So while planning this trip, we found out that neither of us knew a darn thing about Maine. All I knew was that lobsters and syrup would be abundant. My wife had talked to some friends that suggested we visit Bar Harbor (pronounced Bah Hahba) and Acadia National Park. Of course, you can’t get there by plane (at least on our budget), so we flew into Portland, rented a car, and stayed there for a night to see the sites before driving up to Bar Harbor.
Getting Started in Portland
When I rolled into the car rental area, the person at the Avis desk held up a set of keys with a big pink tag and said this must be for you. I felt like royalty, but in all honesty, I was just happy they had the car with hand controls in Maine. It also gave me a clue as to how few people are in Maine.
After doing extensive research (and by that I mean Googling Portland) I found that Portland is the largest city in Maine. We allotted one day to tour Portland, which was plenty of time to see the highlights. I will say that it is a pretty cool coastal city, but much smaller than I expected. It has a mix of new and old buildings incorporated on a historic waterfront. We stayed at the Marriott Residence Inn. The hotel was very nice, relatively new, and fully accessible, but it was probably just far enough away that we decided to drive when we went out.
We walked/rolled up and down the waterfront shops. I will say that the streets can be pretty hilly once you get off Commercial Street and go inland, but it is manageable. More than half of the tourist shops are not ADA compliant as they had a step or two to get into them, but most of the restaurants attempted to be compliant. This worked out well for me seeing that I am not a big shopper, but I’m always happy to eat. Many of these buildings would be considered historic.
We ate at places that I could see a way to roll into although later we noticed that many of the restaurants had some access from the back. We had lunch at the Dry Dock Restaurant and Tavern on the back porch overlooking some of the docks. We ended up having dinner at $3 Dewey’s, a pub that looked like it had been there a long time. You’ll have to visit to understand what the name means. The food at both restaurants was average, but nothing to write home about. We did notice that Portland seems to be a city with an abundance of craft beers and microbrews, and we found a few that we liked. I recommend trying the various varieties of blueberry-infused beers.
The next morning we took our time leaving for the approximately 3-hour drive to Bar Harbor. Our extensive research (Google) paid off again. We realized that we were going to go right by the LL Bean flagship stores in Freeport, ME, so we decided to stop. An entire outlet shopping area went up around the LL Bean stores. My wife was in heaven, and I was able to buy a raincoat as it was raining and I forgot to bring one.
I will say I was very disappointed in a few of the shops such as the North Face Outlet as they were not ADA accessible at all. I made mental notes and sent a few choice letters to a few of the stores when we got home. We casually left the area and thought we would pick up some lunch on the road to Bar Harbor. Just to give you a heads-up, this was a mistake. There is not a whole lot of exits or fast food at the exits. It’s not like Georgia where there is a Waffle House at every exit.
We rolled into Bar Harbor and checked into our hotel. We stayed at the Bluenose Inn. The hotel is older but very nicely preserved. I will say the décor was not my style, but the room was large, the bed was comfortable, and the bathroom had a roll-in shower. The Bluenose was not our first choice, but the other wheelchair accessible rooms at other hotels were not available for the length of our stay. If we had to do it again several nice hotels open into the downtown area, so you don’t have to drive to the downtown area like you do from the Bluenose Inn. I would suggest looking into the Bar Harbor Grand which has roll-in showers or the West Street Hotel as it is a fairly new addition.
After we got checked in, we decided to take a quick trip to the downtown area to scout things out. Parking could prove to be somewhat difficult in the downtown area. We found a lot behind the West Street Hotel that was free parking for the public and because we had our handicap placard there was always a spot as they had 4 spots reserved just for me! It’s a little bit of a hill to negotiate, but I said it’s free.
There are just a few main streets in the downtown area, so it doesn’t take long to see what is there. The sidewalks are all wide enough and there are some decent curb cuts, but a lot of the shops still have a step or two to get into. I’d say you can get into maybe 50% of the shops. Most of them have the same merchandise, so you can get a good feel for what is there. Again, most of the restaurants are accessible.
As I said before we like to eat our way through vacation, so we tried many of the restaurants in the area. An item you have to try while in Maine is just a basic fresh steamed lobster. I tried this at Stewman’s Lobster Pound on the wharf. There are two Stewman’s Lobster Pounds, but the one on West Street is relatively new and offers great views of Bar Harbor. I was leery of the ramp down to the dock, but they ended up taking us around to a building next door and we sat on an upper deck. The lobster was fantastic. I also indulged in a dessert called a whoopie pie sundae that I highly recommend.
