When Casey Prentice bought Chebeague Island Inn, a 100-year-old, 21-room hotel on a tiny island off the coast of Portland, Maine, in 2010, he was 22 years old with no experience in hospitality. He’d worked in restaurants and bars … but hotels? They were foreign territory. The one thing he knew was that Portland was in the midst of a culinary transformation, and a generation of young and savvy travelers had no great place to crash after dinner. So he set about turning the inn into a destination for foodies, with a revamped restaurant, top-notch Portland chef, and refreshed rooms. Now he's sold out each summer season.
Six years later, hoteliers far more experienced than Prentice have started to see Maine’s old-fashioned coastal towns as diamonds in the rough. In the past two years alone, at least a dozen hotels have made their debuts or been renovated in places that would barely ring a bell for non-New Englanders. There’s the just-redone Cliff House in Ogunquit, the art-centric 250 Main in Rockland, the brightly colored Whitehall in Camden, and a series of motor lodges-turned-modern inns called the Lodge on the Cove, in Kennebunkport (a better-known destination, but not for its contemporary style). All of them share a common philosophy: retain elements of Maine's distinct nautical culture, embrace the sea-to-table movement, but chuck the nostalgic décor. The state that used to house some of America's most old-timey inns isn't losing its charms; it's one-upping them by embracing a winning combination of low-key beach town vibes and sustainable fishing traditions that feel downright modern.
“People joke that there’s an underground railway from Brooklyn to Portland,” said Dawn Hagin, the chief inspiration officer of Lark Hotels, a boutique hotelier that owns and operates the year-old Whitehall in Camden. The punch line isn’t too far from the truth, though. New flights on nearly every major carrier, from American Airlines, to JetBlue, to Delta, have made Maine as convenient as the Hamptons or Rehoboth—if not more so. There’s also a new “first class” bus line run by Concord Coach Lines with service from New York; it’s like the Hampton Jitney, with free Wi-Fi and free pastries on board. (The 320-mile drive can take as little as five and a half hours, though it often takes longer.)
Access makes a big difference. According to Carolann Ouellette, director of the Maine Office of Tourism, the state has seen a huge tourism spike from non-neighboring states. In 2014, 33 percent of Maine’s visitors were coming from the Mid-Atlantic, while New England accounted for 52 percent. Just one year later, the numbers are noticeably different, with 40 percent from the mid-Atlantic and 47 percent from New England.
These first-time, out-of-state visitors are trendsetters and gentrifiers, says Chebeague’s Prentice. “They’re the leading edge of the pack—people that have income but are committed to finding the next great place.” He says they’re younger, driven by Portland’s food scene, and not drawn to “that cottagey, nostalgic experience with stained woods and rustic ambiance.” They’re here to find the next Montauk.
“People in general are resistant to change, and Mainers even more so.”
If you’ve ever tried to plan a weekend trip to Nantucket with a few days’ notice, you know it’s a lost cause. So where does a professional, affluent, time-crunched crowd summer when they suddenly have a weekend at their disposal? “The Hamptons are packed, the Jersey Shore is packed, the Cape is packed,” said Prentice, a onetime New Yorker. “So people are migrating up.”
“Maine is the zippiest, quickest, cheapest little trip—and that’s totally being discovered,” said Hagin. “You could plan a week or two in advance and still have a great vacation.” At Chebeague Island Inn, Prentice has noticed more and more guests using spontaneous travel apps such as Hotel Tonight. “We’re the last place that’s not a complete [mess] over the summer,” he said.
When Jim Brady was opening the 110-room, $264-a-night Press Hotel in Portland, he says “people thought I was crazy. They swore nobody would pay a higher price for a luxurious product in Maine.” Many would say luxury and Maine are like oil and water; the state is better known for being scrappy and entrepreneurial, the land of Hampton Inns and quaint summer cottages. But what Brady suspected was that people were looking for an experience, not just a place to rest their heads. So he built a four-star hotel—part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection—in the 1923 building in the Old Port District that once housed the Portland Press Herald newspaper, and used old equipment from the newsroom to provide a compelling blend of past and present. Visitors responded immediately.
“Maine in general is still at capacity,” says Prentice. “Portland had about 700 hotel rooms come online in the past 18 months, and everyone was terrified about what that would do to occupancy rates and average nightly prices.” But the city has absorbed those room easily, which he says is an indicator of pent-up demand.
It also helps that hotels here often operate on a smaller scale. “Maine is a small state in so many ways,” says Hagin, pointing out that there are very few big resorts statewide. That’s what makes the state a sweet spot for Lark Hotels, which operates hotels that are generally in the 15-to-50-room range. “It allows us to create boutique hotels that still feel like inns,” she says.
The culinary scene in Portland went from near-obscurity to needing no introduction in the span of three or four years; the first stories heralding its arrival appeared in 2011, and by 2014 nearly every food magazine was proclaiming it one of America's best eating towns. “There are a lot of chef-owned restaurants in Portland and basically no chains,” noted Brady, the owner the Press Hotel. On the other hand, until recently, most of the hotels in Portland were characterless members of national chains. None felt independent and upscale, whereas nearly every popular restaurant operated with a highly local, sea-to-table philosophy.
Sense of place is now the undercurrent that ties Maine’s modern hotels to its modern restaurants. According to the Maine Office of Tourism, a startling 62 percent of summer visitors say they come to Maine for food, beverage, or culinary activities—so naturally, hotels are using their food and beverage offerings to showcase what makes them unique. Chebeague lets guests haul traps with local lobstermen and turns their catch into lobster bakes and breakfast Benedicts; the property has also launched its own oyster farm, which has finally reached maturity after three years of development. The Camden Harbor Inn recently secured Relais & Châteaux status and has one of Maine's finest restaurants, Natalie's, which serves a lobster-themed tasting menu in season. At 250 Main, special attention is paid to breakfast service, where pastries and coffee are sourced from local bakeries and roasters.
“People in general are resistant to change,” says Brady, “and Mainers even more so.” There’s a vociferous resistance to anything that might be perceived as diluting Maine’s authenticity and uniqueness, so hoteliers often have to work hard to win over the local crowd. Ultimately, in-state travelers and those coming to see local family and friends still make up a sizable majority of Maine's visitors; they also extend the season past the traditional summer months and pack hotel restaurants all year long.
“We had some initial pushback in Camden for not being historic-looking enough,” recalls Hagin about opening Whitehall. And when the property opened with a New York City chef—who attracted plenty of hipsters—the backlash continued. Now Mainers and New Englanders fill nearly every job on the property, which fits with the updated Maine décor: A red plaid couch is in the lobby, birch-patterned wallpaper in the restaurant, and a sign on the front door that says, “Relax. Breathe deep. You’re in Maine.”
The details that make modern travelers feel at home are icing on the cake: The Camden Harbor Inn stocks Molton Brown bath amenities and offers butler service for its guests; free high-speed Wi-Fi is on the amenity list with shuffleboard and front porch cocktails at both Whitehall and Kennebunkport's the Lodge on the Cove; and the Press Hotel offers free bikes and USB-powered charging stations.
The hotel that best balances modernity, authenticity, and an appeal to the local community might be the brand-new 250 Main in Rockland. It’s within walking distance of the town's fast-growing arts district and the new Center for Maine Contemporary Art—so it treated every room as a gallery for local artists and makes each piece available for purchase. (It was also designed by a Portland-based architect and built by a local boat builder.)
Hoteliers that employ authentic expressions of Maine culture are embraced by the people around them—it turns out. And those that add in a dash of highbrow design are ensuring that many more people will embrace Maine's charms in return.