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Hiking and history at Mount Desert Island, Acadia National Park 

Early-rising visitors to Acadia National Park await the

Early-rising visitors to Acadia National Park await the sunrise on the summit of Cadillac Mountain. Credit: AP/Robert F. Bukaty

It's been a big year for Mount Desert Island, a craggy hump of pink Maine granite that's home to Acadia National Park. Already one of the busiest parks in the United States, Acadia is on track for a record-breaking year.

Starting in the mid-1800s, the island became a destination for a generation of nature seekers called "rusticators," who traveled from East Coast cities by train, carriage and sail.

What is rusticating? It's the 19th-century version of going country. Think: picnics by rowboat, plein-air painting or daylong hikes along mountain trails.

"They were looking to escape the heat and the crowds and the pollution of cities," said Maine writer Catherine Schmitt, author of "Historic Acadia National Park: The Stories Behind One of America's Great Treasures."

In the quiet moments, when you find a beach or cove all your own, it still feels like a far-flung hinterland. Mount Desert Island's peaks emerge from dense forests, the summits in startling proximity to the island-dotted bays. For some of the year, the tallest of these, Cadillac Mountain, is touched by the first morning sunlight to reach the United States.

Nowadays, tourists gather in predawn darkness to watch the sunrise from the top of Cadillac Mountain.

On the "Quiet Side," the relaxed western half of Mount Desert Island, I found a coterie of visitors lined up, phones at an arm's length, to capture an ocean sunset from the rocky coast at Seawall.

Preserving the spirit of the Gilded Age era is the Claremont Hotel, a genteel 1884 rambler in the Quiet Side town of Southwest Harbor. After years of gentle decline, the hotel was sold last fall to Kennebunkport, Maine, hotel magnate Tim Harrington. It reopened in May following careful renovations that restored it to laid-back elegance.

In the main hotel, which has 24 guest rooms, the colors are sweet and sunny as a garden bouquet.

Croquet isn't the only 19th-century pursuit thriving on Mount Desert Island. Back then, visitors — some in long skirts and petticoats — liked to scramble around on the island's nubbly boulders. They called it "rocking," and today, the oceanside cliffs within Acadia National Park are legendary among northeastern rock climbers.

Waking early on the second day of our trip, we set out for a trek to some of the island's summits. A steep walk led to Bald Peak, then we continued through ripening wild blueberries to Parkman Mountain, Gilmore Peak and the 1,373-foot Sargent Mountain. After the final ascent, we passed a family splashing around in Sargent Mountain Pond, a lily-dotted pool believed to be the oldest lake in Maine.

Only after an acrimonious battle were automobiles permitted, in 1913, into all Mount Desert Island towns. The car-free carriage roads in a way became a hedge against modernity: Both summer people and locals would always have a place to escape the clattering engines of a mechanizing world.

The Asticou Inn is another grand hotel from Mount Desert Island's Gilded Age. (Though the 1883 original burned down, the current version was rebuilt at the turn of the century.)

It has faded charm, a breezy deck and, I knew, a great recipe for popovers. Ever since the trail-side restaurant Jordan Pond House began serving them in 1895, the puffy baked goods have been an island tradition. Seated on the back deck at the Asticou, which has views of yachts bobbing in Northeast Harbor, we ordered a pair with Maine blueberry jam on the side.

"Two pops coming up," the waitress replied, returning promptly with a basket of softball-size treats. My popover exhaled steam when I tore it open. It was delicious enough that I was tempted to order another round, but the deck was filling up with tourists. Someone was probably waiting for our table, and besides, we had been sitting long enough.

"We're not here to relax," I reminded myself, brushing crumbs off my hiking clothes as we began the long walk back toward the car. "We're rusticating."

IF YOU GO

WHERE TO STAY

The Claremont Hotel

22 Claremont Rd., Southwest Harbor, 207-244-5036, theclaremonthotel.com

Recent renovations bring updated luxury to this Gilded Age hotel, where loungers and cabanas line a brand-new outdoor pool. Active guests can play croquet, borrow the hotel's beach cruisers to pedal Southwest Harbor's back roads or join morning yoga and Pilates sessions on the lawn. On-site dining includes the nautical-themed Harry's Bar; the casual, waterside Batson Fish Camp; and the more upscale Little Fern. Guest rooms in the historical main hotel from $295 Sept. 9 to June 18; $495 July 16 to Aug. 22; check website for shoulder season rates.

WHERE TO EAT

Asticou Inn & Restaurant

15 Peabody Dr., Northeast Harbor, 207-276-3344, asticou.com

Enjoy views of Northeast Harbor from the breezy deck at the Asticou Inn, where popovers are a specialty. Open Thursday to Monday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for lunch; dinner Thursday to Monday 5:30 to 9 p.m. Lunch from $12, dinner from $19; two popovers with Maine strawberry or blueberry jam $8.

WHAT TO DO

Acadia National Park

Hulls Cove Visitor Center; 25 Visitor Center Rd., Bar Harbor, 207-288-3338, nps.gov/acad

The national park spreads across Mount Desert Island onto the nearby mainland. Carriage roads and trails are open year-round, and the scenic Park Loop Road is open April 15 to Dec. 1. Park entrance passes required May to October. Seven-day passes $30 for private vehicles, $25 for motorcycles, $15 for individuals without vehicles. Annual passes $55. Free or discounted admission available for U.S. 4th-grade students, seniors, military with ID and Gold Star Families.

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