Which Is a Better Vacation? Cape Cod or Bar Harbor?

If you were to put together the ultimate New England waterfront getaway, what would it include? Miles of sandy walking trails? Breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean? Rustic lighthouses and an abundance of seafood?

Perhaps you want a warming summer breeze as you stroll through quaint towns in your shorts and boat shoes, or maybe you’re looking for a brisk fall morning that is perfect for turtlenecks, sweaters, warm cocktails, and spectacular foliage? Whatever boxes need checking on your ultimate New England waterfront getaway, it all points to Cape Cod, right? Wrong.

Cape Cod absorbs New England beach getaway attention like a day-old designer doughnut absorbs coffee. Sure, it’s okay, but it’s a little dull, way overpriced, and deep down, you know there’s something better out there. Thankfully there is, and you’ll find it in Bar Harbor, Maine.

Why You Should Skip Cape Cod

Cape Cod is one of those beautiful places if you have your own cottage on the water. It has some of the better seafood in the United States, there are plenty of hiking opportunities throughout the cape, and it has more than its fair share of lighthouses for that rustic New England oceanfront charm. All of that probably sounds great–and might check off your vacation boxes. However, the cracks start to appear when you take a closer look, like an exquisite old home that looks beautiful from afar but shows its age the closer you approach.

The Cape Cod National Seashore is one of the only National Seashores that doesn’t offer any kind of camping options, so for you RVers or campers looking to stop, you’re out of luck. Interested in a picturesque photograph of a lighthouse overlooking the Atlantic? Most of the land around these lighthouses has eroded, leaving a number of the lighthouses without any kind of view of the water (and with others, the land surrounding the lighthouses is so unstable you’re not allowed to walk close enough for a worthwhile view).

But probably the biggest downside to visiting Cape Cod is the price. Whether you want a rental that’s on the water or you’re hungry for fresh seafood, you’re going to feel the pinch on your wallet. The cape is a vacation hideaway for well-off Boston residents, and the prices reflect it.

In reality, there isn’t a ton to do at Cape Cod other than stay in your expensive vacation rental. Maybe you’re not someone that likes to get out and hike different kinds of terrain, and you’d rather put your feet up, eat some lobster, and sip on a glass of wine. If so, Cape Cod works, but Bar Harbor also runs circles around it.

Why Bar Harbor Is the Better Option

In reality, you could throw a dart onto any city along the Maine coastline and likely enjoy it just as much, if not more than Cape Cod, all while spending a fraction of what you would in the Massachusetts attraction. Bar Harbor is the logical comparison to Cape Cod as it’s still a vacation destination and a National Park in Acadia National Park (the two pressed together make up the small Mount Desert Island).

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Bar Harbor very much shares similar weather as Cape Cod, although as it is further north, it will likely be a degree or two cooler, but nothing all that noticeable. The town itself offers a centralized tourist neighborhood, which is where you’ll find the small shops, restaurants, bed and breakfasts, and everything else you might expect to sprout up in a smaller waterfront community.

The main road in town gently slopes down toward the water, giving you an excellent view of small fishing and lobster boats. Faded yellow and green boats contrast against the deep, blue-black water and towering pines of the neighboring island. Even on gray, overcast days, there’s something romantic about the subtle hues of the old fishing boats, like a splash of watercolor in a monochromatic painting.

While you’ll find excellent seafood in Cape Cod, what you’ll find in Bar Harbor is just as good, if not better. Whether you just go straight for the fresh lobster, a lobster roll is more your thing (think lobster meat crammed into a toasted, garlic and butter coated hot dog bun), or you have your eyes on something else entirely, at the very least, you’ll pay a bit less for Bar Harbor seafood.

Alicia Dauksis

Bar Harbor seems to have a significant sweet tooth. Around every corner, there’s a different ice cream shop to sample, most of which sell a specialty Maine blueberry ice cream that’s an absolute must-try. For whatever reason, it often seems the colder the climate, the more ice cream shops a city has in the United States.

If you’re a camper or RVer, there are several sites throughout the harbor, many of which are right on the water. Spots fill up quickly during the busy summer season but visit just before the throng of visitors return in May, and you’ll have your pick of sites.

However, the biggest reason why your next New England waterfront vacation should be in Bar Harbor is Acadia National Park. Cape Cod can compete with the food, the lighthouses, and the Atlantic Ocean, but nothing it possesses comes close to the views offered up by Acadia National Park. Rocky cliffs open up onto the Atlantic, book-ending a sandy beach, tucked away as if the harbor itself wanted to keep it a secret.

Should you decide to drive up the small mountain road (you should), the roadway deposits you next to a gentle, curving path. It’s on this path you’ll find yourself on top of the world. Every direction you look, there’s nothing but bread crumbs of islands scattered about the deep blue ocean. On clear days it’s impossible to see where the sky begins, and the world ends. It’s while standing at this point when the love of the location fully takes effect. It’s what sets it apart from other fantastic towns sprinkled throughout the Maine coastline and distances it from the more widely known Cape Cod.

Bar Harbor Is a Perfect Destination Year-Round

The Fallout series of video games have an almost cult-like following. Fallout 4 is set in post-apocalyptic Boston. One of the expansion missions takes place in a location known as Far Harbor. This is actually Bar Harbor, just part of the “B” is rubbed off on the welcome sign within the game. While Bar Harbor is included in the Boston-based video game, Cape Cod is nowhere to be found. Even the game designers fell in love with the harbor’s allure and fog.

Kristi Blokhin

There’s just something almost mythical about Bar Harbor. Early morning walks by the water are often accompanied by a beautiful and yet eerie fog. Geographically, Maine isn’t all that far from Massachusetts. While the cape and harbor share many similarities, it is the differences that truly separate the two and elevate Bar Harbor as the perfect destination for your ultimate New England waterfront getaway. Whether you visit in the middle of summer or you prefer a chill in the air and a burst of gold from the autumn leaves, the natural beauty of Bar Harbor awaits.

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