Archive for August, 2009

August 25, 2009

“How Much Time Do We Need to See Acadia National Park in Maine?”

Coast lineThis is a frequently asked question among first-time visitors to New England, especially those who fly into Boston and want a “representative sample” of the scenic villages and ports along the Maine Coast. 

Who can blame them for wanting to see it all? 

“Breadth” vs. “depth” becomes the issue. 

Depending upon what kind of vacation you want to create for yourself, here’s an activity log for three different levels of time availability.  Think about what activities you most enjoy, how much “down time” you need, and if you want to incorporate outdoor adventures or time at the beach (or for shopping).  The amount of time you need for Acadia should then become clear!  

Three Days 

  •  Drive the Park Loop Road, taking in the key sights such as Frenchman Bay, Ocean Trail, Thunder Hole, Otter Cliffs, and Jordan Pond
  • Hike a trail from among the 130 miles of stunning, well-maintained routes on the island.  Consider Jordan Pond as a starting point so that you can efficiently include lunch or tea (popovers, lemonade, chowder) at Jordan Pond House
  • Visit the “Quietside,” being sure to see Somes Sound, Somesville, Echo Lake, Bass Harbor Headlight, and the fishing village of Bass Harbor
  • Have dinner at Thurston’s Lobster Pound in Bernard on the “Quietside”  

One  Week

  •  Add in a sea kayaking tour – great from Bar Harbor in the morning, Southwest Harbor for sunset
  • Take a horse-drawn carriage drive from Wildwood Stables, an Acadia tradition
  • Shop in Bar Harbor and explore the waterfront 

Two Weeks

  • Bike along any of Acadia’s 57 miles of scenic carriage roads
  • Attend a ranger-led program, whether it’s to explore tidal pools or learn more about birds of prey
  • Take a boat ride with Diver Ed in the Starfish Enterprise  or in a romantic, historic Friendship Sloop
  • Work in a second hike on another part of the island – the views and terrain are so varied!
  • Visit the village of Southwest Harbor to shop and have a lobster roll and blueberry pie
  • Seek out a Maine public supper or flea market — and enjoy the company of locals
  • Schedule a family rock-climbing expedition
  • Visit an oceanarium with touch tanks to see marine life up close and personal
  • Attend a tour of one of Mount Desert Island’s award-winning local breweries
  • Take a nap on Sand Beach or at Echo Lake

Dining out is a big part of visiting Acadia.  The island’s eateries range from chic tapas bars to lobster pounds in the rough.  You may also want to picnic on a mountaintop or cook-out seaside.  Regardless, where to eat should be planned as part of your itinerary because you want to make getting around this 100-square-mile island most efficient.  Consult OUR ACADIA for reviews of the best places to eat.

OUR ACADIA also features recommendations for sea kayaking tours, kayaking rentals, bike rentals, and rock-climbing guides.  You may want to make reservations in advance, especially in the busiest vacation seasons.

August 24, 2009

Bar Harbor Restaurants: On the Quest for the Best New England Clam Chowder

chowder and lemonadeIf you’re in New York ordering clam chowder, you’re thinking Manhattan red versus New England white. But if you’re in Maine, believe it or not, the dichotomy can be even more extreme.

(You have to find the real thing. And, in my opinion, the success of the clam chowder is almost as important as the lobster roll when I’m visiting a local lobster pound.)

It’s all about the flour.

In New York – and even in Maine – people break Maine’s cardinal rule of great New England chowder: no flour. The so-thick-it-stands-up-to-a-spoon stuff is not the real thing in Maine. Instead, Mainers count on thickening the “chowdah” with the starch of the potatoes. Evaporated milk adds a creaminess. And the flavor deepens by sitting in the pot for a day or so.

Another key element of a great New England clam chowder is the salt pork. My mother always used salt pork in both corn and clam chowders (as well as string beans). Although she was from Massachusetts, her roots were French-American (Bellevue), a heritage which she shared with many Mainers. Some of the really good Maine cooks (I like Martha Greenlaw’s recipes a lot) substitute bacon for salt pork in clam chowder.

So, there we have it: bacon or salt pork, along with onion, for base flavor, potatoes and evaporated milk for the creaminess, butter, pepper – and the fish! The fish?

Last week on Mount Desert Island – we were hiking, biking, and kayaking in Acadia — I had chowder with clams, haddock, lobster, and scallops. Somehow mussels were out of this particular cycle. Here’s some of the best we tasted.

