Last year friends of mine from New York took their two boys, 8 and 11, out of school for a year to travel the world. Since their dad was formerly the publisher of National Geographic Kids, they had a pretty wonderful itinerary. Acadia National Park was their second stop, and after two days younger son Stefan asked if they could just stay there for the rest of the year.
Stefan may have a future himself in travel publishing. Even at his age, he concurs with the editors of Travel and Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler who consistently rank Mount Desert Island as one of the most beautiful islands in the world. Its rocky coastline, boreal forests, spectacular fiord, and multitude of mountains apparently hold appeal for every age.
My daughter started visiting Acadia National Park regularly at the age of 14. She liked kayaking and the hikes with rock scrambling a lot. But what she loved was the rock climbing. Having grown up on New York City’s rock climbing walls, she felt comfortable with a 60-foot cliff and loved the fact that at its base was the pounding surf. Booking in advance for a climb or two with Acadia Mountain Guides became a standard part of our vacation planning.
Here are 22 great things to do with your kids if you visit Acadia National Park this summer:
1. Attend a ranger-led program – Offered free by the National Park Service, these are fun, interactive programs on subjects ranging from the constellations to birds of prey. (Did you know that owls and peregrines eat their prey whole and then regurgitate what’s not digestible in pellets?) Ranger-led programs include hikes, cruises, and simple drop-ins at interesting places. Find out more www.nps.gov/acad.
2. Go hiking – Acadia National Park is unique in how its mountains rise out of the sea, so hiking should be high on your “must see” list. Considering that there are over 130 miles of trail, select a hike that’s right for your family by check out a guidebook, Web site (www.trails.com), or the Park Service’s hiking difficulty sheet. You might consider Wonderland and Ship Harbor because of their flatter terrain. The Bubbles (South Trail) and Bubble Rock are also very popular with kids.
3. Learn about lobsters – On the Lulu Lobster Boat tour, kids can learn about lobstering from Captain John and look for harbor seals in Frenchman Bay off of Bar Harbor. Or, for a rainy day activity, visit the lobster hatchery and museum at the Mount Desert Oceanarium.
4. Sail on a Friendship Sloop – These graceful sloops were actually the hard-working lobstering boats of the late 1800s. Today there is no lovelier way to experience Mount Desert Island and the many islands surrounding it than from the water on one of the charters offered by Downeast Friendship Sloop.
5. Go sea kayaking – For the more athletic, get out on the water in a kayak. Maine State Kayak offers breathtakingly beautiful tours, which are also educational, on “the quiet side” of Acadia National Park. There’s only one wrinkle: each child is required to paddle in tandem with an adult and must be at least 8-years-old (and 4 feet, 8 inches).
6. Take a horse-drawn carriage drive – Another unique feature of Acadia National Park is the carriage road system, conceived of and built by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. These picturesque car-free roads wind up mountains, along brooks, and through spruce forests. One great way to explore them is to take a horse-drawn carriage trip from Wildwood Stables in the park. Try to book early enough to get spots on the sunset drive to Day Mountain, which is a favorite. Call 877-276-3622 for more information.
7. Bike on a carriage road – Get some exercise and do some peddling! Eagle Lake is very popular and thus more crowded. I actually prefer exploring around Witch Hole Pond and Aunt Betty’s Pond, and the hills aren’t bad.
8. Go to a lumber jack show – This sounds tacky, but it gets great recommendations. The show is a demonstration of what a logging camp competition would have been in the Maine woods over 100 years ago…except the host of the show is Timber Tina (www.mainelumberjack.com).
9. Go miniature golfing – No family vacation would be complete without a couple of hours of mini-golfing. Bar Harbor’s “award-winning” adventure golf has a pirates theme (www.piratescove.net).
10. Pick blueberries – Next to lobster, this is Maine’s best edible. They grow everywhere. Pick some, have them over ice cream, and read Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey, well-known for Make Way for Ducklings, who chose the Maine coast as the settings for many of his children’s books.
