By Elise Hartman Ford
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 4, 2003
My first encounter with the historic inns of Camden, Maine, was a fleeting one: I spied them as we sped north out of town on our way to a rental house farther up the coast. We'd lingered too long in "downtown" Camden, transfixed by its spectacular location on Penobscot Bay.
Camden tends to have that effect on people. The approach along U.S. 1 is unremarkable until you reach the town's sloping threshold and behold a captivating, quintessential New England scene. To the east, 19th-century windjammers and modern sailboats skim past each other in the narrow harbor. Backing up behind the town to the west are the undulating green haunches of Camden Hills State Park. Between harbor and hillside is the sliver of village, lined with small shops and waterfront restaurants, with white church spires poking through trees on the periphery, and graceful village greens bookending the north and south ends of town.
We had succumbed, poked about, eaten our fill of the Waterfront Restaurant's gazpacho and lobster rolls, then finally settled into the car and accelerated northbound up High Street. That's when we discovered that just up the hill from the village lie the most handsomely beguiling vintage houses, one after the other, each with its own pretty garden and towering trees. A number of these were bed-and-breakfasts, I realized, hastily scanning signs as we zipped by them: Abigail's, the Hawthorn, the Whitehall Inn, the Maine Stay, A Little Dream, and pow! at the end, a veritable castle called Norumbega.
That first glimpse of Camden inns occurred in 1989. We -- Jim and I and our daughter Caitlin, and Lucy, too, when she came along -- have returned to midcoast Maine nearly ev ery summer since. Our routine is the same: We rent a house for two weeks in August in or near the little town of Bayside. And we know every twist and turn of the 16-mile stretch of Route 1 between Bayside and Camden, where we always head for more dillydallying. I can report, with some authority, that the Camden Deli is a must-stop for sandwiches (its chicken salad and Italian cold cuts are terrific); how to negotiate the side streets to bypass traffic in the center of town; that Laite Memorial Beach on Bayview Street is the best version of what passes for a sandy beach, in these parts; and that Cappy's is where locals go for drinks.
I even know where Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and Camden resident Richard Russo lives, but I'll never tell.
As a house renter, however, my knowledge of Camden's inns had remained tantalizingly out of reach. Finally, last August, Caitlin and I decided we were no longer content to cast admiring backward glances on our way to Bayside, and we spent an afternoon exploring several High Street inns and talking to innkeepers. I returned in fall on my own for a more personal inn-side scoop at four of the properties that first caught my eye.
Turns out, High Street is an official historic district, with 63 homes listed in the National Register of Historic Places, including eight B&Bs. Once the dwellings of wealthy merchants, ship captains and builders, most of these homes were constructed during the 19th century, when "Camden Town," which had been incorporated in 1791, prospered in shipbuilding and anchor production. By the beginning of the 20th century, word of Camden's natural beauty had spread, and the town flourished as a vacation spot for the well-to-do.
Enamored with Camden, some of these vacationers built magnificent summer homes, established a yacht club and encouraged the area's arts and aesthetics through contributions to the public library, the Public Landing, the Camden Opera House and other attractions.
For a visitor like me, who likes her scenery not too far from civilization, Camden offers the perfect combo. You can hike to the top of Mount Battie, which overlooks the village (you can also drive up), and then climb down and dine at the top-notch Hartstone Inn (we spotted Julia Child here a couple of years ago). Or cruise the bay on a schooner, looking out for eagles, seals and ospreys, before returning to port for a beer at the Sea Dog Brew Pub and an afternoon of shopping at art galleries, gift shops and clothing stores.
Not far from Camden are other noteworthy spots. Seven miles south is Rockland, home to the Farnsworth Museum -- and its fabulous collection of American art and Wyeth works -- and the restaurant Primo, whose creative regional cuisine (with Italian and French influences) garners rave reviews. Twenty miles north of Camden is little Belfast, where hardscrabble old-timers and hippie-type newcomers co-exist peaceably, as do their ventures: The Belfast Co-op and the Gothic Coffee House sit on the same street as Colburn's Shoe Store (circa 1832) and the Old Stuff junk store.
