You’ve been to Martha’s Vineyard so many summers you can’t count them. You’ve biked from Oak Bluffs to Edgartown, laid back on South Beach, kayaked on Sengekontacket Pond, and watched the sunset from Menemsha. You have several Black Dog t-shirts.
If you love a summer vacation that combines outdoor activities, great seafood, and New England scenery, but you’re looking for something new, this year you might want to discover Mount Desert Island in Maine.
Mount Desert Island and Martha’s Vineyard actually have a lot in common.
- They vie for second and third place as the largest islands on the eastern seaboard.
- They are made up of a variety of towns with distinct and different characters. While Bar Harbor and Oak Bluffs resemble each other in their Victoriana and commercialism, Bass Harbor and Menemsha attract visitors to their fishing villages for harborside photographs and lobster dinners. White clapboard houses and iconic steepled churches adorn the streets of both Somesville and Edgartown. And among these towns buses bustle too many summer visitors from here to there (though L.L. Bean makes it free on MDI).
- While a fiord divides Mount Desert Island, Martha’s Vineyard has a state forest in the middle of hers. Mount Desert has two distinct sides, the eastern portion best known for its largest town Bar Harbor and the less populated eastern side known as “The Quiet Side.” Similarly, the Martha’s Vineyard towns divide east and west, with the western villages on their “quiet side” known as “up island” not because they are north, but higher in longitude. This is a carryover characterization from the Vineyard’s nautical past, just as “downeast” is for Maine.
Both islands offer great dining as part of the summer recreation. If you like the traditional lobster dinners at Home Port, you should visit Thurston’s in Bass Harbor.
For us it’s a rite of summer to stand in line overlooking the postcard-perfect harbor with a beer (try the local micro-brew Harbor Lighthouse Ale) and begin the debate: Should we have hard shell or soft shell? How many pounds? Steamers or chowder? Standing in line heightens the anticipation of the sweetest lobsters we know anywhere. It may be in part because they’re cooked in seawater piped in from the harbor. You can opt to have your lobster alone or with a “basic dinner” of corn, coleslaw, roll, and Thurston’s blueberry spice cake (so good you’ll want to buy extra for tomorrow’s breakfast).
And Thurston’s even has its own t-shirt.
Maine is the state of not only fisherman, but also farmers. So, in recent years when restaurateurs have become increasingly committed to seasonal menus and local production, Mount Desert Island has emerged as a magnet for foodies. And at the top restaurants in Bar Harbor and Southwest Harbor you are not going to see scallop appetizers at $20 and grilled salmon at $40, prices common at Vineyard eateries like the Beach Plum Inn.
The greatest difference between MDI and the Vineyard is that the Maine island is home to the first national park east of the Mississippi, Acadia National Park.
With 30,300 acres on the island, Acadia occupies half of Mount Desert Island. Not only does it have the tallest mountain along the eastern coast, Cadillac Mountain, a popular spot to watch the sun rise, but there are 23 other mountain peaks that can be accessed by 125 miles of pristine hiking trails. Routes range from challenging for the fittest among us to trails that are easy for seniors and kids.
Sand Beach, rimmed by stunning pink granite cliffs, is a popular spot. Glacial lakes also attract swimmers and youthful sandcastle builders, as well as sailors and paddlers. Walkers and cyclists enjoy 45 miles of car-free carriage roads that weave around the mountains and valleys of the park.
Today, next to his Black Dog and Menemsha Blues t-shirts, my husband has several from Acadia, including my favorite which features a long list of hiking trails. Better still, we’ve done them all.
If you love Martha’s Vineyard, you may want to learn more about Mount Desert Island. OUR ACADIA offers tips for exploring, eating, and relaxing.