Destination - Northeast Harbor, Maine - Soundings Online

Destination - Northeast Harbor, Maine

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From the gold-platers at the dock to the sweeping town green and elegant art galleries in the vintage shopping district, Mount Desert Island, Maine’s, Northeast Harbor is a “pull-in-your fenders, ship-shape and Bristol fashion” boater town.

From the gold-platers at the dock to the sweeping town green and elegant art galleries in the vintage shopping district, Mount Desert Island, Maine’s, Northeast Harbor is a “pull-in-your fenders, ship-shape and Bristol fashion” boater town.

 

Wealthy urban rusticators began summering here at the mouth of Somes Sound in the 1800s, when yachts and steamboats were the major means of transportation to and around Mount Desert Island. The tiny village remains oriented toward its narrow protected harbor and the surrounding spectacular sailing waters, not the nearby mountains of Acadia National Park.

Adjoining Northeast Harbor Marina near the head of the harbor are Morris Yachts’ newest service yard, tennis courts and the chamber of commerce’s yachtsman’s building (showers, reading room, information). A waterfront picnic table and plenty of benches encourage harbor-watching, and there’s much to watch: the comings and goings of ferries, tour boats, lobster boats, tenders and yachts of all sizes and types, Hinckleys and megayachts in particular. All this and a mountain backdrop and downtown only two blocks away.

“Most people have come here before, some for 20 or more years,” says harbormaster Shawn Murphy, who is 36 and has worked at Northeast Harbor Marina for six years. “They like the protected harbor, the scenery and the nearness to Acadia National Park.”

Visitors also like Northeast Harbor’s quiet, peaceful atmosphere, upscale restaurants and the shops selling high-end designer clothing, toys, handcrafted jewelry, antiques and fine art along Main Street’s three blocks. The Holmes Store can properly outfit the most fastidious yachtsman and crew, and T.F. Brown — one of Maine’s largest chandleries — carries charts and gear. Wikhegan Old Books stocks an extensive nautical selection, including military books and vintage voyaging classics. Sherman’s sells new books, and you’ll find the New York Times and other newspapers at McGrath’s Newsstand.

Scenes of sailing and Mount Desert Island fill the art galleries. A pocket sculpture garden on Main Street exhibits Christopher Smith’s bronze wildlife pieces and tempts the curious into his gallery workshop. Most summer days the 42-year-old Texas sculptor goes boating at first light to photograph the birds and animals he later re-creates in bronze using the “lost wax” process. His 20 years of sculpting and a degree in biology are evident in his work.

In the old firehouse the Great Harbor Maritime Museum introduces visitors to historic Great Harbor, which encompasses Somes Sound, Southwest Harbor and Northeast Harbor, and the waters enclosed by the nearby Cranberry Isles. “Boaters sometimes hang out here for hours reading books and magazines, watching our [Friendship sloop] video, or checking out the exhibits,” says curator Sarah Murray. “Our model boat exhibit fascinated more people than any other exhibit we’ve had. Models are an art form I had never appreciated before.”

South of the marina, you can stroll or bicycle a mile or so of shady streets, past the Northeast Harbor Fleet clubhouse and intriguing gates and driveways, with an occasional glimpse of elegant waterfront “cottages.” The most dramatic are along the Somes Sound shore, though few match the opulence of Bar Harbor’s Gilded Age mansions. The Rockefellers and their equally wealthy peers who summered in Northeast Harbor in the early 1900s preferred a more modest lifestyle focused around sailing, hiking and the outdoors.

Some of this understated elegance is found across the harbor, at Asticou Terraces and Thuya Gardens. You can dinghy to pink granite Asticou Landing’s floating dock and tie up free for up to two hours. As you follow the stone pathways of Asticou Terraces up the granite ledges, you’ll find shelters and benches with vistas of Northeast Harbor below.

At the top is Thuya Lodge, the summer cottage of Boston landscape architect Joseph Henry Curtis, who designed the paths then donated his 140-acre estate for the “quiet recreation” of Northeast Harbor residents and their guests. The colorful formal gardens created after his death are delightful. You also can tour Curtis’ cottage — a modest frame dwelling with stone fireplaces and hardwood floors — and peruse the rare volumes in the botanical reference library upstairs.

From Asticou Landing it’s a half-mile or so north to the 1883 Asticou Inn and its Japanese-style azalea gardens. Stunning in early spring, the gardens, pathways and ponds display a quiet beauty throughout the season.

Harbormaster Murphy urges sailors to use the free propane-powered Island Explorer buses while in Northeast Harbor, rather than renting a car. “The bus is a great way to see Acadia Park and the island,” he says. However, golfers will need a car or taxi to reach Northeast Harbor Golf Club.

Two buses stop at the marina. One leaves hourly from 8:25 a.m. to 6:25 p.m. daily on runs to Jordan Pond, Bubble Pond and Bar Harbor. The other leaves on the hour from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and heads to Brown Mountain, Eagle Lake and Bar Harbor. Both will stop at hiking trails and carriage roads en route, and connect in Bar Harbor with the five other free Island Explorer bus routes that thread Mount Desert Island.

The buses will carry bicycles (your own or rentals) so you can explore the 40-some miles of carriage trails in the park. John D. Rockefeller Jr. of Seal Harbor constructed them from 1913 to 1940 so he and his guests could travel the eastern half of the island without encountering automobiles. Motor vehicles are still prohibited on the gently graded carriage trails, which include 17 beautiful stone bridges and many expansive vistas of mountains and ocean. Keep in mind that the last bus returns to Northeast Harbor at 8 p.m.

Northeast Harbor boasts a varied and increasing number of restaurants, from take-out and delis to the coat-and-tie elegance of the 1883 Asticou Inn’s formal dining room (reservations required). The convivial Docksider Restaurant, up the street from the marina, features seafood. Cruisers gather here, so as you await your order — whether eating indoors, outdoors or take out — you‘ll often overhear sea stories. The Colonel’s Restaurant, behind its notable bakery and deli, is the favorite spot among locals for breakfast. Its outdoor patio is popular during lunch and dinner. Main Sail Restaurant at the Kimball Terrace Inn features a casual menu and sweeping harbor view. The new La Matta Cena, a Tuscan-inspired restaurant, attracts the same Tony crowd as 151 Main, which serves nouveau cuisine.

Pine Tree Market supplements its extensive upscale staples, fresh meats, produce and baked goods with international wines, deli items and sandwiches. It delivers to the dock. The Main Street Variety Store’s Bell Buoy serves breakfast and lunch. Full Belli Deli and Coffee Bar is a daily first stop for many, and a farmers market operates Thursday mornings in front of the Kimball Terrace Inn.

Those seeking shoreside lodgings can choose from the Kimball Terrace Inn (motel), Maisson Suisse Bed and Breakfast, Harbourside Inn bed and breakfast, and the venerable Asticou Inn.

With its understated “old money” charm, superb sailing waters and much to see and do ashore, Northeast Harbor draws many cruisers back year after year.