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Cool Time to Avoid Maine Crowds

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Autumn sweeps over coastal Maine like a magic wand, waving away the summer people and returning the craggy inlets, misty mountains and quiet offshore islands to the residents.

And to us.

We think of Maine in October as our Maine, and have made an annual one-week pilgrimage to Acadia National Park, a treasure trove of mountain hiking trails, woodsy bicycle paths and stunning coastal drives.

The Northeast’s only national park, Acadia sprawls over 54 square miles of 108-square-mile Mount Desert (pronounced with the accent on the second syllable) Island, a lobster-claw-shaped island that squats in the Atlantic Ocean about three-quarters of the way up the Maine coast. The island is cleft nearly in half by beautiful Somes Sound, the only natural fiord (a seaway walled by mountains) in the continental United States.

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Acadia is one of the nation’s smallest national parks, but, like San Francisco, its compactness makes it all the more accessible. It is, in fact, the second most-visited national park after Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee.

Weaving though the park are 51 miles of gravel carriage trails built at the beginning of the century by J.D. Rockefeller Jr., who was outraged by the introduction of the tranquillity-shattering automobile in 1915. As an antidote to the car, he spent $2 million on these horse-and-buggy paths through the woods, and made them available to his friends who spent summers in the region seeking Maine’s sensual solitude. (Rockefeller later donated one-third of the land that makes up the national park, which included his beloved carriage trails.)

Today, commercially operated carriage rides are available in the park, but the paths are used mainly by walkers and cyclists, who appreciate the gradual grading. There are some 13 hand-cut stone bridges over the paths, and the ride through the woods and under the bridges is splendidly serene.

In summer, the boutiques, cafes and bed and breakfast inns of Mount Desert’s tony little Bar Harbor (the base for most Acadia visitors), and the cheap motels and steamy lobster stands along the route to town, draw millions of tourists. But come September, poof , they’re gone. Many of the island’s inns and restaurants close down at the end of October, but for those two precious months between Labor Day and Halloween, Acadia is both full-service and untrammeled.

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Getting to Acadia really is half the fun.

While the closest airports are in Bar Harbor (a five-minute drive from the park) and Bangor (an hour away), we prefer to fly into Portland, some three hours south, and enjoy the drive to Acadia.

Portland is surrounded on three sides by the deep blue sea. Our routine is to rent a car at the city’s diminutive airport and head north toward Acadia along Route 1, for the most part a pretty coastal span--though it can get quite crowded on weekends. The drive northeast takes us through the windjammer resorts of Boothbay Harbor, Camden and Rockland, and past Freeport--home of L.L. Bean, the sporting store par excellence that’s open 24 hours a day year-round.

If we’re in the mood, we detour to Monhegan Island, a land of high rocky cliffs, crashing surf, inland forests and artist studios just 10 miles offshore via mail boat from Port Clyde. But Acadia’s the heart of our quest, and the closer we get--turning off Route 1 at Ellsworth, then south to Mount Desert Island on the narrow land bridge that is Route 3--the more overpowering our sense of anticipation. When the island’s first lobster pound steams into view, we lose our cool completely and break into unrestrained cheers.

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The colors in autumn are no less than breathtaking. The cool wind seems to scour the mountains and sea of the summer haze, turning everything crisp and bright.

At this time of year, we never know whether the morning will be cold and windy, warm under a hot sun or lashed by autumn rain, but it never matters. If it’s sunny, we rent bicycles in Bar Harbor and head for Acadia’s magnificent carriage paths, or take the mail ferry from the island’s classy town of Northeast Harbor to tiny Little Cranberry or Swan islands for a few hours of reconnoitering these sparsely inhabited fishing communities.

On cooler days, we hike, selecting from dozens of mountain, forest and beach trails detailed in the guides sold at the park visitors’ center near Hulls Cove, a few miles north of Bar Harbor. You needn’t be a mountain climber to take in great views on foot. Many of the beginner trails are nearly flat, and within just minutes afford gorgeous vistas of cliffs and sea.

Rain? Inclement weather is an opportunity to drive to Bangor--the closest real city, an hour northwest--or along the Park Loop Road to watch the rain meet the surf crashing against the shore. We may even make a run to L.L. Bean in Freeport (a hefty 2 1/2-hour drive), where you can shop till you drop for all the outdoor gear ever invented, from fishing boots to kayaks to stuffed bears in hunting outfits.

