Cape Elizabeth, Maine: Inn By The Sea Offers Tranquil Retreat Anytime Of Year
By Karen Rubin
In a quiet space beside the sea, we found an idyllic, unpretentious retreat. Inn By The Sea, in historic Cape Elizabeth just south of Portland, Maine, is uncommonly comfortable, yet refined. Indeed, as we climbed the steps to our two-story villa and opened the door, we were overwhelmed with the sense of having finally found the cottage by the sea we had always dreamed of.
Inn By The Sea is intimate, yet with all the amenities and attentive service of a fine hotel. It creates a resort atmosphere with tennis court, swimming pool and beach, even delivers the newspaper to the door plastic wrapped, yet preserves the quaintness of an inn while providing the convenience of a condo. It is as comfortable for couples on their own, as families traveling with children; as pleasant for a beach holiday as for a romantic getaway, a wedding, a family reunion or a corporate retreat. Inn by the Sea is the sort of place you can come back to year after year, generation after generation-and many guests do, often making the next year's reservation as they depart. Such repeat guests actually have a suite named for them.
The inn-resort, which was built in the late-1980s on the original site of a 1930s hotel, has been an AAA Four Diamond Award Winner for more than 10 years. It excels at every level, but what absolutely distinguishes it is that it is the most pet-friendly place we have ever found. This is most definitely the loving touch of owner/innkeeper Maureen McQuade, whose own Bishon, Bailey, can be found by her feet at "open office" she mans in a first-floor hallway, right where guests can easily find her.
Indeed, "pet" is not even the term used; these are "special guests in fur coats," and are treated as such (17 rooms are designated as "pet friendly"). There is a dog walk and convenience bags and the hotel will arrange for pet-sitting and walking. It is no wonder the Inn earned a "5 Paw Rating" (and is the only AAA Four Diamond/Mobil Four Star property to welcome children and pets in suites). There is even a Pet Menu, available 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., with selections that will make your own mouth water (such as grilled range chicken with brown gravy). Indeed, as you come into the lobby, there is an album of guest pictures-the four-footed ones.
The scale of Inn By The Sea is cozy, yet it doesn't lack for anything. You walk through polished cherrywood doors, embellished with Tiffany-style leaded glass windows, to a marble-tiled lobby, bedecked with original John J. Audubon prints, a stunning 19th century burl and tiger maple scroll-top grandfather clock, and elegant Chippendale reproductions.
The inn is set along a high bluff, with lovely gardens and grounds (indeed, the master gardener even conducts tours on Thursdays and is delighted to share insights into how his garden grows under such challenging conditions as the Maine climate), set around a pool (heated to a perfect temperature) big enough to swim laps.
The landscape gets more rustic as you walk a 200-foot boardwalk through the growth and salt marsh, to sand dunes, where you come to the beach and the Atlantic Ocean. The Inn's portion of the beach is part of the Crescent Beach State Park (indeed, the property is situated within the park), with unspoiled rolling highlands and sweeping vistas (by the road, about a mile or two away, but easy walking distance from the Inn), so you have a nice stretch to walk. The Inn makes beach chairs available for guests.
One of the best beaches in Maine, Crescent Beach is a magnificent sandy beach (further north, the beaches tend to be mostly rock and pebbles); this portion of the beach is in a protected cove and is ideal for families (this is Maine, after all, so you should expect the water to be chilly).
The Inn also has a tennis court and shuffle board, walking and jogging trails, sailing, kayaking. Guests also have privileges at the Purpoodock Golf Club, a private championship course just two miles away, which also offers driving range, putting, chipping and bunker practice areas (there are seven courses within 15 minutes drive). Groups can take advantage of two private function rooms that overlook the Atlantic, each accommodating up to 50 people; groups as large as 250 can be accommodated in an outdoor tent that can be set up on the manicured lawn.
In winter, Inn by the Sea is a winter wonderland, stunningly decorated for the holidays, and blanketed with snow.
It cannot be overstated that Inn By The Sea is a very special place (even as I write this, I find myself longing to go back).
