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Is your kids' idea of a scenic walk a stroll through the local mall? Acadia National Park will change their minds and open their eyes. Located on the eastern coast of Maine's Mt. Desert Island, this park by the sea is a great place to hike, bike, or watch lobster boats trawling the Atlantic.
Then, when too much nature becomes a recipe for hair-pulling misbehavior, round up the tykes and take a 5-minute drive to downtown Bar Harbor. There, you can fill up on fresh seafood, eat lobster ice cream, or visit marine locals at the aquarium.
Many of the natural attractions at Acadia can be easily accessed via the 20-mile Park Loop Road. In fact, the entire drive takes only about 1 1/2 hours, though you'll want to stretch it out with scenery stops along the way. The two-lane road is open to motor vehicles all year except winter.
Start at the visitor center in Hull's Cove off Route 3 on the east end of the island, and follow the signs. Driving from the northeast, you'll first hit Sieur de Monts spring. While there, check out the new Native American cultural exhibit at the Robert Abbe Museum. The Nature Center and Acadia Wild Gardens are also worth a look.
Continue southward along Park Loop Road to Sand Beach, Acadia's only sand beach. But don't count on an extended swim; the water never gets warmer than 55 degrees!
A few feet from the beach is The Beehive, a 520-foot-high mountain whose honeycombed eastern face was sculpted by glaciers. Permanent handholds, ladders, and rails have been installed to help hikers scale this scenic peak. In summer, the shadeless trek can be strenuous, so pack a hat, sunblock, and plenty of water.
Otter Point, one of the most beautiful spots on the island, is your next stop. The peninsula is lined with huge boulders that are perfect for climbing and scrambling. Take extra precaution with small children and pets; there are several tidal pools hidden around the boulders.
Northwest of Otter Point lie Jordan Pond and The Bubbles. Jordan Pond is a great place to stop for lunch. The kids will love homemade ice cream from the Jordan Pond House. To the north of Jordan Pond, point out to your clan the pair of rounded mountains named The Bubbles, for obvious reasons.
Continue driving on Loop Road to the top of Cadillac Mountain. Not only is this the park's highest peak (elevation 1,530 feet), it's also the tallest mountain on the Atlantic north of Brazil! On clear days, Cadillac offers a panoramic view, including Frenchman Bay, the entire park, and much of Maine itself.
About half an hour before sunset, drive back down to the Blue Hill parking lot, just below the summit. A few yards beyond the lot is a gentle, rocky lawn where you can watch a spectacular sunset.
Exit Loop Road and head for the western side of the island. You'll pass the Somes Sound, which divides the eastern and western portions of Mount Desert Island. Explain to the kids that this is a fjord -- a long, narrow, glacially eroded arm of the sea, usually hundreds of meters deep, with steep rock cliffs. What's more, it's the only fjord on the Atlantic Coast.
From there, take Route 102 to Echo Lake. This is the only beach on the island where you can swim without freezing mid-stroke! Parents will be relieved to find lifeguards on duty, restrooms, and changing rooms.
Beech Cliffs Trail is a short, steep hike from the north end of the Echo Lake parking lot. This trail is not recommended for children or those afraid of heights; part of it involves climbing four vertical ladders. But it's worth the effort -- the view is unparalleled.
Continue southwest along Route 102 to the Seawall. Though not frequently visited, the Seawall offers a wonderful view of Somes Sound, and a great opportunity to watch seabirds.
While there, stop at the Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse. Located on the southernmost tip of the Island, Bass Harbor is a must-see; in fact it is one of the most photographed lighthouses on the East Coast. The lighthouse was originally built in 1858, and today it is fully automated and managed by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Many of Acadia's top attractions aren't accessible by car. Its famous carriage roads, a beautifully graded and landscaped 57-mile network of broken stone roads built by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. for horse-drawn carriages, are good places to ride horseback or wander at a relaxed pace while smelling the sun-warmed spruce trees and listening to a silence broken only by chattering chickadees.
