Out and About: Bar Harbor, Acadia National Park

Not the worst scenery I've ever seen.

Not the worst scenery I’ve ever seen.

When I started the “Out and About” segment of the blog, I had the grandest of intentions. I thought I’d comfortably be able to visit a local brewery every second weekend without putting a strain on my bank balance or my belt size.

Regrettably though, after the first couple (Baxter and Oak Pond), life kinda got in the way a little. I had to work a couple times, occasionally the weekend weather wasn’t conducive to beer drinking (what?), and sometimes I’ve just been too dusty on a Saturday morning to even consider leaving the house. When will I learn?

But fear not, o loyal reader! I’m back on track. Kinda. This weekend I got so far out of the house, and out of Augusta, that I knocked out not one but two breweries (technically), saw a new town and a national park. Such a busy guy. I’d had it planned with my buddy Todd for a couple of months, and as the weather gradually got better and better, I started to get into the mindset that this little weekend jaunt would be the launching pad for one great summer.

And as it happened, I was correct. Read on, if you’ve got an hour…

Saturday

First of all, I’ve gotta confess: the 100-mile drive to Bar Harbor wasn’t as bad as I feared. I lazed about the house a little longer that I’d intended on Saturday morning due to a late night Friday, although for once I didn’t wake up feeling too shabby. I threw a change of clothes in a backpack, put a few cans of Baxter beers into a cooler with some ice, and hit the road around 11am. After stopping at Walmart to pick up a car charger for my phone – so I could use Google Maps and blast Clyde Lawrence for two and a half hours – I got onto I-95 and started heading north to Bangor, a drive I’ve made a couple of times before.

The weather Saturday was a lot better than forecast and, aside from a few showers early on in the piece, it was a pretty nice day out. I hadn’t been any further north than Waterville since early March, and the difference in scenery was incredibly striking. Most of the trees are this beautiful bright, almost young, green as spring really takes its grip – a stark contrast to my earlier trips up the interstate, where there were fields of snow and bare branches as far as the eye could see. Of course, all this combines to make me feel a lot more comfortable on the road, given I don’t have to look out for black ice. FUN.

Whoever put a barbecue joint next to a brewery is a GENIUS.

Whoever put a barbecue joint next to a brewery is a GENIUS.

The interstate leg of the journey was pretty painless, especially with Metallica’s “S&M” keeping my air guitar and steering wheel-drumming hands busy, and I made short work of it. The fun started when I had to get off I-95 in Bangor and take one of the state routes to Bar Harbor. I had Google Maps telling me where to go, which is pretty good all things considered, but every now and then it just quits its turn-by-turn navigation and leaves me up the creek. I had to get off the highway, turn around, go back three exits and start again, but eventually I managed to get myself on the right road eastbound heading towards the coast.

That portion of the drive revealed a part of the state that was definitely more geared towards tourist traffic. Seemingly on every corner there was a lobster pound, some with big steel pots bubbling over wood fires right out in the parking lot, and there were a ton of stores selling Maine souvenirs, local crafts and more. I amused myself by playing license plate geography and ticked off all of New England’s states as well as New Jersey, New York, Virginia and Maryland in an hour or so. I started to realize just how big of a draw Bar Harbor was going to be for tourists over Memorial Day Weekend.

Just as my back was starting to twitch and my knee began to ache, I reached my first destination: Atlantic Brewing Co. I was ready for lunch by that point, and I’d read that there was a barbecue joint on the premises, so why not kill two birds with one stone? It was also between home and Bar Harbor, and I didn’t want to have to backtrack to check it out, so the logical conclusion was to stop on my way. I arrived with half an hour to kill before the tour started, so I knocked over a sensational pulled pork sandwich and an equally good mug of Mt Desert Island Ginger, which wasn’t a boozy ginger beer like the name implies but a brew that throws ginger root in with the hops.

The brewery got started in 1995 in the kitchen of the Lompoc Cafe, one of Bar Harbor’s longstanding fixtures, and soon spread out to its own premises on the grounds of a former farm. And as it turns out, Atlantic had bought out the other local brewery – Bar Harbor Brewing Company – and brew all their beers on site. So that’s the loophole I mentioned earlier – I technically visited two breweries this weekend. Anyway, Atlantic makes a bunch of great beers, including the United States’ first ever blueberry ale and, after a free tour of the brewhouse by the knowledgeable Alex, we got to try half a dozen of them. That was enough to convince me I needed to buy a mixed six-pack, as well as a pint glass to add to my blossoming collection (y’know, in case I have 20 friends over to my studio apartment), before I took off for Bar Harbor.