11. Go rock climbing – The competent team at Acadia Mountain Guides can customize a special, affordable climb for your family. After meeting you and learning about everyone’s goals, your guide will select an area – from a lower angled climb to a cliff rising out of Frenchman’s Bay. For me this was an exhilarating experience, and my daughter loved it.
12. Visit a lighthouse – If you don’t want to do a technical climb, the kids will love rock scrambling on the huge granite boulders on the harbor side of the Bass Harbor Head Light. Constructed in 1876, the tower itself is off-limits, but the views here are wonderful – a perfect setting for the photo of this year’s holiday card.
13. Touch a starfish…and more. The Dive-In Theatre gets rave reviews (“educational,” “fantastic,” “extremely fun”). After a cruise in Frenchmen’s Bay, Diver Ed takes the plunge, explores the bay while on view on a topside LCD screen, and surfaces to provide a hands-on experience of what he has found. If the price is too steep for a larger family, Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory provides free touch tank demonstrations.
14. Explore the tidepools – Sea stars, barnacles, mussels, anemones, crabs, and young lobsters live in the intertidal zone and are exposed twice each day by the withdrawing tide. Focused, quiet observation will open up a whole new world for your kids and provide a special kind of experience that’s an interesting alternative to some of the more commercialized options. Acadia National Park provides more information at www.nps.gov/acad/planyourvisit/tidepooling.htm.
15. Have lemonade at Jordan Pond House – Ask for a table on the lawn and order popovers and strawberry ice cream, too. If there’s a wait (which is likely in July and August), go to the gift shop and buy blueberry jam to take home. Better still, skip rocks in Jordan Pond and explore the trail around its shoreline. (There’s more about Jordan Pond House at www.ouracadia.com.)
16. Swim in Echo Lake – After a hike on Beech Mountain or Acadia Mountain, take a refreshing plunge. You can relax in the sun on a beach at the lake’s southern end or on wide granite cliffs on the eastern shoreline.
17. Build sand castles at Sand Beach – You may find it a little too chilly to swim, but the kids probably won’t. The setting itself is stunning with cliffs arching around the beach and Beehive Mountain as a backdrop. Hey, after all of that hiking and biking, pull out a paperback and take a quick doze if someone else is supervising the castle construction.
18. Let teenagers explore the island alone – If your teenagers are itching for some independence, suggest they take the Island Explorer Bus and meet the rest of the family at a given destination. Eight routes link hotels, inns, and campgrounds with destinations in Acadia National Park and neighboring village centers (for details see www.exploreacadia.com). Since the buses are propane-powered, this is nice not only for parents’ nerves, but also for the environment.
19. Take in a show – Acadia Repertory Theatre in picturesque Somesville offers a children’s program in the summertime. Every Wednesday and Saturday at 10:30am they are performing “Snow White and Rose Red,” a new adaptation of the children’s classic. Another option: see a movie at Reel Pizza in Bar Harbor where, in addition to theatre seats, there are couches and recliners and, in addition to popcorn and soda, there is delicious fresh-dough gourmet pizza.
20. Go to Seawall for an evening cookout – Seawall in Acadia National Park is a natural granite and rock seawall on the southwestern side of Mount Desert Island. Nearby on the ocean is a beautiful, spruce-studded picnic area where you can make a fire and grill. Check out the National Park program at the nearby campground that evening. Or just watch the night sky overtake the sea.
21. Enjoy Bar Harbor at night – It’s a great seaside resort town that attracts crowds for ice cream, fudge, T-shirts, and maybe even a quick reading by the local psychic. There are also excellent shops for guidebooks and outfitters if you forgot your fleece or want new hiking boots.
22. Reward the parents with a lobster dinner – Having arranged and managed such a wonderful family vacation, you deserve a special night out. How about lobster? For reviews of two of my favorite lobster pounds, Thurston’s and Abel’s, see www.ouracadia.com. (By the way, Thurston’s even has PB&J for fussier eaters.)
Writing this reminds me why I love Mount Desert Island so much. You don’t need kids to enjoy these New England summertime delights. Acadia National Park is also summer camp for adults. When’s the best time to visit Acadia? Should you rent a cottage or stay at a B&B? What should you do if it rains? Get answers to these questions and more at OUR ACADIA.
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