Ambling along the carriage roads is as easy as sauntering on a sidewalk. For something more strenuous, try Acadia's 120 miles of hiking trails. The imbedded stone steps of the Gorge Path trail make clambering up slopes equivalent to climbing stairs. Others, like the Ocean Trail, skirt the cobblestoned shoreline. Ocean temperatures rarely exceed 55 degrees, even in summer, so swimming is for only a hardy few. If you brave the cold, exploring tidal pools alive with conchs, hermit crabs and sea anemones is like looking through a window at a different and fascinating world.
No doubt, you'll be spending some time in Bar Harbor, the gateway to Acadia. It's where most of the hotels, restaurants, and services are located. The largest town on the island, Bar Harbor sits on the northeast coast of the island near the park entrance.
On the waterfront, take a guided tour of a salt marsh at the Oceanarium & Lobster Hatchery, visit the Maine Lobster Museum, take a sea kayak adventure along the island's fascinating coastline, or set sail with one of the professional crews in search of whales, seals, and seabirds.
The kids will especially enjoy Ben and Bill's large selection of homemade ice cream. If you're feeling extra adventurous, try the lobster flavor!
Type of trip: Sightseeing, historic, hiking/walking
Best ages: All ages
Ideal trip length: 2-3 days
Distance: Portland, ME (164 miles), Boston (270 miles)
Best time to go: Spring through early fall
Weather: 64/33 degrees (F/C) in spring, 77/49 in summer, 60/41 in fall
Lodging: Inside the park, there are two campgrounds; outside, plenty of inns/B&Bs and camping. Reservations are recommended at least three months in advance for summer.
Squirm factor: None
Acadia National Park Eagle Lake Rd., Bar Harbor, ME Phone: 207-288-3338
Acadia Nature Center Off Park Loop Rd., Acadia National Park Note: Contact Acadia Visitor's Center for more information. Admission included in park entrance fee.
The Robert Abbe Museum Sieur de Monts Spring, Mt. Desert Island Phone: 207-288-3519 Note: Open mid-May to mid-October
The Wild Gardens of Acadia Rt. 3, Bar Harbor Contact: Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce 93 Cottage St. Phone: 207-288-5103
Oceanarium & Lobster Hatchery Rt. 3, Bar Harbor Phone: 207-288-5005 Note: Closed Sundays
Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co. 1 West St., Bar Harbor Phone: 207-288-2386 or 800-WHALES-4
Local foods: Seafood
Best souvenir: Before you leave the hatchery, make sure to bring home a cute lobster stuffed animal.
Annual events: For more information, contact the Chamber of Commerce, 207-288-5103.
Traffic alert: Be prepared for gridlock during spring and summer, especially along Park Loop Road. Parking may also be difficult. Consider touring the island by taxi, the Island Explorer Shuttle Bus, tour bus, or bicycle.
Midway between Boston and Bar Harbor sits Freeport, "the birthplace of Maine." The town's rich history includes Jameson Tavern (where colonists debated a separation movement from Massachusetts), the Harrington House (the Historical Society), Pettengill Farm (a 19th-century salt-water farm), and 15 different museums.
But let's get real. Most people stop in Freeport for the amazing SHOPPING! Although the town has more than 125 retail shops, visitors usually beat a path to L.L. Bean Factory Stores, where they can snap up bargains on everything from upscale merchandise to rugged outdoor gear. And it's a great place to stock up on back-to-school clothes. Freeport Merchants Association. 23 Depot St, 800-865-1994 or 207-865-1212; L.L. Bean Factory Store. Depot St., 207-552-7772.
Be sure to succumb, too, to the siren call of the Cranberry Islands. The closest and easiest to get to is Little Cranberry Island. It's only 20 minutes by frequent mail boat, but it's worth making a reservation for the two-and-a-half-hour cruise led by park rangers who explain the geology and history of the region. You'll learn even more about the seafaring residents at the Isleford Historical Museum on Little Cranberry, where photographs, model ships, lobstering tools and children's toys tell a moving story of life on the small island. -- Additional material by Catherine Fredman Reviewed April 2004