But for many travelers, Camden and the inns of High Street may be enough. All of the inns present picturesque views, as windows facing east overlook Penobscot Bay and those looking west offer looming vistas of Mount Battie and Mount Megunticook. At the same time, the individual stories, personalities and styles of the innkeepers and their inns make a visit to each a singular pleasure.
I was there on a chilly Maine day, so it was a wonderful welcome to find a fire blazing in the fireplace in the splendid hall. Hand-carved oak paneling is everywhere, starting with the darling inglenook (also called the "courting corner," says Reuillard), situated on a half-landing, with paneled doors to close it off from nosy parkers on the rounding staircase and the hall. In the striking jade-green dining room/parlor, a piano commanded center stage, serving as a stand for an enormous glass vase, which held an equally enormous flowering branch. Another fire crackled, this time in a panel-framed fireplace centered on a slanted wall. The piano room led one way to a snug alcove whose curved walls encircled full bookcases, and in the other direction to a lovely sitting room overlooking the bay and grounds. Across the corridor from the sitting room lay the formal dining room, with a huge tiled hearth built into a massive tiered buffet.
Upstairs, I made myself at home in the Kensington, one of 13 guest rooms. The staff had laid logs in the fireplace (of Norumbega's 10 fireplaces, five are in guest rooms) with instructions to just strike a match to get it going, and so I did, and the room turned even cozier. The Kensington lies at the back of the castle on the second floor, so I had my own view of the bay, gazing out the window from my perch on the wide sill set in the castle's thick walls. High ceilings, that wonderful fireplace, original floorboards, four-poster bed, but also individually controlled thermostat, modern bathroom, TV and telephone: It was both quaint and accommodating.
The next morning, after a breakfast of sun-dried-tomato-and-basil quiche and sausages, I peeked into some guest rooms. The grandest: the two-level Penthouse Suite, with its unbeatable views from the rooftop deck and a large skylight over the bed. Almost as grand: the roomy Warwick, with a fireplace and a bay window with a view of the harbor. The simplest room, but still sweet: the Fontainbleau, with a feminine, floral decor and a door leading to a deck and the grounds.
Norumbega, 63 High St., 877-363-4646, www.norumbegainn.com. $95-$295 off season, $160-$475 July 1-Oct. 15.
For innkeeper Maryanne Shanahan, the purchase of the Hawthorn in November 2001 fulfilled a lifelong dream. During her years as a nurse and designer of medical Internet sites, Shanahan had drawn the profile of her ideal bed-and-breakfast: "a Victorian, with high ceilings and lots of light, on the water, in a small seacoast town in New England." Just as she started seriously looking, Shanahan heard about the Hawthorn, visited and fell in love.
Shanahan has painted and refreshed the entire inn, adding a meditation garden and incorporating Asian and Victorian flourishes to the decor. Common rooms include an airy parlor, library with wood-burning fireplace and a dining room that leads to a spacious deck off the back, overlooking the extensive lawn and, just visible over the treetops, the bay. The main house has six guest rooms. The Turret Room is, yes, ensconced in the turret, with a bay window in the curving wall, black floral wallpaper and wicker furniture; the Regency, a favorite of guests in the main house, has a four-poster bed, gas-log fireplace and views of the lawn and harbor. The adjacent carriage house holds four suites, each with Jacuzzi, TV/VCR and private deck. The Broughman, with its French toile fabrics and second-floor deck, is popular, though Shanahan prefers the newly redone Watney's, which is decorated in sensuous tones of taupe and cream and has a sleigh bed and two-person Jacuzzi and shower, along with a grand view.
Hawthorn, 9 High St., 866-381-3647, www.camdenhawthorn.com. $90-$185 off season, $125-$285 Memorial Day-Nov. 15.
The first floor of the Whitehall is a ramble of parlors, where a jigsaw puzzle is always in progress, an ardent student plays the piano, Oriental rugs cover portions of the old wooden floors, and Victorian antiques look original to the house. The Dewing brothers, J.C. and Chip, their father, Edmund, and J.C.'s wife, Wendy, are the innkeepers. They know that people come here for that decidedly unsophisticated ambiance: Forget televisions, data ports, air conditioning. "We like to think of ourselves as a link to the past, and try to concentrate on offering New England hospitality," says Wendy Dewing.
