Go-to Islands Destinations: Mount Desert Island
Let’s face it—without islands to sail to, cruising wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. No matter where you sail, arriving at a destination by boat has a magic of its own.
Mount Desert Island
By Tom Egan 44.3924° N, 68.3021° W
All the qualities that make Maine a great cruising destination can be found on Mount Desert Island. Whether your cruising style requires a shorepower hookup and fine dining ashore, quaint working harbors with moorings, lobster rolls and colorful waterfront characters, or an anchorage in pristine natural surroundings with hiking and eagle spotting opportunities, MDI has it all.
Approaching by sea you will be awed by MDI’s mountainous terrain. West Coast readers may scoff, but at 1,529ft, Cadillac Mountain is the highest mountain on the East Coast of the United States. It was this vegetationless glacier-scrubbed rocky dome that inspired Samuel de Champlain to call this place “Isles des Monts Desert” in 1604. Though it’s technically an island, you can abandon any idea of circumnavigating it aboard a boat with a mast, as a low fixed bridge crosses the shallow Mount Desert Narrows connecting MDI to the mainland. The land has a rich history worthy of a little reading. Shell mounds tell of 6,000 years of Native American occupation, followed by French Jesuits in 1613, English troops in 1759 and American millionaires in the late 1800s. Summer residents including the Rockefellers, Morgans, Fords, Vanderbilts, Carnegies and Astors felt a need to protect and preserve their seasonal playground, and in an act of public generosity worthy of nostalgia, a group led by George B. Dorr gifted a large portion of the island to a public trust that eventually became Acadia National Park.
On the east side of the island alongside Frenchman’s Bay, one finds the iconic town of Bar Harbor, departure port of the Nova Scotia ferry and a mecca for many of the two million tourists visiting the park each year. The harbormaster can hook you up with a dock or mooring. On shore, a poor lobster doesn’t stand a chance as a dozen restaurants offer the buggers boiled, steamed, grilled, baked or stuffed. After you’ve bought the obligatory T-shirt and tourmaline jewelry (Maine’s official gem stone) you can kick back with a pint at the Lompoc Café and play a round of bocce, all the while listening to live music. Try a Cadillac Mountain Stout or any of the fine offerings of the Atlantic Brewing Company, which was founded on this site in 1990.
If Bar Harbor is a tourist town with a bit of a yachting scene, then the twin ports of Northeast Harbor and Southwest Harbor on opposite wings of the butterfly-shaped island’s south side are true yachting towns that welcome the occasional tourist.
Northeast Harbor is ringed by stately homes and offers great protection from the weather. Moorings, slips and every yacht service imaginable are cheerfully provided for along the waterfront. Try provisioning at the Farmer’s Market near the ferry terminal, open from 0900 to 1200 on Thursdays, for great local produce.
If life let you choose where and when to suffer marine equipment failure, you could pick no better place than Southwest Harbor, where there is a Coast Guard station and several top-notch service yards to fix any conceivable boat problem. Our favorite reason to visit Southwest Harbor is for some of the best yacht-gawking on the east coast. The impeccably maintained fleet of Hinckleys, professionally pampered by their builder’s yard at the mouth of the harbor, will likely trigger a severe case of varnish envy.
If you prefer a quieter, picturesque, working harbor backdrop for your sunset happy hour, check out Bass Harbor on the southwest tip of the island or Seal Harbor a little farther east. (One of 13 Harbors, coves or bays in the state named “Seal,” by our count.) Or if getting back to nature is more your thing, the east side of the island features a handful of beautiful little coves, where you might find yourself the only boat among the pine trees and rocky shoreline. That said, for shear natural beauty, the anchorage we never miss is Valley Cove in Somes Sound.
Somes is a true glacier-carved fjord like no other this side of Norway, and Valley Cove is tucked into the lee of a 600ft cliff. A short dinghy ride to the beach puts you on Flying Mountain Trail for one of the most scenic hikes in Maine. There is nothing like looking down at your boat gently bobbing at anchor hundreds of feet below and then scanning the horizon for 30 miles in every direction to make you appreciate this special part of the world.