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On a clear night, our choice is clear: Drive up Cadillac Mountain to watch the sun set crimson against the mountains and lakes. Then we might join a free park-ranger-guided excursion to view night animals. (Walks are listed each week in Acadia Weekly, a free guide to the park.)

Cadillac’s 1,500-foot peak, the highest on the Atlantic Coast, is the first place on the East Coast that the sun touches as it rises. Hikers often scale the peak at dawn; you’ll see T-shirts at many gift shops bearing the brag: “Cadillac Mountain Sunrise Club.” You also can drive to the peak at sunrise; the road to the summit opens an hour before dawn.

When hunger strikes, we’re confronted with an embarrassment of riches. Should we feast on the magnificent salad bar and spicy shrimp fra diavlo at 124 Cottage St. in downtown Bar Harbor, or sample the catch of the day while overlooking the water at the Seafood Ketch in Mount Desert’s tranquil Bass Harbor? Perhaps an aperitif at The Opera House Restaurant and Listening Room, a romantic Bar Harbor cafe where the name describes exactly what you’ll hear.

Other favorites are the Nakorn Thai Restaurant, a no-frills storefront with spicy fare and cheap prices; George’s, an elegant Greek cafe with a classical guitar player at night, and--for drinks at sunset--the boathouse at the Claremont Hotel in Southwest Harbor overlooking beautiful Somes Sound.

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We always make at least one pilgrimage to the Jordon Pond House, a glass-and-wood restaurant in the park that abuts the lovely pond for which the cafe is named. Afternoon tea is the claim to fame here. Every day from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m., patrons fill the wooden picnic tables on the lush green lawn facing the water and gobble up steaming homemade popovers with strawberry jam and butter, while sipping fresh pots of tea or coffee. Ice cream and soup also are on the menu, but the popovers are to die for and we’ve never considered ordering anything else.

After tea, you can work off a minuscule percentage of the calories with a stroll around the pond, watching the colors darken and soften as dusk settles. On very windy or cold days, or if it’s raining, the action shifts indoors, where a wood-burning stove makes the already cozy mood even more delectable. Jordon Pond House also is open for lunch and dinner, though we’ve never sampled either. The restaurant shuts down for the season Oct. 23 and reopens at the end of May. Reservations for tea, particularly weekends, are essential.

We often make Jordon Pond House our reward for a day of vigorous cycling on the nearby carriage paths. Starting off in Bar Harbor--which has several shops that rent 10-speed mountain bikes and dispense bike route maps--we cycle 1 1/2 miles on the public roadway before entering the park. From there, we use maps purchased at the park visitors’ center (there are separate guides for hiking and biking trails) to explore the carriage paths and woodsy trails.

We wind up at Jordon Pond House about 4 p.m. (we always reserve ahead) and feast on popovers with a clear conscience before biking back to town. If we’re lazy, we attach the bikes to racks on the back of our rental car and make Jordon Pond House our starting point for exploration, returning for tea and thus avoiding any need to hurry our eating in order to ride the bikes back to the rental shop before the 6 p.m. closing time.

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We’ve sampled several types of accommodations in the area, enjoying each for its particular rewards. We’ve stayed at an elegant Bar Harbor bed and breakfast inn, where the owner regaled us with his adventures as school superintendent of the tiny offshore islands and chided us in a stern monotone for getting in too late one night. His wife’s homemade muffins were perfect and we loved being right in town, but opted for a place with a bit more privacy the next time.

We loved our stay at the Claremont in Southwest Harbor, where the rates (stiff in season) drop dramatically after Labor Day. Guests are free to use the hotel’s rowboats for exploring Somes Sound, and my companion went into a near delirium of ecstasy over the hotel’s hard-tru surface tennis court.

The restaurant here (which closes for the season Sept. 15) is excellent--if a bit too formal for our tastes. As mentioned, drinks in the boathouse are the perfect way to watch the sun set. Unfortunately, it also closes Sept. 15, so the perfect time to stay here is the week just before that, when the rates are low but the boathouse is open.

On our most recent visit, we stayed at the inexpensive Edgewater Motel and Cabins, right on the water at Salisbury Cove. We had a kitchenette but no phone--ideal vacation living. The Acadia Park entrance was only a short drive away, as was Bar Harbor.

