With holiday happenings, world-class arts and culture, plus Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, and majestic views in Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor offers the ideal off-season getaway. Photograph by Benjamin Williamson.
If you only know Bar Harbor, on Mount Desert Island, as a lively gateway town welcoming summer throngs of Acadia-bound visitors, it’s time to learn what lucky locals — and an increasing number of savvy visitors — already know: this little island community is only more charming and welcoming in the quiet season. Bar Harbor has plenty to offer in winter, with its lower-key hospitality scene and plenty of quirky and classic holiday goings-on. “People like to think the town closes down after October 1, but it’s just not the case,” says Alf Anderson, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce. “The crowds clear out, but it doesn’t get any less beautiful.”
Here are our top seven reasons to hit Bar Harbor after the last of the leaf-peepers have headed home:
1To shop in your jammies. Skip the post-Thanksgiving shopping binge and head instead to the Early Bird Pajama Sale downtown on November 9. More than three dozen shops open their doors at 6 a.m. — wear your jammies for extra-deep discounts. Stay for the Bed Races at 10 a.m. on Cottage Street. Teams from local businesses and nonprofits don costumes and decorate wheeled beds to see who can speed the fastest through an out-and-back course. The costumes and decor are pretty elaborate, with beds decked out like everything from patrol cars to rocket ships. 207-288-5103. visitbarharbor.com
2For an old-school family Christmas. If it’s a Currier and Ives vibe you’re after, stop by the Village Holidays on December 6. Festivities start on the Village Green at 4:30 p.m., and include carolers, cookies, cocoa, and Santa Claus arriving on a fire truck to light the town tree and read ’Twas the Night Before Christmas. At 8 p.m., the Midnight Madness Sale begins, and stores offer deep discounts till the clocks strike 12. 207-288-5103. visitbarharbor.com. If you’re into gingerbread houses (and who isn’t?), don’t miss the Bar Harbor Historical Society’s annual Gingerbread House Contest on December 7 at the historical society’s home at La Rochelle, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. In prior years, entries have included elaborate edible renditions of local landmarks, like Bass Harbor Head Light. 127 West St. 207-288-0000. barharborhistorical.org
3For the performing arts. No holiday is complete without pirouetting sugar plum fairies, so don’t miss a performance of The Nutcracker by Bangor’s Robinson Ballet on December 15 at the Criterion Theatre. On November 9, Palaver Strings presents a program called Welcome Home, with guest artists of Franco-American, Burundian, and Iraqi heritage sharing traditional music and stories of their journeys to Maine. On December 13, the internationally acclaimed Celtic music group Lunasa hosts a Christmas from Ireland concert. 35 Cottage St. 207-288-0829. criteriontheatre.org
4To visit the Abbe Museum. Maine’s only Smithsonian affiliate celebrates the history and culture of the Wabanaki, the native people of Maine. The core exhibit, People of the First Light, includes tools, birch-bark boxes and canoes, sweetgrass baskets, and other artifacts, plus interactive multimedia displays. Its current exhibit, NANKOMIYE (which translates from Maliseet to “walker or traveler who passes by without stopping”), showcases the work of Maliseet painter and illustrator Ginette Kakakos Aubin. Check the calendar to find out about craft demonstrations, talks, and workshops held at the Abbe year-round. 26 Mt. Desert St. 207-288-3519. abbemuseum.org
In the off-season, Acadia National Park gets only a fraction of the visitors it hosts in summer. The Park Loop Road is ideal for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and fat-tire biking when it’s snowed over.
5To hit the library. When the weather outside turns frightful, head to Jesup Memorial Library, located in a regal, 108-year-old brick building. The library offers a full slate of lectures, readings, and music events, including a poetry or story slam every third Friday and a Sunday concert series starting in January. “We realize that some people need a place to go every day,” library communications manager Kayla Chagnon says. “We try to be that place as much as we can.” 34 Mt. Desert St. 207-288-4245. jesuplibrary.org
6For the beer. More than two-dozen locally brewed beers will be on tap at the 5th Annual Bar Harbor Winter Beer Fest, January 18 at Atlantic Brewing Company’s downtown Bar Harbor tap room. Bar Harbor Catering Company will put out a spread, and for entertainment, there’s a keg-stacking competition and a donut-on-a-string eating contest. 52 Cottage St. 207-288-2326. atlanticbrewing.com
7To have Acadia National Park to yourself. In the off-season, the park gets only a fraction of the visitors it hosts in summer — and doesn’t require an entrance pass (though buying one anyway helps fund park projects and upkeep). Most of Acadia’s 27-mile Park Loop Road is closed to vehicles starting December 1, which makes it for ideal trekking and road biking on dry days and for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and fat-tire biking when it’s snowed over. Friends of Acadia and the Acadia Winter Trails Association groom cross-country ski trails on the park’s carriage roads, which were designed for easy grades that maximize scenery. The ocean has a moderating effect on the weather, park spokeswoman Christie Anastasia says, so the snowfall isn’t always epic — but when it is, the skiing is outstanding. Trails can be icy, so Anastasia advises hiking poles, cleats, and a Plan B for when the weather doesn’t accommodate outdoor adventure. From November 1 to April 14, you can find park information at the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center downtown. 2 Cottage St. 207-288-5103.