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Destination: Maine

Roughing it in Acadia -- sort of

A planned camping trip in the national park turns into a Bar Harbor hotel stay with restaurant meals. But there's plenty of hiking and biking.

September 12, 2004|Joe McElwee | Special to The Times

Bar Harbor, Maine — Winds blast the bald outcropping 1,530 feet above the Atlantic as the stars melt into the creeping light of dawn. Perched on Cadillac Mountain in America's easternmost national park, I may be the first person in the country to witness this new day. Around me, there are only the crash of the waves, the cry of a seagull and a cold, numbing wind.

Acadia National Park, established in 1919 as the first national park east of the Mississippi, dangles from Maine's tortuous coastline on a land formation called Mount Desert Island. It takes its name from the larger region that encompasses northern Maine and, in Canada, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and part of Quebec.

I'd been here nearly 20 years earlier and still remembered the sunrise view from Cadillac Mountain as one of the most beautiful I'd encountered. So when my longtime friend Hal -- who had never stepped inside a Winnebago, let alone pitched a tent -- and I decided to go camping in May 2003, Acadia seemed a good spot.

We stuffed our tent, backpacks and sleeping bags into the trunk of his Ford Taurus. We loaded our bikes onto a rack mounted above the rear bumper. We planned meals to be cooked over Coleman stoves by the light of propane lanterns. We would be roughing it.

We hit the road early, but the drive from Philadelphia, where we both live, to northern Maine takes 12 hours. By the time we reach Bar Harbor (pronounced "Bah Hah-bah" by the locals), adjacent to Acadia National Park, it's after 9 p.m., which means total darkness this far east. Off Route 3, an illuminated billboard advertises free lobsters with a two-night stay at the Bar Harbor Quality Inn.

I gesture toward the sign and say, "It could be tricky pitching a tent in the dark, Hal."

"Didn't I read about bears up here?"

"Boiled lobsters are a lot less dangerous."

"That settles it. We better get a room."

Later that evening, after watching a basketball game on TV, Hal gets up to change the channel.

"Here," I offer. "Use the remote."

"Nah, that's all right, Joe. We're roughing it."

Rockefeller's legacy

France established its first permanent North American colony in the Acadia region in 1604. During the French and Indian War (1754-63), British troops expelled 10,000 Acadians, many of whom resettled in another French colony, Louisiana, and became known as Cajuns -- a variation on the word Acadian (like "Injun" is of Indian). The forced exodus was immortalized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 1847 epic poem "Evangeline," in which two lovers are separated just before their wedding. Longfellow's opening lines still capture the feel of the place: "This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, / Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight ... "

After my solo sunrise excursion, the weather takes a turn for the worse, so we spend our first day exploring Bar Harbor and driving the 27-mile scenic Park Loop Road that links Acadia's major attractions, including beaches, campgrounds, a nature center and the historic Jordan Pond House. It also provides access points to the 45 miles of carriage roads, one of the park's most popular features.

These roads of compact broken stone, built from 1913 to 1940, were designed and financed by John D. Rockefeller Jr. His fortune may have come from Standard Oil, which fueled America's passion for cars, but he didn't want to see Mount Desert Island overrun by automobiles. Besides building the car-free carriage roads, he also donated more than 10,000 acres of land to the park.

The island's natural beauty, popularized in landscape paintings of the Hudson River Valley School, attracted the Rockefellers and other prominent industrialists and financiers. The Carnegies, Fords, Morgans and Vanderbilts all erected palatial "summer cottages" on Mount Desert Island, though most were destroyed by the great fire of 1947.

The carriage roads, however, remain. Rehabilitated in the 1990s, they continue to serve as a haven for hikers, cyclists and equestrians. Park personnel have divided them into segments with colorful names (Aunt Betty's Pond, the Witch's Hole) and varied difficulties, from the easy 3.8-mile Cedar Swamp Mountain Loop to the 15-mile Around the Mountain route. They wind beneath canopies of spruce and hemlock, where time unfolds in breezes scented with pine and melts away in pools of sunlight on the forest floor.

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