Sebasco Harbor Resort Welcomes Families to Mid-Coast Maine
By Karen Rubin
Located on the craggy shore of mid-coast Maine, Sebasco Harbor Resort has that rarest of qualities -- the ability to appeal to anyone. The resort easily pleases a wide variety of guests from the poshest sophisticate to the purist nature-lover, the young and the old, manic sports nuts to those seeking simply a tranquil place to read beside the water. And that’s only the beginning of what makes the property so fantastic for families.
I was thinking this as we set out in kayaks on a velvety surface, the last rays of sun fading into orange and purple, and the moon just beginning to rise. Our moonlight paddle was the perfect cap to a perfect day of golfing, massage, sailing, and a dinner to delight an epicurean perfectionist. I was thinking that no billionaire on earth could have a better moment than this.
I was hooked, as so many families before us have been, who have come year after year, generation after generation, since Nate Cushman first opened the Sebasco Lodge in 1930. One family has held its annual family reunion here for 50 years, taking over the 10-room Early Bird cottage.
It was after midnight when we arrived at Sebasco Harbor Resort – disappointed we had missed the Friday night lobsterbake. But minutes after registering and arriving at our room in the Lighthouse, a boxed dinner of delicious wraps arrived at our room.
And what a room! The Lighthouse was built in the 1940’s to serve the Midcoast harbor, but it now beckons vacationers with comfortable accommodations in a spectacular setting. It is reportedly the only lighthouse in America offering hotel-style accommodations and resort amenities. Our room had a picture window and sitting area facing the marina. Though it was late and we had been traveling for hours, we couldn’t resist going down to the dock.
At Sebasco Harbor, it takes about two minutes to know the feeling of perfect peace and feel all the hassle of everyday simply melt away. There are so many sights, sounds and smells to take in. The smokey smell from a fireplace mixing with the salty smell of the water, seeing the bright light of the moon reflected on the water, hearing the quiet, rhythmic lapping of the water against the rocks and the creaking sound of the dock, watching the water seeming to sparkle in the light and the boats bobbing – all of this creates a magical feeling. The stars are so bright you feel you can pluck them from the sky. It is wonderful to get away.
Back on the dock at daybreak – the pure light bringing out colors as it intensifies – with the boats in the harbor, fishing villages up and down the shore, islands, we soon appreciated what has brought artists like Andrew Wyeth and Winslow Homer to these shores.
A family was getting ready to go out kayaking with Corky, a guide from Seaspray Kayaking. He was holding a nautical chart of where they will be going. “What do you want to see today?” he asked Emma, the eight-year old, who tells him she would like to see birds. He pulled out pictures of the various birds they would likely see- Atta Gulls with five-foot wingspan, herring gull, eider duck, laughing gulls, cormorants, loon, osprey.
In the daylight, I saw what has been bringing back generations of families – 575 acres tucked at the western side of a peninsula facing Casco Bay (making for incredible sunsets), an enclave of cottages and lodges offering an unusual variety of accommodations, magnificently landscaped with gardens.
Sebasco has room to roam around – the self-contained compound is ideal for kids to go about on their own. There are also plenty of pleasant places to be together – in lovely lounges in the main lodge that dates from 1929, under a gazebo (equipped with Wi-Fi) on the croquet lawn, by the Olympic-sized saltwater pool (biggest in the state of Maine), a conference center, and in the Observatory of the Lighthouse – like a secret place with lounge chairs and window seats and 360-degree views.
There were three weddings and a family reunion going on the weekend we were there. The place was packed, and yet it did not feel crowded at all.
What makes Sebasco so special – even delightfully old-fashioned- - is the daily and weekly schedule of children’s, family and adult activities that are reminiscent of the days when people would come to such resorts for the entire season.
Families are invited to join other families in “camp-style” activities such as nature programs, pirate cruises and crafts, evening campfire; there are also kids-only activities that allow parents to get in a round of golf or a spa treatment.
During July and August, Camp Merritt offers full-day programs for children ($4/child, and each day offers different activities that families can enjoy together, or separately.
Friday’s schedule starts with morning stretch and fitness, a kayak excursion, a round-robin tennis tournament, a “Birds of Prey – New England’s Majestic Raptors” program, presented by the Chewonki Foundation; a croquet clinic; a scenic van tour of Phippsburg; a scenic lunch cruise on the Ruth; a kayak excursion; ice cream making; an “exploring sealife” program with naturalist Ronnie Kamphausen; a lobsterbake and contra dancing.
