We compare the islands that have long been fixtures for American vacations: the Florida Keys and Mount Desert Island in Maine.


When a resort or travel destination earns a spot in one of the categories in Travel + Leisure’s annual World’s Best Awards, it’s a bit like winning a People’s Choice Award…but for the travel industry. That’s because it’s the readers – former and potential resort guests – who are the ones doing the voting, not some limited panel of self-proclaimed travel experts who haven’t been to said places. So when two destinations – Mount Desert Island, Maine, and the Florida Keys – were both voted “Top 10 Islands in the Continental U.S.” in 2017, it was also a badge of honor for the Opal resorts that reside in these destinations: Harborside Hotel, Spa & Marina and West Street Hotel in Bar Harbor, Maine, and Sunset Key Cottages off Key West. So what makes these islands so special? We compare and contrast the two award-winning destinations…

Overall Island Vibe

Mount Desert Island

At 108 square miles in size, the sixth-largest island in the contiguous US is perhaps best known as the home of Acadia National Park, where the landscape is characterized by mountain peaks and sweeping cliffs that seemingly melt into the sea. And while Mount Desert Island – referred to as simply “MDI” by the locals – is obviously a paradise for people who itch to be outside hiking, biking, boating and more, there are also boutiques, galleries, fine dining, music, and more in the towns of Northeast Harbor, Southwest Harbor, and, the gem of them all, Bar Harbor.

Florida Keys

Stretching 120 miles off the southern tip of mainland Florida and connected by an oversea highway, this string of tropical islands possesses a unique blend of historical charm and laid-back island living. While the archipelago’s best-known island is arguably Key West, for its pastel-hued architecture and quirky bars and eateries, those islands that sit to the north feature their own hidden charms – including world-class diving in Key Largo’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, a turtle sanctuary on Marathon Key, and sunset spots galore.

Best Beach

Mount Desert Island

Echo Lake Beach, in the town of Mount Desert, draws smaller crowds than its nearby cousin, Sand Beach in Acadia, and is a better bet if you’re looking to avoid crowds. Also, while the water is far from tropical, it’s warmer than the other Mount Desert Island beaches because of its inland position.

Florida Keys

With their soft white sands, azure waters, and palm trees, the beaches of Bahia Honda Key – in the lower Florida Keys at mile markers 36 to 38.5 – feel like they should be on a faraway Caribbean island instead of just off the Overseas Highway. In the heart of the Bahia Honda State Park, the mile-long Sandspur Beach is coveted for its shallow, calm waters (thanks to an offshore reef) and nearby park concession that operates daily hour-and-a-half snorkeling tours to the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary.

Adventure on the Water

Mount Desert Island

National Park Sea Kayak Tours gives kayakers a chance to see the more remote west side of Mount Desert Island (what’s also known as the “quiet side of Acadia”) on this six-mile trip. Most of the trips, which snake through the Western Bay, Blue Hill Bay, and Somes Sound, are one-way, depending on conditions. Past kayakers have reported spotted wildlife along the quiet route, including great blue heron, harbor seals, and even bald eagles.

Florida Keys

The Key West Dolphin Watch & Snorkel Tour is a three-hour tour (cue the Gilligan’s Island jokes) of Florida’s marine life. Departing from Margaritaville Key West Resort & Marina, the experience bring passengers out into the Gulf of Mexico, where they get the opportunity to see dolphins in their natural habitat, and then partake in a snorkel around a shallow-water coral reef and sponge gardens. Cold beverages are available on the boat if you’ve had enough adventuring and just want to kick back.

Rainy Day Cinema

Mount Desert Island

Reel Pizza Cinerama’s value proposition is simple but effective: pizza and movies. The cozy Bar Harbor cinema has an assortment of sofas for moviegoers to sit in, and offers all the popular movie food, with delicious pizza as the highlight. The movies range from artsy to blockbuster, so check the show times beforehand.

Florida Keys

The Tropic Cinema has quickly become a beloved cornerstone in Old Town Key West. The four-screen multiplex dazzles moviegoers with a retro, art deco design; an eclectic mix of classic, independent, and international films; and an authentic respect for the moviegoing experience that leaves no room for loud talking or obnoxiously buzzing cell phones.

Historical Experience

Mount Desert Island

The Abbe Museum, in downtown Bar Harbor, is dedicated exclusively to the heritage and 12,000-year-old culture of Maine’s first people: the Wabanaki. In addition to a gallery that shows a vast collection of objects, from kitchen utensils and crafts to bone tools and pottery, the current core exhibit, titled People of the First Light, is a digitally interactive exhibit in which to explore Mount Desert Island heritage.

Florida Keys

While replicas have been made time and again, what plies through the canals of the Keys’ northernmost island of Key Largo is the real deal: the 1912 African Queen, the steam riverboat made famous in the 1951 classic film of the same name that starred Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. The previously ailing boat was restored in 2012 – in time for its 100th birthday. It now sails daily out of the Marina Del Mar, so you can sit in the same boat responsible for Bogart’s only Oscar.

Best Breakfast

Mount Desert Island

In a cozy location just off Main Street in Bar Harbor, diners at Cafe This Way can eat inside (where there are walls of vibrant color, bookshelves, and artwork) or outside on the patio. While there are a number of specialties to choose from, one customer favorite is the Kit’s Breakfast Burrito, a huge helping of scrambled eggs, peppers, onions, cheddar, and choice of sausage or veggie sausage rolled in a flour tortilla.

Florida Keys

La Grignote on Duval Street in Key West features a menu of pastries, croissants, Belgian waffles, and coffees that could pass muster in any little town in France, with rustic, European-style decor to match. You’ll know you’ve found it when you pass the place with a handful of blackboards arranged around the entrance, colorfully communicating the day’s fare.

 

Where to Stay Harborside Hotel, Spa & Marina |Sunset Key Cottages | West Street Hotel