A Summer Sojourn in Bar Harbor, Maine

 

Agamont Park view

Lately, I’ve been on a rampage, chronicling our crippled democracy by profiling a book I read. I figure maybe we could all use a break.

During the week of July 4, my wife and I visited Bar Harbor, Maine, and we had a wonderful time. So, for this post I’m shifting to a sunnier clime (no politics, no presidential lies) and documenting our trip.

lobster

Bar Harbor is a town on Mount Desert Island off the rocky coast of Maine, U.S.A. (Some New Englanders do strange things pronouncing the letter ‘R’, so locals pronounce this town’s name “Bah Hah-bah.”) There are many attractions in Bar Harbor, but the most popular are lobster (“lob-stah”); blueberries; ice cream; cooler temperatures; friendly people; whale watching; sea kayaking, hiking in Acadia National Park, and seeing the sun rise from Cadillac Mountain.

Champlain Mountain

View from atop Champlain Mountain, Acadia National Park

Lynn and I stayed at a bed-and-breakfast called The Yellow House, owned by a retired couple, Pat and Chris. The house has been around since the 19th century. Pat and Chris were warm hosts, as was Cecilia, a retired expat Brit who popped in occasionally to check in guests, and who was a wealth of information, especially concerning hiking.

The Yellow House

The Yellow House B&B

Bar Harbor is touristy, but I would not call it a tourist “trap.” It is a year-round home for a lot of folks, so it’s a clean, tasteful burg, with no fast food chains (I saw one modest Subway sign), no go-cart tracks, no dinosaur parks, etc. However, it does have lots of knick-knack stores and ice cream parlors, and the lines to get in the latter can get long.

Downtown Bar Harbor 2

Downtown Bar Harbor

I brought my Vasque boots and managed to squeeze in one full-day and one half-day of hiking in nearby Acadia National Park, America’s easternmost park. The Precipice Trail and Beehive Trail are the steepest and most treacherous trails here (people have died falling from the heights), and I briefly mulled over hiking one or the other. But Precipice was closed due to peregrine falcon nesting, and my acrophobia convinced me to steer clear of Beehive.

Parkman Mountain 2

The author on Parkman Mountain. Do I look 60? Does a lobster have claws?

I eventually bagged six of Acadia’s 26 peaks, my favorite of which was Champlain Mountain, which offered gorgeous views of the Atlantic Ocean and numerous coastal islands. I debated hiking Cadillac, the tallest peak in Acadia, but was told there would be lots of people, pavement, and exhaust smoke. So I said “Forget it.”

The Fourth of July—America’s “Independence Day”—is also my birthday, and I turned a whopping 60 years! While the vacation was my birthday present, Lynn surprised me with a few smaller gifts: an Aussie-style hiking hat, some Sketcher shoes, and a cool pastel-green shirt. We spent the day enjoying the holiday parade downtown, where we shared a bench and watched the floats with a friendly local couple; then visited the Seafood Festival and observed a lobster race.

Fourth of July Parade

Holiday parade float. This year’s theme was “Peace, Love, and the Fourth of July”

Fourth of July evening we took in the fireworks display at the harbor. It’s supposedly one of the best in the country, and it didn’t disappoint. There were also two very good bands that warmed things up, one a sort of bluegrassy Americana band called the Blake Rosso Band, the other a rockabilly act.

Blake something concert

Blake Rosso Band before the fireworks

Along with music, eating is one of my favorite things, and although I’m no gourmand, Bar Harbor has to have one of the best concentrations of quality restaurants in the country. Side Street Café is lauded for its lobster rolls, so we ate there one night. Whoah. Gi-normous chunks of fresh lobster meat! (Did I just say “gi-normous”? I apologize.) The craft beer here was good, too.

Lobster race

Seafood Festival lobster race. Lobster #3 took top honors

I also ate a whole lobster at West Street Café (great food and service, but sterile atmosphere); another lobster roll at Terrace Grille, on the water (less hefty and more highbrow than Side Street, but very tasty); and Lynn and I both had some scrumptious sustainable local fare at Peekytoe Provisions, where I sampled an IPA from local Atlantic Brewing Company (it was ok, but I should’ve ordered Samuel Adams, especially considering it was July 4). On our last night we ate at Galyn’s and it might have been our best meal, accompanied by a view of Agamont Park and the harbor beyond from our second-floor window seat. I had seafood linguini, and Lynn had… well, I forget. Probably crabcakes.

