BAR HARBOR, Maine — For more than a century, the view from the top of Cadillac Mountain has drawn travelers to this remote and rocky, glacier-carved landscape. Looking down from 1,500 feet, they marvel at its natural beauty: the calm, flat blue of Frenchman Bay; the Porcupine Islands floating like dumplings; the white shroud of fog lifting from the sea.
Nowadays, though, the panoramic vista frequently includes another, less natural object: a big white cruise ship parked just off the coast.
In the towering ships that flock increasingly to this coastal village, some see an engine for economic stability, an easy way of importing tourists who freely spend money. Others see a rapidly looming disaster, with nothing less at stake than the magic of a place they treasure.
“This is natural beauty as magnificent as it gets — to put a bunch of cruise ships in the middle of that is like putting a McDonald’s in the middle of the Grand Canyon,” said Charles Sidman, a Bar Harbor resident who last month organized a new group, the Bar Harbor Residents Association, that is fighting to stop a pier from being built that could attract more and bigger ships. “These views of Frenchman Bay have been painted and photographed for hundreds of years. Why would you sacrifice a precious resource like that for a few dollars?”
The specter of more cruise ship traffic — and what that would mean for the town and its surrounding crown jewel, Acadia National Park — has come to a boil this summer, dividing residents in a bitter standoff. By November, Bar Harbor’s Town Council must decide if the town should buy the abandoned site of a long-defunct Nova Scotia ferry terminal, a prime waterfront location a mile from downtown. Town officials say there is no set plan for the property, and, spurred by escalating public fury, they are soliciting more public input on its future. But some local leaders have concluded that the best use for the spot would include a pier for docking cruise ships.
Among those incensed by the idea are some neighbors who savor sparkling views of Frenchman Bay from the emerald lawns of their waterfront estates, the Gilded Age “cottages” that made Bar Harbor famous. A lawsuit filed in July in Maine Superior Court by owners of two such properties — a 20-room Colonial Revival mansion called Reverie Cove and a 15,000-square-foot Italianate villa known as East of Eden — seeks to undo the recent zoning change that would allow the pier to be built, on the grounds that it conflicts with other state and local laws governing land use.
Town Council chairman Paul Paradis, who owns a hardware store downtown, said he supports the development of a cruise ship facility because it would allow Bar Harbor to acquire, and pay for, a valuable waterfront site, while also strengthening the local economy, where merchants have to hustle to eke out a year-round living from a five-month business season.
“This is not an inexpensive place to live, and it gets harder and harder for our kids to stay here,” he said. “The only way they can stay is with a viable local economy, and I see this as a part of that economy.”
In one vision of what the future might look like, sketched out in a conceptual study undertaken by the town in 2012, a new pier could extend more than a quarter-mile into the bay, big enough to accommodate two 1,000-foot cruise ships at once. The largest cruise ships can carry some 5,000 passengers, plus crew — roughly the total year-round population of Bar Harbor.
That possibility horrifies residents fed up with worsening congestion in their picturesque village and fearful of potential air, water, light, and noise pollution from docked cruise ships. They worry too that bigger ships and crowds will drive away more valuable tourists, those who stay longer and spend more in hotels and restaurants while exploring the wonders of Acadia National Park.
Acadia absorbed a record-high estimated 3.3 million visits last year, and park managers are already grappling with overcrowding in popular spots like Cadillac, where the road to the summit was closed multiple times this summer because of heavy traffic.
“People come here for one reason — because it’s beautiful,” said Darron Collins, president of College of the Atlantic, a small oceanfront campus, devoted to the study of human ecology, a stone’s throw from the site where ships would dock on Eden Street. “The way this property is developed will have enormous impact here, for good or bad. . . . I don’t want to see us become an East Coast version of Venice, an iconic city being torn apart by cruise ships.”
Environmentalists have campaigned for years to stop massive cruise ships from delivering tens of thousands of passengers a day to the fragile northern Italian city.
Bar Harbor is no Venice. But as Maine’s state government has actively courted the industry through its CruiseMaine marketing initiative (slogan: “Where the welcome is as natural as the scenery”), statewide cruise ship traffic has more than doubled since 2003, from 150 to more than 400 visits. Bar Harbor is by far the state’s top port, with 165 visits expected to bring an estimated 226,000 passengers this year.
