A group of tourists walk past an empty mask dispenser Sunday after getting treats at a local ice cream shop. The number of tourists in Bar Harbor for Memorial Day weekend this year was far higher than in 2020, when much of the town's tourism businesses remained closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

If not for the face masks many people wore as they roamed the streets of Bar Harbor, it would have looked like a Memorial Day weekend like any other.

Any in recent memory other than the glaring exception of last year’s holiday weekend, when what is generally regarded as the beginning of Bar Harbor’s summer tourist season squeaked by with a pandemic-induced whimper.

In late May of 2020, virtually all of the town’s hotels remained closed, as interstate travel was severely restricted and many shops and restaurants were still trying to figure out how, or if, they could safely operate while the COVID-19 virus continued to spread rapidly around the globe. Bar Harbor got a few day trippers during last year’s holiday weekend, but otherwise resembled a ghost town.

This year, to the relief of the town’s business community, things are looking up.

David Woodside, president of Acadia Corp., which owns and operates several gift shops in downtown Bar Harbor, said the difference is “literally day and night.” The company’s sales so far have exceeded their spring sales total last year, and are ahead of 2019, too.

“Based on what we’ve seen to date, we’re now anticipating business and visitation levels akin to 2019,” Woodside said. “It’s been a dramatic recovery to date.”

Buxton residents Mark Lenard and Christine Welch take a selfie with a scoop of lobster ice cream (at far left) on Sunday while other customers huddle under an awning at Ben & Bill’s ice cream shop in downtown Bar Harbor. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

Jeff Curtis, owner of Sherman’s Bookstores in Bar Harbor, Portland and several places in between, said his Saturday sales in Bar Harbor were 10 times what they were for the corresponding Saturday in 2020, and twice as high as they were in 2019.

“A year ago, Sherman’s was fighting for survival,” Curtis said. “This year, we are extremely optimistic that 2021 will be our busiest year ever.”

The turnaround has been even more dramatic for hotels. Ocean Properties, which owns and operates several hotels in town along with other tourism businesses, had no local hotels open in late May of last year, but was at 90 percent capacity Friday and Saturday night, according to local operations manager Eben Salvatore, which he said is normal for a typical Memorial Day weekend.

He said that bookings for June are higher than they have been in recent years, not counting 2020. He said people who have been cooped up for the past year and are itching to go on vacation still might not be ready to travel overseas, or to sail on large cruise ships.

“Traditionally there are a few quieter weeks [after Memorial Day] until kids get out of school leading up to the Fourth of July, but this year we got much busier much sooner and the demand looks strong right into the fall,” Salvatore said. “The amount of traffic this weekend is such a welcome sight for so many people. It’s great to be on the road to recovery.”

Ben & Bill’s Chocolate Emporium, one of the town’s busiest ice cream sellers, got a fair amount of traffic through its front door on Sunday, as rain kept most tourists out of Acadia National Park and instead looking for things to do downtown. Despite the rain, many customers took turns standing or sitting on benches underneath the store’s awning at the front entrance as they savored their treats.

Brunswick residents Amy Wyman, 39, and her son Kaleb Wyman, 13, sat on one bench eating fried dough as they watched passersby. Amy Wyman said they have been planning for months to come to Bar Harbor to celebrate her son’s birthday.

“We’ve been here for a few days,” she said. “He’s never been here before.”

Wyman said the staff of all the local businesses they’ve interacted with — from Ben & Bill’s to the Atlantic Oceanside Inn — have told her they are happy to have her business. That appreciation, she said, is a contrast to the stress most everyone has dealt with over the past year.

“Everyone here has been so nice,” Wyman said. “It does feel great.”

A couple pushes a stroller along a sidewalk Sunday while a car backs into a parking space on Cottage Street in downtown Bar Harbor. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

Michael Boland, who owns and runs Havana restaurant and Chocolatte cafe, said he had lines out the door at the cafe over the weekend and has been getting more advance bookings for dinner at Havana than ever before. A year ago, he added, his staff at Havana was prepping for another community meal that the restaurant provided free every Monday throughout the spring months.

Boland said that with pandemic restrictions removed for the vaccinated, he expects to be busy throughout the entire tourist season and well into the fall. The number of places to stay in and around Bar Harbor has greatly increased thanks to online vacation rental services such as Airbnb and VRBO, he said, but the number of places to eat in Bar Harbor has not.

The higher number of places to stay on Mount Desert Island is reflected not just in restaurant waiting lists, he said, but also in the scarcity of parking around town, the crowded sidewalks and the full parking lots in Acadia, which just had its busiest winter ever.

“The bottom line is there aren’t enough seats for the number of diners that want them on most busy summer nights,” Boland said. “There will be nights this summer when we turn away 100-200 potential guests, some nights more.”

For Joe Minutolo, who with his brother owns and operates Bar Harbor Bicycle Shop, having tourists back in town again doesn’t entirely mean things are back to normal, though his staff has been busy. A rainy holiday weekend meant the shop did not get a lot of bike rental business, but there has been no shortage of customers asking for bicycle repairs, he said.

“We have not been able to get a steady flow of inventory since [late last summer],” he said, because of high global demand for materials used to make bicycles. But, he added, “the service area is extremely busy. If you can’t get a new bike, people are getting them fixed. It’s going to be this way for most or all of this year.”

Down at the other end of Cottage Street, Buxton residents Christine Welch and Mark Lenard were among the people who ate their ice cream under the awning at Ben & Bill’s. The couple had spent a few days in Cutler and Lubec in Washington County, and stopped in Bar Harbor overnight on their way back to southern Maine.

This trip to Bar Harbor was their third in the past year, having made prior visits last year for Labor Day and Independence Day.

“The Fourth of July was dead,” Lenard said, noting the contrast between then and now. “A lot of businesses downtown were still closed,” he added, though many had opened by Labor Day.

Lenard and Welch said they have traveled in Maine a bit throughout the past year, and have visited with friends, though they have worn masks when they met indoors. They are hoping to be able to visit Campobello this summer, just across the Canadian border from Lubec, and when Lenard gets the chance, he hopes to visit his mother in Washington, D.C., whom he hasn’t seen in nearly two years.

Both Lenard and Welch said they are happy that life seems to be getting close to normal again, but their optimism comes with a little sense of caution about society reopening. The restrictions on gathering indoors and wearing facemasks in public seem to have been relaxed fairly quickly, they said, and they would rather not see case counts go up again and have restrictions reimposed.

“We’ll find out,” Lenard said.

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....