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Leaving Acadia is always traumatic. We crave just one more hike to gaze at the sea from a rocky precipice, just one more bike ride along the carriage paths under the stone bridges, just one more round of drinks at the Claremont boathouse watching the sun set over Somes Sound and--oh yes--at least one more popover at Jordon Pond House.

Next time, we could extend our stay a week, perhaps, but maybe our frustration at never getting enough is part of what keeps drawing us back year after year. Never sated, we’re always eager to resume our feast of Acadia’s astonishing bounty of beauty.

GUIDEBOOK

Acadia National Park, Maine

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Getting there: Continental Airlines flies nonstop from Los Angeles to Newark, N.J., and from Newark to Portland, Me., a three-hour drive from Acadia National Park. Continental also flies nonstop from Newark to Bangor, Me., a one-hour drive from the park. Northwest Airlines flies nonstop from LAX to Boston, then on to Bangor and Portland. United and USAir also fly to Bangor and Portland, but with change of aircraft. All fares are about $470 round trip, with 21-day advance purchase.

Rental cars at standard rates are available at both the Bangor and Portland airports.

The Acadia National Park visitors’ center is off Route 3 at the Hulls Cove entrance to the park. Pedestrians are admitted free. Motorists pay a $5 fee per car for a seven-day pass; cyclists, $2.

Where to stay: The following are personal favorites. Prices can change dramatically with the season; call for an update.

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--Claremont Hotel, Southwest Harbor, telephone (207) 244-5036. Gracious old estate set on Somes Sound. High season: rooms in main inn, $130-$155 a night (plus tax and service charge), double occupancy, including breakfast and dinner; rooms in small guest houses and 13 private cabins, $120-$150, not including meals. Beginning in September (when main inn shuts down): guest houses, $60 (or $75 with breakfast); cabins, $80-$90.

--Edgewater Motel and Cottages, off Route 3 at Salisbury Cove, (207) 288-3491. Cottages and small motel right on the water. In summer: weekly rates, $415-$644 double. Off season: $45-$72 per room per night, $295-$595 weekly. Closed Nov. 1 to beginning of April.

--Asticue Inn, Northeast Harbor, (207) 276-3344. Classy and expensive. In season: $195-$248 per room, including breakfast and dinner. In September: $70-$95, including continental breakfast. Main inn closes Sept. 15; 15-room Cranberry Lodge is open until the end of December.

--Harbourside Inn, Northeast Harbor, (207) 276-3272. Gracious and intimate, family-run. Rooms $90-$135, including continental breakfast. Closed mid-September to mid-June.

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--Bar Harbor Inn, Newport Drive, Bar Harbor, (800) 248-3351. Old whale of an establishment, right on Frenchman Bay. In season: $120-$199, including continental breakfast. Off-season: $105-$175. Main inn closes end of October. Oceanfront lodge open all year.

Where to eat:

--124 Cottage St., Bar Harbor, (207) 288-4383. Great seafood and spicy Italian dishes. Popular with locals.

--George’s, 7 Stephen’s Lane, Bar Harbor, (207) 288-4505. Romantic. Greek food.

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--Nakorn Thai Restaurant, 30 Rodick St., Bar Harbor, (207) 288-4060. Inexpensive, spicy fare.

--The Opera House Restaurant and Listening Room, 27 Cottage St., Bar Harbor, (207) 288-3509. Adults only. Romantic, cozy rooms.

--Jordan’s Restaurant, 80 Cottage St., Bar Harbor, (207) 288-3586. Famous for blueberry-pancake breakfasts.

--Seafood Ketch, Shore Road on the harbor, Bass Harbor, (207) 244-7463. Traditional seafood restaurant with great view.

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--Claremont Hotel, on Somes Sound, Southwest Harbor, (207) 244-5036. Continental fare.

--Jordon Pond House, Park Loop Road just north of Seal Harbor, (207) 276-3316. Open for lunch and dinner but famous for afternoon tea: $5 for popovers, strawberry jam and butter, coffee, tea or lemonade.

--Beal’s Lobster Pier, Clark Point Road, Southwest Harbor, (207) 244-3202. Picnic tables on working wharf. Famous for soft-shelled lobster.

For more information: On Acadia National Park, write the visitors’ center, P.O. Box 177, Bar Harbor, Me. 04609, (207) 288-4932.

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The Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, (207) 288-3393, has information about activities around town and in Acadia.


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