Saturday’s activities include morning stretch and fitness, guided beach kayak excursion, make your own tie-dye t-shirt, cruising on the Ruth, sunset kayaking excursion, family campfire and sing along.
Sunday begins with morning stretch and fitness, a traditional Blueberry pancake breakfast on the pool lawn, a kayak rolling class in the pool, a scenic harbor and nature cruise on The Ruth, horseshoes, a golf clinic, a kayak excursion, a croquet clinic, a welcome reception (complimentary hors d’oeuves and cocktails); a grand buffet in the Cornelius Room. In the evening, the Quarterdeck recreation center is open from 7:30 to 10 p.m.
Sebasco’s nine-hole golf course is wonderfully scenic, challenging, even suitable for tournament play ($27/round), with its signature #2 hole along the Bay (the course is to be expanded with nine more holes). In addition, there is a beautiful three-hole lake golf course that is ideal for families to play together ($10 for unlimited play), plus tennis courts, canoes you can take on Wah-tah Lake (where they used to harvest ice in winter); a fitness center; mountain bikes available for rent, and kayaking center.
There are also hiking trails on Mt. Merritt and around the property. (Sebasco is within the town of Phippsburg that has some of the finest walking trails in Midcoast Maine.)
From the marina, we enjoy one of the daily two-hour sailing excursions on the Magic, a magnificent Tartan 41 Sloop, captained by Phil, who practically grew up on the dock because his father had worked at Sebasco, as well. This sleek ocean racer has been in the Bermuda race at least twice. Phil picks up on our questions to tell pleasant anecdotes and give interesting information, as we sail around the small islands, and into the nearby fishing village, where we spot a Bald Eagle in a tree and a seal.
There are also trips on the Ruth, a 38-foot vessel that was launched for Sebasco in 1935, making it one of the oldest continuously operating passenger vessels on the coast of Maine.
The Ruth offers nature cruises, a Maine lobstering experience (you follow a lobsterman along his trap hauling route and get to handle lobsters), and figures prominently in a marvelous pirate adventure (offered at least twice weekly), involving a hunt for lost treasure, pirate Kevin and his parrot. The 24-passenger vessel is also available for private charters, for family trips, wedding parties and corporate groups.
And then I discovered the Quarterdeck. Step across the portal and you feel you have stepped back to the 1940s. The piece de resistance is the vintage candlepin bowling a game that is distinctive to Maine - with four lanes (75 cents a string to play). The Quarterdeck also offers ping-pong tables, billiards, table shuffleboard, video games and (what could be better?) a juke box. The Quarterdeck is generally opened in the evening, 7:30 to 10 p.m. (or when it rains).
Similarly, The Clipper House – an old fashioned, woodsy looking theater with stage, which was famous for its theater productions, is used for staff shows and special functions (for much of this summer, there is an Elvis Impersonator, a Mainer who was the 2002 “Best Elvis Impersonator in the World”; after that, there is a stand-up comic).
While parents are at the show, kids get to enjoy “Rock n’ Bowl” in the Quarterdeck.
New Fairwinds Spa
This summer, the resort “is harnessing the power of the sea and surf,” opening al new waterfront luxury spa geared for adults.
The Fairwinds Spa offers traditional and leading edge spa services in a spectacular waterfront setting that enhance personal treatments with sea views, fresh salt air breezes and the relaxing rhythms of tide, plus a meditation deck and a Jacuzzi deck that overlook the harbor.
The Fairwinds Spa offers treatment rooms for massage, aromatic hydrotherapy, wraps, salon services, and personal training in Yoga, Pilates, lifestyle education. There is a luxurious Sea Breeze spa suite, for couples and private spa suite with a fireplace, large enough for an entire bridal party or gals getaway.
The spa consulting firm, WTS International, developed treatments in keeping with the resort’s natural setting, such as seastone massage, and Wild Beach Rose Hydrating Cocoon that takes advantage of the locally abundant Rugosa Roses, and a seasonal body buff that changes with the seasons.
Kayaking in the Moonlight
In addition to the Spa, there are five all-season luxury suites in the Fairwinds “Cottage” created especially for guests who are seeking a spa-focused vacation experience, including complimentary upgrades to in-suite spa treatments.
Oh, to be at Sebasco Harbor when the moon is full.
We had been initially enticed to the resort by the idea of kayaking, and there are several excursions available each day including a sunset paddle, but we were fortunate enough to be at Sebasco Harbor for this very special moonlight kayaking trip.