Jordan Pond House (Park Loop Road, Seal Harbor, 207-276-3316) has both a lobster stew and a seafood chowder that features scallops, shrimp, haddock and potatoes in a creamy – but not flour-thickened! – broth. Big plus: it’s served with their popovers.

Thurston’s (1 Thurston Road, Bernard, 207-244-7600), our favorite lobster pound for dinner, rotates from scallop to haddock to mussel chowder, but all are aged at least a day.  You believe it when you taste it.

Down East Lobster Pound (1192 Bar Harbor Road, Trenton, 207-667-8589) is the sleeper here. We were amazed at the amount of clams and haddock in their chowders. Ounce for ounce, there’s more fish here. And the buttery, milkly flavor is wonderful.

For more information and opinion on eating, exploring, and relaxing on a visit to Acadia National Park, visit OUR ACADIA. There’s a long list of restaurant reviews, as well as itineraries, tips for kids, and ideas on what to do on a rainy day.

August 23, 2009

Best Biking in Bar Harbor: Tips for Managing Labor Day Crowds

The author near Aunty Betty Pond

The author near Aunty Betty Pond

No matter how hard I try, it seems I can never get out of the house as early as I want on vacation.  And what that means in Acadia National Park at the height of the summer season is that the parking lots near the most popular biking spots may be full. 

With the bikes on the racks and the kids all ready to go, you’re stuck with a big…now what? 

Here’s a solution you might want to consider.  

One of the favorite bike routes in Acadia is around Eagle Lake.  The carriage road encircles this beautiful lake for close to six miles, passing by its shoreline and through its surrounding forests.  However, the parking lots at the south shore near Bubble Pond and at the north on Route 233 fill early. 

An alternative is to park at the Hull’s Cove Visitor Center on Route 3.  This is a huge lot that facilitates visitors to its information center.  At the parking lot’s far side is an entrance to the carriage road to Witch Hole Pond.  

You can start your ride here –don’t get discouraged by the very steep, but short hill up to the carriage road.  In 2.9 miles you’ll be at the northern entrance to Eagle Lake.  En route you’ll enjoy views of both Witch Hole Pond and Breakneck Ponds. 

For more mileage, you can detour to Aunt Betty Pond.  This will add a challenging, but fulfilling stretch over Seven Bridges.  You can then connect with the carriage road around Eagle Lake at the southern end of the lake. 

A beautiful place to stop and view the lake is at the northern end. 

You can return as you came along Witch Hole Pond or make another loop near Duck Brook Road to get back to the Visitor Center parking lot. 

Starting at Hull’s Cove gives you lots of alternatives for your bike ride and helps avoid the risk of crowded parking lots. 

For more information on what to do when you visit Acadia National Park, visit OUR ACADIA.  From reviews of Bar Harbor restaurants to tips about rock-climbing and kayaking guides, it will provide you with information and a point-of-view on how to make the most out of your Maine vacation.

August 22, 2009

To Whale Watch or Not: That is the Question for Families with Kids Visiting Acadia National Park

Check out the posts on TripAdvisor about whale watching, and you’ll find a lot of negatives – no whales, long trips, cold weather, and sea sickness. Still want to take your kids on a boat ride when you visit Acadia National Park? The Dive-In Theater gets rave reviews.

This five-star cruise leaves from a pier at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor on the aptly christened Starfish Enterprise. Last week we embarked upon our two-hour trip into Frenchman Bay, a body of water so deep and cold that it provides a rich habitat for an array of sea life. The bay is spotted with small islands, which further enrich the Seals Frenchman Bayenvironment.

Suddenly the boat began to circle a small rock outcropping and there on the top sat a large bald eagle. Lying on rocks below and swimming in the area were about twenty harbor seals. Minutes of leaving this sighting, we spotted harbor porpoises gracefully creating arcs in the water.

But this was only the beginning of the show.

We moored at a dive site and Diver Ed suited up with considerable fanfare. Fanfare isn’t really the right word. It’s more shtick. (Clearly, only his love of Maine and kids has kept Ed from stand-up.)

Diver Ed

Diver Ed

Mini Ed #104

Mini Ed #104

With a little help from his friends, Diver Ed took the plunge with a collection bag, real-time video and sound equipment, and Mini Ed, his action figure alter ego, who would provide scale for the adventures on the ocean floor. We then learned that this was Mini Ed #104. (The prior 103 had been unsuccessful in their battles with lobsters and crabs from the deep.)

