Anchored by the only national park in New England, Acadia has a way of fostering superlatives. Explorer Giovanni da Verrazano, when he sailed by in 1524, named the area after the dramatic shoreline of the part of Greece known as Arcadia. The first settlers of the area simply called their town Eden (which has since become the more prosaic Bar Harbor , a giant tourist trap that has become anything but paradise). Subsequent generations of artists and aristocrats sought out the area for its wilderness scenery, carving out and preserving the park for future generations.
The region’s earliest settlers were a mix of French and British explorers who fought it out over the area. In fact, the pronunciation for Mount Desert is a hybrid of French and English, pronounced by the locals as “mount dessert.” (The original name, l’Ile des Monts Déserts means “Island of Bare Mountains.”) After generations of Native Americans, French missionaries, lobstermen, and granite traders had lived on Mount Desert Island , it was finally “discovered” in 1844. That’s when painters such as Thomas Cole and Frederic Church first came from the Hudson River School to Acadia and were struck by its natural beauty.
Calling themselves “rusticators,” the painters lived simply with native families and captured the cliffs and seacoast of the island with their brushes. When the well-to-do of the period saw these paintings, they decided to see this “eden” for themselves, and successive waves of Vanderbilts, Astors, Rockefellers, and Fords took the long steamship ride here from New York City  and Philadelphia .
Most of the grand summer cottages they built sadly burned down in the great fire of 1947, which claimed some 200 buildings on the island. The Victorians’ legacy, however, lives on in Acadia National Park , which was formed out of land that was bought up and preserved by the descendants of the summer folk.
While the national park takes up the bulk of the island, it is by no means the only thing on it. The boisterous summer community of Bar Harbor  is a draw for families and teenagers; scattered around the island, other towns are a mix of yachting anchorages and lobstering villages.
To drive to Acadia from Portland , take I-95 north to exit 182A at Bangor , then U.S. Route 1A south to Ellsworth  (150 mi., 2 hrs. 40 min.). For Bar Harbor, continue south from Ellsworth down Route 3 across the bridge to Mount Desert Island  (20 mi., 40 min.).
It’s relatively easy to reach Bar Harbor without wheels of your own. US Airways (800/428-4322, www.usairways.com ) offers direct flights from Boston  to Bar Harbor–Hancock County Airport, from whence you can get a free shuttle bus to town. From Canada, Bay Ferries (888/249-7245, www.catferry.com ) offers once-daily high-speed-car-ferry service between Bar Harbor and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.
Greyhound (800/552-8737, www.greyhound.com ) has cancelled its Boston–Bar Harbor Route, but still operates bus service to Bangor. From there, you can take the Bar Harbor–Bangor Shuttle van service (207/479-5911, www.barharborshuttle.com , advance reservation required). You can also take a seasonal bus from Downeast Transportation (207/667-5796, www.downeasttrans.org ).