“Isn’t it crazy there right now?” a friend asked me, when I told her of plans for an August escape. I feared it was. But my craving for the ocean didn’t let up; I was dreaming of Acadia, and no other place would do. One midsummer morning with air so thick you could spread it on toast, my husband and I began a day-long drive toward the sea.
The warm-weather rush to Mount Desert Island far predates the pandemic — or even the national park system itself. Starting in the mid-1800s, the island became a destination for a generation of nature seekers called “rusticators,” who traveled from East Coast cities by train, carriage and sail.
What is rusticating? It’s the 19th-century version of going country. Think: picnics by rowboat, plein-air painting or day-long hikes along mountain trails.
“They were looking to escape the heat and the crowds and the pollution of cities,” said Maine writer Catherine Schmitt, author of “Historic Acadia National Park: The Stories Behind One of America’s Great Treasures.” It was a feeling many would recognize in the summer of 2021, a season of smoke and record high temperatures. When travelers turn to MDI looking for breezy refuge from a chaotic world, they’re keeping an American tradition alive.
It’s easy to understand why this place has been a travelers’ retreat for nearly two centuries. In the quiet moments, when you find a beach or cove all your own, it still feels like a far-flung hinterland. Mount Desert Island’s peaks emerge from dense forests, the summits in startling proximity to the island-dotted bays. For some of the year, the tallest of these, Cadillac Mountain, is touched by the first morning sunlight to reach the United States.
Nowadays, tourists gather in predawn darkness to watch the sunrise from the top of Cadillac Mountain. They lean on car hoods, yawning and quiet. When the islands below emerge from darkness, dozens of phone screens illuminate to capture the moment. The Instagram hashtag #cadillacmountain is full of these sleepy-looking travelers, with rosy granite and a jigsaw coast for a spectacular backdrop.
Before we reached the island on our MDI road trip, though, we reached island traffic. Cars lined up for miles behind the Trenton Bridge that links Mount Desert Island to the mainland, crawling past fudge shops, lobster pounds, weed dispensaries, motels and antique stores. If you want to drive to the top of Cadillac Mountain for the sunrise this year, you’ll need to reserve a place a few days in advance.
Instead, we steered for the “Quiet Side,” the relaxed western half of the island where we would spend much of our visit. That’s where I found a coterie of visitors lined up, phones at an arm’s length, to capture an ocean sunset from the rocky coast at Seawall. All those golden-hour selfies: They’re a sort of island tradition, too. Some of the earliest vacationers on Mount Desert Island were like 19th-century Instagram influencers, artists whose images made the Maine coast trendy.
An 1844 visit by artist Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School, was a turning point for Mount Desert Island, writes Pamela Belanger in her book “Inventing Acadia: Artists and Tourists at Mount Desert.” In 1845, he displayed paintings of coastal cliffs, crashing waves and stormy skies at a show in New York City; artist Henry Cheever Pratt, Cole’s friend and traveling companion, showed his own images of the island to Boston audiences.
“People were viewing the paintings in different galleries and wanting to go and see those landscapes for themselves,” said Raney Bench, executive director of the Mount Desert Island Historical Society. Tourism grew, getting wealthier and more organized. “The 1870s and 1880s is really when island tourism hit its Gilded Age,” Bench said.
Preserving the spirit of that era is the Claremont Hotel, a genteel 1884 rambler in the Quiet Side town of Southwest Harbor. After years of gentle decline, the hotel was sold last fall to Kennebunkport, Maine, hotel magnate Tim Harrington. It reopened in May following careful renovations that restored it to laid-back elegance.
Stopping by, I wandered down a broad, close-clipped lawn to a private dock. Sailboats tacked by just offshore; wicker rocking chairs beckoned from a shady porch. In a lobby adorned with twining-sweet-pea wallpaper, a wooden backgammon table caught the afternoon light.
“This hotel came with a big responsibility,” said Krista Stokes, creative director of Atlantic Holdings, a hospitality company that redesigned the Claremont after Harrington purchased it. After the sale, Stokes spoke with guests whose families had kept standing reservations at the Claremont for decades. “We wanted to respect that history,” Stokes said. “It felt like we were doing this for generations to come.”
All winter, Stokes combed island shops for antiques, buying original canvases by Maine artists Claire Cushman and David Allen. In the main hotel, which has 24 guest rooms, the colors are sweet and sunny as a garden bouquet. One of the hotel’s two cherished croquet courts is now a swimming pool, but the tradition lives on: Hand-painted signs in the Croquet Club list results from decades of croquet championships there.
