Castine by Pentagoet
Summertime is in full, bright swing along a deep harbor where old salts, young sailors, and world travelers gather—on boats, at the yacht club, and sometimes in a late-1800s inn with a cozy, fascinating pub.
Both are in linen garb. His, white and straw-colored. Hers, a slate- gray tunic. The handsome couple could be actors in the movie Out of Africa in all that linen, I think,as I watch them for a few moments as they move about greeting guests.
It’s a sweet summer night, and we’ve just walked up the steep hill from Castine’s harbor. From across Main Street, I can see the busy innkeepers of the Pentagoet Inn. It’s the building with a tall, six-sided turret that’s on the second block uphill from the town wharf. The couple, Jack Burke and Julie Van de Graaf, is deep into their seventeenth season as owners and innkeepers of the landmark lodging in Castine.
I’m eager to go inside the Victorian-era manse with gabled rooflines rising up from the corner lot planted in woodland-style gardens. I’ve visited this village on the Blue Hill Peninsula before, when friends owned the Compass Rose Bookstore just down the street, but until this trip I’ve never spent the night in town. And I’ve long been intrigued by the Pentagoet and, particularly, its appealing first-floor pub. Photographer Peter Frank Edwards and I have dinner reservations at the inn’s restaurant and arrive early to settle in on a settee with velvet cushions. Small lamps and sconces add soft light, and as we sip wine from Cinque Terre and wait for an order of Taunton Bay oysters, I focus on who’s around us—figuratively, at least. Throughout this parlor room that’s now named the Baron Pub, nearly every square inch of wall space is filled with vintage framed portraits of world leaders, dictators, and thinkers.
Peter Frank and I begin trying to name, or at least recognize, the faces all around us from the Americas, old Russia, Europe, colonial Britain, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. I see Einstein, Castro, Queen Victoria, Gandhi, Lenin, Somoza from Nicaragua, and a likeness of Gorbachev (with slimmer cheeks and without his large birthmark). One prominent portrait is of a bearded man with a cap who Burke explains was a seventeenth-century French baron who became the Castine namesake, Jean-Vincent d’Abbadie de Saint-Castin. While Burke pours the wine, I can’t help but notice a resemblance between him and the portrait.
The innkeeper is an interesting sort in this town of about 1,370 residents. He spent much of his career in the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service, and he explains that many of the framed pictures are prints of photographs, painted portraits, or propaganda posters that he gathered while on assignments to far-flung places. I imagine much intrigue and adventure, and we point and ask about various pictures. “Oman was beautiful,” he tells us, “and then Kenya where [Daniel arap] Moi was protecting the elephants. But in Kuwait we found no beer and no fun for four days.”
I notice that every time I type the name Pentagoet, the auto-correct changes it to “Pentagon.” Coincidence? Burke has a good sense of humor about such questions, but the truth behind the name is that it was the French settlers who called this area between the Penobscot River and the Bagaduce “Pentagoet” after an Abenaki word for “where the waters meet.”
Meanwhile, we see Van de Graaf in motion, moving between the dining room, porches, parlors, and pub. She adds service, organization, and softer elements, like cushions from Laos, a fringed pillow from France, and delicate teacups from the Pink Rose Pastry Shop, which she owned in Philadelphia for many years. That was before she met Burke while on vacation in his home state of Massachusetts. They fell in love and traveled together in Africa; married in Venice, Italy; and in 2000, just after returning from the wedding trip, the pair finalized their purchase of the inn and moved to Castine.
Ever since, they’ve been hosting guests seasonally at the Pentagoet. It’s Van de Graaf who manages the kitchen and menus that include produce from a half-dozen nearby farms and local seafood. Our order of roasted oysters is brought to our table on vintage porcelain plates that are dainty, almost. With bits of bacon and a squeeze of lemon, the oysters are exceptional. Peter Frank and I clink our glasses and decide to remain in this room for the rest of dinner talking of explorers, elites, scientists, czars, and scoundrels.
We’re staying for a couple of nights at the 16-room Pentagoet, and the next morning after breakfast, Van de Graaf mentions that she’s often struck by the depth of interesting people who visit, or stay for the season or year-round in Castine.
David Bicks is one of those people. Wearing a Castine Yacht Club hat, polo shirt, and salmon-pink shorts, he happens to stop by the inn while we’re finishing coffees. A securities attorney in New York City, he’s owned a waterfront summer house here for decades, and when we meet he’s talking excitedly about the Castine Classic Yacht Race that was held a few days earlier. (This summer’s event is set for August 2-3.)
He says the annual gathering attracts a fleet of impressive vessels to race about 20 miles across Penobscot Bay to Camden. The 2016 edition included the 52-foot yawl Dorade, a restored, circa-1929 transatlantic racing yacht. Preeminent yacht designer Olin Stephens, who lived in Hanover, Maine, in his retirement, designed the vessel, and Bicks recalls that Stephens sometimes attended the Castine festivities, including on his hundredth birthday in 2008.
“The greatest asset Castine has is the deep- water harbor,” Bicks says. “All the way from Newport, boats come here for safe harbor when there’s a hurricane—Smith Cove is a hurricane hole.”
