A NATURAL Down East: Bar Harbor is the essence of Maine. it's perfect for families seeking a vacation getaway in and around the great outdoors.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"I am convinced that there is no air in the world like the air of Maine."

- Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, writing from Bar Harbor in 1944

Standing at the summit of Sargent Mountain, deep in the heart of Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island, Maine, I am conscious of every breath I take. It is an early summer morning, I've been hiking since daybreak, and the dense fog is just beginning to burn off, helped by the stiff ocean breezes coming up the mountain from Frenchman's Bay.

Each breath is laden with scents so thick you can taste them on the back of your throat. First, there is the cool moisture of the fog just dense enough to magically turn the distant island landscape into a Monet or Renoir. Then I taste the saltiness of the ocean on my tongue. Finally, I savor the deep herbal scents of pines and spruces and blueberry blossoms and rich earth coming from the forests and sub-alpine meadows that surround and are part of the spectacular mountain. I breath deeply again and again, each time thankful to be back in a place that refreshes my spirit for the rest of the year.

And so it is that my love affair with Maine is rekindled. Maine, where I lived 10 years, trying to tease its natural secrets from hundreds of hikes, canoe trips and camping adventures, only to realize how precious few secrets I know; where my children grew from newborns to little people, reveling in the natural beauty around them; and where I landed my first professional writing assignment, which celebrated Maine's coastal ecosystem.

If there is any one place in Maine that embodies the Maine experience to outsiders, it is Bar Harbor, the hub of Mount Desert Island. For eight months of the year, MDI - as locals call the island - is a sleepy community in Frenchman's Bay, with a population of just 2,600. But, from June through September, the island is host to nearly 4 million visitors who come to take in the sights, sounds, tastes and ocean smells of Acadia National Park, which occupies the majority of the island.

To understand how important tourism is for the Pine Tree State, you need to recognize that the entire state has a population of just 1.4 million.

What has always been amazing to me is that only a tiny percentage of visitors venture off the well-worn roads to take advantage of the eco-tourism this island paradise offers. A study done two years ago for the National Park Service showed that more than 90 percent of visitors to Acadia never climb a trail. Most simply take the 11-mile-long Park Loop Road, stop at famous tourist attractions like Thunder Hole and Sand Beach, then wind back to Bar Harbor to amble through the eclectic mix of shops. Not that there is anything wrong with that approach to vacations.

But, for those who want the entire family to learn firsthand about our natural world, nothing can compare with the spectacular beauty and ecological abundance of the Maine coast. That makes Bar Harbor the ideal base for the kind of active hiking, biking, canoeing and kayaking that marries physical activity with appreciation of our environment.

The active approach

* Whale watching: Each year the whales return, playing in their family pods and fattening up on the abundance of sea life just offshore. Four separate whale-watching boats make Bar Harbor their home, plying the waters of Frenchman's Bay. For four hours you'll ooh and aah alongside frolicking humpbacks, fin, right and minke whales, some of them 80 feet long and breaching just yards from the ship.

Dozens of sightings are the norm from June through mid-October, and an experienced naturalist interprets events for you. A videographer accompanies many trips, so you can purchase films of your family amid whales and the glory of Downeast Maine islands. All boats offer money-back or exchange-ticket guarantees if no whales are sighted. If you are prone to seasickness, be sure to take medication before departing, as seas can sometimes be choppy.

In May and June, there is only one trip a day, seven days a week. In July, August and September, there are three trips a day, seven days a week. The four-hour trip costs about $30 for adults, $27 for seniors, $20 for ages 6-14, with children under 6 getting a free ride.

From the Bar Harbor town pier, take the 105-foot Whale Watcher, a modern, comfortable passenger cruiser, with 360-degree decks designed for optimum viewing (contact Whale Watcher, Inc., 1 West St. Bar Harbor, Maine 04609, 207-288-3322). Or, try the 112-foot Friendship V, the brand new, jet-powered catamaran leaving from the Blue Nose Ferry Terminal (contact Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co., 39 Cottage St. Bar Harbor, Maine 04609, 207-288-2386). The 94-foot Acadian Whale Watcher leaves from the Holiday Inn SunSpree Resort pier, located next to the Blue Nose Ferry Terminal (contact Acadian Whale Watcher Co., Route 3, Bar Harbor, Maine 04609,207-288-9794). Finally, the Sea Bird Watcher leaves from its West Street pier near the town pier (contact Sea Bird Watcher Co., 52 West St., Bar Harbor, Maine 04609, 207-288-2025).

