,000 a night.