Bar Harbor, Camden and Rockland
Chapter 1 — The Adventure Begins
Ah, Maine, you’re beautiful even when it rains.
The steady rhythm of pitter-patter, pitter-patter echoes from the gravel filled water puddle directly below a crack in the old wooden gutters hanging from the porch of the charming 150-year-old Camden Harbour Inn, our temporary home for two nights this week. I patiently wait for Diane, my wife and cycling partner, to appear from the lobby as the dense early morning fog makes me shiver while I rock back and forth in one of the Inn’s comfortable old chairs.
We’re part of a group sponsored by BACKROADS, an adventure travel company based in California. It’s the third day of a weeklong cycling tour the two of us and fifteen others who call Massachusetts, South Carolina, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and several other states home. We’re all here this week to explore the central coastal region of Maine from the perspective of a bicycle seat.
I’m convinced it’s going to be a soggy 20-mile ride to Rockland today, but we have rain gear and we’ve come too far to let raindrops stop us from visiting the charming New England region to the south. The porch door then swings open and Diane pops out with gloves and an extra jacket in hand. Moments later, we’re on the road, ready for another day of making memories.
How Did We Get Here and Why?
During the horrific peak months of COVID-19, while our family and much of the world hibernated, Diane and I made a pact to explore more, enjoy life and family to a greater degree and invest in less “stuff.” Instead, we promised one another that we’d throw our collective energies and resources towards traveling once the world regained a sense of normalcy.
First up: Maine
Neither Diane nor I had biked in Maine before, but we’d discussed it multiple times through the years. Its rocky shoreline, cobalt blue waters, iconic lighthouses, fresh seafood and storybook alpine forests made it a priority in our quest to begin our post-COVID adventures.
The planning and logistics were hurdles we would have to overcome, though. Early June would be the target period because the weather would likely be ideal and school would still be in session — two important factors. Diane had conferences to attend in Phoenix June 2 and 3 and a second one in Boston June 12 and 13. We used those dates as bookends and sandwiched several days in the middle to ride the coastal shoreline in the Bar Harbor, Camden, and Rockland area.
Our Friday flight from Phoenix to Boston gave us an opportunity to enjoy Boston and a buffer day between the end of Diane’s Arizona conference and when we were scheduled to meet with the BACKROADS group the following Monday. It was nice to experience Sunday’s two-hour train ride from Boston to Portland with very few passengers in our car.
(Footnote: I’m considering using AMTRAK more for future bike tours since they allow passengers to take their bikes with them with plenty of storage room and very few hassles.)
We explored Portland the evening we arrived, slept well in a local hotel and then joined the group downtown for a three-hour shuttle van ride to Bar Harbor the following morning. Now connected as a team under sunny blue skies, the group leaders fit our rental bikes, gave us a brief explanation of the afternoon’s planned ride, detailed our bike computers with the GPS pre-programmed routes and sent us on our way.
Acadia National Park and the Carriage Road System
The paved roads, lined with majestic fir and spruce trees along Somes Sound eventually led us to Acadia National Park, the first national park east of the Mississippi River founded in 1919 and now one of the most popular destinations for nature and adventure lovers in the country. We rode for less than an hour and made our way to the famous Carriage Roads, a 40-mile network of car free gravel byways built by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in the early part of the 20th century. Its 16 stone bridges and crushed gravel paths, all built between 1919 and 1931, are constructed from hand-hewn local granite and makes riding across ravines and creeks something I’ll never forget.
We were off and running and couldn’t wait to soak in what the week ahead would provide.
Bar Harbor, which takes up half of Mount Desert Island in central coastal Maine, is the gateway to Acadia National Park. The town was settled in 1763 and was originally the home of fishermen, shipbuilders and those looking for a fresh supply of old-growth trees. Today, it’s a mecca for tourists from around the world seeking to explore the outdoors.
Chapter 2 — Acadia National Park and Cadillac Mountain
In the most simple terms, Day Two of our tour was thirty mies of the most blissful, incredibly beautiful riding I’ve ever done.
Our tour group was up early on this sunny Tuesday morning and excited to tackle the East Side Loop of Acadia National Park. Today’s route would take us along Ocean Drive with its incredible views of the coast, a short detour to Sand Beach, smooth riding on the paved roads along the rocky coastline, the peaceful joy of experiencing the pristine waters of Jordan Pond and finally a steep climb up Cadillac Mountain with its 360-degree views of the area. All that before cruising down the mountain and looping back to our home base in Bar Harbor for dinner.
The roads, with a surprising low number of cars to contend with for most of the day, offered sweeping curves lined with trees and dense vegetation so thick Mother Nature seemed to have designed it to keep darkness and nature in and humanity out.
Mount Desert Island
But first, a bit of background to explain the geography of the area. Acadia National Park makes up half of Mount Desert Island on the central Maine coast. The island’s the second largest in the contiguous United States, trailing only New York’s Long Island and ahead of Martha’s Vineyard on the southern end of Cape Cod. Maine’s Mount Desert has a population of 10,000 but bulges to extremes when it welcomes 3.5 million visitors each year with Acadia National Park as its crown jewel.