We had gathered at 8 p.m. – I was pleased with the safety precautions and the preparations that Scott, who runs Seaspray Kayaking, provides. There are wetsuits available (it can get chilly on the water). We are each given an orange glow stick to attach to the port side of our paddles, and he has us counting off numbers and instructs us on what we should do in the unlikely event that somebody falls out of the kayak.
It is about 9 p.m. – the summer sun just about down, when we set out together, the darkness descending as the moon was rising. Our excitement builds as we make our way through the moored boats and into the open water, and then through a channel between two islands.
We come to a secluded island where Scott and his guides help us out of the water (we don’t even get feet wet). Within minutes, he has a bonfire going, and we settle around, sitting on lobster traps and rocks, cooking s’mores and telling stories.
Seaspray Kayaking, which operates from the resort, offers numerous kayaking expeditions during the day – including new kayak fly-fishing (that trip departed at 4 a.m.). There is also a kayak school, a smooth freshwater pond for practice and a protected harbor with access to Casco Bay (888-349-SPRAY, 207-443-3646, www.seaspraykayaking.com, email@example.com).
Sebasco Harbor Resort has been welcoming the public since Nathan Cushman purchased the property from Freeman and Jenny Merritt who owned the Rock Gardens Inn (actually still functioning) in 1928. When he opened the resort in 1930, Cushman’s vision was to create a “village style resort” that encouraged recreation as opposed to the more sedentary resorts that were typical of that era. His model also included both modern and rustic accommodations; and it is a tribute to his vision that the resort continues to thrive as a recreation centered vacation destination with a diversity of architecture in a harbor village setting.
Two generations of Cushman ownership were followed by two generations of ownership by the Dana family; and in 1997 the resort was purchased by Bob Smith.
Smith, who began his career in hospitality in 1974 working as a porter for the Holiday Inn in Portland, clearly has a keen appreciation for Sebasco’s tradition. In the years since, he has spent $12 million in modernizing, upgrading, updating amenities, adding programming and extending the season of the resort into the spring and fall, but he has preserved the essence. He laughs that he would get flack from some of the regulars just for replacing a “ratty” couch, because it was part of what was familiar. But you can still find the grandfather clock in the Great Room of the Main Lodge, which dates from the 1930s.
And heaven forbid he end the Monday Night Bingo in the Clipper House or the Sunday afternoon cocktail reception or Wednesday tea.
The connection to history adds to the atmosphere – there is a wall of all the brochures that Sebasco has used over all these years, a veritable timeline of tourism promotion; the pro shop at the golf course has old photos and a plaque listing all those who have hit a hole in one, and there is a wonderful photo in the original hotel, from when people would harvest ice from Cornelius Pond (now called Wah-Tah Lake).
A Taste of Sebasco
Dining at Sebasco is designed with the multi-day vacationer in mind, and there is a surprising variety of dining venues and even themed dining events.
The Pilot House offers waterfront bistro dining with a “resort casual” atmosphere that belies the high level of service and the excellence of the menu. At night, the sunset views as you dine are unbelievable.
The dining experience takes you completely by surprise – it is New England fare reinterpreted with more worldly and eclectic seasonings that only enhances the freshness of the seafood, meat, fruits and vegetables. Steamed mussel appetizer (an enormous portion), were succulent, served delectably simmered in white wine with onions and black pepper; the Pilot House Roasted Corn and Lobster Chowder and the Organic Carrot and Ginger Soup were pure perfection. Fire Roasted Sirloin Steak was served with a salsa of thyme-pimento-chutney. Lobster America’s Cup is an open shell lobster simmered with leeks, tomatoes and fresh tarragon. The Penobscot Bay Seafood Potpourri consists of shrimp, haddock and sea scallops, seasoned with tarragon, mushrooms, lobster cream sauce with dry sherry. There is also an extensive wine list
The Ledges, next door, offers seaside pub fare indoors or on the harborside patio, and is open until the wee hours.
The Pool Lawn is where there are the weekly lobsterbakes and traditional Blueberry Pancake Breakfasts; it also provides a lovely harborview setting for weddings and special functions.
The Cornelius Room is a grand dining room from the golden resort era that works well for weddings and special events.
The Clipper affords rustic charm for casual special events or themed parties (1940s, square dancing).
There is also a small Patio Café for ice cream and snacks, right on the Village Green.
