ELLSWORTH, Maine — We felt like we deserved a nice, long vacation, but our recession-infected bank accounts argued to the contrary. I began to plot. The most expensive part of our vacations is usually the hotel bill, a sliver of paper that arrives on the last day of a much-needed getaway and delivers a tax-laden shock that pretty much destroys that blissful feeling of rest and relaxation.
What if my husband and I could rent a place by the week instead? I turned to the classified section of my college alumni magazine and started perusing. $3,500 a week in Nantucket. $1,000 a night in San Jose del Cabo, Mexico. Nope, and nope.
Then I saw it: "Maine: Bar Harbor-Ellsworth area. Lakefront cottage, loons, eagles, 2 kayaks, canoe. $700 weekly."
Frankly, I didn't know much about that part of Maine. I did know that we were flying up to Massachusetts in mid-September to visit my daughter at school, so all we'd have to do airfare-wise is change our tickets for $150 a pop. So for $1,000, plus car rental, we could have a week of lakeside vacation nirvana.
Done. I briefly checked out the online photos of the cottage and sent an e-mail to the owner, who then requested a deposit.
We were "in."
But the question was, "in what?" Like Lewis and Clark boldly setting off to the great American West in the early 19th century, we started our New England adventure into the unknown. We wondered, "What do you get for $700 a week?" Perhaps we should have done a little more research. Unlike the explorers of yesteryear, for example, we could have actually consulted a map or Google.
"Well, it's not the worst place I've ever stayed in," my husband, David, proclaims in what I imagine he thinks is an encouraging tone as we open the door to the cottage on a Sunday afternoon.
The last half-hour of our drive has been a little tense, and we are tired.
We had arrived in Ellsworth, the nearest town to the cottage, in midafternoon and headed directly to a wine and specialty-food shop I'd read about in a guidebook. We stocked up on everything we'd want for breakfasts: fresh bread, organic fruits, yogurt, milk and coffee. I bought organic pasta, fresh tomatoes and basil and figured I'd make one of our favorite pasta dishes that night in the cottage. Look, we were already saving money by planning non-restaurant meals.
But the bill at the small shop came to about $100 for one bag's worth of stuff. And we still needed additional, more proletariat items like paper towels. We asked if there was a big grocery store in town, and it turned out there were two, just a little farther down the road.
As we walked down the aisles of the bigger store, we realized we'd already made mistake No. 1. We could have saved a lot of money by shopping for everything here instead. I started a mental list of Things We Should Have Done.
Things We Should Have Done No. 1: Ask the landlord about local stores before you go.
Armed with our groceries, we got in the car and immediately discovered:
Things We Should Have Done No. 2: If you are driving on country roads, study the landlord's directions in advance and ask questions.
For example, a good direction would be "Drive 6.5 miles and turn right on Sugar Hill Road." A less-than-helpful direction would be "Follow Route 200 through the center of Eastbrook (don't blink or you'll miss it!). This is where Route 200 veers left. Do not do this! Bear right after the Grange Hall, and follow to the top of the hill."
You may notice no distance is given in the latter directions. Maps were of little help because our landlord forgot to include street names. Our GPS was useless because "she" didn't recognize the address given for the cottage.
This is where things got tense.
As the light faded, we kept our eyes glued for a Grange Hall. The thing is, we weren't sure what a Grange Hall was, and we had no idea how far down Route 200 to expect it. After about two miles, David decided that we must have missed it, and so we drove back to the start of the road, where we saw a building that had a flag in front. "I think we should go right here," he said, indicating a driveway with a group of mailboxes.
"I don't think so," I said. "I think we should just give it time."
We gave it more than six miles — an excruciatingly long six miles, perhaps the longest six miles in history, in which, by request, I repeatedly read through the directions above. Perhaps David thought that new details would magically arise to give us hope. Instead, we had to listen over and over to the "Do not do this!" warning, which I chose to read in a menacing tone each time.