Seafood Festival

Lobster #3’s prize was to get boiled alive

We only had one overcast day, a good opportunity to “go mobile.” So we drove down to the fishing hamlet of Northeast Harbor and visited Great Harbor Maritime Museum. Not much here, mainly a lot of sketches done by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s nephew, who lived here at one time. But the proprietor was very nice and promised to check out my book Bluejackets in the Blubber Room. (Sorry, shameless plug.)

Town brass band

The Bar Harbor Town Band entertained at the gazebo one night

Before heading home, we visited Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse. Since it was sprinkling, Lynn was a poopy-pants and stayed in the car. But I got out to visit, and learned that lighthouses have distinct colors and manners of blinking, so that mariners know exactly where they are at night (Bass Harbor uses an “occulting” red light). Also, Coast Guard families live year-round in these lighthouses. I would think this would be a bit stifling, and weird, especially with tourists milling around outside. I guess these families do a lot of book reading and Scrabble playing.

Bass Harbor Lighthouse

Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse. Somewhere inside a family is playing Scrabble

Anyway, it was a memorable vacation and 60th birthday. If you visit Bar Harbor (and you’ll assuredly visit in spring, summer, or fall), here are some tips:

  • Be prepared for varying weather. We had two evenings that were chilly enough for jackets, but daytime was extremely hot
  • Bring good walking shoes, because you’ll be tramping everywhere, on both pavement and trail
  • Bring lots of greenbacks, since prices here are, not surprisingly, very high
  • Bring your smile. Tourists arrive from all over, including other countries (many French-Canadians). Everyone here is friendly, even the harried shuttle and bus drivers.
  • Lastly, abstain from eating seafood for at least a month prior. You’ll want to stuff yourself in Bar Harbor.

I’ll close with the observation that Bah Hah-bah is “wicked” cool, and if you can avoid TV, radio, newspapers, and internet during your stay (like we did) it’s even cooler!

Sand Beach from Champlain Mtn

Distant Sand Beach and Atlantic Ocean from Champlain South Ridge Trail, Acadia National Park

To Cruise or Not to Cruise, That is the Question

GoldenPrincess

Everyone has that one favorite vacation. The memorable honeymoon in beautiful, green Ireland. The trans-Canadian rail trip. The ski excursion to Vail, Colorado. The pilgrimage to Pigeon Forge to eat cheap fudge inside tacky wax museums while Dolly Parton is piped in over the intercom.

My favorite vacation was the month our family spent in a cottage at Stone Harbor on the Jersey Shore. I was only eight. I remember sprinting into the frothy ocean surf the moment we arrived. Flying kites on the beach as the sun dipped into the west. Catching crabs on the docks with my dad. Going to the theatre in town with my brothers and cousin to watch “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.” I still recall chewing on chocolate saltwater taffy as Don Knotts’s eyes bulged from the screen.

Other than almost drowning the day I was caught by an undertow, it was an idyllic summer that I’ll never forget.

These days a lot of folks like to “cruise” for their vacation. Lynn and I have gotten some good deals and enjoyed two Caribbean cruises, and we’re planning a third. Actually, she’s planning. I’m nodding my head and mumbling.

Ocean cruises have become very popular today. The cruise industry is expected to reel in profits of 37 billion dollars by the end of 2014. The number of passengers on cruise ships is expected to exceed 24 million by 2018.

So, despite disasters like the Costa Concordia and frequent, well-publicized outbreaks of noroviruses, cruising is as popular as ever.

But even though I had a wonderful time on our two cruises, I can’t help feeling a trifle guilty. Let me explain:

cruise food

Great food, great service

First, there’s the eating part. On a cruise, they give you as much food as you want. Some people spend two hours gorging on breakfast, take an hour break for sunshine, then dive back into the cafeteria for another couple hours binge eating their lunch. And, judging by the two Royal Caribbean cruises that we’ve done, the food is very, very good. The evening meals and service are 5-star quality (at least to my pedestrian tastes). Lobster bisque, Dungeness crab, smoked salmon for appetizers. Veal chops, filet mignon, seared diver scallops with chorizo sausage and parsnip purée or caramelized orange drizzle for entrées. Crème brûlée, coconut and lychee gâteau, and other dishes with words with letters that have accents for dessert.

Of course, if you’re restrained enough, you don’t have to eat like Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. But for me that’s very difficult. And the overeating – aka gluttony – induces guilt.

Secondly, I always have a nagging sense that I’m being indolent. On a cruise, other than dressing and undressing yourself, there’s absolutely no work. Minimal walking, and no cooking, cleaning, planning, driving, gassing. This is really tough for an impatient neurotic like myself. Running 30 loops around the rubberized track on deck while dodging tipsy tourists helps a little, but not much. My trail friend, Paul, deliberately avoids cruises due to their hedonistic aspect. He believes a vacation should be earned, that one should work for one’s leisure.