Sebasco Harbor Resort offers an MAP option, an inclusive breakfast and dinner program, at $48 per person, per day (no charge for children under 10 ordering from the children’s menu). This makes a lot of sense, since the resort is fairly isolated, and the food is absolutely superb (you can also pay as you go at the restaurants).Area Attractions
There is so much going on, in fact, that families find it hard to leave the property. A family we met from New York, for example, said they had spent 10 days here last year, and came back for seven more this year. “Did you get to the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland?” I ask, thinking this is a great excursion, about 1 ½ hour away. No. “Did you visit Boothbay, such a charming village?” No. It turns out they never left the property last year – there was so much to do, but this year, they were resolved to go into Bath. And it is true, there is easily enough to keep you occupied.
The best excursion is only a few miles from the resort, to Popham Beach State Park –a sprawling, scenic, three-mile long expansive sandy beach at the mouth of the Kennebec River, from which you can see small islands (two lighthouses), just off shore (when the tide is out, you can walk across to the island); seals gather here.
You can walk for miles, taking a turn and walking along the beach to the Civil War era Fort Popham (or, as we did, park at the fort, and walk up the beach, past the old Coast Guard station and around to the state beach because the parking lot did not open until 9 a.m.). The Fort was built to protect the shipbuilding industry upriver in Bath, and the state capital at Augusta. The fort, which gets about 100,000 visitors a year, is presently closed for renovation.
There is rich history here: the Popham Colony was founded in 1607, 13 years before the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth. They built the 30-ton Virginia as the continent’s first ocean going ship, launching Maine’s shipbuilding tradition. However, the colony did not survive. A reconstruction of the Virginia is underway at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath (www.popham400.org), which is 20 minutes drive from the resort, where you can also visit a historic district of captains’ homes.
The resort is only 35 minutes from Freeport, a shopping mecca with L.L. Bean (open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year) and numerous outlets. Sebasco Harbor Resort is one hour from Portland, with the Portland Museum of Art and the Portland Observatory.
There is also a Coastal Maine scenic train ride, traveling between Bath & Wiscasset to Brunswick & Rockland, with a luxury dining car (also available for private charters). Sebasco has created a package, “Maine Coast Rail & Art Excursion” that combines the rail trip and four-hour visit to Rockland, with a two-night stay at the resort, breakfast, train fare, transportation to/from the Bath Depot and admission to the Farnsworth Art Museum (from $215).
There is a lot to do – with Rockland, picturesque Boothbay, and Bath so accessible from the resort. In Rockland, a must-see is the Farnsworth Museum, famous for its collection of Wyeth family artists, and the Maine Lighthouse Museum. Rockland is a port for many of the historic Maine Windjammers (making Sebasco Harbor a great combination vacation with the three or six-day cruises, 800-807-WIND, www.sailmainecoast.com).
Sebasco Harbor Resort is also a superb combination with Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park, about 2 ½ hours further north.
Eleanor Roosevelt, in fact, would stay over at Sebasco Harbor Resort with her mother-in-law, en route to Campobello.
Another distinctive attribute of Sebasco is the different styles of accommodations that are sure to satisfy any family.
The resort started as a village of cottages – there are 23 today including Early Bird with 10 bedrooms, 10 bathrooms and a great room, shaped like a railroad car, that is ideal for family reunions; the Lighthouse on the waterfront, with 10 rooms; a traditional main lodge with 37 rooms, and five luxury waterfront suites in the new Fairwind Spa.
In addition, The Lighthouse offers 10 rooms, there is a traditional main lodge with 37 rooms; 18 luxury suites in two Harborview View lodges, and five luxury waterfront suites in the Fairwind Spa.
Nightly summertime rates for accommodations range from $209 per guest room in the Main Lodge to $2,090 for the 10-bedroom room Early Bird cottage that sleeps 20.
A senior rate is available (age 60 and above) at 10% off the room portion for Main Lodge accommodations; there is also a 10 percent discount on lodging for stays of seven days or longer.
In all, about 33 units are now geared to year-round use. Smith notes that being 12 miles out to sea, Sebasco Harbor is cooler in summer and milder in winter than even Bath or Portland.
Sebasco Harbor Resort, in Sebasco Harbor Estates, is three hours by car from Boston (about 7 hours from New York’s metro), and less than an hour’s drive from Portland’s International Jetport which is served by major airlines including Jet Blue (the hotel provides shuttle transportation). For reservations or information, call 800-225-3819 or visit www.sebasco.com.
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