Not so long ago, to many of us, a “family-friendly” vacation meant jetting off to an all-inclusive resort where the kids got to play video games in the kids’ club and parents relaxed by the pool. It seemed “cute” that an eight-year-old could master calling for room service so quickly.
Says New York psychologist Joan Levine, Ph.D., “Vacations offer fun and relaxation. But whether carefully contemplated or not, the choices we make about where to go and what to do also communicate to our children what’s important to us.”
Acadia National Park in Maine is a family vacation destination that offers world-class scenery, a host of activities, convenience and accessibility – and a special opportunity to celebrate nature.
Rainer Jenss, former publisher of National Geographic Kids, just lived a life-long dream to take a year off and travel the world with his wife Carol and sons, Tyler, 11, and Stefan, 8. After the first two months and 20 states, he published his U.S. Top Ten List. The choice for the family’s “Favorite National Park” was Acadia.
As Rainer said, it has the scenery, wildlife, and hiking trails that rank it among our nation’s greatest national parks plus “terrific accommodations and food to boot.”
“I’ve Never Been So Tired in My Life”
For the Jenss boys hiking and biking were among Acadia’s major attractions. The park has 130 miles of hiking trails and 57 miles of car-free carriage roads that wind among glacial lakes and around spruce-covered mountains. Terrain for hiking can be as easy as the Ship Harbor figure-eight loop to the ocean or as challenging as climbing Beech Mountain to a fire lookout with spectacular 360 views.
Some hikes, such as the one to Acadia Mountain, offer a bonus. You can conclude your descent with sun-bathing on lakeside granite promontories. (Jumping into the lake gives kids extra “Let’s move” points!)
Opening Our Eyes to Sights Unseen
An entrance pass to the park costs $20 and admits one vehicle for seven days. But it’s also a pass for a lot of entertainment. Park rangers host daily walks, talks, amphitheatre programs, and cruises. Adults become as engaged as the kids as they learn about birds of prey, insects in a stream, and the stars over Sand Beach.
Most programs are free, although some do require nominal fees; many are customized for different age groups. Families can easily split up — while Dad takes the kids to look for frogs and tadpoles during “A Frog’s Life,” Mom and the older kids can get a lesson on photographing wildflowers.
Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, says, “Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment—but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading. That’s exactly the opposite of how it was when I was a child. Yet, at the very moment that the bond is breaking between the young and the natural world, a growing body of research links our mental, physical, and spiritual health directly to our association with nature—in positive ways.”
New Perspectives, Deeper Insights
Every island deserves to be seen from the perspective of the ocean, and Mount Desert Island is no exception. There are kayaking excursions, whaling trips, and tours by sailboat, as well as nature cruises.
One of the best is the Dive-In Theatre, in which kids watch by video as Diver Ed explores the ocean floor. He then returns with a bag of sea urchins, sea stars, hermit crabs lobsters, and wonderfully slimy sea cucumbers for the hands-on experience of his passengers.
Mount Desert Island also has a natural history museum, whale museum, and oceanarium. Jaylene Roths, a resident of Bar Harbor, emphasizes how fortunate her daughters, Grace, 7, and Cecelia, 2, are to be surrounded by the natural world, but that, even for them, the museums and touch tanks “take the girls’ back yard experiences one step further: they see how porcupine quills are attached, what seal skeletons look like, and where the rabbit paths lead.”
“Can We Eat the Blueberries?”
Lots of kids never have the opportunity to see food growing uncultivated. There are 60,000 acres of wild blueberries that grow naturally in Maine, so it’s no surprise that you can pick and eat them throughout Acadia National Park. That, after all, was what happened in Rober McCloskey’s Blueberries for Sal, which is a great memento from a trip to Mount Desert Island. Families will also be tempted to sample blueberries in everything from pie to ice cream…as long as we’re getting all of that exercise.
Lobster is also plentiful. Casual restaurants with picnic table seating, most often waterside, are called “lobster pounds,” in deference to the historic manner in which lobstermen empounded the crustaceans before bringing them to market. Attractively priced and far sweeter than lobsters in city restaurants and markets, they round out the picture of a “perfect Maine vacation,” as well as giving kids a fuller sense of where food comes from.
Planning a Trip
OUR ACADIA is a great place to begin planning a trip, starting with when is the best time to go. This authoritative Web site also reviews a wide range of restaurants, features packing tips, gives ideas of what to do if it rains, and presents sample itineraries. Not to be missed is a popular list of 22 great things to do with your kids in Acadia National Park. Print out copies and let the kids starting checking off their favorites right now!