“Well, we worked our regular jobs all year for this vacation,” I explained to him. “So didn’t we earn it?”

“No, I mean you should have to work during your vacation as well. Like run a marathon, or spend a week volunteering on the bike trail.”

Then again, Paul is a self-admitted anal retentive proctoid, so maybe his opinion doesn’t count.

promenade

Promenade on ship

Thirdly, there’s the problem of the ship itself. These things are like miniature cities. They’re behemoths. And they get bigger and bigger. The largest passenger ship in the world used to be Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas, built in 2006. This ship featured several pools, a basketball court, miniature golf course, boxing ring, FlowRider surfing simulator, rock-climbing wall, ICE SKATING RINK, indoor mall, and dozens of lounges, eateries, and shops.

In 2009, the Freedom of the Seas was surpassed by the record-setting, 225,000-ton Oasis of the Seas. This ship has everything the Freedom has and more: a teen spa, science lab, carousel, tattoo parlor, indoor AquaTheatre, two surf simulators, and the piéce de résistance: a Central Park-styled indoor park that includes (mixed in with the boutiques and bars) 12,000 plants and 56 trees.

Central Park at sea

Central Park at sea

Actually, this park idea should be viewed as good news. With dozens of plant and animal species going extinct worldwide every day, bottling up a few of them on the ocean for the enjoyment of sunburnt tourists with perpetual indigestion is probably a good thing.

Of course, with size also comes environmental concerns. Royal Caribbean has a fairly good green initiative compared to most cruise ships (although, let’s be honest, how green can a floating city be). But they still have a ways to go. At a talk given by the Environmental Officer on our last cruise, I asked about several rubber balls flying over the edge of the vessel during the dodge ball tournament. She told me they plan to build a higher restraining net. Also, that each time a ball goes overboard, the ship sends out a report.

Now, really. Am I supposed to believe that RC sends out little PT boats to round up these floating balls? With all the worldwide cruise ship lines, their ships, their excursions, and their dodge ball tournaments, all I can say is: we must have a helluva rubber and plastic lining on our Earth’s ocean floor.

***

So, even though, like most people, I love to eat and relax and be pampered, there’s always that nagging guilt. It’s probably why, periodically, I plunge into the woods to sleep in a moldy tent and eat processed cardboard. This way I get a little balance. My friend Paul would be proud: I actually earn my vacation.

I also get to gaze on some plants and trees in their native habitat. Without burping.

 

concordia

Making Amish

Two weeks ago my wife and I visited the Guggisberg Swiss Inn in Holmes County, Ohio, USA.  For those who don’t know about Holmes County, it has one of the largest populations of Amish in the USA – roughly 36,000 total.  Holmes County is not only a beautiful place to visit, with its rolling hills and winding roads (and splendid fall colors), but it’s also a step back into time.  The Amish are not only very strict in regards to religion, but their rural lifestyle and clothing have changed very little since the 19th century.

The town of Berlin is perhaps the most popular Amish locale for non-Amish (non-Amish are called “English” by the Amish.  So if you’re Hispanic, Asian, African American, whatever…you’re still “English”!).  Berlin, with its world-famous Amish furniture, quaint shops, and home-style restaurants has become a bit of a tourist trap.  But the smaller town of Charm is a little different.  The “Charm Days” festival was going on the weekend we visited, the centerpiece of which was a large auction.  Not only did we get to hear some expert auctioneers at work, but we actually got to feel like “guests” rather than tourists – the Amish comprised about 90 percent of the crowd, whereas we “English” were the distinct minority!

The Inn also offered the opportunity to eat supper at an Amish home.  Lynn and I dined with two other couples at the home of Wayne and Iva Miller (one couple was from Cleveland, and the other couple were two ladies from Germany and Belgium).  Although Wayne was out bowhunting “whitetail,” Iva and her six children proved to be fantastic hosts.  We ate in the Millers’ unfinished walk-in basement, which was very sparse but also very clean.  We had coleslaw for an appetizer; fresh baked chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, noodles, Canadian bacon, green beans, and bread with fresh strawberry preserves for the main course; and angelfood cake for dessert.  Iva and the kids had their own meal on the other side of the room.  After dessert, the four Miller girls entertained us by singing a couple harmonies they’d learned in church.

Overall it was a fun, peaceful, memorable weekend.  We’re thinking of going back again next year – but I may have to diet for several weeks ahead of time!