SOUTHWEST HARBOR, Maine
It's 4:45 a.m. as we drive the curvy road to the summit of Cadillac Mountain and I am dubious about this "must-do" experience. If you go to Acadia National Park, it's imperative, everyone and every guidebook says, that you witness sunrise here.
Cadillac is the spot where the sun first hits the continental United States. You see, this mountain, at just 1,530 feet, is the tallest spot within 25 miles of the entire East Coast. It hardly even qualifies as a mountain, I say, clearing sleep from my eyes. More like a hill, really. A shower would have startled me into alertness and perhaps washed away the grouchies, but we couldn't risk missing that wow moment by my primping.
I blink twice as we negotiate the final turn into the parking lot. Am I going to have to hunt for a parking place? Lots of people beat us here. Teenagers in pajamas, some of whom have pulled up a piece of granite and gone back to sleep. Photographers attempting to position tripods on not-so-level ground. Wee children whose hands are held tightly by parents. Lovers of all ages.
Car parked, I find a perch to wait and watch. Okay, dazzle me. The sky is already pink, wispy clouds framing the view. Below is Bar Harbor and Frenchman Bay with its small islands, the Porcupines among them.
The sun first appears as a flat line, interrupting the dark horizon facing northeast toward Canada like a punctuation mark, a hyphen or maybe a long dash. Within seconds, the brightness forces me to look away and in minutes the sun is up, its light dancing on the water below. The crowd, which was already quiet or maybe sleeping, is more still now, bathed in brilliant orange and yellow. The tableau is breathtaking, well worth the early alarm. We've had a communion with nature, all 300 of us.
It's 5:10 a.m. Now what?
The island national park
The 49,000 acres of Acadia National Park stretch across Mount Desert Island and some nearby smaller islands in patches. Locals pronounce it "dessert" like the sweet meal-ender, not the sandy, arid land. It's about 50 miles south of Bangor and 160 miles northeast of Portland. Around these parts they refer to this portion of the Maine Coast, from Penobscot Bay to Canada, as "Down East."
The park is intertwined with seaside towns whose full-time residents seem to have a love-hate relationship with summer. The best weather of a year marked by brutal weather is shared with hordes of tourists. They flock Down East, spending a lot of money, which is good, but they also clog the roads and create lines for everything, not so good. The lure of lobster, chowder and ice cream, plus spectacular scenery, is impossible to resist. Far from the Sunshine State, we see lots of Florida license plates.
Inside the park, the summer crowds disperse somewhat and it's easier to find solitary moments. Acadia is a haven for bicyclists, hikers, campers and kayakers. We are none of those things but still enjoy the rugged and cool Maine coast. There are self-guided walks around Jordan Pond in the interior of the park (with the promise afterward of popovers and strawberry jam at the adjacent restaurant after the 3.3-mile shoreline adventure) and other sights to see along the rolling footpath that skirts the craggy coast to Otter Cliff. I fend off mosquitoes while watching the water crash up through Thunder Hole with not a soul in sight. The scent of fuchsia beach roses makes the bugs bearable.
Beyond the park, the area's biggest draw is Bar Harbor with its tangle of souvenir shops, global bazaars, upscale kitchen emporiums, art galleries and restaurants. A village green is a lovely spot to sit and people watch. There's a cruise port here, which dumps thousands of people into town between April and October. Smaller boats offer short sightseeing excursions, providing a view from another angle and an opportunity to see wildlife. We take a cruise on the four-masted schooner the Margaret Todd, and a bald eagle soars overhead just a few minutes out of the dock. How lucky is that?
Bar Harbor and environs have long been a playground for people with names like Ford, Astor, Pulitzer and Rockefeller. Martha Stewart bought the Edsel Ford estate in Seal Harbor as a summer home a few years back. We hope for a celebrity sighting but are disappointed.
It was industrialist and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. who donated $3.5 million to help create the national park, which opened in 1916. Later, he signed over 10,000 acres of land, too. On it were groomed carriage roads and meticulously constructed stone bridges. Today, some 50 miles of those woodland roads can be hiked, biked or enjoyed on a horse-drawn carriage ride. Acadia became the first national park east of the Mississippi River.
We take the two-hour tour that explores three of the park's 17 stone bridges mostly financed by Rockefeller, and are fortunate to have Elmin Mitchell, 80-something, as our carriage driver. He has brought his own horses, Don and Chip, from Montville, 80 miles inland. Mr. Mitchell is a wealth of knowledge and he loves to talk about the detail of the bridges, a worn toothpick hanging from the corner of his mouth. It's very warm and the monster horseflies are bugging Chip, so Mr. Mitchell pulls over in the shade when he can to tell us about the park. His New England accent is as thick as the flies.
