A Gem of a Way to See Acadia National Park
The latest and greatest way to travel the top sites of Acadia National Park? Via an Acadia GEM, a lightweight electric vehicle that is not just a clean, energy-efficient way to tour the beloved park, it’s a way to take it in from a whole new, immersive vantage point.
Pink granite cliff ledges that gradually melt into the sea, densely wooded spruce and pitch-pine forests laced with historic carriage roads, and sloping glacier-carved peaks. With easily accessible scenescapes like these, it’s no wonder Acadia National Park is the fifth most-visited national park in the country (to the tune of just under four million people in 2022, in fact). But when these types of bucolic landscapes are too loved, too heavily treaded upon, it only makes these fragile ecosystems more vulnerable to being lost.
That’s why, in 2021, when Eben Salvatore first took a test drive of a GEM – a small, lightweight, street-legal electric vehicle – he couldn’t help but get excited. As a Bar Harbor native who’s worked in operations across Opals Harborside Hotel, Spa & Marina and West Street Hotel for the last 15 years, he’s always been aware of the challenges of transporting visitors around his coastal community set on Frenchman Bay and the toll that larger gas-guzzling vehicles take on Acadia – especially in the recent record-setting visitation years.
But secondly, it was just a downright more immersive experience than driving in your typical car.
“As soon as we started moving, I knew this was something special. With no doors on the vehicle and a max speed of only 25 miles an hour, you are just so much more engaged and present in your surroundings,” says Salvatore. “I’ve lived here 40 years, and it was like I was seeing my hometown and Acadia from a whole new perspective.”
INTRODUCING ACADIA GEM, AN ECO-FRIENDLY WAY TO TRAVEL
Within the year of Salvatore’s first ride and just in time for the 2022 summer season, Bar Harbor’s new, and only, EV rental business – Acadia GEM – was born. The operation – co-owned by Salvatore and his friend Jeff Young (the true brainchild of the business who coaxed Salvatore on that first test drive) – boasts a fleet of 45 vehicles available to rent for anyone looking to navigate their way around Bar Harbor and Acadia in a more earth-friendly manner.
Earth-friendly, indeed. After the first 2022 season alone, Salvatore calculated a collective 147,000 miles traveled by the fleet. “If that was traveled by normal gas vehicles, that equates to 8,000 gallons of fuel burned,” notes Salvatore. “So we kept an entire tanker truck of fuel out of our atmosphere in the first year alone.”
So How Does Renting an Acadia GEM Work?
Visitors to Bar Harbor – they could be folks who have traveled to the area by cruise ship or their own vehicle – can book online or in person at their 195 Main Street location (booking online ahead of time is recommended). During the process, they get to choose from different GEM models (two-seaters, four-seaters, and six-seaters), as well as rental duration (daily or multi-day rentals). Then you can either pick up from their Main Street location or have the vehicle delivered to you. But don’t worry, it’s not as if they simply hand the keys over – staff members provide a thorough tutorial of how to drive the cars until you feel comfortable, plus an overview of permitted roads.
WHAT IS A GEM VEHICLE? HOW IS A GEM DIFFERENT FROM YOUR AVERAGE CAR?
An acronym for “Global Electric Motorcars,” GEMS are 100% battery-powered, low-speed vehicles first developed in the 1990s to fill a space in the market between a golf cart and a full-size automobile. While street legal, they only go a max speed of 25 miles per hour, therefore are only permitted on public roads where the speed limit is 35 miles per hour or under – which means downtown Bar Harbor and Acadia are fair game. Easy to operate, they start with a press of a button.
As for the distance, the entire fleet of Acadia GEMS are powered by Lithium batteries, an upgrade from the traditional batteries that come in the vehicles, allowing them to travel more than 50 miles on a single charge (Salvatore has driven one up to 80 miles). In addition to the removable doors, Salvatore and Young had their fleet modified with custom-built roofs made of plexiglass. “It’s like you’re not even in a real car, just a floating bubble,” says Salvatore. “There’s also a Bluetooth speaker under the seat if you want your tunes to play, but it’s good to leave some room for the sounds of nature.”
As for navigating the sometimes-busy streets of downtown Bar Harbor, you won’t find a nimbler way to do so. “Personally, it’s the only vehicle I drive in the summer,” says Salvatore. “It’s how I get around Bar Harbor.”
A GEM Included with The Willow House
BEST DRIVES TO TAKE WITH AN ACADIA GEM
Of course, being easier to maneuver and kinder to the environment are only two perks; the third is the way this vehicle gets you out into the environment like no conventional car could. While a drive up Cadillac is one of the obvious to-dos, Salvatore shares three of his other favorite drives:
Park Loop Road Evening Picnic
Salvatore calls this the quintessential GEM experience: Driving the full 27-mile Park Loop Road, the main artery and go-to scenic drive around the eastern side of Mount Desert Island that links together lakes, mountains, and forests. However, Salvatore’s riff is that you pack an early dinner picnic and do it after 5 p.m. – when the masses have exited the park.
“I tell people to take their time on Ocean Drive” – the two-mile Park Loop stretch that runs south along the coastline – “because this is a stretch that is packed with some of Acadia’s most beautiful attractions that visitors often breeze right past.” He’s referring to Sand Beach, The Beehive, Gorham Mountain, Thunder Hole, Otter Cliffs, and Otter Point.
After looping back up north, past the towering Belgian draft horses housed in Wildwood Stables (aka Carriages of Acadia), Salvatore says to pull over at Jordan Pond and head to the sprawling lawn to lay out your picnic spread. The spot overlooks the 187-acre glacier-formed tarn with the twin peaks of South and North Bubble in the background.
Rainy Day Roadside Waterfall Tour
One of the most unique ways to see Acadia, according to Salvatore? In the rain. “When it rains enough, hundreds of little tiny waterfalls sprout from the ledges and ravines surrounding Park Loop Road,” he explains. “It’s like a waterfall safari.”
And what makes it even better is the fact that the totally transparent plexiglass roofs of the GEMS give you unobstructed views. “You feel like you’re in a fish bowl.”
Seal Harbor Sightseeing
Located on the southeastern part of Mount Desert Island, this small village community is actually a popular summer destination for the rich and famous (Martha Stewart owns a historic estate here). But you really wouldn’t know it, thanks to a quaint and down-to-earth vibe that permeates Main Street, home to only a few businesses, including an inn and restaurant, a bookstore, and an old gas station and convenience store.
“We cruise past the magnificent ocean manors – doors off on the GEM – to really take it all in,” says Salvatore. Afterward, he suggests a stop at Seal Harbor Beach, a sand and pebble beach at the mouth of the horseshoe-shaped harbor dotted with lobster boats and yachts. “It’s a great place to search for seaglass and a less-crowded alternative to the popular Sand Beach.”
OTHER OPALS JUMPING ON THE GEM BANDWAGON
Looking to see what the GEM experience is all about but in Florida? Two other Opals in Naples – the Edgewater Beach Hotel and The Capri Inn – also own models of the lightweight EVs for shuttling guests to local landmarks, including the beach, Fifth Avenue South, Tin City, and Cambier Park. While they’re not available for rental – just chauffeur service – it’s still a great way to sample the eco-friendly transport.