Sunlight crested over the jagged mountains, bathing the landscape in a beautiful auburn aura. I hadn’t slept a wink the night before, but the first glimpse of sunrise filled me with renewed energy. Miles continued to roll away beneath us as I heard the soft murmur of small voices perk up from the backseat. Glancing in the rearview mirror, I watched as their little bodies, confined too long in carseats, attempted to stretch out.
“We’ll be there soon, loves!” I reassured them cheerfully, before returning to my ooo-ing and aah-ing over the landscape.
“Look at that water! Look at those trees! Look at the mist! Isn’t it amazing?!”
The kids stared down at their tablets, my husband continued to snore in the passenger seat next to me. But I didn’t care if no one matched my sleep-deprived exhilaration. We were in Maine, and it was magical.
Two years in the making, we recently returned from our family vacation to the northeast coat of Maine. In a spur of the moment decision, that was less decision and more inevitability, we drove through the night from Maryland to Maine, finding it easier to drive the long distance (13 hours) when the kids were sleeping the majority of the time. When we first talked about driving through the night, I imagined how incredible it would be to arrive at our first destination, Acadia National Park, in time for sunrise. The opportunity to glimpse the first rays of sun from the storied Cadillac Mountain.
Alas, Cadillac Mountain is apparently impossible to get ticket for sunrise. The park sells 30% of tickets 90 days out, and reserves the remaining 70% to sell beginning at 10:00 am two days prior to the reservation date. The poor planner in me celebrated when I saw I still had a chance just two days before arriving. I diligently created an account, logged on, and waited for the clock to strike 10:00 am. Within seconds, before I could even click the reservation button, the tickets had sold out.
Nevertheless, watching the world wake up in Maine, even if not at the top of Cadillac Mountain, is stunning. We arrived in Bar Harbor about an hour after sunrise, and wasted no time finding a beautiful place to witness it’s ascent.
Bar Harbor and Acadia have so so much to see and do, and we couldn’t even come close to fitting it into the two portions of days we spent in the area. But in our short time there, here were our favorites (most thanks to a friend and former Acadia park ranger, Eleanor):
1. Watching the Sun Rise at Otter Cliffs
Though we didn’t technically make it in time for sunrise, and it wasn’t the infamous Cadillac Mountain, we found the less populated Otter Cliffs to be a gorgeous place to watch the sun’s continual rise over the brilliant blue ocean. Behind the parking lot, a small wooded area invited us into our first exploration with misty rays that slanted through the towering trees and cast shadows on the large rocks. The kids enjoyed scrambling over the rocks, exercising their restless legs. As we came through the woods, we caught our first glimpse of the ocean beyond – sparkling and vast and stunning. Wandering across Park Loop Road, we found the cliffs for which this spot is named. A jagged rock face that drops a hundred feet into the sea below, providing breathtaking scenery of the endless ocean and the rugged landscape that juts against it. Our kids took in the view with binoculars and climbed around the cliffs, with constant frantic reminders from us that it’s a “real edge.” I’m not a morning person, but it was a beautiful way to begin the day.
After an all night drive and an early morning venture into the park, we were more than ready for a hearty breakfast. Thanks to a recommendation, we found the adorably quaint Cafe This Way tucked in an alley in the heart of Bar Harbor. With ample sun-drenched outdoor seating for our restless kids, it was the perfect spot to rest and refuel. Bottomless coffee for the weary parents and oversized blueberry pancakes for the kids made everyone happy. The menu, just like the atmosphere, was eclectic, and we enjoyed a breakfast burrito, Monte Cristo, and their own delicious take on corned beef hash. With friendly staff and a fun and funky vibe, Cafe This Way shouldn’t be missed. Though if you can, drive through the night and get there early (the only way we’re ever anywhere early), as it was filling up by the time we left.
3. Walking the Sandbar to Bar Island
Apparently, once upon a time, the town of Bar Harbor used to be named the Town of Eden. If you visit, you’ll easily see where it got this heavenly name. Somewhere along the way, in 1918 to be exact, the name was changed to the equally fitting, if less poetic, moniker it goes by today. The name Bar Harbor comes from the sandbar that cuts through the harbor at low tide, connecting the town to nearby Bar Island. If you find yourself in Bar Harbor at low tide, don’t miss the opportunity to walk across the wide sandbar to the island. Some of my kids were all about splashing in the tidepools along the sandbar, while others examined the array of rocks and shells that composed the landscape. As we walked, we watched as seagulls and sandpipers darted from land to sea to air and back again. We watched the subtle rising of the tide, noticing how are areas that were completely dry on our walk across were beginning to be submerged in water by the time we walked back, only minutes later. That, to me, is one of the most incredible things about being in Maine (or any coastal region); getting to watch how the landscape morphs with the changing of the tides. And it was so cool to explore this oft-hidden passageway to another island.
4. Hiking Great Head Trail to the Sand Beach
When we returned to Acadia on our way back out of Maine, we knew we were time limited, not to mention the inherent limitations of kids who are overtired, sick, and ready to be home. So we didn’t get to check off everything on our Acadia bucket list that we’d hoped. Thanks to a wrong turn that took us on a scenic loop around the park, it was already late in the day before we got started on the recommended hike at Great Head Trail. After some false starts with emergency potty needs for one kid and a fall early on from another, it quickly became apparent that the 1.9 mile hike with incredible ocean views was not in the cards for our family that day. Fortunately, though, the Great Head Trail goes right through picturesque Sand Beach, the perfect place for a little bit of low-key play. With mountains rising up behind, a stream meandering through to the ocean, and the water stretching from the sandy shores to the great beyond, this spot couldn’t be more beautiful. So much so, that it was worth it to let the kids get wet and sandy before a 13 hour drive home. While we may not have summited Great Head this trip, we all enjoyed playing on Sand Beach, and that’s what wandering is all about: the unexpected detours.
5. Picnic Dinner at Grant Park
Because I was trying to extend our time in Bar Harbor as much as possible, I convinced my less than enthused husband that we should grab dinner before hitting the road. We didn’t want to do the whole restaurant sit-down deal because, kids, but we did want to try the highly revered Side Street Cafe. Within 15 minutes, we had our food and found an out of the way park to enjoy it. The evening view from Grant Park was incredible – golden sunshine cascading over the harbor, bathing the rocky shoreline in an iridescent light. The burger and cuban on fresh bread were delicious, as was the homemade Mac and cheese. Despite the fact that our kids refused to eat it because, kids. The picnic was windy and rushed, the kids were rambunctious and loud. Still, the setting, the food, and the overall experience made it the perfect way to wrap up our time in Bar Harbor and Acadia.
Honorable Mention: Because no trip is complete without ice cream, stop into Mount Desert Island Ice Cream for some delicious and unique flavors like Cinnamon Cardamom or Lemon Poppy Seed Berry Swirl – it was impossible to choose between the many fun flavors. We walked over to the Village Green to devour our triple flavor pick and the kids loved playing the painted piano that is set up there for the enjoyment of all musicians, amateurs and professionals alike. There are endless things to do, see, eat, explore, shop, and experience in the Bar Harbor area, but simply strolling the town and waterfront, or sitting in one of the many beautiful public parks to people watch was a favorite, too.