We took a short detour to Sand Beach, a beautiful 290-yards-long swimming area comprised of soft sand shell fragments created by the pounding surf. The water temperature rarely exceeds 55 degrees Fahrenheit but it’s common to see beach lovers and small children overcoming the chill and playing in the shallow waters. The star attraction is Thunder Hole, a crevasse into which high waves crash mercilessly with enough power to let those in the area know its ferocity.
Pure and simple, Cadillac Mountain was the star of today’s ride. The mountain, at 1,530 feet (466 meters), is the highest point on the eastern seaboard of the US and is the first place in the country to be able to see the sun rise.
Approximately 20 miles into today’s route, we began our climb up Cadillac. The ascent was as much as an eight percent grade for the 3.5 miles to the summit. I could feel the winds building for the final mile, but the views of the bodies of water below and the otherworldly surroundings made it worth the struggle. We spent an hour at the top, hiked some of the trails that gave us views of Bar Harbor, Frenchman Bay and the Cranberry Isles below and then descended to the base for the final few miles to our Bar Harbor hotel.
Dinner was on our own, and it was nice to sit outside at a downtown restaurant and revel in what Diane and I had experienced on this special day.
Chapter 3 — Rain!
There’s something eerily mystical about a crisp, cool New England morning after a night of steady rain. Clouds hang low over the rocky shorelines and distant mountains, sounds emitting from the nearby harbors are muffled and there’s a welcome freshness in the air.
The first two days we spent exploring Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park presented us with a steady dose of sunshine and blue skies. However, after we left Mount Desert Island and Bar Harbor for the coastal mainland and the towns of Camden and Rockland, Days 3 and 4 of our tour were anything but sunny. My wife and I are hardly foreigners to riding in wet conditions because we live in Arizona where monsoons bring significant storms during the summer months. But the fact is, it can be difficult dodging spray from passing vehicles and staying upright on slippery pavement, especially when you’re on tour using rental bikes and unfamiliar with the local roads.
We left the Camden Harbour Inn, our home away from home, early Wednesday, rode past the stately homes with manicured lawns highlighted by flowering rhododendrons and then pedaled our way beyond the town’s borders before heading north towards Megunticook Lake. The rural terrain was spectacularly hilly and we soon found ourselves in a relaxed rhythm of riding under a lush canopy of trees and along country roads lined with small farms. Boats were out on the lake and a few hearty souls were weathering the challenging conditions and looking for the catch of the day.
Fifteen miles into the ride, I was surprised to see a roadside sign pointing out that we were on a section of the East Coast Greenway, a 3,000-mile bike route that runs along the east coast of the United States between Maine and Florida.
I’d read several accounts and watched multiple videos of bike tourists who had completed this route, and somewhere in the back of my mind I’d relish the thought of trying it myself. But I intentionally relegated the self-indulgent goal to my mental file cabinet, picked up the pace and rejoined the other team members so we could begin our loop back to the inn.
Day 4 was almost a carbon copy of the previous day, but we’d been monitoring the weather reports and decided to get an early start, departing Camden at 7 a.m. so we could get to Rockland to the south before the major storms arrived. The route paralleled the coast, again took us through rural countryside and led us to the the small (pop. 7,000) coastal town of Rockland, labeled as Maine’s art capital and home of the Farnsworth Art Museum. The museum is nationally recognized for its collection of 18th- and 19th-century American art, especially for the landscapes and rugged terrain works of Andrew Wyeth.
A personal highlight for me — being the notorious chocoholic I’ve always been — was stopping by a small pastry shop downtown and having the very best eclair I’ve ever tasted.
With the storm clouds gathering in the distance, our group cut the day’s bike tour short and took the van back to Camden. Another delicious seafood-focused dining opportunity for all of us.
Chapter 4 — Goodbye Maine
Day 5, the final hours of our tour of coastal Maine, welcomed us with blue skies and bright sunshine. It was a glorious end to an eventful week, one neither my wife nor I will ever forget.
This day focused on riding more rural roads around Camden, allowed us to savor the beauty of lakes and lighthouses and enjoy the company of those in our tour group one final time. After a 20-mile morning ride, we shuttled south to the small community of Bath where we enjoyed a walking tour of Maine’s Maritime Museum. It was all capped off with a lobster roll picnic lunch on the museum’s lawn served by our outstanding tour guides.
The week came to an end with an hour-long shuttle to Portland where we boarded a train to Boston so Diane could attend a neuroscience conference in Cambridge. My time in New England got even better because I was able to spend a few days with my daughter and her family in Massachusetts. A bonus was being able to borrow my son-in-law’s bike and ride 60 miles from the North Shore of Boston to New Hampshire on one of the days.
Definitely a period in our lives we will never forget.