I set my sights (well…my GPS) towards the Bluenose Inn, where I was staying Saturday night, and found the hotel in short order. The view was brilliant and I decided to seek out a spot closer to the water, since I had a couple of hours to kill until Todd arrived. Todd’s a tour leader for Insight Vacations, although we met when he was wrangling drunk 20-somethings on Contiki tours six years ago. I hadn’t seen him since 2010, when we’d partied and drank Colt 45s out of paper bags in the streets of San Francisco the night the Giants won the World Series, so when he told me he was bringing a tour group through Maine over Memorial Day Weekend, I was definitely keen to catch up.

In the meantime I headed downtown to get the lay of the land. Bar Harbor is a cute little town, totally geared towards tourists, with bars, restaurants and souvenir stores everywhere you look. I spent some time gazing out over the ocean – it’s been awhile since I really saw it, save for a couple of Portland trips – before deciding that was enough sun for one day and that the time was right to try and find myself a cold beer. Unfortunately I picked a place with water views, which adds an average of 400 percent to the price of everything on the menu, so after dropping $17 for a couple of Bar Harbor Real Ales and a club soda I decided it was time to head back to the hotel to meet Todd and get ready for a night out in Bah Hah Bah (as it’s pronounced by me and everyone in Maine).

Bah Hah Bah. Not a bad view at all.

Bah Hah Bah. Not a bad view at all.

I missed Todd at the room by a matter of minutes so, rather than interrupting his tour group’s cocktail reception (these guys roll WAY fancier than we did on Contiki), I parked my car, put a clean shirt on and started wandering back towards town. Of course, three minutes after I left the parking lot I realized I needed to break the seal, so I staggered into the first drinking establishment I could find, a little joint called Little A’s where you could smell the fried food in the air. I bought a token beer that I didn’t really need, used the facilities, flirted with the toothless old women drinking Allen’s and milk and eating nachos, then hit the pavement again to meet Todd.

By a twist of fate, I ran into him in the street as I was heading to what I assumed was probably a good rallying point for him to drop his tour group off for their night of exploring town on their own. Todd wanted to avoid bumping into them while eating, so we ducked into the Cottage Street Pub for a couple of cold ones. First off was one of Baxter’s excellent Pamola Xtra Pale Ales, which we then followed with a Mexican-style lager from Biddeford’s Banded Horn Brewing Company called Wicked Bueno. CLEVER. Might be time to check out Biddeford’s booze-making scene next time?

After Todd made sure some of his tour group made it back onto the coach to be shuttled home, we set out in search of dinner. The Side Street Cafe had live music, was doing a roaring trade, and had a rotating tap with Liberal Cup beers, so how could we possibly say no? We put some much-needed grub into our systems – a cheeseburger topped with lobster meat (obviously) for me, a Southwest burger for Arizona native Todd – before continuing on the Bar Harbor Bar Crawl (TM). The Dog and Pony Tavern was lively and the rear section looked like someone’s backyard, reminding me of Rainey Street in Austin, TX, so we stopped there for a couple of beers. Unfortunately it was an utter sausage-fest, and after getting wind of a bachelorette party at a nearby bar, we decided to cut our losses and head there to see what was what.

Carmen’s Verandah (geddit?) was a little more clubby, but not so much that it was a turn-off. We had a couple more beers there, Todd did some dancing with a local lass who wouldn’t take no for an answer (who says romance is dead?) and then we bailed after seeing the girl who invited us to the bachelorette party walk past us without acknowledgement. WHAT A SHAME. After a quick pint at Leary’s Landing, an Irish pub by the town square, and intruding loudly upon someone’s halfhearted game of Trivial Pursuit, we decided that we’d probably had our fill for the night. It was a wise move, because Todd had to be on his game in front of 37 Australian tourists at 8:00 a.m. on a trip around Acadia National Park. We headed back to our digs and called it an evening, and neither of us were particularly hammered. How times change, eh?