The visits to Bar Harbor, often part of an itinerary that includes Montreal, Quebec City, or Nova Scotia, give cruise passengers a few hours to take in the view atop Cadillac, eat lobster, and maybe squeeze in a whale watch. But the ships’ size and number have been limited, so far, by the lack of a local pier where they can dock. Passengers who wish to come ashore must be carried there by tenders, small boats that ferry people back and forth.
Many local businesspeople say the cruise ships have been essential to their survival, especially in September and October, when visits by ships sharply increase and the land-based tourism of summer falls away. They push back against claims that cruise ship passengers spend little locally, and say there is ample evidence that those who visit first on cruise ships often come back later to the region and stay longer.
“We’re not an easy place to get to, way up here, and people have to find out about us first. That’s the first step in coming back,” said Martha Searchfield, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce.
On the top of Cadillac Mountain one crystalline morning last month, Dennis and Sandy Chase, first-time visitors from Kansas City, said cruises let them sample a variety of destinations and decide which to go back to. “The downside,” said Dennis Chase, “is that we don’t have much time anywhere.”
Gazing down at the swirl of fog around the ship he’d just come from, the 780-foot Maasdam, Chase pronounced the view spectacular. Then, with the rest of the crowd from the ship, the couple moved briskly off the lichen-speckled granite and back to their bus: their 20 minutes on the mountaintop were up.
The hint of snobbery that some say runs through the resistance to cruise ships is a potent theme in Bar Harbor, where the shimmering 19th-century landscape paintings of artists including Thomas Cole and Frederic Church attracted Rockefellers and Carnegies and Vanderbilts who shaped it into an opulent Gilded Age summer retreat.
The 47,000-acre national park was first envisioned by some of those summer people, and its creation in 1916 relied on gifts of their land. But after a massive fire devastated the island in 1947, burning 17,000 acres and 170 homes, including most of historic Millionaires’ Row, many of those longtime summer families never rebuilt.
Bar Harbor struggled, but eventually prospered as a popular, and populist, tourist destination, drawing hordes of middle-class families to the chain hotels that sprung up in place of elegant summer estates. Its success has strained some infrastructure, and most everyone worries that congestion could dampen its appeal. But some say the focus on cruise ships is unfair.
“When is it too many people?” said Paradis, the town council chairman. “How do you say, ‘You’re that person, you’re the threshold; you can’t come here’?’”
Cruise ship critics say their campaign is not about excluding any particular type of visitor, but rather, preserving the essence of the place for everyone who makes the trip.
“When you see the night sky here, it’s awe-inspiring, so gorgeous and dramatic — you feel your place in the universe,” said Sarah Steinhardt, who has summered since childhood on Hancock Point, a historic retreat 4 miles from Bar Harbor across Frenchman Bay, where residents cherish their views of Acadia’s peaks. “I’m happy many people can have this experience, but I do want to protect it, so they can feel the same awe I have for 50 years.”
Residents on Hancock Point started another group this spring, Friends of Frenchman Bay, to oppose construction of a cruise ship pier, and launched an online petition that has attracted more than 1,000 signers from as far away as California and Europe. Mindful that some in Bar Harbor see them as meddling outsiders, they argue that the real outsiders are the representatives of the booming global cruise ship industry who aim to expand their reach in Maine.
On an island both gritty and genteel, where class tensions run deep even in the best of times, the cruise ship fight has brought out longstanding resentments and suspicions.
Some opponents accuse Bar Harbor town officials of trying to steamroll the pier project without seriously considering other options — a view they say is buttressed by the town’s reliance on a Miami-based consultant, Bermello, Ajamil & Partners, which describes itself on its website as “the preeminent cruise terminal designer in the world.” Local officials maintain that they are open to ideas, though Paradis acknowledges he favors “realistic” proposals that can pay for themselves.
Meanwhile, two towns elsewhere on the island, Tremont and Southwest Harbor, voted last month to temporarily ban large cruise ships from their waters. A third, Mount Desert, took a similar step last fall. In Tremont, where scores of fishermen work out of Bass Harbor, concern about potential damage to their gear helped to drive the passage of a moratorium.
As accusations have flown, and opponents have vowed to fight harder, few here see much hope of reconciliation. Collins, the College of the Atlantic president, is one who still believes it can happen.
“We all love this place,” he said. “We don’t all have the exact same future in mind, but we have an opportunity to come together and do something special that we can be proud of.”