Shady picnic nooks are tucked in along the Schoodic Peninsula.
Photo Credit : Carl Tremblay
Winter Harbor sits snugly on the edge of Maine’s otherAcadia National Park — the lesser-known, wild and quiet spread on the mainland’s Schoodic Peninsula. A mere 30 minutes by ferry from Mount Desert Island, where the core of the park is concentrated, and the bustling town of Bar Harbor, the houses in this small fishing village of 516 people are faded just about right. Lobster traps are stacked in tidy yards, and sharp blue tidal waters course in and out of the in-town boat launch. The air is crisp enough to bite.
It’s a working fishing village, as you’ll quickly discover if you walk a short distance down Harbor Road. In the early morning, a small armada of lobster boats scatter like water bugs, heading out to drop their traps. As dusk and the mist settle in, so do the boats, huddling together for the night.
Winter Harbor feels like shelter from the storm. Settled in the late 1700s — and so named because the harbor didn’t freeze — the town today is laid-back, friendly. Pretty, the way the forgotten villages of Down East Maine should be, and with a real 5&10. Artist-friendly, too, with studios and shops featuring the painting, pottery, and glasswork of local folks. Maybe it’s the pointed firs, or the tangy salt, seasoning the air. But something about this rugged, enchanting peninsula makes you want to draw the sharp Maine air deeper into your lungs, filling them like sailcloth. Is it really possible, or are we dreaming? A coastal fishing village beside a stunning national park — with houses under $100,000?
Winter Harbor backs onto the only chunk of Acadia National Park that’s on the mainland. And because it’s separate from the rest of Acadia, this 2,366-acre swath of tucked-away beauty feels like a secret. Every table has a sea view at the Frazier Point picnic area, and the cycling (or driving, for that matter) along a six-mile, one-way loop is unparalleled, with water edging the road to Schoodic Point, a rocky plain towering over sea and islands. Winter Harbor itself is water-splashed: boat launch, Bar Harbor ferry landing, and harbor. Beyond the town center, the “cottages” of Grindstone Neck were Philadelphia’s answer to Newport, Rhode Island, with a golf course, yacht club, and distractingly pretty views. How pretty? Cathy Carruthers is town manager (also treasurer, tax collector, town clerk, road commissioner, notary public, and author of the annual report), plus her mom was born here, so the roots go deep. “My uncle drives around Schoodic three times a day because he wants to,” she says. “And he tells me, ‘Cathy, you should, too.’”
The friendliness factor can’t be overstated. A quick stop at the lovely stone Winter Harbor Public Library (built as a Unitarian chapel in 1888) uncorks a conversation with Bob Buckner, a part-time resident who extols Schoodic Arts for All — a rich community program of affordable concerts, theatre, and workshops, bolstered by 110 volunteers.
If, however, you aspire to be a hermit, Winter Harbor might not be the best fit. Wendilee Heath O’Brien lives and works at Whopaints Studio & Gallery, and amid the riot of paintings dangling from her walls, she states, “The people who like being here are the ones who like stepping out the door and knowing everyone, and where there’s no traffic light for 30 miles. The fishermen stop us every morning to ask, ‘Where’s the yellow dog?’ if we don’t bring her on our walk. I love that. You’ve got to like witnessing each other’s life in a very caring way.”
There’s a tidy nest of four or five eateries in and around town, but on a sea-scrubbed, blue-sky day, it’s hard to imagine anything tastier than fresh lobster at the Winter Harbor Lobster Co-op, down Pendleton Road. “They’ll cook it for you,” Cathy says. “Take it out to Frazier Point — it’s the perfect place to eat it.” All you do is bring a bib. (In August, crustaceans have their own event: the 51st Annual Lobster Festival, with boat races, a crafts fair, and a parade.)
At the Winter Harbor 5&10, Peter Drinkwater sells everything from “aspirin to zippers,” plus he’s the local real-estate agent, chairman of the planning board, and “will tell you more than you ask,” Buckner says.
A handful of pretty shops around town sell sea-glass jewelry and antiques, and the local IGA, across from the boat launch, sells all the fixin’s for a summer’s night.
“We worked our way up the coast until we could afford waterfront,” says Bob Buckner from his rocky front yard, with Mount Desert’s soaring Cadillac Mountain ahead. “The best part about living here … People don’t even know about this part of Schoodic. I didn’t want to be somewhere where it would take me all summer just to back out of the driveway.” While you can certainly shell out major clams for waterfront, “Winter Harbor is one of the more affordable towns because of the Navy base closing,” Peter Drinkwater explains. (Operating on Schoodic Point since 1935, the NSGA Winter Harbor base closed in 2002, halving the town’s population and leaving a surplus of properties.) Right now, he’s offering a two-bedroom condo in the Misty Harbor compound for $91,500, with 32 additional properties available. “I sold a piece of land while you were here,” he confesses. “An acre, within 200 yards of the water, with a right of way to Frenchman Bay, for $22,500.”
When you’re ready for a change of tempo, hop the seasonal ferry from Marina Pier for a seven-mile, 30-minute cruise to Bar Harbor, with its upbeat, Key West–meets–Nantucket vibe. Why wrestle with Route 1 traffic? If you live here, the fare is half-price.
In season, the Island Explorer Bus is a free hourly service taking passengers from Winter Harbor to Schoodic Point, Birch Harbor, and Prospect Harbor.
Getting Your Bearings
The Winter Harbor Inn hosts people and their dogs, and will groom your pet while you stroll. 298 Main St. 207-562-7837; winterharborinn.com
Acadia National Park was named “America’s Favorite Place” in a Good Morning America viewer poll in July 2014, where it was described as “one of the crown jewels of Maine, with nearly 50,000 acres of jaw-dropping beauty.” But you can bet that most voters were thinking of Mount Desert Island, with its towering Cadillac Mountain — not our hidden pearl.