When we make our annual journey to Maine, I do a lot of planning. We think and talk about it all year, and I start making reservations around the holidays (or even before) for the six-week trip that starts sometime after Bill’s birthday, around the end of May. Bill and I are well-suited that way — he’s the big-picture, “concept” guy (“…. and let’s stop at Fallingwater on the way back!”), and I’m the hypernerdy detail person. This suits me fine, because Bill would settle for anything halfway decent, but I’m particular: The hotel doesn’t have to be fancy, but it’s nice if it’s at least interesting. Once we get there, I want to park the car and have dinner and a cocktail there. Good food required. Room service for morning coffee is a big plus, and wifi a prerequisite. I have a running list of B&Bs, inns and boutique/historic hotels I keep track of year-round, and when it’s time to make an itinerary, I link as many of them together as possible to make a little jeweled necklace of a journey — and we always like to try a slightly different route, especially on the way home, to ease the pain of vacation’s end.
We were almost ready to leave when Bill’s Uncle Ralph passed away, meaning we’d have to depart a little early and get to Maine for the funeral. Then we’d double back to NYC, and take up our trip from there, returning to Maine again afterwards. Ralph had lived a long, full life, and his health had not been good of late. Of course, the trip would be full of the usual funeral rites — catching up with family & friends not seen in years (and in my case, meeting them for the first time), reminiscences, hard church pews, rain, a hymn you haven’t heard in years, but realize you remember word for word.
It also meant long, hard driving to get to Maine from Tennessee in two days. The first was 11 hours, the second would be about 9. We made it all the way to Wilkes-Barre on Day 1 to a well-run Hampton Inn (our emergency brand of choice when we’re road warriors) with a sushi place nearby. Day 2 brought us to Harpswell, ME, where Bill’s cousins Bert & Cilla teach us amateurs how to host guests with style and panache. Plus their house on Casco Bay, is quiet, secluded and beautiful. “Our” room and bath overlook the water, and the light starts coming in around 4 AM. As soon as we arrive, we always get out of the car and just inhale deeply — the entire state smells like balsam.
After a sweet service for Ralph, we gathered with his family and neighbors, and later, Bert, Cilla and her sister Polly and husband Jerry all gathered for hot crab dip, steak, fingerling potatoes and grilled fiddleheads (they were at their season’s height, and the best I’ve ever had) at the house. Cilla and Polly, daughters of Bill’s Uncle Bob (his mother’s brother) are Bill’s closest family, and it meant so much to see them all together that he quietly wiped away tears after Polly and Jerry left. Jerry and Bert had been combinations big brothers/surrogate dads after Bill’s father passed away suddenly when he was 12.
We decided we’d had enough long drives for a while, so picked a halfway point to New York City from Harpswell. Worcester worked fine. I didn’t find anything in Select Registry or Historic Inns of America (my first go-tos), so checked out Trip Advisor. You’ve got to be careful there — Trip Advisor is skewed to families and sometimes penny-pinchers who go crazy over cheap hotels with little value, and/or golf or sports-oriented venues we don’t care anything about. Also, just as on Yelp or Urbanspoon, anyone, including hotel managers, can post glowing reviews. But if you read carefully, you can usually tell when the praise is coming from real travelers who know what they’re talking about. So I booked us into the Beechwood Hotel — a slightly quirky place with a big round section, a restaurant, Ceres Bistro, and 24-hour room service. The price was certainly reasonable — $160 for a king room at the last minute on Memorial Day weekend.
Next door to UMass’ medical school, the Beechwood is set back from the main road with an ambiguously marked drive, so we ended up taking a circuitous route around the hospital, where the very old, original buildings still stand. But once we stepped in from the still-unseasonably cold weather (low 40s, with rain), the Beechwood reminded me of those lively stagecoach stops you see in old westerns, down to the fireplace in the lobby. It was friendly, comfortable and exceeded our expectations at every turn. The young people who make up the staff were sweet, smart and chatty. Our room was upgraded to a larger mini-suite, and when we walked downstairs for dinner, we were well-tended by the staff. The wine list was terrific — we’d never seen half bottles of our favorite rose champagne, Nicholas Feuillette, and the cognac included another favorite, Pierre Ferand, by the glass. And the food was far better than we’d hoped for. My gigantic bowl of Portuguese fish soup boasted fat scallops, shrimp, cod, and linguica (Portuguese sausage) in a light tomato broth. Bill had swordfish with mango salsa. The manager who’d chatted with us later sent over a complimentary dessert — outfitted with a lid, in case we wanted to take it up to our room. The warm toffee pudding didn’t make it that far.
It’s the next morning, and I’m tapping this out with the room service breakfast dishes nearby. We’re packed & ready, but watching the tail end of a John Wayne movie on TCM before we hit the road for NYC. But the Beechwood is a reminder that unexpected journeys can still offer up treasures, that surprise and improvisation can be welcome turns in a carefully plotted schedule. I hope some of the painstakingly selected, much more expensive inns I have lined up later in the trip will treat us as warmly as this one. Thanks, Uncle Ralph, for one last reminder to enjoy the journey.