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Set Your Compass to the Irish Bar, even in Maine

My wife and I have had a lot of good meals and drinks in the pubs we’ve visited in Dublin, Killarney, and Galway, and in fact there’s a good old-school Irish bar in Lowell, Massachusetts, my home base, that we like to frequent before a play or show.

We should have kept this in mind on a coastal drive we made from Boston to Bar Harbor, Maine, and back again. A solid five-hour drive each way. On the drive north, we stopped overnight in Kennebunkport, then a second night in Camden, Maine, both quaint seaside villages with lots of tourists and beautiful ocean vistas and great restaurants. In both stops, we enjoyed good Maine breakfasts and coffee, strolled the sidewalks and boardwalks, window shopping and letting the June sun warm our necks and shoulders.

From Camden we drove a couple more hours to our final destination, Bar Harbor, reminiscent of those other two Maine towns in some ways but also its own thing: as the gateway to Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor draws the hikers, bikers, and nature-lovers. Beards and knit caps rule the day. We drank ciders and microbrews and ate blueberry pie, strolled the town’s old wooden docks, moonlight shimmering on the flat sea. The nights were quiet, the wide sky crowded with stars. Bar Harbor, in recent years, has become a cruise port, the tiny village packed with day-trippers moving in a herd down Main Street. We’d experienced a similar phenomenon in the Cinque Terre in the Italian Riviera, these quiet, auto-less villages built into the sides of cliffs, rural and embracing its simplicity, opening their doors to cruise ships, the narrow pedestrian streets overrun with cruisers, not just crowded but impassable.

But Bar Harbor, like the Cinque Terre, exhaled at night, a sigh, a cool rejuvenation. We bought ice creams and, like the town itself, seemed to find a second wind.

Over the next couple days we biked Acadia’s carriage roads, viewed Cadillac Mountain from a glider plane, and ate more good food. Tired, spent, feeling good, we readied ourselves for the long drive home.

We stopped for the night in Bath, Maine: a quiet, non-touristy industrial town. After Kennebunkport, Camden, and of course Bar Harbor, we didn’t mind Bath’s low-key atmosphere. At least, we hadn't thought we would.

But we arrived in Bath late in the evening, a Sunday, its downtown pretty much closed for the night. The parking spaces along its Main Street were all available, every last one. We coasted through the center, looking out the windows left and right. A man walked down a sidewalk smoking a cigarette and looking at his phone. Another block up, two women walked their Yellow Lab. The night was going to be even quieter than we’d anticipated.

We stayed at our hotel using points, a Marriott outside of Bath next to Interstate 95. We often stay in Marriotts right in town, but since we’d used points we took the cheapest option, leaving us a bit on the outskirts. We’d need something to do.

After dropping or bags and cleaning up, we drove back into town in search of food and something interesting. Christine worked the phone, searching Yelp. Most of what we found was closed. I pulled over to the side of the road across from a pizza place. It wasn’t quite what we’d wanted, but we were hungry—over-hungry, really—and needed to eat. A few doors down from the pizza shop was an Irish bar, green awning above, a Guinness sign blinking in neon from the dirty window. Loose napkins blew into the enclave of the door.

We sat and debated, our stomachs grumbling and our attitude’s souring. We’d done a lot of driving over the last few days—about 400 miles in all—and though we’d had a lot of fun, we felt depleted and ready for our own bed. But not until this one last night. The pizza place would have only chipped away at a half hour or so, and we needed to kill more time than that. So we opted for the Irish Bar. The fact that it shared a family name in my wife’s tree sealed the deal. She took it as a sign.

And what a sign it was. We had drinks and ordered comfort food off the pub menu. The Red Sox were on the bank of TVs. My wife was asked by the bartender about her new Bar Harbor sweatshirt, triggering a conversation about the town’s hidden gems and best blueberry pancakes. We relaxed. We reflected on a good trip. The bikes. The glider ride over Acadia. The blueberry pie and the ice cream. The unique chill Maine vibe we’d hopefully adopted into our own DNA.

At the corner table sat a group of men and women with Guinness and Smithwick’s beers in front of them and musical instruments at their sides, leaning against the wall or their legs. Acoustic guitars and fiddles. A couple other instruments I didn’t recognize. They talked among themselves and drank, then soon enough picked up their instruments and played, a traditional Irish song that got the room clapping and bouncing our legs. After the song, we applauded and raised our glasses, and they put their instruments down for a while. After a time they picked them up again and played something else. It wasn’t a performance, exactly—they weren't on a stage but in a corner booth—but they played for themselves and for us, and it felt casual and soothing and a nice way to wind down a long day. We sent them over a round and introduced ourselves. We toasted and listened to a few more songs until they eventually, gradually, packed away their instruments and said their good-nights.

Our stomachs felt content and the drinks had taken the edge off. Outside, I stretched in the cool air, breathing in the salt aroma of the ocean nearby. My wife yawned, and then so did I. We were ready for bed, and to finish our drive the next day.

We’d learned a good lesson on that night: when in doubt, find the Irish bar. Wherever you are.

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