* Nature cruise: If chasing whales isn't your cup of tea, or you have less time available, try the delightful one- or two-hour sunset nature cruises offered by all four whale-watching companies. As you cruise among the rugged islands of Frenchman's Bay, the kids will be delighted by close-up views of seals, harbor porpoises, puffins, ospreys, eagles and other wildlife in their natural environment. Trained naturalists accompany these cruises, patiently answering all questions. Bring your camera and wear warm clothes. Even on warm summer days it is commonly 20 degrees cooler on Maine waters, and at sunset it can get downright cold. Nature cruises cost about $15 for adults, $12 for ages 5-15 and are free for children 5 and younger.

* Sea kayaking: There simply can't be a better way to explore Maine's waters than by kayak. You're seated low in the water, with a seal's-eye view of the world around you. Best of all, kayaks are more stable than canoes and easier to maneuver.

All Bar Harbor companies offer trips for novices, families and experienced kayakers, including half-day, full-day and multi-day tours with experienced guides. In a typical half-day tour for beginners, you'll start out near the Bar Harbor town pier and receive basic instruction. In no time, the naturalist-guides are leading your group from island to island, among the dozens of picturesque islands in sight of Bar Harbor. Be prepared to see eagles, ospreys, seals and, if you're lucky, a rare puffin or two. Half-day tours are about $45 a person.

Contact Coastal Kayaking Tours Inc., 48 Cottage St., Bar Harbor, Maine 04609, 207-288-9605; National Park Sea Kayak Tours Inc., 137 Cottage St., Bar Harbor, Maine 04609, 207-288-0342; or Bar Harbor Bicycle and Kayak Shop, 141 Cottage St., Bar Harbor, Maine 04609, 207-288-3886.

* Bicycling: Forget any preconceived notions about biking when you visit Bar Harbor. You won't have to worry about dangerous roads, noxious fumes or sleazy scenery. Rent state-of-the-art bikes from one of the many bike shops in town and in five minutes you are cruising along the famous Carriage Paths in Acadia National Park. Built at the turn of the century with funding from the Rockefeller family, these well-groomed marvels of engineering wind around beautiful Eagle Lake and Jordan Pond, past waterfalls, around mountains and through dense forest. No cars are allowed on the 57 miles of Carriage Paths, so it's truly a family haven. Stop and have a picnic, or cool off under a waterfall at the entrance to the Deer Brook Trail on Sargent Mountain.

All bike shops provide you with safety equipment, bike racks and a map of how to access the Carriage Paths from town. They can also arrange to drop off the family by van. Full-day rentals are $16, and half-days $11.

Contact Acadia Bike & Canoe, 48 Cottage St., Bar Harbor, Maine 04609, 207-288-9605; or Bar Harbor Bicycle and Kayak Shop, 141 Cottage St., Bar Harbor, Maine 04609, 207-288-3886.

* Hiking: Hiking the peaks and valleys of Acadia National Park is an experience every family will cherish. Very few of the park's millions of annual visitors stray beyond the familiar tourist attractions. In 30 easy minutes, a family can hike to the top of Flying Mountain for a picnic and breathtaking views of Somes Sound, the only true fjord in the eastern United States. Its deep, blue-green water set among towering cliffs and forests is a photographer's dream.

More adventurous families might try the Beehive, overlooking Sand Beach, with its narrow paths, steep drops and iron ladders hammered into the cliff face to enable you to climb to a secure landing. But, be warned. Parents will be petrified attempting this trail with young children, or even with experienced, older hikers if the weather is wet.

For an all-day, strenuous treat of forests, islands and ocean vistas, hike the Dorr Mountain granite stairs trail to Cadillac's summit. Designed and built during the Depression, the stairs are a marvel.

There are dozens of mountains and hundreds of trails to choose from in Acadia. Maps are available from Acadia National Park, P.O. Box 177, Bar Harbor, Maine 04609, 207-288-3338.

Detailed trail guides, which park experts recommend if you are hiking in the national park, are for sale at the National Park Service Visitor Center and at bookstores and gift shops in Bar Harbor.

AN IDEAL DAY

7 a.m.: Wake up at the campsite to sunlight filtering through the window, sea gulls screeching and circling overhead, the rhythm of a lobster boat's winch pulling traps just offshore.

8 a.m.: Hit Bebow's for a cup of on-site roasted coffee, sniffing the aromas as I walk toward the town dock, picking up a croissant and the Sunday New York Times en route.

10 a.m.: Meet the kids, admire their closely guarded store purchases, pull out the maps and decide where we'll hike.

10:30 a.m.: Buy box lunches and lots of water, then stuff them into our day packs.

11 a.m.: Start hiking around Jordan Pond.

Noon: Make it to the trailhead for Sargent Mountain, after usual complaints that the hike around Jordan Pond is longer than we remember.