We did, eventually, find Grange Hall, veered right, and followed the rest of the mileage-free directions, miraculously, to a mailbox on which a sign was taped bearing our names.
Things We Should Have Done, No. 3: Ask for interior photos of the place you're renting.
When I walk into the cottage, I realize that all the photos I've seen of it have been of the exterior. Clearly, there was a reason this information had been withheld.
Picture shabby-chic, without the chic. Dirty tan carpeting is covered with worn braided rugs. An old couch sags against the wall, with an ill-fitting slipcover. None of the walls is finished out, so you can see the plumbing lines and electrical cords. A small water heater takes up most of the space in the bathroom. The shower is outside, around the back of the cabin — two metal walls, a shower head and a curtain. The mattress on the queen-size bed is an invitation to a backache.
And it is cold.
So very cold.
We've brought towels and blankets, as instructed, but pitying us, the landlords have left a set of flannel sheets. There are space heaters in the cabin, ancient things that didn't seem to do much except mock our chill.
As I crawl into bed that night wearing flannel pajamas, wool socks and a down vest, I snuggle under the sheets. They have a peculiar wet-dog smell that I realize is mothballs.
"How do these people live up here all summer?" I wonder.
The next day dawns bright and sunny. We had purchased tickets online for a whale-watching expedition that afternoon, setting out from Bar Harbor.
It takes about an hour to get to Bar Harbor. From Ellsworth. We take Route 3, a tedious road lined with motels and tourist traps, made more tedious by road workers fixing it up.
We arrive frantic and late and hungry. They say there will be lunch available on board, but the little restaurant has only soggy, microwaved pizzas, which, of course, we scarf down.
Things We Should Have Done No. 4: Allow plenty of time for driving in places you've never been before.
The boat is big and moves quickly out to sea. A perky young guide points out the islands we pass and the shoreline of Acadia National Park's Mount Desert Island.
She sees a manx whale, she says, and the boat stops, but we don't see it. About 25 miles out, we come to Mount Desert Rock, a treeless small island that serves as a marine research station. The island boasts a lighthouse, a dilapidated old house made more dilapidated by the hurricane that blew through this year and a generator that sometimes delivers electricity. And yet, it is starkly beautiful. Two different kinds of seals sun themselves on one end of the rock, while others bob up and down in the sea. The sea is all kinds of deep blues, wild and wavy, underneath a sun-saturated blue sky.
Not long after, our boat comes upon a group of about 40 pilot whales, a kind of dolphin. The females and children are playful, approaching the boat, gliding in and out of the water. The males, off to the side, are slower and more stately. We are so close that we can hear all of them communicating to each other and expelling air through their blowholes as they surface.
Our guide's enthusiasm is contagious: "Oh, look, he loves me!" she said about one of the young whales. "It's my favorite whale behavior! He's lying on his back and flapping his flippers!" We stay in the spot for about 20 or 30 minutes, enjoying the fresh (but cold) air and the fascinating creatures.
On the way back to Bar Harbor, the guide points out some adorable puffins, skittering quickly across the top of the water, their wings flapping about 400 times a minute.
Back in town, we walk through the small village of Bar Harbor, which seems to be mostly filled with touristy T-shirt shops and restaurants. We have dinner at Side Street Cafe, a pretty little place featuring local, organic food. The screened windows are open and the air feels fresh and clean.
That night, we are in bed by 8:30. We have definitely dialed it down. We watch a movie on our DVD player, but fall asleep by 9. The next morning David declares, "The fresh air is killing us."
It wasn't necessarily a staph infection, but it sure looked like one.
It was big and red and on the back of one of David's legs. We had planned to spend the morning on the lake, then go into town and rent bikes and go kayaking.
Instead, it was Plan B: At the Ellsworth Primary Health Clinic, after an hour-and-a-half wait, a nurse-practitioner says she thinks it sure looks like a staph infection. Drugs are prescribed, which means a trip to a pharmacy where they say it will take about half an hour. So off we amble down the road to the L.L. Bean Outlet.
