Bar Harbor provides most of the meals and beds to travelers coming to Mount Desert Island, and it has done so since the grand resort era of the late 19th century, when wealthy vacationers first discovered this region. Sprawling hotels and boardinghouses once cluttered the shores and hillsides here, as a newly affluent middle class arrived in droves by steamboat and rail car. The tourist business continued to boom through the early 1900s, then all but collapsed when the Depression and the growing popularity of car travel doomed the era of steamship travel and extended vacations. Bar Harbor was dealt another blow in 1947, when an accidental fire spread rapidly and leveled many of the opulent cottages. Some 17,000 acres burned in all, though downtown Bar Harbor and some in-town mansions on the oceanfront were spared.
In the last few decades, however, Bar Harbor has bounced back, revived and rediscovered by visitors and entrepreneurs alike. Some see the place as a tacky place of T-shirt vendors, ice-cream cones, and souvenir shops, plus crowds spilling off the sidewalks into the street and appalling traffic. That is all true. Yet the town’s history, distinguished architecture, tight-knit community of year-rounders, and beautiful location on Frenchman Bay still make it a desirable base for exploring the island—and it has by far the island’s best selection of lodging, meals, supplies, and services. (If you want to shop, fine-dine, or go out at night, you pretty much have to stay here.) Otherwise, if quiet is what you’re seeking, consider bunking elsewhere on the island.