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IN THE 1880s and "Gay Nineties," socially and politically prominent families such as the Rockefellers, Morgans, Fords, Vanderbilts, Carnegies and Astors transformed a remote hideaway on the coast of Maine into a luxurious summer retreat.

The name Bar Harbor, a little fishing village overlooking Frenchman Bay, became synonymous with the genteel pleasures of the very rich.

Today, Bar Harbor is still a fishing village and resort town, but thanks to efforts of the affluent early-day visitors, much of the island on which Bar Harbor is located has been transformed into a national park.

Mount Desert (pronounced dessert) Island, a giant granite rock pounded by thundering Atlantic waves, is home to Acadia National Park. One of the smallest national parks, at only 38,000 acres, Acadia will surprise you with its diversity, striking beauty and startling forces of nature.

A quiet fiord cuts into the island's midsection. Forests carpet glacially carved mountains that rise from the sea. The island's history dates back to tribes of Abnaki Indians. It is a recreational park crisscrossed with 51 miles of antique "carriage roads," a charming heritage from its genteel past.

Whether you plan to stay a few hours or several days, you will get a better understanding of the island if you stop at the Visitor Center and rent a cassette player and tour tape that will guide you over a 56-mile route.

Park Loop Road climbs high above Frenchman Bay and Bar Harbor, where summer people built mansions along "Millionaire's Row." Lobster boats and sailing sloops add life and color to the sparkling waters that reach depths of 290 feet.

You drive through forests of deep green spruce and fir on the mountain face beside the road. Then, at an overlook,
crisp green swaths of birch and aspen cut through the forest. This is the path of the 1947 fire that burned for 26 days and destroyed more than 17,000 acres. The deciduous stands of birch and aspen, which turn the mountains into a riot of red and gold in autumn, are the new growth that has sprung from the ashes of the fire.

All along the route foot trails lead up mountain paths, down to a beaver dam, into a nature center and wildflower garden, or down to Thunder Hole, where the crash of surf on granite boulders sends its booming sound great distances. The trails afford the best opportunity to explore bubbling brooks, skirt quiet glacial lakes, and discover the unique beauty that lured settlers to the island.

Communities developed in the 1820s as farming, lumbering, shipbuilding and fishing villages attracted permanent residents to Mount Desert Island. Within a few years, artists descended on the island, capturing on canvas the natural beauty --
forested mountains looming up from boulder cliffs awash in a raging sea; a blaze of wildflowers reflecting in lakes and ponds; and sleepy fishing villages.

For several summers artists and their friends and patrons, attracted by the fresh salt air, scenic beauty and relaxed lifestyle, rented cottages and fishing shacks. Local residents called the intruders "rusticators."

By the 1880s the island and the village of Bar Harbor became a tourist haven boasting 80 rather spartan, yet always full, hotels. Not satisfied with the meager accommodations, wealthy families began building elegant estates, which they described, in highbrow understatement, as "cottages."

In addition to frolicking through carefree summers on the island at the turn of the century, the affluent also became interested in preserving the landscape. In 1913 residents organized a corporation to conserve land for public use and began donating land that eventually became the national park.

The most generous donor, John D. Rockefeller Jr., gave more than 11,000 acres to the park, including the carriage roads. When automobile traffic was allowed on the island in 1915, Rockefeller and his wealthy neighbors became concerned that vehicles would destroy their privacy and interfere with pleasant carriage rides along the scenic lanes. In the 1920s and '30s Rockefeller constructed private carriage roads and 16 handsome arched bridges made of cut native stone.

At several places throughout the park, you will find access to the broad, gravel carriage paths that wind through the heart of the park, alongside cascading streams, and up the side of Sargent Mountain. Since the paths are closed to automobile traffic, you will have more time to explore if you rent a horse at Wildwood Stables in the park or rent a bicycle in one of the nearby communities.

Acadia's Beaver Log, the park newspaper, offers an extensive listing of naturalists' activities. Try the boat cruise of the harbors and fiord of Somes Sound. You will see osprey nesting sites, harbor seal, porpoise, and other wildlife.

Naturalists lead nightly star-gazing trips and beaver excursions, photography seminars and walks on Cadillac Mountain.

The craggy face of Cadillac Mountain, which emerged as molten rock from the sea and later was carved by glacial ice, rises 1,530 feet above sea level. It is the highest place along the Atlantic Coast. If you drive to the top of Cadillac Mountain in early morning, you will be the first in the United States to see the sun rise.

One of Acadia's more interesting spots is Sand Beach, which isn't sand at all. Its thick floor is composed of tiny shells finely crushed and spread by wave action onto the shore in spring and swept out to sea again during winter.

In summer, water temperature rises to a nippy 50 to 60 degrees. Only swimmers determined to experience Acadia's only salt water beach plunge into its chilly waves.

Canoeing offers a peaceful waterside view of forests and mountain meadows, a way to get away from it all. Acadia's underwater world is available to scuba divers from 15 sites on Mount Desert and nearby islands.

From the port of Bar Harbor you can arrange whale and seabird trips, puffin and razorbill auk cruises, and a nature cruise to see the golden eagle in Frenchman Bay. Sailing ships visit nearby islands and sail past the fabulous summer "cottages" built along the shore. You also can board a ferry for a six-hour trip to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

Acadia offers two campgrounds, and other private grounds are abundant along the coast. For reservations or more information write Superintendent, Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, Maine 04609.

For more information about Bar Harbor accommodations, write Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 158, Bar Harbor, Maine 04609.

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