Did I mention that it is cold?
It is also starting to look like rain. I am getting worried about the kayaking. My canvas tennis shoes will be hard to keep dry and I don't have a rainjacket.
I spy a pair of fleece-lined Bean shoes on a rack. They fit. They look like maybe someone had worn and returned them, but I don't care. Then I find a rain jacket, also discounted, the tag of which assures me that I will stay warm and dry, perhaps even if I fall out of the kayak into the sea. After all, there's no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. I repeat this mantra as I sign the credit card purchase for $150.
So much for protecting that bank account, but I'm ready for kayaking.
We pick up the antibiotics and David pops one of the pills in his mouth. A little while later, we stop at Lunt's Gateway Lobster Pound for lunch, one of the touristy little places along Route 3. We order fried clams and shrimp, and well before they arrive David turns almost a shade of green. He is sick.
We need a Plan C.
There will be no kayaking. Instead, we decide to go into Bar Harbor and get the bikes and then, if David feels better, drive (in the car) the 27-mile Park Loop Road around Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island, a vast, mountainous wilderness on the edge of which Bar Harbor is perched. By the time we mount the bikes on the car rack, David has recovered.
This is where we fall in love with Maine with its craggy coastline and forest-covered mountains. Acadia National Park is stunning. We stop at Sandy Beach, where people and their dogs frolic near the 55-degree water. At Thunder Hole, we walk over the massive rocks on the shoreline. At the southern end of the Loop Road, we pull out of the park and wind our way through Seal Harbor, where Martha Stewart and other billionaires now live in their vista-blessed homes.
We stop at Jordan Pond House, the only restaurant in the park, for hot popovers and cappuccino.
On the way out of the park that afternoon, we drive up to the top of Mount Cadillac, the highest mountain on the Eastern Seaboard in North America. On a clear day, you can see for 150 miles, they say.
It is not a clear day. In fact, a dense fog shrouds the mountain road as we drive up. The only thing we see at the top of Cadillac Mountain is an old woman perched on a sidewalk with her camera at her eye. "It will be beautiful when it blows over," she says.
It blows over the next morning.
Things We Should Have Done No. 5: Study the map and guidebooks before choosing your vacation home. If we had realized how amazing Acadia was, we would have planned our vacation to be closer to the park. Instead, we were spending two hours a day in the car.
That night, I am suddenly seized by the realization that we are running out of time.
There is so much to do in our last two days: We haven't biked the celebrated carriage roads in the park yet. We haven't seen the view from Cadillac Mountain. We haven't even been out on the lake. We've had lobster only twice — once as a fritter and once in lobster rolls — and we had yet to figure out if we could tell the difference between claw and tail meat, one of our personal goals for our vacation.
I think about something our landlady said the night we arrived as we shared a glass of wine on the porch of her next-door cottage: "There's so much to do here, it would take a whole lifetime."
At the time, I had thought she was clearly insane, but already I can see her point. I look around the cabin, thinking it would be relaxing to spend a whole summer here. I've conquered my fear of the outdoor shower and discovered that it is primitive but the water is hot and the view can't be beat.
I embrace the cottage and its ruggedness. No phone. No cell service. No TV. Not a single luxury. And what a luxury that turns out to be.
Thank you, John D. Rockefeller. According to the indispensable "A Pocket Guide to the Carriage Roads of Acadia National Park" (Down East Books, $5.95), "in 1913 (Rockefeller) embarked on a 27-year project that would ... include construction of 51 miles of road, 17 bridges, and two gatehouses." These roads, which he funded, were to be automobile-free.
Today, they remain so and provide some of the most relaxing and beautiful bicycling and hiking you can imagine. The fine gravel roads are linked in loops. We decide to start with the Jordan-Bubble Ponds loop, 8.6 miles of trail that leads you first slowly up to see beautiful vistas of Jordan Pond and then down along the edge of Bubble Pond. Most of the loop is in dappled shade or dense forest.
