MANILA, Philippines – From a distance, the hamlet of Bar Harbor looked modestly pretty as we sailed into Frenchman Bay. But as we dropped anchor to tender — that is, to transfer to a smaller vessel – and dock beside the wooden gangplank, the seaside terminus looked even more breathtakingly beautiful.
Situated some 120 miles from the capital city of Augusta, Maine, this quaint harbor is a desired destination in the southeastern coast of the US. It oozes with an endearing New England feel, with mom and pop resorts and inns, restaurants and bars, shops and galleries, with laid-back residents and a chilly breeze to boot. It is a place for relaxation and rejuvenation, and some inspiration too. Some even claim that it is the ideal spot for tired souls.
In fact, in the mid-1800s, Frederic Edwin Church and Thomas Cole, both central figures of the Hudson River School movement – a group of artists thoroughly influenced by Romanticism – temporarily relocated here to paint large-scale landscapes.
These paintings made their way throughout the country, admired by critics and well-received by patrons. They were an open invitation to experience through their eyes what Bar Harbor has to offer.
Eventually, this blessed parcel of heaven on Earth served as the go-to little community of an enclave for artists, writers, scholars and scientists, plus tourists searching for a place under the sun in pursuit of happiness. It was paradise found.
However, on Oct. 17, 1947, during a severe drought, a nearby cranberry bog ignited and blazed into a wildfire which intensified to an inferno on overdrive that took over a month to finally extinguish the last stray embers.
The fire razed most of Millionaire’s Row, a collection of summer homes of the ridiculously rich and glamorously famous, such as the Rockefellers of petroleum, the Fords of automobiles, the Astors of fur, the Morgans of banking and the Vanderbilts of railroads, plus a selection of country clubs, several grand hotels and hundreds of permanent dwellings.
With a current population of approximately 6,000, this town of only 164 square kilometers has been redesigned, restored and redeveloped, quite literally from the ashes of its former self. However, a survivor of the firestorm laments that Bar Harbor has never been quite the same after that fateful incident.
Aided by signs called Museum in the Streets, we ventured on a self-guided walking day tour. We explored the West Street Historic District, a residential cluster of exclusive summer mansions built during the economic boom.
Lining the avenue were around a dozen palatial homes, all with their very own distinguishable waterfront architecture designed by notable firms from Boston and New York.
The Abbe Museum, dedicated to the study, review and appreciation of the history and culture of the Wabanaki, Maine’s original settlers, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, a rare example of Mediterranean architecture within the state.
The museum boasts of ancient artifacts and recovered relics from prehistoric times. Hunting items such as arrowheads, spearpoints, hooks and harpoons alongside baskets, flutes and horns offered a glimpse of their daily life.
The showroom, one of some 200 members of the Smithsonian Affiliations, enjoys a long-term partnership with the Smithsonian Institution.
At the non-profit Bar Harbor Historical Society – which felt like a familiar home – the exhibit had old photographs, antique maps, vintage clothing, heirloom memorabilia and other interesting historical materials related to the neighborhood.
We then moved to the Fish House Grill, which seemed like a central hub for aquatic activities – surprisingly with no pestering salesmen in sight – such as lobster boat rides and kayaking on the calm and collected waters, whale watching close to the shores, stand-up paddle boarding and island-hopping lighthouse tours. Here, we savored the island’s trademark food: clam chowder with sourdough bread, lobster rolls and blueberry pie – which all restaurants claimed that they serve the best iteration.
While walking around this quiet little settlement, it was obvious that the residents protected their pocket public gardens – from the potted blooms to the shifting autumn colors of the foliage. “Wait till you see what’s in store in the nearby mountains – this is more like a teaser,” a proud and enthusiastic resident told us.
We then popped into several family-run shops, passed down two to three generations, full of homemade handicrafts such as recycled paper, baskets, printed fabrics, pottery, glasswork, jewelry and artisanal souvenirs you’d be proud to share with friends.
We also learned that locals likewise produced their very own breads and pastries, jams and marmalades, and even olive oil and vinegar.
There were a number of small galleries featuring local painters who specialize in scenes of nature and life at sea, and a non-pretentious marina of mini yacht and bigger boats. But it was clear that neither were establishments to make a living – the affluent townsfolk most likely painted for leisure and “did the waters” for adventure.
We decided to check out the town’s in-vogue accommodations, which had patches of green and each bursting with their own distinct charms.
We beelined to the iconic Bar Harbor Inn and Spa, sought-after for its premium scenery of the boardwalk and beyond.
The cozy Elmhurst Inn, surrounded by lush and verdant gardens, is walking distance from most of the area’s amenities. On the other hand, Tode Watch Cabins boasts of coastal cottages along a private beach.
Although this entire isle has been designed as a tourist destination, its authenticity triumphs above all else. Nothing ever felt overdeveloped or grossly misplaced – everything was, for lack of a better term, just a bit short of perfect.
As we ended our walkabout by the coast, we got swept away to the Bar Island, an islet we accessed on foot through a sand and gravel path during low tide. Gladly, we took a short stroll within the ridges of the forest-covered hill, which provided a spectacular view of Frenchman Bay and Bar Harbor itself. As we gazed at the sensational sunset – a sight to cherish and remember – it was a moment of breathtaking poetry, an instance suspended in self-reflection.