Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Vacationing Under Yellow Umbrellas

On Beech Mountain over looking a mist shrouded Echo Lake

Apparently vacations, in the modern sense, come from the idea of students “vacating” schools during the summer months, although the rich have taken holidays since the middle ages. Around the start of the 19th century, a good deal of America’s population was driven by the Puritan work ethic. Simple concept: work good—play bad. So idling away summer days at a lake or island resort wasn’t popular. Vacations were also impossible for most of the working class who at that time were mostly farmers. The work of farming, as it turns out, is done mostly in summer, and not many had a mind to take vacations in winter. So it was the rich—who coincidently were idle most of the time anyway—that went on vacations, but not for fun. Apparently “fun” was also considered bad. I imagine smiling was evil too—remember we’re talking about the “good” old days here.

Instead people of means went on vacations for their health. This was a time of wide spread tuberculosis and a belief in the curing properties of air and natural spring waters, made Saratoga Springs one of the first vacation resorts. A lot of early vacation destinations had the word “spring” in the name for this reason.

The poor, got into the act, but rather than vacationing for health, it was religion that drove them. Going on a religious retreat was safe as the temptations of idleness like drinking, smoking, dancing, swimming, and most importantly, sexual temptations, were restricted. By the later part of the 19th century the railroad had the idea of building hotels at the end of their lines and promoting vacations. The super rich of the Gilded Age had their own train cars that would take them to great camps like those in the Adirondacks and Acadia.

The Vanderbilts, Durants, Astors, Rockafellers, and Carnegies went on holiday, but these people didn’t take a weekend off for a whirlwind tour of Disney World, Epcot, and Universal Studios. They left the city and lived on the lakes in the woods for the entire summer. They brought libraries of books and read extensively. They brought paints and easels creating art like we take photos. They went on week-long canoe trips—not as their vacation, but as one small aspect to their vacation. They wrote poetry, learned how to play instruments, created butterfly collections.

As mentioned one of those locations haunted by the ultra-rich was Acadia, Maine—Bar Harbor to be exact. They built palatial cottages along the Atlantic’s picturesque rocky coast. Then in 1947 a fire wiped it all out. 200,000 acres, 851 permanent home and 397 seasonal cottages were destroyed in what was called “the year Maine burned.” The rich didn’t rebuild…well not the Gilded Age rich at least. 

Bar Harbor Inn
Still when my wife and I first stumbled on Acadia National Park nearly thirty years ago it appeared to be mighty well off to us. At the time Robin and I were in our early twenties and on a whirlwind tour of New England in a Capri hatchback. Too poor to stay in hotels, we camped in our tiny dome tent at KOAs along the road and ate campfire cooked sausages wrapped in bread and butter for breakfast. We wandered the shops and streets of Bar Harbor marveling at the beautiful inns and high priced shops and fantasized about one day staying at the legendary Bar Harbor Inn right there at the park on the waterfront. We’d imagined sipping mint juleps under the yellow umbrellas and watching the Margaret Todd—the only four-masted schooner in Frenchmen’s Bay—set out on her sunset sail from the end of the dock. It was a nice dream that I knew would never happen. That’s what dreams were back then, impossible desires. But I didn’t care because my best wish had already come true. I’d married Robin the year before.

We had a great time on that trip climbing the mountains of Acadia, even the infamous Precipice Trail that sorely tested Robin’s fear of heights as it’s a 1000 foot non-technical cliff climb with narrow ledges and iron rung ladders up the face of Mount Champlain. Not long after Robin and I moved to Vermont. We visited Acadia several times, but never scaled the Precipice again and never managed to stay in Bar Harbor. 

Climbing Precipice Trail 27 years ago

For the last seven years we haven’t taken vacations. Just too busy, I suppose. The Puritans would be proud. Then last year, as you may recall, I went out to Death Valley on a research trip for a novel, which turned into an unexpected week long Californian adventure with my wife and son due to earthquakes, hurricanes and forest fires. It turned out to be a lot of fun, so this year we thought we’d try again. My son never saw Acadia, so we decided to introduce him to the adventure grounds of our youth. Hobbits adventuring once more into the Misty Mountains, only this time we could afford more than a campsite.

So last week, Robin, my son, and I flew to Bangor, drove down to Acadia, and achieved that thirty-year-old dream of staying at the Bar Harbor Inn. We sat on the veranda under the bright yellow umbrellas and sipped rum punch like characters in The Great Gatsby.  We took the sunset cruise on the Margaret Todd, where my son helped hoist the main sail, and we returned to the Precipice. 

My son James climbing precipice 2012

  I wasn’t certain if I could climb that mountain trail again, but my eighteen year old son was determined, and I wouldn’t let him go alone. Robin was also determined to retrace her steps. I honestly didn’t think either of us would make it, and before we even reached the cliff face Robin waved us on. I figured she planned to just wait, but she only wanted to go slower and didn't want to make us wait. My son and I reached the top and heading back down found Robin more than three-quarters up. Terrified of the height, but even more stubborn, she pressed on not looking down until she stood at the top. We went biking through the park in the rain, had pop-overs at Jordan House, took a carriage ride and had other adventures, but seeing Robin reach the top of the precipice once more and those drinks under the yellow umbrellas were the highlight for me.  

And while some people find a unique shell or pretty stone that they pick up off a beach or trail as a souvenir, I found an idea for part of a story. Just the sort of thing I’d been looking for. That’s the problem with authors and vacations—leaving the smart phone and laptop at home won’t stop us from working. I suppose it might have made the Puritans happy to know that, but then again, happiness was also probably frowned upon.


  1. Great choice of vacation destination! I grew up near Acadia, in a small town across the bay on the mainland. My Mom worked at the Bar Harbor Inn for a few summers, and the Precipice Trail is one of my favorites in the park. Many summer days were spent biking the carriage trails with my family.

    It's really cool to see that Acadia holds special meaning to your family as well. I hope you enjoyed your trip!

  2. Thanks. It was very fun, and interesting to see how little changed in nearly 30 years.

  3. That's the thing with writers, they're always at work. Glad to hear it turned out well for you guys. Was it a scifi or fantasy story idea? I'll be curious to hear what it was that sparked it.

  4. I'm sold. Great column.

    Do you get a finders fee from the Bar Harbor Inn? You should.

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