The inn's 50 guest rooms tend to be simply decorated and small -- this would be a place to bring a family or a group, but not your sweetheart. Floral wallpaper and wall-to-wall carpeting and, believe it or not, a phone that connects you to the outside world via the front desk are some of the Whitehall's guest room elements.
The Whitehall was built in 1834 as a sea captain's home but became an inn in 1901, when many more rooms were added. Several features make the Whitehall worth a visit. First of all, it was at the Whitehall where the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay premiered her poem, "Renascence," so pleasing a guest that he arranged for her to attend Vassar, leading eventually to her renown. Check out the display of photos and mementos in the lobby, as well as the statue of the poet in Harbor Park, just down the hill.
Whitehall's other main attraction is its restaurant, which, again, has a grandmotherly feel about it, with its wine-colored carpeting and tables laid with silver. Though I have never eaten here, friends with discriminating palates say the meals, especially seafood specialties, are quite good.
Whitehall Inn, 52 High St., 800-789-6565, www.whitehall-inn.com. $70 (single with private bath) to $125 (double with private bath) off season, $90 to $165 July 1-Oct. 19. Open Memorial Day through the third week in October.
Owners of A Little Dream since 1988, Joanne Ball and her husband, Bill Fontana, "had never been to Maine before, never owned an inn, never even stayed at an inn" when they first caught sight of the property, on their way north to Bar Harbor in July of that year.
"I saw the Norumbega, and at the same time, I spied this house across the street," recalls Ball. On their return trip back through Camden two days later, the couple saw that the property was for sale and bought it that day. In a matter of months, Ball and Fontana were new residents of Camden, first-time inn owners and deep into a major renovation of their cottages.
Both 19th-century structures had once been part of Norumbega's 25-acre estate -- the main cottage served as guest quarters and the second building was the carriage house. Fourteen years later, the plush A Little Dream is one of the area's most popular inns.
My first-choice accommodation, the Islewatch, was unavailable, and no wonder. The huge studio on the second floor of the carriage house faces the Norumbega estate and the bay and ocean beyond. Its front wall is almost entirely window, with French doors that lead to a covered porch with wicker furniture, so you can roost outside to take in the magnificent view, or enjoy it indoors, perched on the window seat or sofa. The Islewatch also has a gas fireplace, TV and VCR, and a large, sumptuous bathroom.
But I loved my quarters, the peachy Garden Patio -- especially the bed, whose mattress appeared to be as deep as it was wide. "I have a bed fetish," confessed Ball. In all, there are seven rooms, and though individually decorated, they all bear the Ball stamp of luxury: bounties of thick towels, as well Crabtree and Evelyn or Caswell and Massey toiletries, piles of pillows atop beds, lots of plump duvets and blankets, and everything color-coordinated. The decor is unabashedly feminine: Ribbons loop around lampshades, the room key and stacks of books, and portraits of Gibson Girlish women hang everywhere.
The innkeepers divide the duties: Ball is the interior designer and caretaker, while Fontana cultivates the gardens and maintains the exterior. Fontana also whips up breakfast -- like the poached pear with geranium sauce and crepes stuffed with a creamy filling -- that fortified me for my journey home.
A Little Dream, 60 High St., 800-217-0109, www.littledream.com. $120-$225 off season, $159-$285 May 15-Oct. 31.
Camden's four other historic B&Bs on High Street are the Camden Maine Stay (22 High St., 207-236-9636, www.camden mainestay.com), Abigail's (8 High St., 800-292-2501, www.abigails inn.com), Camden Windward House (6 High St., 207-236-9656, www.windwardhouse.com) and Castleview by the Sea (59 High St., 800-272-8439; www.castleview inn.com). For more information about Camden and its inns, contact the Camden-Rockport- Lincolnville Chamber of Commerce, 800-223-5459 or 207-236-4404, www.camdenme .org.
Camden is 85 miles north of Portland and 54 miles south of Bangor. For the cheapest airfares, fly to Manchester, N.H., about 150 miles from Camden; fares start at about $130 round trip, with restrictions.
Elise Hartman Ford is a writer in Chevy Chase, which is exactly 551 miles from Camden, or 11 hours by car, as the Fords drive it.