 

Sunday

Maybe times don’t change. Every time I’ve ever been out with Todd, I’ve woken up the next day feeling altogether used up. I wasn’t in terrible shape Sunday morning, but I was reasonably shabby when I emerged at 9:30 a.m., well after my partner in crime had departed with his charges for a look at the national park. I pottered around for a bit, getting my head together, before consulting my tour-leading guru about whether I had time to drive the park loop scenic road before meeting him for lunch. He replied in the negative, so instead I just headed downtown to get a good parking spot before he and the coach returned.

Hadn't seen Todd since 2010, but the guy can still tie one on.

Hadn’t seen Todd since 2010, but the guy can still tie one on.

Downtown Bar Harbor was the definition of “bustling”, and parking didn’t come easy, but I managed to snag a nice spot regardless. There were tons of tourists about, and my license plate geography game expanded as far as California, Illinois, Florida, Michigan and Delaware. From what I’ve gathered, not only did this weekend feel like my launching pad for the summer, but Memorial Day Weekend is basically the jump-off point for all of the summer towns. One of my bartenders from Saturday afternoon had explained that this was the first weekend they’d re-opened for the season, and Friday night was their “soft launch”. As someone who comes from a climate that facilitates businesses being open all year round, the concept of basically an entire town closing up shop in the colder months. I mean, after seeing what winter was like I can totally understand it, but it boggles the mind a little.

Anyway I linked up with Todd again, who was feeling somewhat healthier than I was, unsurprisingly, and we sought out a cure in the form of food. Some of his passengers clients guests had had good things to say about Route 66, which looked extraordinarily touristy from the outside but ended up being impressive both in decor and in value. I always kinda expect places like that to be hocking $16 sandwiches and other expensive fare, but this was surprisingly affordable. After a burger to ease the stomach and a Bloody Mary to clear out the cobwebs, we headed back out so Todd could put his passengers clients guests on an afternoon boat tour. After that I dropped him back at the hotel for some nap/laundry time, and I set off for home…but first, Acadia National Park.

There’s a ton of hiking, biking and exploring to be done in the 47,000-acre park, but I hadn’t brought anything appropriate to hike in and I was a little under the weather. Thankfully for deadbeat tourists like myself there’s a ring road that goes all the way through Acadia, to the top of Cadillac Mountain and a few other spots. Todd had recommended the summit of Cadillac in particular, so I sought that out. The road was probably the only piece of blacktop in Maine that’s perfectly smooth and flat – I have to assume they re-pave it every year before tourist season begins, because there was a TON of traffic around Sunday. It wasn’t hard to see why either – even though the weather had turned overcast again, and was threatening rain, the view over Bar Harbor was absolutely incredible. There were people everywhere, picnicking and finishing off hikes and taking breaks from the saddles of their bikes. I can’t begin to imagine what the crowds would look like in the middle of July, because it was hard enough to get a park in late May in average weather. But hopefully I’ll make it back because I’d love to hike Cadillac sometime.

Tough to pay attention to the road when the scenery is pretty.

Tough to pay attention to the road when the scenery is pretty.

After doing the windy, scenic drive to the summit and back, I decided I oughta high-tail it for home. I still had a two-hour-plus drive to do (ugh), and since I was taking the scenic route back to Augusta – which is a little longer and slower than the inland I-95 – I wanted to get a jump on it. And while those typical “Sunday drivers” crawling along five miles an hour below the speed limit were a pain in the ass, it was totally worth taking the long way home, because spots like Belfast had unbelievably pretty views, and I got to experience the same thing driving west to Augusta that I did Saturday heading north to Bangor. The last time I was on Route 3, it was the dead of winter and everything was covered in snow. Now it’s lush, green and like something off a postcard. As I passed Lake St. George State Park, I couldn’t help but goggle at the water, which had been frozen solid the last time I saw it four months ago. FANCY THAT, SPRING THAWS LAKE. Stop the press.

And eventually I crossed the Augusta town line, and saw the welcome sign shortly after. It’s funny how quickly I’ve come to associate that feeling of “coming home” with spotting the word “Augusta” on highway signs, so it was kinda nice to be back on familiar streets again. So familiar, in fact, that I let Sewall St navigate me all the way down to Hallowell (oops!) for a late lunch at the Liberal Cup (oops!). After I’d demolished a haddock sandwich, and shot the breeze with Kim behind the bar, I decided there was still enough warm afternoon sun left to head down to the river parking lot, back the car up to the waterfront and sit in the back of the wagon reading a book and enjoying a sneaky beer.

Not a bad way to finish a weekend really.

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