The accommodations are exceptional: Inn By the Sea is a 43-unit, all-suites hotel, but there are different styles: Loft suites feature two levels in the Main House: bedroom and bath/dressing areas on the top level, and fully functional kitchen, living/dining area and ocean-view balcony on the first level. Garden Suites are on one level, with rocking chairs on the porch outside the front door. Separate from the Main House, there are Cottage Suites, which are ideal for families since they feature a second bedroom, and are beautifully furnished in wicker and white pine (we had one of these). All the suites have panoramic views of Crescent Beach and the sea, and all include at least two in-room TVs and one VCR, dataport two-line telephones and voice mail; full kitchen, living and dining room, and private patio or porch.
Though we had a fully equipped kitchen and dining area (when we arrived, we found the refrigerator stocked with cereal, candy, soda, juice, reasonably priced but there was also a major supermarket a few miles away), we enjoyed the Audubon Room Restaurant, open year-round for breakfast, lunch and dinner, which features fine regional cuisine and attentive service and presents a stunning view overlooking the gardens and the Atlantic Ocean.
The Audubon Room offers exceptional dining which shows off regional ingredients with culinary mastery. A summer appetizer might include Smoked Maine Seafood, served with mustard crème fraiche and croistinis; Gulf of Maine Lobster Cakes with a tomato corn salsa and dill remoulade; dinner might include bouillabaisse of local fish and shellfish; steamed lobster; of yellow fin tuna steak pan seared and served with cucumber salad, sushi rice cake and wasabi ginger sauce, or halibut filet roasted with crispy potato crust and topped with sorrel cream and edible flowers. Our breakfast featured a lobster and clam omelet.
The feeling of nature pervades. As you look around, you realize there are 12 original Elephant folio J.J. Audubon Prints (over 150 years old), featuring many of the birds that are seen in the natural estuary at the Inn (and is the reason the restaurant is named the Audubon Room); 19 wood cut Winslow Homer prints, created from Harper's Magazine, and walking the gardens with Derrick Daly, Head Gardener, was a particular treat, showing off the butterfly garden, the flowers and bird-feeders that have attracted over 40 nesting tree swallows (which rid the place of mosquitoes, naturally), house wrens, black-cap chiccadees, goldfinch and hummingbirds; and flowers designed to be "deer resistant." Mr. Daly, who does not use any pesticides but only natural controls, says he plants flowers "to stimulate the guests' imagination for their own home."
This year, Mr. Daly is expanding the Inn's gardens, to include additional cutting gardens for use by the hotels restaurant and rooms staff, an ornamental grass garden and specimen tree plantings, as well as expanding and upgrading the herbaceous perennial gardens, and he will be continuing his Thursday Garden Tours for Inn guests as well as local people. Mr. Daly initiated these talks himself, out of a sheer love of what he was doing and the delight that it brought the guests; you learn so much in such a short time, it is like watching a master chef prepare a special recipe.
The gardens make the stay add immeasurably to the feeling of tranquility. "Memory" benches and sitting areas are strategically poised amidst perennial plantings that provide year-round color, and bird-feeders. One of the gardens is used to raise the basil, chives, mint and other fresh seasonings that the chef uses in cooking.
The exquisite balance between a cozy inn and luxury resort reflects the skill of Maureen McQuade and partner Larry Mahaney, who purchased the inn in 1993. Ms. McQuade was an accomplished hotelier who managed Mahaney's properties in Bangor and then in Nashua, New Hampshire, and for a time, was Director of Operations for a chain of 17 hotels based in Boca Raton, Florida. She managed several hotels in Connecticut, Florida and Maine before forming her own management company, and was recruited back to Inn By The Sea. Altogether, Ms. McQuade has been associated with The Inn for 10 years. The staff tends to stay a long time, as well. Lauren Inness, now the General Manager, has been with the hotel for 11 years.
Out and About
Though the tranquil beach is undoubtedly a major lure and preoccupation for a visit to the Inn By The Sea, Cape Elizabeth is an any time, any weather destination, with marvelous outdoor and indoor activities near at hand in each season.
We were delighted to take our bikes along the road, Route 77, (there is a wide shoulder) to the Two Lights State Park, which inspired our fascination with Maine's vast network of lighthouses (Maine has 67 lighthouses, of which 20 are easily accessible; people visit Maine's lighthouses like tourists to Europe visit castles). This lighthouse is in a very pleasant and picturesque park-like setting, where there is an extremely popular local restaurant, the Lobster Shack. (Bike rentals can be arranged by the Inn.)
