Located more than 150 miles up the state’s jagged coast, Maine’s largest island juts into the cold waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. Only one road connects Mount Desert Island to the mainland, leaving every edge surrounded with views of Frenchman Bay and the Mount Desert Narrows.
Life in and around Mount Desert Island has been bound to the sea for millennia. For more than 12,000 years, the Wabanaki relied on the saltwater bays and freshwater lakes to provide fish, mollusks and more. Today, Bar Harbor remains a working waterfront, home to lobsterman, oyster farms and more.
So, it comes as no surprise that visitors to Mount Desert Island and Bar Harbor have ample options for exploring the waters and marine life. The toughest part is just in choosing one! There are Bar Harbor boat tours where you learn a bit of history, see Maine’s fisherman at work, bask in the sunset or perhaps even spot an elusive Puffin. In this blog, we’ll talk about four Bar Harbor boat tours you can take on your trip to MDI and a bonus way to explore Frenchman Bay.
4 Types of Bar Harbor Boat Tours
From dawn to dusk, Frenchman Bay is full of boats going about their business. From small fishing vessels to large cruise ships traveling to Nova Scotia. Excluding passenger ferries that take visitors to and from surrounding islands, harbors and towns, you can group Bar Harbor boat tours into four categories.
Acadia Nature Cruise
The cold waters surrounding Acadia are home to a host of marine and wildlife that will thrill nature lovers. Acadia nature cruises are the perfect way to explore the Gulf of Maine and make a great activity for kids, older folks and marine enthusiasts alike. Of course, your interest may already be piqued by a Bar Harbor whale watching tour or you may be wondering where to see puffins in Maine, but there’s so much more to take notice of! Here are a few species to look out for on your Acadia nature cruise:
- Harbor seals & gray seals
- Bottlenose & short-beaked dolphins
- Basking sharks
- Arctic terns
Experienced nature guides will point out these species and many more as your travel around the islands of Frenchman Bay and Bar Harbor. What you see will also depend on the time of year you visit MDI. Acadia puffin cruises run from May to August with the best viewing in June and July. Likewise, whale activity peaks in June through August but spring and fall can still be fruitful for spotters.
Acadian Boat Tours offer a few different nature cruises, departing conveniently from the dock at the Atlantic Oceanside Hotel. They range in price from $15-60 depending on the type and length of the tour. You’re encouraged to bring along binoculars for the best spotting or can rent a pair for just $5 aboard the boat. Acadia nature cruises are typically offered twice daily, with a 9:30 am and 1:30 pm departure option. Tickets can be purchased right at the front desk of any Witham Family Hotel and vehicle parking is included in the Atlantic Oceanside lot.
Bar Harbor Sunset Cruise
To us, nothing says vacation more than a Bar Harbor sunset cruise around Frenchman Bay on the gorgeous deck of Margaret Todd, four masts towering above and the sunset painting Acadia in red, orange and pink. It sounds like a fairy tale, but it’s very real and one of the best Bar Harbor experiences out there!
The Margaret Todd is a stunning four mast schooner replicated after late 1800’s cargo vessels that has been sailing around Acadia since 1998. It’s rust red sails are an iconic image against the grey blue waters of the Atlantic. Captained by Steven Pagels from mid May through October, it sails around Mount Desert Island, offering views of coastal cottages, pink granite mountains and the surrounding islands.
While the Margaret Todd does offer scenic sails in the morning and daytime, we think their Bar Harbor sunset cruise is the absolute winner. Passengers are encouraged to bring along picnic items and beer, wine and soft beverages are sold on board during the cruise. Sunset cruises also often feature live folk music like banjo, fiddle or guitar. Bar Harbor sunset cruise length changes with the season as daylight hours wax and wane, but they are typically one to two hours.
The schooner docks at the Bar Harbor Inn pier and guests should plan extra time to find downtown Bar Harbor parking before arriving for their boarding time. Tickets for any Windjammer cruise can also be purchased at the front desk of any Witham Family Hotel. Romantic, picturesque and truly memorable, you won’t want to miss this Bar Harbor sunset cruise.
Bar Harbor Lighthouse Tour
Did you know there are 65 lighthouses in Maine and 7 of them are located in and around Mount Desert Island?! These beacons are icons of coastal Maine and hold so much history about the land and the people who have worked and explored these waters for hundreds of years. Built in the mid to late 1800’s many of these are still operational, using bright flashing lights and deep fog blasts to keep boaters safe in foul weather. Below is a list of the 7 lighthouses in the area.
