One of the two most beautiful experiences when coming to Downeast Maine is to take a ferry ride across the sun-speckled Frenchman Bay to Winter Harbor, and back.
(The other is taking in the panoramic view of Frenchman Bay from the top of Cadillac Mountain.)
This summer, two ferries will crisscross the bay, carrying passengers to and from Winter Harbor and two locations in Bar Harbor — the Bar Harbor Inn pier and the College of the Atlantic pier.
The vessels will ply the scenic waters of Frenchman Bay, named in honor of French Explorer Samuel de Champlain, who first sailed and charted the area for France in early September of 1604.
Starting from Bar Harbor, the ferries will wind by an archipelago known as the Porcupine Islands — Bald Porcupine, Sheep Porcupine, Burnt Porcupine and Long Porcupine.
During the French and Indian War, French gunboats often hid among the islands waiting to ambush British ships.
The vessels then will continue around the massive granite cliffs of Ironbound, the largest island in the bay, and then slip past the Mark Island’s Winter Harbor Light and Turtle Island before arriving at the Schoodic Marine Center in Winter Harbor.
One family purchased the individual properties on Ironbound as residents departed the island one by one.
The same family owns the island to this day, although they have granted a conservation easement to Acadia National Park.
American artist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) painted his well known “On the Veranda” watercolor on Ironbound Island, which featured the current owners’ ancestors enjoying their summer home.
As visitors cross the bay they can expect to see wildlife —possibly nesting eagles near Ironbound — lighthouses and mansions and watch hardworking lobstermen hauling their traps.
Approaching Winter Harbor passengers will have a clear view of the Winter Harbor Lighthouse.
The beacon functioned as a navigational aid from January 1857 to August 1933 and then the property passed through several private owners.
Writer and musician Bernice “Bunny” Richmond wrote “Winter Harbor” and “Our Island Lighthouse” on Mark Island.
Steve Pagels is operations manager for Downeast Windjammer Cruises, which is will operate a ferry between Bar Harbor and Winter Harbor for the company’s 16th season.
Downeast Windjammer will start the 2016 season with Miss Lizzie, which has a 52-passenger capacity, and then the Schoodic Lion will take over during the high season. It can carry 150 passengers.
The boat will be operated by Capts. Dan Lunt and Kathleen McChesney.
“It’s a beautiful run, and, in certain conditions, it’s challenging,” said Pagels of the nearly 10-mile trip that takes 45 to 50 minutes, depending on the vessel’s speed.
He said night runs can be tricky and will only be offered depending on the weather.
“What happens if your engine hiccups out there,” he said, “and you’re caught next to Ironbound or between Turtle and Spectacle islands.”
A new ferry operator, Kaitlyn Mullen, also will take passengers — bicyclists are welcome on all of the ferries — to and from Winter Harbor on the Katie Grace.
The 42-passenger Katie Grace is named for Kaitlyn’s grandmother and her husband, Jonathan Mullen’s, mother.
Mullen is captain and executive director of Frenchman Bay Research Boating, a nonprofit organization that is starting the ferry service.
The Katie Grace will travel between the College of the Atlantic pier in Bar Harbor and the Schoodic Marine Center, formerly the Winter Harbor Marina.
“Passengers get the opportunity to view the high peaks of Acadia National Park from a flat surface, the bay,” said Mullen. “It is one of the prettiest views on the Maine coast.”
She said the trip helps passengers experience how quickly the Maine coastline changes in short distances, from the Acadia mountains to the Porcupine Islands with their bald eagle nesting habitats.
Mullen will be conducting research experiments along the way — visual marine mammal and pelagic seabird surveys to determine habitat use, distribution and migration — among others.
Once passengers arrive in Winter Harbor they can walk, bicycle or hop on the free Island Explorer bus, which runs every half hour.
If on foot or bicycle, one can head in two directions — to Acadia National Park on the Schoodic Peninsula or into the “downtown” area of Winter Harbor. The Island Explorer bus offers frequent free shuttle service — they carry bicycles too — to downtown Winter Harbor as well as Acadia’s newly opened Schoodic Woods Campground.
For Schoodic Woods-bound bicyclists, take a right at Sargent and Main streets, head to the Schoodic Woods Ranger Station at the Schoodic Woods campground parking lot.
There are 4.7 miles of new hiking trails in the Schoodic Woods section in addition to the existing trails farther south on the Schoodic Peninsula.
The 3.2-mile Buck Cove Mountain Trail starts at the group camping area and takes one by a cave-like formation over Buck Cove Mountain to the top 442-foot Schoodic Head.
The 1.5-mile Lower Harbor Trail begins across from the entrance drive to the Schoodic Woods Ranger Station and winds along the coastline with seabirds often in view.
The new trails are an addition to the existing Schoodic Alder Trail, .6 miles; Anvil Trail, 1.1 miles; East Trail, .5 miles; Schoodic Head Trail, .6 miles and Sundew Trail, .7 miles.
The new 8.3 miles of well graded gravel bike paths resemble, although they are not as wide, the carriage roads on Mount Desert Island.
The new bike paths are in addition to the one-way Schoodic Park Loop Road ride and provide a much needed connection between the east and west sides of the Peninsula.
This means that bicyclists can avoid riding on the narrow and motor vehicle filled East Schoodic Drive as they exit the park.
The bike paths intersect with Buck Cove Mountain and Lower Harbor trails, enabling visitors to ride a bike and hike.
Among the destinations are Winter Harbor, Frazer Point picnic area, Schoodic Point, Bunker’s Harbor and Wonsqueak Harbor.