2 p.m.: Reach the open, granite summit of Sargent Mountain. Pick a favorite spot and eat lunch.

3 p.m.: Arrive at Sargent Pond, don bathing suits and go for a refreshing, ice-cold dip.

6 p.m.: Arrive back at Jordan Pond House, exhausted but feeling wonderful. Hit the bathrooms, wash up and eat famous Jordan Pond House's popovers, tea and homemade ice cream.

7:30 p.m.: Quick shopping trip at the many boutiques in Bar Harbor.

9 p.m.: Back at the campsite, have a light dinner, then join friends for an evening swapping stories and laughing in front of the campfire.

10:30 p.m.: Lights out.

WHEN YOU GO...

Getting there: For those unwilling to make the 14-hour car trek from Baltimore to Bar Harbor, two major airlines leave from BWI and connect to Bangor, Maine: Continental (starting at $168 round-trip and connecting through Newark, N.J.) and US Airways (starting at $204 round-trip and connecting through Boston). From Bangor, Bar Harbor is an hourlong, traffic-free jaunt by car. Car rentals are available at Bangor airport.

Where to stay: Accommodations range from opulent to modest. For peak summer season, book at least four months in advance. Immediately next to the Blue Nose Ferry Terminal sits the Holiday Inn SunSpree Resort, a family-friendly haven with child-sitting services and a full day of children's activities. Rooms range from $59 to $189 a night for a double, depending on season. Contact the SunSpree Resort at 123 Eden St. Bar Harbor, Maine 04609, 207-288-9723.

For families seeking a quiet retreat with picturesque views, nothing beats the quaint Edgewater Motel & Cottages, which sit on the shore at Hull's Cove, only 10 minutes from downtown Bar Harbor. Rooms range from $49 to $105 a night for a double, depending on season and amenities. Cottages rent for $230 to $730 a week, depending on season and size, and include dishes, linens and other amenities. Contact the Edgewater Motel, Box 566, Bar Harbor, Maine 04609, 207-288-3491.

Or, try one of the many roadside motels, which are tidy and a great value for budget-conscious families. A good bet is Cromwell Harbor Motel (207-288-3201 or 800-544-3201), run by island locals Jan and John Hanscom. There are no scenic views, but the quiet, clean motel is just a few minutes by bicycle from downtown Bar Harbor.

Eating out: Bar Harbor offers a surprisingly wide range of eating choices, from inexpensive lunches to higher-priced dining.

Start your day with Jordan's Famous Wild Maine Blueberry Pancakes or Blueberry Muffins at Jordan's Restaurant on Cottage Street. This Bar Harbor institution draws both locals and tourists in a comfortable mix that's easy on the wallet. Four can eat breakfast for less than $20. (Lunch is also served.)

Don't miss out on a rainy-day lunch at the West End Drug Co. on Main Street, run by the Gilfillan family since 1917. Where in today's modern world can you sit on bar stools at a luncheonette counter in a turn-of-the-century working pharmacy and order a kid-pleasing grilled cheese or peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich for just 99 cents? And don't forget to order their old-time chocolate frappe for another 99 cents. (Only lunch is served.)

Tips: When hiking or biking, take along plenty of water and, during the spring, lots of insect repellent for the mosquitoes. Be sure to wear sunscreen.

Guided tours: For a customized nature experience, hire a guide to show you scenic locations for photography, or to reveal the best birding locations or spots to watch beavers repairing their dams. Contact Down East Nature Tours, P.O. Box 521, Bar Harbor, Maine 04609, 207-288-8128 or Photoscenics Inc., 566 Church Road, Bangor, Maine 04401, 207-942-0021. Rates begin at about $15 a person for groups.

But, for the rarest of treats, hire Registered Maine Guide Earl Brechlin, the quintessential Mainer, to lead your family hike or canoe trip. Contact Earl at P.O. Box 750, Bar Harbor, Maine 04609, 207-288-4859. Plan to spend about $100 for a full day's guiding.

Freebie: On selected weeknights, have an early dinner, then take in the free Town Band concert on the Village Green at 8 p.m.

Don't miss this: No visit to Mount Desert Island can be considered complete without high tea served on white linen tablecloths on the lawn at the Jordan Pond House. Time your bicycle ride around the Carriage Paths or your hike up Sargent HTC Mountain to arrive between 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. on a bright, sunny day and enjoy the famous popovers with fresh Maine strawberry jam. While waiting for your treats, roam the famous wildflower garden along the edges of the building. Reservations are usually not required, but to be sure, call 207-276-3316 on the day you plan to visit.

Information: Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 158, Bar Harbor, Maine 04609-0158, 207-288-5103.

Pub Date: 5/24/98

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