Gem of Vacationland

Words By Kathryn Williams
Photos By Michael D. Wilson

Places, like people, are hard to pin down, too easy to flatten. And every portraitist, as Pablo Picasso so dramatically demonstrated, has their angle—or angles.  

Painting a picture of Mount Desert Island, Kim Swan’s perspectives are as varied as any cubist master’s: Bar Harbor kid since the age of 4 (she grew up near the hospital and now lives a mile and a half from her childhood home); real estate broker and investor turned hospitality developer (at her father’s urging, she entered real estate at age 19 and now runs the family business, Swan Agency Real Estate, with an expanded focus on luxury inns and bed-and-breakfasts); dedicated public servant (childhood visions of serving in the U.S. Senate gave way to numerous local and state boards and associations, as well as 10 years on the Bar Harbor Town Council); creative enthusiast with a love for art and interior design (she also dabbles as a film and television producer and music publisher). 

Kim Swan enjoys a rare moment of downtime in the lounge of her refurbished Bar Harbor hotel.

Sitting on a deck of The Bayview Hotel, which she purchased in 2018 and has been renovating with an eye toward rustic sophistication, Kim hardly sees the cruise ship moored in her line of vision anymore.  

It’s hard to talk about MDI without talking about tourists, but to sum up the roughly hundred-square-mile island, home to Acadia National Park, as a tourist destination is to do a disservice, and not just to the 10,000-strong year-round population. What Kim sees, instead of the cruise ship, are the spectacular view’s “layers”—the juxtaposition of trees and rock and smaller islands and, beyond, the green hump of the Schoodic Peninsula, her new favorite spot. 

It’s officially high season, but the deck of The Bayview is peaceful. This is another thing Kim loves about MDI: “Still, on the busiest day of the year, you can find a place without another person.” 

The promise of solitude, as well as the area’s exceptional natural beauty, is what attracted Mount Desert Island’s original “rusticators” in the late 19th century. These city folk from Boston, New York, and Philadelphia—schoolteachers, clergy, and naturalists in the 1840s and 50s, and then Rockefellers, Astors, and Carnegies—came to Mount Desert for a “simpler” way of life. By the Gilded Age, they were staying for lawn parties and concerts at grand oceanside estates dubbed, quaintly, “cottages.” 

Island Palette 
From the soft greens and peachy sands of Acadia National Park to the bold and bright primaries of Bar Harbor, MDI has a bit of “local color” for everyone. Sophisticated jewel tones set the scene in the bar of Batson River Fish Camp (bottom, left) at The Claremont Hotel in Southwest Harbor. 

Kim, who recently sat on the board of the Bar Harbor Historical Society, helped the organization purchase one such estate for its museum—La Rochelle, built in 1903, with 41 rooms. She is also the producer of a documentary about the fire of 1947, a 10-day wildfire that engulfed Bar Harbor and surrounding areas, wiping out 67 seasonal estates and five large hotels, changing the physical and social landscape of the island for decades to come.  

Full-time residents and tourists returned to Bar Harbor after the fire, but many summertime “rusticators” (or their modern counterparts) migrated to points south, including Southwest and Northeast Harbors, on opposite sides of Somes Sound, the deep-water harbor that cleaves the island like a juicy, green peach.  

Elevated Rustic 
In the 1800s, the island’s exceptional natural beauty brought “rusticators” from the big cities of the Northeast—titans of the day who built grand summer estates dubbed, quaintly, “cottages.” Today, vacationers, summer people, and year-rounders like Kim indulge in the “simpler” life at historic hotels such as The Claremont and The Bayview. 

Southwest Harbor, a lobstering and boating town, now boasts such luxury accommodations as The Claremont Hotel, stylishly refurbished by Kim’s friend and fellow hotelier Tim Harrington. Recently, Kim was with friends in Northeast Harbor when she stopped to marvel at the quiet of the street. Where was everybody? she asked. It was Sunday, her companion replied. “So civilized!” she says, with a laugh. Back in Bar Harbor, cars and buses jammed the streets, and sidewalks overflowed. 

The restoration and redevelopment of existing properties on MDI is, in Kim’s view, a rising tide that lifts all ships. “I love the elevating,” she says. The next challenge is finding or building affordable workforce housing. An undeveloped piece of land that was part of the Bayview Hotel purchase opened the way for Kim to build an apartment and dorm-style residence for her hotel staff. The intention was to house seasonal workers, but locals have asked if they might live there as well. 

Enjoy a lobster roll and the view from Lunch on the Wharf in Corea Harbor, near the Schoodic Peninsula.

These days, Kim finds herself climbing Cadillac Mountain only when friends are in town. The view is still stunning but also, for this hometown girl, intimate; she can look down and pick out the houses of friends and clients.  

She remembers, at 7 or 8, complaining to her father of the summer influx. “That,” her father told her, “is how you eat.” For Kim, the impulse to share is, perhaps, a little more magnanimous. “You have to share this level of beauty,” she says of the island that is her home, livelihood, community, and muse. Also, she notes with a shrug, “We get it back.”