Bar Harbor, Maine Serving as a summer retreat for Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Morgans, this town and the surrounding area have long been known as a place where well-heeled and well-known visitors could beat the heat — and have their privacy respected.
President Barack Obama is the latest influential visitor to flee to Maine in search of a cool ocean breeze. During his visit, he’ll be the first sitting president to visit Mount Desert Island since William Howard Taft a century ago.
People in Bar Harbor, a town of 5,000 residents that bustles with tourists in the summer, say they are excited about Obama’s visit.
But with the area’s history of business barons, political power brokers and famous actors among them for generations, they’re used to having the rich and famous in their midst. People in Maine, they say, aren’t likely to get too flustered by the presidential visit.
“There are still famous and wealthy people all over the island, and their privacy is very much respected,” said Craig Neff, owner of The Naturalist’s Notebook, a shop in Seal Harbor village not far from where lifestyle maven Martha Stewart owns an estate originally built for automobile tycoon Edsel Ford. “If I were a billionaire, I would certainly appreciate it. It’s always been that way.”
Beginning in the late 1800s, well-heeled families from New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago and elsewhere came to Mount Desert Island, where they built summer homes to escape the city heat. The 108-square-mile island, located 3 1/2 hours northeast of Portland, is connected to the mainland by a causeway.
There are four towns on the island — Bar Harbor is the largest — and much of the land is owned by Acadia National Park, which was established in 1916 and draws visitors with hiking trails, spectacular scenery and ocean views.
Obama will be the fourth sitting president to visit the island, said Debbie Dyer, curator of the Bar Harbor Historical Society. Chester Arthur visited in 1882, Benjamin Harrison in 1889 and Taft on July 18, 1910, nearly 100 years to the day before Obama’s visit, she said.
Dyer has a newspaper clipping with an old photograph showing Taft playing golf at the island’s Kebo Valley Golf Club, where the newspaper reported the president ending the day with a score of 100. Maybe Obama, who has a fondness for golf, will play at the club, she said.
If he doesn’t play golf, he could hike any of the park’s 125 miles of trails, bicycle its carriage roads or go boating in the cold waters off the island, Dyer said.
“I’m so glad they’re coming to enjoy the beauty of the island so we can share our little neck of the woods,” she said.
Earlier this week, there weren’t any signs in the windows of the numerous shops in Bar Harbor acknowledging the president’s upcoming visit. No restaurants were offering Obama Burgers or the like on their menus. That would be so unlike Bar Harbor, which tries to maintain a somewhat dignified and low-key demeanor.
Residents respect the privacy and space of the well-known people when they come to visit. Stewart can often be found at the Bar Harbor farmer’s market, and the late actor Paul Newman and his wife, Joanne Woodward, enjoyed quiet breakfasts at a local spot when visiting their daughter when she attended Bar Harbor’s College of the Atlantic years ago.
Last summer, Susan Sarandon visited the Sherman’s Books & Stationery bookstore without any fanfare, said Laurie Cote, who works there. People in town treat celebrities just like everybody else, she said, although she admits she’d like to see Obama.
“All that being said, I still hope I get my picture taken with him,” she said.
Still, there’s a certain excitement that the president has chosen the island for his vacation. If he walks the streets of Bar Harbor, he’ll be able to buy Maine gifts ranging from place mats with directions on how to eat a lobster and jars of blueberry jam to wooden models of sailing ships or baseball caps with moose or pine trees on them.
Lou Zawislak, 65, lives in New Orleans and is renting a cottage in Bar Harbor for the summer. As a Maine native, he knows that the culture in Bar Harbor “is to give people their space.” But that’s not dampening the chatter he’s hearing about Obama’s visit.
“People are wondering where will he stay and what will he do,” Zawislak said. “And will there be a sighting?”