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I had expected long lines of cars and massive crowds on a warm September weekend in Acadia National Park, but I was pleasantly surprised to find most areas I visited calm and quiet. One of the most visited sites in the U.S. National Park system, Acadia, on Mount Desert Island on Maine's stunningly beautiful mid-coast is easily accessible and offers a variety of spectacular locations to visit, even for a day tripper or windshield tourist. Even before the leaves change their colors and the kaleidoscope of fall foliage hues set in, the early autumn is a magical time to visit.

Although open throughout the year, the main visiting season is from mid April through to the end of October. The park charges a $20 entry fee per car (or $10 off season - May 1 to June 22 and October 1 to 31) but that is good for an entire week of access. If you enter on foot, motorcycle or bicycle the fee is $5 per person. The Park Loop Road is the 27-mile central artery that snakes its way through the park, providing views of the park's shoreline -- including views of Frenchman Bay and the Porcupine Islands -- forests and mountains, and access to smaller side roads leading to sites like Sand Beach, Thunder Hole, Otter Cliffs, Jordan Pond, and Cadillac Mountain. It is also from the main road that you can reach the various broken-stone carriage roads and hiking trails that lead further into the pristine wilderness. Carriage roads are well signed and feature beautiful stone bridges and walls at entry points. The Loop Road stays open until the end of November, with only small sections of it being open throughout the winter months (without an entry fee).

One of the most scenic spots in the park is Jordan Pond. Although more of a lake than a pond, this body of water is surrounded by undulating hills covered with spruce, pine, fir and birch trees and the shores are lined with what seems like perfectly rounded boulders. We came across several different water birds here (actually there are close to 340 species of birds in the park), many just sunbathing on the rocks, seemingly oblivious to the fact that we were walking past them. The entire area was serene and made for exceptional photo opportunities, as did Bubble Pond, located a short hike from there along what's called the Bubble trail, passing Bubble Rock. Although the water was calm when we were there, in the fall, the Bubble Brook livens up and features mini-cascades as is flows downstream.

Another attractive but slightly more touristy site is Thunder Hole, located a little over a mile's walk from Sand Beach along the Ocean Trail (alternatively you can drive along Ocean Drive and park at a nearby car park). Depending on the weather, wind, and tide levels, waves here crash through narrow openings in the rocks and result in loud, thunder-like explosions of sound and massive water sprays. Unfortunately we were there at low tide on a day with very calm seas so the blow holes weren't spurting out their trademark "thunder" but the walk along the rocky cliffs was still appealing.

If you'd prefer not to drive, you can take a two-and-a-half hour loop tour courtesy of Acadia Tours (tel. 207/288-0300; www.acadiatours.com). The tour features three stops inside Acadia National Park with expert commentary and interesting anecdotes about the park's history and local folklore. Visit the top of Cadillac Mountain (the highest point on the eastern seaboard at a little over 1500 feet), Thunder Hole, the Jordan Pond House, and Sieur De Monts Spring (Wild Gardens of Acadia). The tour on a classic old-style green bus departs from Bar Harbor every day at 10am and 2pm until the end of October for $25 for adults and $15 for children 12 and under. Another option is to take a horse-drawn carriage ride from Wildwood Stables (www.acadia.net/wildwood) located between Jordan Pond and Seal Harbor. They operate from June through October and offer a two-hour Bridges tour for $24.50 per adult ($10 for children six to 12 and $7 for those aged two to five years), a one-hour Day Mountain Loop tour ($18, $9 and $5) and a two-hour Jordan Pond House tour ($20, $10 and $7) with a 45-minute stop to have afternoon tea (food and beverages additional).

If you do encounter traffic in the park or don't want to follow the entire Loop Road, you can make an easy escape by following the signs to Seal Harbor and then driving along Otter Creek Road that runs alongside the park, back to Bar Harbor. Another option is to leave the car behind and head out on to the water on one of the area's numerous wildlife, nature or history-based boat tours. During the summer and fall months, much of the emphasis is on whale-watching but you can also get a great view of the National Park from off the coast.

Whale watching tours are generally offered up until the end of the season, which is the end of October. The largest company operating these tours is the Bar Harbor Whale Watch Company (tel. 888/1-WHALES; www.barharborwhales.com) located on the main pier at the end of West Street. Their three hour plus whale watch trip takes you out on a state-of-the-art catamaran that holds several hundred people. The boat is comfortable and had an expert marine biologist on board. They don't guarantee whale sightings but they do offer you another trip if for some reason you don't see whales. On our adventure, we saw several pods and over a dozen whales, both humpback and finback varieties and were enthralled with their diving and spraying antics. Children in particular will get a big thrill out of the experience (my three-year old raved about it) and the commentary is both entertaining and educational. There are two departures per day (8:30am and noon) until October 5 and then one (1pm) from October 6 to 31, 2008. The cost is $53 per adult and $26 per child. A portion of ticket sales is donated to Allied Whale (www.coa.edu/alliedwhale), a local organization dedicated to the study and protection of marine animals in the Gulf of Maine.

Being located minutes from the seaside city, means that an adventure in the park can be quickly followed by a meal or a comfortable stay at one of the town's dozens of eateries and historic inns. Some of the prettier inns dating back to the 19th century include:

  • Maples Inn (tel. 207/288-3443; www.maplesinn.com) -- with double rooms priced from $150 until October 18 and $105 from October 19 to November 10.
  • Primrose Inn (tel. 877/846-3424; www.primroseinn.com) -- with double rooms from $95 from now until October 25.
  • Cleftstone Manor (tel. 207/288-8086; www.cleftstone.com) with double rooms from $85.
  • Blackfriar Inn (tel. 207/288-5091; www.blackfriarinn.com) with double rooms from $120.

All of these inns and bed and breakfasts include breakfast in their rates. 

Whether you are planning to visit Acadia on any other National Park later this month, remember that National Public Lands Day falls on September 27 this year and is an annual event designed to encourage people to get outside. All National Park Service entrance fees will be waived to encourage visitation and many parks will also sponsor volunteer restoration and clean-up efforts that day.