There was a time when everyone had to make their own fun, and Acadia, a sleepy, rugged national park in the American state of Maine, is for those with just such an attitude. It's a place to explore - I've always liked that kind of pioneering spirit. The park has several islands, the biggest being Mount Desert Island.
Crossing the causeway from the mainland, it's like travelling back in time, discovering a slice of America preserved from half a century ago. Everything there is so olde-worlde, but not in a kitsch way; it's just how things are. It's a little-known place where Americans go to get that old-time feeling. Days in the park are spent enjoying the great outdoors: walking, cycling and - one of my great loves - sailing.
It was my interest in boats and maritime life that took me to Acadia. I was looking to have a boat built and eventually opted for one with a friendship sloop, a specific design that originated in Maine - in a town called Friendship, in fact. I travelled out to see them in action on a race day and managed to wangle my way on board one - it was-n't long before I put in an order.
I was taken with Acadia instantly and several visits followed as the boat took shape, at which point I brought along my wife, Jennifer [Saunders], and our daughters, too. Sadly, they were less than impressed. Jennifer even considered booking a flight down to Miami. But she was soon won over, so much so that the trip has gone down in family history as one of the best.
We rented a charming little clapboard house on the shore, where much of the area's property is situated. It was a typical New England house: slightly higgledy-piggledy, like something out of a Coen brothers film. The kitchen was full of 1950s cast-iron cooking utensils and the bedrooms had lovely patchwork quilts. It was very homely. There was even a quaint porch out front that overlooked Blue Hill Bay, where I spent hours watching fishermen pass by on their beautiful lobster boats as they checked their pots.
Though our base was Southwest Harbor - to be near to where my boat was being built - the island's biggest town is Bar Harbor, which is picturesque and retains its 1950s small-town feel. You almost expect Rock Hudson and Doris Day to stroll around the corner at any moment. Bar Harbor is more geared up for tourism than Southwest Harbor. On Main Street, the tree-lined promenade, you can get ice creams that are bigger than your head.
Much of our time was spent in or on the water: sailing, swimming in Echo Lake, spontaneous bouts of fishing while canoeing, and visiting the nearby seal colony. (The playful animals were as interested in us as we were in them, although that may have been because we had the right kind of fish to feed them.)
The kids and I felt like intrepid explorers the day we went canoeing on Seal Cave Pond. The boats came with fishing gear, so we stopped to try our hands at casting a line. Now, I can't fish, but there I was, with my three daughters, having a go. The water was incredibly clear and we could see hundreds of little fish below. But my efforts to reel something in proved unsuccessful, though I did manage to snag the odd branch.
Sailing in Acadia is very straightforward and well catered for but it's not without its dangers. The land is jagged, there are lots of rocks and small islands just off the coast, and the sea conditions can change very quickly. And, as we discovered, they get an awful lot of fog, which tends to roll in without warning. One day when we were out sailing we were suddenly engulfed in a thick, dense layer of fog. We couldn't see anything but g r e y n e s s .
Luckily, I had my GPS and maps of the area, but it was still a scary moment. Seeing such examples of bizarre weather from dry land was also an experience. I recall seeing the fog suddenly appear and settle about half a mile offshore over some rocks. Some time later a big schooner with tall, billowing sails emerged eerily out of the heavy mist. To see it, you'd think it was a computer-generated special effect.
The dramatic coastline is littered with lighthouses, including a creepy abandoned one that we saw on a night cruise, during which the crew, dressed up in period outfits from about a century ago, told scary tales as we drifted in the darkness. What a great setting: the whole thing was simply delightful.
Acadia is blessed with a very diverse landscape and it's easy to get a taste of it all. The park's focal point is Cadillac Mountain, which is visible from everywhere. Interestingly, it is the highest point along the North Atlantic seaboard and the first place in the US to see the sun rise during winter months. But, like most mountains in Maine, it doesn't boast that iconic shape enjoyed by Ben Nevis and other famous peaks, It's really more of a huge wooded hill and is by no means spectacular.
But the views from the top certainly are. It was an easy drive up there and from its summit we could see the ribbons of islands and peninsulas jutting out into the sea. Beneath us the park sprawled out; a scrubby expanse of spruce and pine, vividly green thanks to the recent rain.
There are many things about New England that seem familiar, like the accents. Locals have a kind of hybrid Scottish and Irish sound. They're very warm and open, although, having said that, I was interested to hear that Stephen King lives nearby, so inevitably there's all sorts of stories about what books are based on what. Everyone may seem very welcoming but you get the feeling they may all be wild axe murderers.
One thing I love about Acadia is how normal places and everyday experiences are given a wonderfully quaint makeover. Like a trip to the cinema. Go to the Criterion Theatre in Bar Harbor, which first opened in 1932 and was used for vaudeville performances, and you'll find it remains gorgeously old-fashioned. We rented one of the nine private
booths that line the balcony and watched a movie. I just couldn't get over how cute everything was. Dinner out at the Deck House was equally memorable.
The waiters kept breaking into songs from musicals and performed numbers in the middle of the room. It sounds horrendously cheesy but it worked so well we went twice.
We dined on the most amazing lobster at the restaurant on
the dock on Little Cranberry Island. The lobster is totally un-recognisable from what we get given here; they are caught locally and kept alive in water. Most docks have a posh restaurant or, at the very least, a lobster shack.
Little Cranberry Island also has a great museum with ship models and information on the history of island life. And I had the best museum experience of my life in Acadia at the Mount Desert Oceanarium, a small museum in Southwest Harbour, which is more educational than the entire Science Museum in Kensington. And definitely more fun.
We came across it by chance when we ducked inside during a downpour. As you'd expect there were many exhibits, but the one that was truly captivating was the touch tank. It was full of all kinds of marine critters, including sea cucumbers and moon snails, all of which you could pick up and hold.
We crowded round the experts as they explained the various species and passed them around.
One of my daughters got a starfish stuck to her forehead after wanting to see whether it would stick. I picked up a sea cucumber; they release all their water upon touch, so it appeared as though I was holding a vegetable that was busy relieving itself. There was a lot of laughter from everybody. Miami never stood a chance.
HOW TO GET THERE
Canadian Affair (020-7616 9185; canadianaffair.com) offers return flights from Gatwick to Fredericton from £338, with car hire from £125 per week.
National Park Service (001 207 288 3338; nps.gov); Acadia National Park (acadia.national-park.com).
Further viewing: 'Teenage kicks', with Adrian Edmondson, is on ITV1