I would also suggest you try the lobster rolls as they are on the menu everywhere. It is generally fresh lobster mixed with mayo and spices presented on a hotdog bun or a hoagie roll. We had this at Paddy’s Irish Pub connected to the West Street Hotel. We dined on the patio while live music played inside. Don’t forget to partake in as many desserts as possible. We visited Ben & Bill’s Ice Cream and Candy Shop several times. They had been featured on the Today Show and are home to Lobster Ice Cream. We did not try it, but we did try several of the other flavors available. Another place to consider is The Looking Glass Restaurant. This was next to our hotel and the views were terrific. We had breakfast there one morning and watched the fog and clouds roll over Cadillac Mountain and overtake the harbor. Breakfast was pretty good too! There are also several quaint restaurants away from Bar Harbor. We drove to the Southwest Harbor to a craft show and ended up having an excellent brunch at a local restaurant that featured fresh syrups and tantalizing brunch specials.
Acadia National Park
The other big draw to Bar Harbor is Acadia National Park. This park brings very active people to the area to hike, bike, camp, and site-see. We debated how we were going to visit the park. I called the 2 main commercial bus tour companies about taking their bus tours. One company told me they did have a wheelchair accessible bus but it was in the shop for another 2 weeks. The other company told me they needed 24 hours’ notice to “modify” their bus.
I didn’t like the options, so we opted to drive ourselves. We ended up buying an audio CD (Acadia National Park Audio Tour, recommended by Michelin, AAA, and Mobil Guides) from the Acadia Visitor’s Center that told you where to drive and stop and gave you ample information about each of the stops. (Also as a side note, there are free propane bus rides through the park that have wheelchair lifts on all of the buses. The bus essentially drops you off at a location and you just hop on the next one when you are ready to go. I believe that they are sponsored by LL Bean, but this is a more environmentally friendly way to get around.)
To tour the park you have to purchase a park pass for your vehicle that is good for 7 days. We asked the guides about accessibility, and they provided us with an Access Guide that covers most of the major areas (e.g., information centers, museums, picnic areas, campgrounds, beaches, etc.), and it gives notes and shows you if it is accessible or not. They display the universal wheelchair sign if it is accessible, an OK if it is usable but doesn’t meet all standards, a “?” if it may be usable with assistance, or an X if it is not accessible. There are also some good tips on where to park and conditions in several of the descriptions.
They have done a good job trying to make this an enjoyable destination even if you are in a wheelchair. We found it to be pretty accurate once we figured out what it was. The highlight of the park for me was going up on Cadillac Mountain (elevation 1529’) which is the highest point on the eastern seaboard. They have made wheelchair accessible trails so you can go up and get a 360-degree view from the peak. Elsewhere in the park, there are lots of scenic views where you can see the waves crashing on the rocky shoreline without ever having to get out of your car. Make sure you take advantage of any clear day you may have to visit the park because the weather can change relatively fast with fog and clouds. I will say I was exhausted getting out at each of the stops to see the sites and skipped a few based on what the terrain looked like. This is a destination for very active wheelchair users although there is something for everyone to see.
We also inquired about taking a boat tour with one of the many tour groups. They said that their boats were all wheelchair accessible although I had my doubts. I asked the representative if it was better to go down the ramp at high tide. She stated that you see more at low tide. I didn’t like the look of the ramp at low tide. I don’t think she understood what I was asking, and I don’t think they have a lot of experience with someone permanently in a chair. I will say that the larger boats are most likely accessible, but I’m not so sure about the lobster trawler. It rained the day we were supposed to go, so we did not take the tour.
Overall, I would rank this in probably the 50th percentile of places to go in a wheelchair. While the National Park has tried to make it accessible, it is a rocky terrain with beaches and hiking trails that aren’t very conducive to wheelchair traveling. Bar Harbor and Portland have not fully embraced ADA and are hiding behind their historic buildings to welcome those in wheelchairs. The restaurants and hotels are doing their part, but the tourist shops and tour companies have a little ways to go. There is a lot of beautiful scenery to see if you don’t mind missing out on a few parts here and there, and the weather certainly beats Atlanta in July!