Croquet isn’t the only 19th-century pursuit thriving on Mount Desert Island. Back then, visitors — some in long skirts and petticoats — liked to scramble around on the island’s nubbly boulders, Bench told me. They called it “rocking,” and today, the oceanside cliffs within Acadia National Park are legendary among northeastern rock climbers. Walking was also popular, and hiking remains a top activity in the park.
Waking early on the second day of our trip, we set out for a trek to some of the island’s summits. A steep walk led to Bald Peak, then we continued through ripening wild blueberries to Parkman Mountain, Gilmore Peak and the 1,373-foot Sargent Mountain. After the final ascent, we passed a family splashing around in Sargent Mountain Pond, a lily-dotted pool believed to be the oldest lake in Maine.
Cairns led the way over naked granite and toward the south of the island, where we crossed one of the crushed-stone carriage roads that wind though the park. Philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. built some 45 miles of these roads, now used by walkers, cyclists and equestrians. Monumental blocks of stone dubbed “Rockefeller’s teeth” line the paths, which pass over about 17 granite-faced bridges.
Only after an acrimonious battle were automobiles permitted, in 1913, into all Mount Desert Island towns. The car-free carriage roads in a way became a hedge against modernity: Both summer people and locals would always have a place to escape the clattering engines of a mechanizing world.
It’s still true today, even on sunny August weekends in a pandemic summer when the park is overflowing with visitors. Concerns about the environmental effect of skyrocketing crowds at national parks are grave, and trailhead parking lots that weekend were indeed crammed with cars. But we found solitude while walking for hours on trails and carriage roads; we kept quiet, listening to the liquid song of a hermit thrush from deep in the forest.
Our path emerged near the Asticou Inn, another grand hotel from Mount Desert Island’s Gilded Age. (Though the 1883 original burned down, the current version was rebuilt at the turn of the century.)
It has faded charm, a breezy deck and, I knew, a great recipe for popovers. Ever since the trail-side restaurant Jordan Pond House began serving them in 1895, the puffy baked goods have been an island tradition. Seated on the back deck at the Asticou, which has views of yachts bobbing in Northeast Harbor, we ordered a pair with Maine blueberry jam on the side.
“Two pops coming up,” the waitress replied, returning promptly with a basket of softball-size treats. My popover exhaled steam when I tore it open. It was delicious enough that I was tempted to order another round, but the deck was filling up with tourists. Someone was probably waiting for our table, and besides, we had been sitting long enough.
“We’re not here to relax,” I reminded myself, brushing crumbs off my hiking clothes as we began the long walk back toward the car. “We’re rusticating.”
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC's travel health notice webpage.
If you go
Where to stay
The Claremont Hotel
22 Claremont Rd., Southwest Harbor
Recent renovations bring updated luxury to this Gilded Age hotel, where loungers and cabanas line a brand-new outdoor pool. Active guests can play croquet, borrow the hotel’s beach cruisers to pedal Southwest Harbor’s back roads or join morning yoga and Pilates sessions on the lawn. On-site dining includes the nautical-themed Harry’s Bar; the casual, waterside Batson Fish Camp; and the more upscale Little Fern. Guest rooms in the historical main hotel from $295 Sept. 9 to June 18; $495 July 16 to Aug. 22; check website for shoulder season rates.
Where to eat
Asticou Inn & Restaurant
15 Peabody Dr., Northeast Harbor
Enjoy views of Northeast Harbor from the breezy deck at the Asticou Inn, where popovers are a specialty. Open Thursday to Monday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for lunch; dinner Thursday to Monday 5:30 to 9 p.m. Lunch from $12, dinner from $19; two popovers with Maine strawberry or blueberry jam $8.
What to do
Acadia National Park
Hulls Cove Visitor Center
25 Visitor Center Rd., Bar Harbor
The national park spreads across Mount Desert Island onto the nearby mainland. Carriage roads and trails are open year-round, and the scenic Park Loop Road is open April 15 to Dec. 1. Park entrance passes required May to October. Seven-day passes $30 for private vehicles, $25 for motorcycles, $15 for individuals without vehicles. Annual passes $55. Free or discounted admission available for U.S. 4th-grade students, seniors, military with ID and Gold Star Families.
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