Bass Harbor Head Light: The only lighthouse on MDI, it is located at the southwestern reach of Acadia National Park where it guards the southern entrance of Blue Hill Bay and warns against Bass Harbor Bar.
Bear Island Light: Constructed in 1839, the tower is only 31 feet high and is located just south of the entrance to Northeast Harbor. It is now privately maintained and accessible only by boat.
Burnt Coat Harbor Light: Off Swans Island and marking the entrance of Burnt Coat Harbor, this lighthouse originally sported two towers. The site is now owned by the town of Swans Island and sports a park and museum.
Egg Rock Light: Due to growing seasonal ferry traffic to Bar Harbor, Egg Rock Lighthouse was constructed in 1875. It stands 40 feet tall and marks the entrance to Frenchman Bay, near Winter Harbor.
Baker Island Light: Owned by Acadia National Park, this 43-foot tower was originally built out of wood in 1828 but was remade in 1855 in stone.
Mount Desert Rock Light: This 48-foot granite tower was built in 1847 and is truly ‘deserted’ as there is no vegetation on this windswept rock. It is now used by College of the Atlantic’s Allied Whale as a marine mammal research station.
Great Duck Island Light: Built in 1890, the 42-foot brick tower light was home to a keeper and his family in the early 1900s. Several shipwrecked sailors have washed up on the island over the years.
Often inaccessible by car, a Bar Harbor lighthouse tour will not only give you unparalleled views of these buildings but also teach you a little about Maine’s history. Acadian Boat Tours offer three different lighthouse tours that combine views of Acadia National Park, the Somes Sound fjard, and wildlife for a truly photo-worthy experience.
With both morning and afternoon departure options, these Bar Harbor lighthouse tours are a longer expedition, typically lasting 3-3.5 hours. Like the Acadia nature cruises, they depart from the Atlantic Oceanside where you can park and purchase your tickets.
Lobster Boat Tours & Fishing Trips
If there were such a thing as a state shellfish, there’s no doubt lobster would be Maine’s. If you want a true taste of lobstering, you can head out on a lobster boat tour to watch experienced fisherman haul traps from the ocean floor. Guides explain the process and teach passengers about catching and tagging lobsters, the gear they use and even provide the chance to get up close and personal with our favorite ocean critters.
Likewise, ocean lovers can jump on a public or private fishing trip run by Acadian Boat Tours to catch cod, harbor pollock, mackerel, Acadian red fish and more. These 3–4-hour trips are great for both families and fishing enthusiasts alike. Fishing gear is supplied, and the experienced crew will help you clean and bag anything you wish to keep.
Bonus: Kayaking in Bar Harbor
While the many Bar Harbor boat tours provide ample ways to explore Acadia’s waters, you can get even more up close and personal with life at sea. For those looking to stay active during their time on Mount Desert Island, kayaking is a great way explore Frenchman Bay and even some of the lakes and ponds within Acadia National Park. If you already own kayaks, you can launch your boat directly into Frenchman Bay from the private pebble beach of the Atlantic Oceanside Hotel.
There are also a number of rental shops throughout town that can outfit you for kayaking in Bar Harbor. Some businesses offer guided sea kayaking tours for wildlife spotting or exploring the Porcupine Islands in Frenchman Bay.
Your experience of MDI’s waters isn’t limited to the ocean! Some of Acadia’s most scenic lakes allow kayaking or canoeing like Long Pond, Eagle Lake, Echo Lake, Jordan Pond and more. Paddling offers a unique and serene way to take in the beauty of our national park.
Tips for Being Seaworthy
Like all outdoor activities, you should be prepared for any Bar Harbor boat tour or kayaking adventure. You’ll be fully exposed while out in the bay so remember to wear sunscreen, even on cloudy days. Hydration is also important so bring a water bottle with you! Sunglasses, hats and even rain gear to protect against the ocean spray are helpful. If you are prone to nausea you can purchase Dramamine directly from the Atlantic Oceanside gift shop before embarking or you can try wearing an anti-nausea bracelet during your tour.
There are so many ways to enjoy Frenchman Bay but sometimes nothing beats sitting on the patio with a drink in hand while the sun sparkles on the water. Without fail, a room by the ocean is a wonderful way to soak up the beauty of Mount Desert Island. From comfort and privacy of your room at the Atlantic Oceanside Hotel you can enjoy views of Frenchman Bay any time of day. Breakfast, lunch and dinner can all be savored with an ocean backdrop at the Cadillac Café or the Bistro. And if you just can’t get enough, leave your curtains open when you head to bed for a stunning sunrise surprise.