Maine's Mount Desert Island is home to spectacular Acadia National Park, a rich glacier-carved mound of rugged cliffs, restless ocean, and quiet woods. Mount Desert (pronounced des-sert) is surrounded by small bays and coast-hugging islands and nearly knifed in half by narrow, 7-mile-long Somes Sound, the only true fjord in the continental United States. Most visitors crowd onto 20-mile Park Loop Road, a spectacular drive that starts near the Hulls Cove Visitor Center and follows the rocky coast past picturesque coves, looping back inland along Jordan Pond and Eagle Lake with a detour to Cadillac Mountain -- a sort of greatest-hits tour of the island. But why spend your time poking along in traffic, staring out at the ocean, when you could be skimming along the water's surface, skirting the coast and exploring the coves in your own light and agile sea kayak?
Frenchman's Bay, where the island's main town, Bar Harbor, sits, is a great place for youngsters to learn how to kayak, sitting in the front seat of a flat, stable two-person kayak with a parent paddling in back. Head south from the bay and you'll reach Atlantic waters, where popular park sights include Thunder Hole, a shallow cavern where the surf surges boisterously in and out, and Otter Cliffs, a set of 100-foot-high granite precipices capped with dense spruce that plummet down into roiling seas. From your kayak you can also enjoy open views of waterside villages and the great shingled "cottages" of the wealthy elite -- Carnegies, Rockefellers, Astors, Vanderbilts -- who summered here in the island's late-19th-century heyday as a resort.
Outfitters offer a variety of options, from a 2-1?2-hour harbor tour to a 7-hour excursion. Coastal Kayaking Tours, 48 Cottage St., Bar Harbor (tel. 800/526-8615 or 207/288-9605; www.acadiafun.com), has a 4-hour outing tailored for families with children as young as 8. Experienced kayakers can set out on their own with rentals from Acadia 1 Watersports, 1564 Shore Rd., Lamoine (tel. 888/786-0676 or 207/677-2963; www.kayak1.com), or Aquaterra Adventures, 1 West St., Bar Harbor (tel. 877/386-4124 or 207/288-0007; www.aquaterra-adventures.com).
Frenchman's Bay is populated by seals, osprey, and other wildlife; in early fall, huge flocks of eider ducks can sometimes be seen floating just off the Atlantic shore. Summer boasts even more spectacular wildlife: humpback, finback, minke, and (occasionally) right whales, which migrate to cool summer waters offshore to feast on krill and plankton. For a closer look you can take an excursion with the Bar Harbor Whale Watch Company, 1 West St., Bar Harbor (tel. 800/942-5374 or 207/288-2386; www.barharborwhales.com).
Where to Stay: $ Bar Harbor Campground, 409 State Hwy. 3, Salisbury Cove (tel. 207/288-5185; www.thebarharborcampground.com). $$$ Harborside Hotel & Marina, 55 West St., Bar Harbor (tel. 800/328-5033 or 207/288-5033; www.theharborsidehotel.com).