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Winter in Bar Harbor

A bitter wind whipped over the ocean and up Main Street in Bar Harbor, Maine. Ice glistened on the sidewalks. And in the Village Green, empty benches were dusted with snow.

In December, the island town of Bar Harbor is a quiet place, and it remains that way until tourist season starts up again in the spring. Souvenir shops and seafood stands close, and the only ships in the harbor are a few fishing boats run by local lobstermen. But the community doesn’t simply hibernate and wait for the cruise ships to return.

Bar Harbor may be quiet, but it’s not dead.

In fact, it’s during the wintertime that visitors to Bar Harbor can experience the town’s true local flavor. During this slow season, the island’s year round residents emerge to enjoy their favorite restaurants, visit the theater, and play in nearby Acadia National Park.

“It’s kind of cool for visitors,” said Alf Anderson, Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce director of membership and sales. “It’s one of those things where people who haven’t been here in the winter think it’ll just be desolate. And yes, it’s quieter. There isn’t going to be as much hustle and bustle. But there’s plenty to do.”

In the winter, Anderson—whose family lives right downtown—enjoys walking along Bar Harbor’s Shore Path with his dog, observing how the ice and snow transforms the landscape throughout the season. In the harbor, loons and sea ducks navigate the frigid waves.

“This time of year, you really find out the local haunts,” Anderson said.

These popular hangout spots include, but are not limited to, the Dog & Pony Tavern, Little Anthony’s Sports Bar and Pizzeria, Side Street Cafe and the Thirsty Whale pub.

“In the summer, we have a line out the door and an hour wait to get a table,” said Mike Jack, Thirsty Whale barkeep for the past six years.

That isn’t the case in the winter. During a recent lunch hour, people filtered slowly into the popular pub, known for its delicious burgers and fish sandwiches. Before long, the restaurant’s long wooden bar was full of Bar Harbor residents—a fisherman, a B&B owner, a restaurant worker and a retiree—and everyone seemed to know each other.

“It’s pretty low key for the most part,” said Kim Phillips, a server at the Thirsty Whale for the past 14 years. “There’s just good comradery among locals, people who come here every week or every other week.”

Many of the restaurants that remain open in Bar Harbor during the winter will take a month off to renovate and give their employees a break. And for many years now, these restaurants coordinate so that they don’t all close at once. So typically, as one restaurant closes, another opens.

There are also a handful of shops that remain open in the winter, including Cadillac Mountain Sports, Sherman’s Books & Stationery, Willis’ Rock Shop and The Acadia Shop. And the town’s Abbe Museum—a museum of the history and cultures of Maine’s Native people, the Wabanaki—is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, from November through May, closing for just one month: January.

Winter is also a time for community-building events, Anderson said. The town’s Jesup Memorial Library hosts a full schedule of family-friendly activities, talks and workshops, including a popular knitting circle. And the Criterion Theatre and Reel Pizza Cinerama brings together the community with a full lineup of films, concerts and shows. Free community dinners are held each Thursday during the winter at First Baptist Church.

“It’s really nice when the crowds are gone. It’s an entirely different experience,” said Joe Minutolo, owner of Bar Harbor Bicycle Shop, which remains open year round.

In the winter, the large shop simply switches gears from renting and selling mountain bikes and road bikes to providing a wide variety of fat-tire bikes, which are designed with wide, low-pressure tires that are ideal for biking over snow.

“It’s something to do in the winter,” said Adam Gariepy, a Bar Harbor resident who has worked at the bicycle shop for the past five years. “It’s fun and a way to get off the couch and away from Netflix. It really hit mainstream in the last few years.”

Recently, Gariepy was busy putting studded tires on a customer’s fat-tire bike as snow started to fall outside.

“In the winter, you really have to make yourself get out in the park,” Gariepy said. “It doesn’t even matter what you’re doing. Grab your bike, grab your skis, grab your snowshoes. Just make sure you get out there in the park. It’s the best resource we have on Mount Desert Island.”

While the majority of Acadia National Park’s loop road closes to traffic in the winter, the park is open to the public year round, and most trails and carriage roads are still easily accessible, though certain activities are limited to certain trails.

One popular winter activity in the park is cross-country skiing. Of the 47 miles of historic carriage roads in the park, about 27 miles are groomed for cross-country skiing, with separate tracks for classic and skate skiing. Fat-tire bikes are not permitted on these groomed trails, but they are permitted on the park’s snowmobiling routes, which include the Park Loop Road and the road leading to the summit of Cadillac Mountain.

“There’s nothing quite like being on Sand Beach in the winter with the snow all around you,” Minutolo said.

Snowshoeing is also popular, especially on Cadillac, Penobscot and Sargent mountains, where people often spot snowy owls that migrate to the island from the Arctic during the winter. And on a nice day, the parking lots for Eagle and Echo lakes are often filled with visitors there to go ice fishing, ice skating and ice boating.

“Locals embrace the off-season, they really do,” Minutolo said. “And it can be the nicest time to be in Acadia. It’s not crowded, and you still have the great views, they’re just different.”

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