Sitting comfortably on our benches, we watched on a large projection screen as Mini Ed began to explore. I glanced away only occasionally to see such sights as the Margaret Todd sailing by.

Margaret Todd

Margaret Todd

What happened when Diver Ed returned with critters in tow? We touched them, of course.

Boy with Sea Cucumber

Boy with Sea Cucumber

Animated instruction from Diver Ed

Animated instruction from Diver Ed

Whether a beautiful sea star (starfish to the uninitiated), slimy sea cucumber, or angry lobster, these creatures of Frenchman Bay were taken into temporary (and protective) custody in touch tanks, as we learned more. Did you know that sea stars can not only regenerate lost arms, but themselves be regenerated from a single arm?

Does he know he has a crab on his head?

Does he know he has a crab on his head?

We gently probed their varied surfaces. (I will not say the same for the four-year-olds who thrilled to the chaos of the touch tanks and, inhibition abandoned, initiated some aggressive dive-bombing with the lobsters.)

Kids at Touch Tank on Starfish Enterprise

Kids at Touch Tank on Starfish Enterprise

Girl with Seastar

Girl with Seastar

Most of the families on the cruise seemed to have four-year-olds in tow, but the three eighteen-year-olds who came with me were pretty enthusiastic. But I surpassed them all.

If you’d like more information about things to do in Maine, visit OUR ACADIA. You’ll find itineraries for a vacation to Acadia National Park, tips for restaurants, and 22 ideas for activities with kids.

August 22, 2009

Bound for Bar Harbor? Two New Favorite Restaurants When You Go to Acadia National Park

I go to Maine looking forward to hiking, biking, and kayaking in Acadia. 

I leave remembering the restaurants. 

We just returned from two great weeks on Mount Desert Island.  We didn’t get rained out a single day and the island was busy, but not crowded.  Since this is our fourth summer there, we have our favorite restaurants that we check in on – Town Hill Bistro, Red Sky, and, of course, Thurston’s Lobster Pound.  

But we also tried two spots new to us. 

When we arrived at XYZ in Manset, the place was packed.  The conversation of happy diners, red wainscoting, and colorful floral placemats ignited a buzz that was contagious.  Then I noticed another possible source of the excitement.  Just about every table was covered with the same elegant stemware – margaritas.  

In addition to a standard margarita, XYZ serves a special one that is made with higher quality tequila and Grand Marnier rather than Triple Sec.  (We tried both to validate the $2 price increment and can vouch for why everyone at the bar was ordering the “especial.”) 

We ended up sitting at the bar because the diners who had our table lingered so long over dessert.  Owner Janet Strong graciously helped push me and the comfy, upholstered bar seat into position. Then the fun really began.  Seated on each side of us were XYZ veterans – a well-traveled couple who had been coming to XYZ for fifteen years and the restaurant’s former bartender whose wife and children were out of town.   

We spied on what they were eating, consulted with the bartender, and conferred with each other to maximize the tasting opportunities.  We decided to start with an exquisite garlic soup and a pepper stuffed with cheese, both good enough to impress Rick Bayless.  We chose a shrimp entrée that featured another stuffed pepper and little tortillas – and got tips from the ex-bartender on how to compose something truly delicious.  Our other entrée was braised goat, deeply flavorful.  It wasn’t on the menu, a special dish chef Bob Hoyt had prepared for a large group.  When I asked about it, the owner brought my a little dish to try, which sealed the deal. 

Two warnings about XYZ: you need a reservation and you won’t find your Tex-Mex favorites here.  The name of the restaurant is the key.  XYZ stands for Xalapa, Yucatan, and Zacatecas – localities of Mexico’s interior and coast. 

The cuisine here is authentic and memorable, just like the name. 

We also ended up sitting at the bar at Mache Bistro in Bar Harbor.  I love sitting at the bar, but the clear message for you is that the restaurant scene on MDI is lively, and you need reservations at the best places to eat. 

Mache Bistro has a new chef, Kyle Yarborough, who taps his experience from Jordan Pond House, Seasons, and Havana, to deliver “a fresh approach to French bistro cuisine.”  You get wonderful local produce and seafood, prepared with flair, as evidenced by our choices.  We started with Maine crab and lobster cakes – made even more interesting with an olive and sun-dried tomato drizzle – and mussels prepared in a delectable chorizo, saffron, tomato, and wine sauce.  Yes, dip that bread.  

