The Chebeague Island Inn, getting spruced up after a long winter.Photo Credit : Mark Fleming
There is still much to do.
Jason Schlosser, general manager of the Chebeague Island Inn, steps out of the van that has trucked up supplies—groceries and cleaning equipment—from the ferry landing. Schlosser is tall, with closely cropped graying hair and a neatly trimmed beard. He smooths nonexistent creases from his tailored blue sport coat, then scans the yellow clapboard hotel and the surrounding grounds with the eye of someone who has spent 20 years running high-end coastal hotels.
It’s a Friday afternoon in early May, opening weekend for the inn, which, as always, has been closed since October. On tap is a cocktail reception for local residents tonight, a visit tomorrow by a couple who will be married at the inn next month, and the arrival of the season’s first guests on Sunday. “We’ll be ready,” Schlosser says. “We don’t have a choice.”
There are certain places so embedded in a community that they define it. So it is with the Chebeague Island Inn. The 94-year-old building, a long, three-story rectangular structure situated on a hill above the water, stands where a hotel has stood since 1860. Its namesake island is the largest of a scattering of more than 100 small islands that populate Maine’s Casco Bay. Just four miles long and about a mile wide, Chebeague is home to 400 residents year-round, and nearly four times that in summer.
People mingle at the post office, the seasonal coffee shop, and the general store, but the inn is the community’s preferred gathering place—in summer, at least. With its dark woods and high-ceilinged main rooms, it has a grandeur that adds size to Chebeague’s small-island life. Residents meet for a drink or a meal, make small talk with the young staffers who’ve trekked here from different parts of the world, and sit on the big porch to watch one of Maine’s best sunsets. Its reopening every May is not only a sign that the summer season is set to begin, but also proof that the island has emerged from its winter slumber.
Opening up the 21-room inn after seven months of dormancy is a carefully orchestrated dance. This time around it began in early April when the hotel’s head of maintenance, Jordan Nystedt, trudged the half mile from the ferry dock through a foot of freshly fallen snow. Plywood sheets were taken off the windows, the heating system was fired up, walls were painted, screens redone, porch balusters replaced. As a result of winter winds jostling the building, every one of the inn’s 377 light bulbs had to be replaced.
Even on this weekend, the work continues. The heating system is a perpetual headache for Nystedt, who walks around the building with a purple notebook to add to and subtract from his to-do list. The boiler shut down just two weeks ago and again this morning, when it started overflowing antifreeze. “We had to call the plumber,” says Schlosser, shaking his head. “And here there’s only one.”
The inn also comes to life with the arrival of staff. Over the past week, new faces have appeared every day, workers laden with small suitcases and accents from away—Romania, South Africa, Bulgaria, Jamaica. As Schlosser navigates the boiler issue, front desk manager April Theth gives a rundown on guest reservations to Vicentiu Mercu, a Romanian in his 20s who came only yesterday from the Florida hotel where he had worked for the winter. “I drove straight for 22 hours,” he says, proudly. “Just a sandwich and two Red Bulls.”
In the kitchen, executive chef Matt Ginn is tweaking the summer’s menu, preparing a tasting lunch for the wedding couple, and overseeing the making of hors d’oeuvres for tonight’s cocktail reception. He chops onions for a risotto while keeping watch on the boiling pot of lobster shells for bisque stock. Nearby are racks of tomatoes and bread from the kitchen’s first order, a $10,000 supply of goods that mistakenly didn’t include eggs. “There are always some early hiccups,” Ginn says.
He pauses his chopping and looks up. “What are we listening to?”
“The Grateful Dead,” says Seth Prescott, Ginn’s 19-year-old prep cook and head dishwasher, who is slicing leeks. Somehow he’s managed to get control of his boss’s radio.
“Why, dude?” asks Ginn. “You know I have one rule in the kitchen: It has to be rap music. You’re lucky I’ve even shared the radio with you.” He squirts a large pot with olive oil for the risotto, then looks at the clock.
Just four hours until people start arriving.
The Chebeague Island Inn is a remnant of a different era. The original hotel was built to cater to wealthy Baltimore banking families who had discovered Casco Bay as a summer retreat. At one time there were as many as six ferry landings on Chebeague; today, there are only two.
Over the years the inn has experienced different owners and different states of ownership. In 2010, the Prentice family—parents Dick and Gerri and their kids, Caitlin and Casey—purchased the hotel. The Prentices, who hail from just across the bay, in Falmouth, are well-known business and real estate developers in southern Maine. Their operation of the inn is a family affair, and come May they’re anchored in the day-to-day operations of its opening.
But with a place like the Chebeague Island Inn, ownership isn’t absolute. Instead, the Prentice family are simply the latest in a long line of caretakers, stewards of a property that neighbors and generations of families feel protective toward.
Not long after buying the inn, the Prentices were brought up to speed on the community’s connection to the property. First, they needed to repair some goodwill. The previous owner had invested heavily in renovations, but locals felt excluded and took it hard when the large basement bar was converted to a laundry room and something substantially more upscale and smaller was built in the dining room to replace it. The Prentices also quickly learned it wasn’t uncommon for visitors to wander into the kitchen to chat with the cooks or to knock on the doors of staff houses to recruit help for yard work or to borrow a tool.
As the family sought to change those kinds of associations, they worked to create new ones—like tonight’s event.
At 5 p.m. the first islanders arrive. One of the earliest is Mike Robinson, a fisherman who supplies the inn with its lobsters. As he ambles through the great room, Alexandria Andronesi, a young Romanian who is back for her third season and her first as the dining room manager, spots him.
She gives him a hug and then steps back. “How was your winter?”
“Good,” says Robinson, whose family has lived on Chebeague since the American Revolution. “I survived it. How was yours?”
“I was in Florida working at another hotel, so it was warm.”
“I’m sure it was much warmer than ours,” he laughs.
He makes his way to the bar and gets comfortable in the official “Dick Dyer Chair,” which, with its plaque and picture of the late lobsterman, serves as an homage to an islander who was a nightly fixture at the inn. “I guess I’ve sort of inherited it,” Robinson says.
As he orders a rye and Diet Coke, the island’s fire chief, Ralph Munroe, takes a seat next to him. Soon, Casey Prentice joins the two men.
“Your brother going to make it up tonight?” he asks Robinson.
“I don’t think so,” Robinson says. “Probably tomorrow. He’s changing the engine on his boat. He was knee-deep in grease when I stopped by.”
While Robinson and Munroe nurse their drinks, from her post at the front desk Theth spies some familiar faces, an older couple and their adult son, who march directly from the front door to where she sits.
The mother gives Theth a hug and runs a hand through her friend’s hair. “So good to see you,” she says. “Your hair’s different this year—it’s green.” Theth shakes it out a little. “Yeah, it’s for spring,” she says, laughing.
It goes like this for the rest of the evening. Staff and islanders, plus a few summer residents who’ve come for the weekend, catch up over drinks and food. There are lives to go over, summer plans to detail. And excitement for the start of a new season on Chebeague, where tonight summer seems less like a wish, and more a promise to be kept.
61 South Road, Chebeague Island, ME. 207-846-5155; chebeagueislandinn.com