Not too much further by car, just before you cross the Bridge to Portland, is Fort Williams and the Portland Head Light, truly one of the most scenic and impressive we have seen, and affording a total outdoor experience. The lighthouse is particularly significant-the oldest in Maine, built by order of President George Washington, and it has been guiding maritime traffic through the entrance to Portland Harbor for over 200 years (there is a plaque from then-Vice President George Bush, who rededicated the lighthouse in 1980 stating, it is an "enduring symbol of the rugged solid characteristic of a magnificent coastline and a proud people weathering the challenges of nature & time.").
Just at the base of the Lighthouse, there is a marvelous museum, located in the former lighthouse keepers' quarters, which chronicles the history of Portland Head Light and Fort Williams, a military outpost for coastal defense. The story is told through permanent exhibits displaying original artifacts and documents, navigational aids, lenses, video displays, models and photography (open daily, June-October, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; weekends, in April, May, Nov, Dec., 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; $2/adults, $1/child 6-18, www.portlandheadlight.com).
From the lighthouse, you can walk a magnificent, 1,700-foot cliff-side path with dramatic views of the cliffs, the Atlantic Ocean and Portland, and see major ships coming through the harbor (local people come out here on a daily basis to walk the cliffs). Altogether, Fort Williams offers a 94-acre park, with walking, hiking, swimming, tennis courts, picnic areas (1000 Shore Road, 207-799-5251).
The Inn makes you feel so far removed from any hustle and bustle (indeed, you may well spot moose or deer at the Inn), it is surprising to realize that it is just seven miles (15 minutes drive) away from the city of Portland, which offers excellent museums and attractions, especially on an inclement day (having indoor activities is another reason why Inn By The Sea is so suitable year-round).
Downtown by the Portland waterfront is the historic Old Port Exchange area, with cobblestone streets, attractive shops, restaurants; you can take ferry service on Casco Bay to many offshore islands, including Admiral Peary's Eagle Island or a whale-watching cruise, or go deep-sea fishing (800-437-3270, www.marinerfleet.com). This is also where the luxury cruise ferry Scotia Prince which departs for Yarmouth and Nova Scotia (making Inn By The Sea a superb stopover for this itinerary).
The growing downtown Portland Arts District features the I.M. Pei-designed Portland Museum of Art with its major Winslow Homer collection, fine Impressionist paintings and other important collections (207-775-6148, www.portlqandmuseum.org); the Portland Symphony Orchestra, as well as professional theater, dance and music ensembles, and dozens of art galleries. There is also a new Public Market and Portland Fish Exchange commercial auction facility.
After visiting Winslow Homer's paintings in the Portland Museum of Art, you can and the Winslow Homer Studio (Prouts Neck, 12 miles south of Portland). Another area notable, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, spent his boyhood here and you can visit the Wadsworth-Longfellow House (487 Congress ST., 207-879-0427, open daily June 1-Oct. 31)
Kids will enjoy the Children's Museum of Maine (143 Free Street, 207-828-1234), a "Please Touch" museum; the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad, two-foot gauge tracks and steam trains that only Maine had from 1870s-1940s; you can ride daily from May 15-Oct. 15, weekends April 1-mid-May, and the museum is open year-round (58 Fore St., 207-774-1067, http://mngrr.rails.net); a 200-acre Maine Wildlife Park (open daily mid-April through mid-Nov., Route 26, Gray, 207-656-4977); Smiling Hill Farm, with more than 300 animals that can be petted, ponies to ride and cows to milk (781 County Rd., Westbrook); and the Songo River Queen II paddlewheel boat (207-693-6861).
The Inn is 30-minutes drive from the outlet shops of Freeport, featuring L.L. Bean, and there are plenty of antique shops in the area.
Maine Sunshine publishes an excellent travel guide to Greater Portland and Sebago Lake Region (www.mainesunshine.com).
Inn by the Sea is close enough to come for a getaway weekend, but people come from as far as Georgia and stay a week or more. The people who come for longer stays as well as the many repeat guests add to that homey feeling-you see children with bicycles, people walking their dog. It is easy to reach from the metropolitan area-322 miles from New York, about six hours drive, or an hour's flying time to Portland Jetport, 20 minutes away.
Peak season rates start at $269 for a one-bedroom Garden Suite, but drop to $139 in off-season, and there are various packages and specials.