After a fresh seafood lunch on the green lawn of Jordan Pond House, overlooking the water, we decide to try the shorter (3.9 miles) but more steeply graded Hadlock Brook Loop, at the top of which is a waterfall. All the trails are beautifully maintained, with stone walls and bridges where they are needed. This trail leads through an especially dense forest covered with layers of lush moss.
We are up for a third ride, and we choose Witch Hole Pond Loop, 4.6 miles including a great view of the harbor from the Paradise Hill portion of the trail. As we pedal along, a couple in their 20s sail by. She calls out, "Isn't this the perfect day for a ride?"
And it is.
We shower at private pay-per-minute facilities near the park's Blackwoods campground. This is the not-so-perfect part of the day. I find used Band-Aids in the drain and hair on the walls. It's beyond ick.
Things We Should Have Done No. 6: Pack flip-flops if your trip includes a sketchy shower.
But a can of athlete's-foot spray and a glass of wine at Parkside on the Green back in Bar Harbor soon erase those memories, and then we join some friends from Michigan at Cafe This Way. We met them last year on a Bike Vermont cycling trip in Middlebury (they came as a group; we were the outsiders dubbed "Team Texas"), and coincidentally, they are now on another Bike Vermont trip in Bar Harbor. It's so crazy but fun that we have ended up in the same place two Septembers in a row. We ask them where they're going next year for vacation. Perhaps we'll be there, too.
That night, we collapse into bed exhausted. David says it again, "The fresh air is killing us."
Many mornings there is a dense fog on the lake. This morning, Thursday, our last full day, the lake weather is clear and windy. We decide to take out the kayaks.
This is when I realize I think I could easily fall in love with the lake, too. It is beautiful and changes color almost by the minute. Sometimes it is deep blue. Sometimes shimmery and silver. Sometimes a deep gray.
The leaves are starting to change color along the shoreline, providing pops of orange and yellow. What fun it would be to explore this lake, becoming one with the loons we hear at night and finding the nesting spot for the eagles.
We then head back to Acadia for another bike ride, choosing the Eagle Lake Loop (5.8 miles). But we're hungry. We return the bikes to Bar Harbor Bicycle Shop and have lunch overlooking the harbor on the patio of the Quarterdeck. We order lazy lobster, which means we don't have to crack any shells. Claw meat and tail meat lie drenched in warm, melted butter. We discover we can tell the difference between the two. The claws are more tender, the tail tougher but more flavorful.
The view from Cadillac Mountain, our next stop, is gorgeous: the vast blue of the sea, the islands, the dense forests of the park, the tiny town of Bar Harbor with cruise ships in the harbor. Hawks glide through the clouds. Just as it is all starting to look familiar, it is time for us to go.
Our nice, long vacation was coming to an end.
The next morning there was no hotel bill. Instead, we wrote a note of thanks to our hosts, packed the car, gulped down one last lungful of clean air and hit the road. It felt a bit like leaving home.
Although, honestly, I was looking forward to a decent mattress.
IF YOU GO:
WHAT TO DO
Acadia National Park Box 177, Bar Harbor www.nps.gov/acad
Single vehicle seven-day entrance pass: $20, June 23-early October; $10, May 1-June 22 and early October-Oct. 31.
Bar Harbor Bicycle Shop 141 Cottage St., Bar Harbor
Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co. 1 West St., Bar Harbor
L.L. Bean Outlet 150 High St., Ellsworth
Cafe This Way, 14 Mount Desert St., Bar Harbor, 207-288-4483; www.cafethisway.com
Lunt's Gateway Lobster Pound, Route 3, Trenton, 207-667-2620
Side Street, 49 Rodick St., Bar Harbor, 207-801-2591; www.sidestreetbarharbor.com
Quarterdeck, 1 Main St., Bar Harbor, 207-288-1161; www.quarterdeckbarharbor.com
Catherine Mallette: cmallettestar-telegram.com