BAR HARBOR, Maine — Dogs aren’t just welcome at Bark Harbor, the Main Street dog boutique in this coastal town at the gateway of Acadia National Park. Their owners are greeted with a full-page, double-sided printout of “places to dine with dogs.”
Twenty-five restaurants are on the list, from a bakery that makes its own blueberry muffins to several seaside decks with panoramic water views. On the flip side of the page, the “places to stay with dogs” ends at No. 23. But, we discovered, the list in incomplete. It didn’t include the lovely Sea Breeze Motel, on a secluded bluff off the road 4 miles from town center. It overlooks the ocean beyond a row of bushes and trees, and behind a hot tub and a pool with umbrellas to shade our long-haired golden retriever on hot summer afternoons.
We sought refuge at the Sea Breeze even before we had spent our single night at the rather shabby inn we had booked in advance, fearing a night with a dog — and Murphy is not just any dog — might not be so easy to book on the spot in summer’s high season.
But we were wrong on two counts. First off, the economy here seems to be struggling. Acadia National Park literature boasts of 2 million visitors a year, but this July vacancy signs proliferated and we saw one motel advertising “off-season rates.”
Secondly, I’ve never seen an American town more welcoming to man’s best friend. In the park, dogs can hike, leashed, on almost all the trails. They can dine in the gardens beside Jordan Pond and ride on the free shuttle bus that carries bikers, beach goers and sightseers around the main loop.
Outside the park, dogs can wander through many of gift shops here, ride the mailboat — no charge — to islands that dot the coast off Mount Desert, and be served bowls of water and an occasional treat by waiters even before their owners can choose from the wine list.
This was our first vacation with Murphy, who just turned 3, and I can’t say it came without a bit of trepidation. This, after all, is the dog who ate a 3-foot-diameter circular hole in the kitchen wall as a puppy. The one who counter surfs at home, snatching anything 4-feet or lower within extended tongue range. The one who wears a harness when he walks to keep him from pulling me around the block at an off-balance trot. The dog who tears up lawns and, on occasion, starts barking just for the heck of it. The one who, in his enthusiasm, has been known to bowl over guests who reach down to pet him.
Yes, we were a bit worried, particularly when the Sea Breeze stipulated strictly that we could under no circumstances leave Murphy alone in the room. But the boy did turn of age last month (3 years times 7 = 21 in dog years). And if not now, when? (We’ve even been too nervous to bring Murphy to my cousin Margaret’s house though she loves dogs and took care of his predecessors, Toby and Casey, for weeks at a time over the last two decades.)
The first day in Maine, we steeled ourselves and took Murphy to the town center. In the Bark Harbor store, he started to whimper but not in defiance. Too many people in too small a space. Outside, on the waterfront trail was a different matter. He walked beside me, stride for stride, head up, tongue hanging out in what looked like a lopsided smile.
“What a well-behaved dog,” a young woman said softly to her guy as we walked past.
Soon we realized, Murphy wasn’t just being well-behaved. In Bar Harbor, with his soulful brown eyes and coat like butter, he was a rock star. Kids waved to him. A woman on the mail boat clung to him so passionately I thought she was about to invite him into her lap. On the trail up Cadillac Mountain, hikers gave him extra water. And wherever we sat down in the shade to rest, someone joined us, to sing Murphy’s praises and tell us about their dogs at home — in West Virginia, in North Carolina, in Tennessee, in Toronto, Canada.
I started to wonder whether, with Murphy’s help, we might open a side business as dog therapists.
Nor was the behavior of our ambassador of good will a public facade. Nope. Murphy is genuinely growing up.
In our room, he sat stoically through our breakfasts and lunches, eying our food dolefully but not once launching himself at our knee-high table. He didn’t jump on the beds either — well, after we pulled him off a couple of times (we did invite him up for morning belly rubs). He barked but once, and just a few times to establish his turf. And he waited patiently as dozens of people approached to pet him, flattening not a one.
He even did his business discreetly and, best of all, in places where I could leave it to nature to decompose.
I’m convinced that Murphy not only made our vacation more fun; he made our vacation. On our first night, disgusted by the chemically sprayed rug of the shabby motel we’d managed to book right beside the main roadway, we drove around, looking for a new refuge.
At the Sea Breeze, the owner, who introduced herself as Joan, took a liking to Kathy and her tale of our well-behaved golden (I always enlist Kathy to tell family tall tales in tight situations).
Joan, it turned out had had a golden retriever too, Cassie, who had died young of a cancerous tumor. Oh, Kathy told her, we had a golden named Casey who died of cancer at 12. He looked a lot like Murphy.
Soon Joan had put us in a lovely room at the quiet end of the long porch. The cost of having a dog at her hotel would be $25, she had said. But after a few minutes, now that she, Kathy and Murphy had bonded, the rules suddenly changed.
“I forgot that we have a special this month and dogs are free,” she said.
A special? In high season? On dogs?
I guess it helps to travel with a rock star.