Wouldn't you know it, he spends four months a year at a mobile home park in Zephyrhills. And the family behind us in the carriage is visiting from Weston, near Fort Lauderdale. Such a small world.
The real world
There are many types of accommodations on Mount Desert, including '50s-style motel-cottages, B&Bs, luxury hotels, seasonal rental homes and RV campsites. The park itself has two campgrounds near the water, mostly for tents but with some camper and RV sites. We opt to rent a cottage in Southwest Harbor on the "quiet side" of the island during Fourth of July week. The rest of the country is blazing hot, but we flip on the gas fireplace to take the chill out of the air a few nights. It is plenty warm during the day.
The cottage is down a long hill and smack-dab on the edge of Somes Sound, the only fjord on the East Coast. In the mornings, we sit on the deck, watch the bobbing boats and try to count the lobster buoys. Some mornings are clear; others are socked in by fog.
Also on "our" side of the island is the Bass Harbor Head Light, one of the most photographed and picturesque beacons in the country. It's a bit of a climb to see it, and we go straight there once we find the cottage on Day 1. One of us does not have the proper shoes and the going is a bit tough. A skinned knee and bruised ego are the trip's first souvenirs. Still, the sun is setting and the beacon lights up. Welcome to Mount Desert.
Just 14 miles from the busyness of Bar Harbor, Southwest Harbor turns out to be the perfect base to explore the island. Here, we get to pretend we are locals rather than those pesky tourists creating an hourlong wait for dinner at Beal's Lobster Pier. We eat so much ice cream at the Quiet Side Cafe that by the end of our week, the scoop girl reaches for the Moose Tracks when I come through the door.
Whenever I go to a popular vacation spot, and any national park qualifies as such, I seek out activities that I think only locals will attend. That always provides a flavor of a place. So one afternoon we eat strawberry shortcake at the Somesville firehouse to help raise money for the town's historical society. We overhear conversations about weather and the upcoming blueberry season, plus an assessment of the Bar Harbor Fourth of July parade, all indicating that the crowd is indeed local.
We had also gone to the parade — after chowing down at the Rotary Club's blueberry pancake breakfast — and enjoyed the small-town feel but did agree that it needed a bit more patriotic music, or music at all. A standout float celebrated the area's logging roots, with several beefy guys demonstrating log cutting with loud power saws. "That guy's not a lumberjack," says the woman standing next to me. "I see him at the gym all the time. That's how he got those muscles." Illusions shattered, but the civic commentary is humorous.
It's also helpful to lean on locals for dining suggestions, but during the summer on Mount Desert, nearly every restaurant is a tourist spot. Be prepared to wait. We weren't so picky about who was dining, as long as there was lobster.
Not to worry. There is plenty of that.
Morning has broken
After our come-to-sunrise meeting on Cadillac Mountain, we start out on Acadia's 27-mile Park Loop Road, most of it one way. It's not even 5:30 a.m. so no surprise, there are no other cars on the two-lane thoroughfare. The road is all ours, along with an occasional runner and bicyclist. The speed limit is mostly 25 mph, so it's definitely a meandering trip.
With the windows rolled down, we hear a "chug-a-chug-chug" offshore. Since there is ample parking on Park Loop Road, we pull over and head through the woods toward the water to investigate. From high above Otter Cove, we watch the Stephanie Diane putter up to colorful buoys, the men onboard hoisting lobster traps onto the deck. Each trap holds a few crustaceans.
The early-morning sun is golden on the water and cliffs. We follow the Stephanie Diane down the coast for a while, pondering the notion of the office. There's no comparison, at least not on this day, between this place of employment and our cubicles back home. Blue sky beats fluorescent lighting every time.
We think about the lobstermen again that night, while waiting in line at the Captain's Galley at Beal's Lobster Pier back in Southwest Harbor. The tanks teem with hard- and soft-shell specimens. They are squirming almost as much as the kids waiting to check out big claws held tight by blue rubber bands. It's such a great Maine scene and one not to be missed.
On this night, we tell Ashley which lobster we want tossed into the steamer and she weighs the bugger and puts her in a mesh bag. (She explains how to tell a male from a female, but darn if I can remember now.) Corn and steamer clams, if you order them, go in another bag. There's an elaborate tagging system so that you actually end up with the lobster you plucked from the tank. (Yes, you can do it yourself.)
We park on the picnic benches with bottles of local Old Soaker root beer, waiting for the state's most celebrated food. Boats move about in the harbor and the sound of cracking claws nearly drowns out the classic rock blaring from tinny speakers. There's just a slight wind, carrying a briny smell mixed with the all-business aroma from the diesel of the working boats moored a few feet away.
We've been exploring Mount Desert for nearly 15 hours straight, since the sun first shone on Cadillac Mountain. Our reward will be dipped in melted butter before sunset.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.