Bicks insists it’s essential to see Castine from the water to understand the town, and graciously offers to take us out on his boat. I grab my hat before we start walking down to the water in the August sunshine. The water around the Castine Yacht Club is busy with children zigging and zagging about in dinghy sailboats, and we catch a ride on a club tender to where he keeps the Marian B. on a mooring (the comfortable cruiser with a wooden deck is named for his wife). Along the way, Bicks shares some of Castine’s history, from the first European settlers in the 1600s to the twentieth-century visitors and residents, including Eleanor Roosevelt and the poets Robert Lowell and Philip Booth.
Once underway, we pass Holbrook Island, where he notes the ledges are often full of seals. He points out Dyce Head Lighthouse and the tidal pool at Wadsworth Cove, a community gathering place for summer swimming. We’re fortunate to get such a personal tour. His own family has long been connected to the yacht club and Castine’s town life, including his daughter, Jenny Bicks, a writer and producer who also lives part-time here, and whose credits include more than a dozen episodes of the television series Sex and the City.
I’m struck by the natural beauty, the stately homes, and the green of trees on the shoreline. The whole town feels like a yacht club, an enclave. The houses, stately and upright, look even more so from the water. “The thing that saved Castine [from overdevelopment],” Bicks notes, “is that you don’t get here by accident.”
Castine is about a three-hour drive from Portland, and it’s located on the point of a peninsula. By land, it’s not on the way to anywhere else, so visitors arrive on purpose. The sheltered harbor is also home to the iconic, rustic Eaton’s Boatyard. Built on wharf pilings in the early 1800s, the boatyard’s main building is a tall wooden structure full of marine gear and engine parts. It’s all attached to the boatyard dock, where locals still service boats and bring in lobsters.
It’s here, through an introduction by David Bicks, that we meet Kenny Eaton himself. He’s sitting inside and has just opened a can of beer. He’s a third-generation boatyard man who has a white beard and an old-salt, Ernest Hemingway look. He invites us to sit down, and we find chairs amid the hulls, tools, wood pieces, and workbenches. I ask about his grandfather, Mace Eaton, and father, Alonzo
Eaton, who were both well-known downeast boat builders. The 20 or so Mace Eaton sailboats they built in the 1950s and 1960s are still in use around Castine and Brooklin, including one owned by the Bicks family, the Caroline B., that we’d seen earlier on a mooring while tooling around the harbor.
The afternoon goes on with a few stories. Eaton and Bicks are old friends and launch into a wild tale about the two of them rescuing a boat that had gotten stuck on a ledge, and another story that leads to Eaton pulling from his office a black-and-white framed photo of a day when Ted Kennedy sailed in and met him on the very dock where we are standing.
The views of Castine from the water have been so striking, Peter Frank and I decide to board the Guildive the next afternoon for one of its daily summertime sails. Zander Parker is the captain of the handsome, 56-foot sailing yacht built in 1934, and once underway, we take in even wider views of the deep harbor, passing the massive hull of the State of Maine, the working educational ship of Maine Maritime Academy.
Once the engine is cut and the sails are hoisted we hear only the whoosh of wind and water and truly see the surroundings near and distant—Cape Rosier, the mouth of the Bagaduce, Smith Cove, and the squat Dyce Head Lighthouse, which one of the other four passengers notes is worth locating by land so you can follow the paths to the shore below it. It’s a gorgeous, two-hour sail and another terrific introduction to the history and beauty of Castine.
We do walk by the lighthouse later—it’s privately owned and not open to the public, but the seaside pathway gives a high vantage point above the water. Elsewhere in town, we stop alongside the golf course, which was established in the 1890s and then redesigned in the 1920s by the famous Scottish golf architect, Willie Park, Jr. Pride in history is a living thing in Castine, I’ve noticed, and so is art.
Each summer the local art association hosts the popular Castine Plein Air Festival, and there are several active galleries. We stop in at the light-filled restored horse barn that’s the Adam Gallery up on Battle Avenue. Joshua Adam shows us around and explains that he and his wife, Susan Parish Adam, both show their work here—sailboats and the waterfront are often subjects. After the two had earned fine arts degrees and begun painting careers, he explains, they moved east from California because of her family’s roots in Castine that date back to the 1940s.
The Baron and the Pub
Yes, one more time. Before we leave Castine and the Pentagoet this trip, we return for a last visit to the Baron Pub. “It’s a world room,” Burke says as he notices us again studying the walls. “I pepper in good, bad, and indifferent leaders.”
If the innkeepers’ intent is to spur conversation, it’s working. For Burke, the fodder for his own worldly tales began early when he and his four brothers would help his father deliver boats up and down the Atlantic coast. That’s how he first saw Castine, he tells us, and I can almost see him flashing back to long-ago stopovers when the boys would collect mussels on nearby Nautilus Island.
With that, the yarns begin again on a summer night in a cozy pub in this town of yachtsmen, artists, seals, and sailboats—a place Bicks had lauded earlier as “a little off the beaten track, at the very end of Maine.”