Entrée selections further illustrate Chef Kyle’s gastronomic schizophrenia.  A duck breast was served over a cassoulet of white beans and topped with smoked duck and a duck confit.  I think my scallops were among the best I have ever had, not only because they were so fresh, but I am guessing they were marinated in rosemary and pepper to produce such wonderful flavor.  They were served over rosemary polenta and topped with arugula and caramelized onions.  

For dessert we ordered the pain perdu, which was more of a bread pudding than French toast.  Guess what the topping was?  Blueberries, of course. 

In contrast to XYZ’s high-energy atmosphere, Mache Bistro is hushed.  I counted only eight tables and three couples at the bar.  Ceiling fans whir as couples whisper in the high-ceilinged room with pale green walls and burgundy accents.  With only a single accent of a pitcher of garden flowers on the bar, it’s almost ascetic. 

I wish I could drop by Mache Bistro’s bar often before a movie or a lecture for a glass of wine and grilled flat bread with crab, Manchego cheese and arugula.  The wine list, including a good selection of wines by the glass, is well chosen and fairly priced.  There were also a range of ports and dessert wines, and coffee was only $2. 

For more ideas on where to eat when you visit Bar Harbor, check out OUR ACADIA to read about our favorite lobster pounds, casual spots, and restaurants for a special night out.  There are also itineraries and tips for guides, kayaking tours, activities for kids, and places to stay.

August 19, 2009

Can Three NYC Prep Grads Find Happiness Searching for Sea Stars on the Coast of Maine?

hillary rocksLast week two of my daughter’s friends joined us at our summer house on Mount Desert Island in Maine.  The three girls are 2009 graduates of The Nightingale-Bamford School, a Manhattan private school that has been recently thrust into the limelight because of associations with NYC Prep and Gossip Girls. 

What do NYC private school kids do when they don’t have a script from Bravo? 

They hike in Acadia National Park, read on the porch, kayak, visit an octogenarian friend, and play Scrabble on the dining room table.  All right, they ruthlessly play Scrabble. 

What surprised even me, however, was how interested they were in coming on a nature boat tour, to which I was invited by a friend who heads College of Atlantic’s Family Nature Camp.  By 8:30 am we were in the car to Bar Harbor, where Diver Ed docks his boat at a pier off the picturesque College of Atlantic campus.  Boarding the Dive-In Theatre, we were soon joined by some sixty others – most of whom with four-year-olds in tow. 

We started our two-hour cruise into Frenchman Bay, a body of water so deep and cold that it provides a rich habitat for an array of sea life.  The bay is spotted with small islands, which further enrich the environment.  Suddenly the boat began to circle a small rock outcropping and there on the top sat a large bald eagle.  Lying on rocks below and swimming in the area were about twenty harbor seals.  Minutes of leaving this sighting, we spotted harbor porpoises gracefully creating arcs in the water.  

But this was only the beginning of the show.  We moored at a dive site and Diver Ed suited up with considerable Mini Ed cropfanfare.  Fanfare isn’t really the right word.  It’s more shtick.  (Clearly, only his love of Maine and kids has kept Ed from stand-up.)   He dove in with a collection bag, real-time video and sound equipment, and Mini Ed, his action figure alter ego, who would provide scale for the adventures on the ocean floor.  We then learned that this was Mini Ed #104.  The prior 103 had been unsuccessful in their battles with lobsters and crabs from the deep.

sea starsWhat happened when Diver Ed returned with critters in tow?   We touched them, of course.  Whether a beautiful sea star (starfish to the uninitiated), slimy sea cucumber, or angry lobster, these creatures of Frenchman Bay were taken into temporary (and protective) custody in touch tanks, as we learned more.  Did you know that sea stars can not only regenerate lost arms, but themselves be regenerated from a single arm? We gently probed their varied surfaces.  (I will not say the same for the four-year-olds who thrilled to the chaos of the touch tanks and, inhibition abandoned, initiated some aggressive dive-bombing with the lobsters.) 

And how did the young women from Manhattan react?  Let’s just say that their search for sea stardom in Frenchman Bay was an overwhelming success. 

If you’d like more information about things to do in Maine, click here.  You’ll find itineraries for a visit to Acadia National Park, suggestions for the best lobster pounds, and tips for restaurants and places to stay in and around Bar Harbor.