Two of Maine’s top tables can be found within two of its finest inns
Kennebunkport and Camden are Maine icons, popular with travelers, and rich in rave-worthy B&Bs and inns. Among these, two stand out, each having earned national acclaim. Both the well-established White Barn Inn in Kennebunk’s Lower Village and relative newcomer the Camden Harbour Inn cater to a wealthy, worldly clientele that values the finer things in life, especially fine dining.
White Barn Inn
Long before culinary tourism became trendy, the White Barn Inn was a destination for in-the-know travelers who valued fine wine, fine food, and a fine cigar at meal’s end.
It was the late owner Laurie Bongiorno’s single-minded passion that drove the White Barn from a respectable inn with restaurant to an upscale, European-style country-house destination. He achieved that by blending contemporary amenities with New England’s country heritage, balancing elegant rusticity with formal service, and delivering charm without schmaltz.
Although Bongiorno is gone, his spirit remains intact. “Laurie was a perfectionist,” says Executive Chef Jonathan Cartwright, who took on the added title of general manager after Bongiorno’s passing in 2007. Cartwright is determined to preserve not only Bongiorno’s legacy but also his balance of the inn’s seemingly contradictory assets of being timeless yet cutting edge. The biggest challenge, Cartwright says, is maintaining
a “twenty first-century inn without losing
the charm of New England and Kennebunkport, Maine.”
Calling the White Barn an inn is an understatement. It’s more of a compound. Uniformed staff usher guests into the inner sanctum, which includes an understated living room and sunporch, a full-service spa, and the haute, haute, haute restaurant in the beautifully renovated, circa-1820 barn. Guest rooms and suites are upstairs as well as in the adjacent annex and garden cottages. Tucked behind is a disappearing-edge pool, surrounded by a patio, where lunch is available in season. It’s all hushed, discreet, and mostly hidden from the inquiring eyes of passers-by.
The blend of country charm and city sophistication is evident in the inn’s granite-and-marble bathrooms, which as in many inns of this caliber, are showpieces. “Our spa bathrooms are modern and functional, yet antiquey,” Cartwright says. “They have the nice feel that it could be yesteryear, a very wealthy yesterday.” In some suites, a double-sided fireplace separates the sleeping area from the bathroom, where there’s often a double whirlpool tub, a separate, oversized rain shower, and perhaps a steam room. Guests can even request a butler-drawn bath.
Such luxe comforts extend beyond the baths. It’s almost too inviting to hole up in a guest room, wrapped in a fluffy robe and watching a DVD on the flat-screen TV while nibbling
on fresh fruit, gazing at fresh flowers, and sipping bottled water. No need to ever leave: valet, room, concierge, and laundry services are available with a call to the front desk.
As lovely as the rooms are, it’s the promise of dining that draws guests to the inn. The inn’s Relais & Chateau membership is further distinguished by Cartwright’s Grand Chef title. “Food is one of the inn’s defining characteristics,” says hotel manager Stuart Barwise. “A White Barn Inn experience isn’t whole without dining here.”
Guests get a feel for the dining experience at the European-style buffet breakfast, which offers a selection of meats and cheeses, fresh fruit, granola, cereals, yogurt, and a daily quiche. Even at breakfast, there are draped tablecloths, candlelight, fine china and crystal, and a formally dressed wait staff. Those who splurge on dinner discover the elegance, the formality, and the romance magnified.
A pianist plays background music, and soft lights illuminate fine art adorning the rough walls, the antiques and country curiosities in the lofts, and the stunning floral displays viewed through the back wall of glass.
“People’s dining habits have changed a lot in America in the 14 years I’ve been here,” Cartwright says. “Now they embrace dining as an activity, rather than fuel for an activity.” Guests come to the White Barn Inn expecting to be entertained, Barwise says, and they rarely leave disappointed. Wait teams dance in well-choreographed synchronicity, right down to the simultaneous serving of each course to every person at a table. They’re always present, but never hover; they anticipate every need and are able to answer any question.
Beyond what’s promised by the multi-course, fixed-price menu, there are surprises that add to the indulgence. These include an amuse bouche as well as pre-dessert, and, at the end, petits fours and truffles. The extras continue back in the guestroom, where housekeeping has freshened the room, turned down the bed, and left behind more chocolates and portable book lights—all nuances that reflect the continuation of Bongiorno’s insatiable quest for perfection. “The bar keeps getting raised,” Barwise says. “If you don’t move it, someone else does.”
The White Barn Inn & Spa | 37 Beach Avenue | Kennebunk Beach | Maine | 967-2321 | whitebarninn.com
Camden Harbour Inn
The red carpet treatment at the Camden Harbour Inn begins in the parking lot. Park the car, and a staff member appears, offers assistance, and guides you up carpeted stairs and into the inn.
Dutch owners Oscar Verest and Raymond Brunyanszki fell in love with New England during leaf-peeping visits in 2003 and 2004 and decided to move to Maine. After touring nearly 100 properties over two years, they viewed the Camden Harbour Inn.
“We instantly knew it had everything we needed to create the place we wanted,” Brunyanszki says. Verest adds, “We wanted to provide food to make it more lively and add warmth.”
Implementing their vision required all but gutting the inn. For three months, nearly 100 people worked on the project daily, stripping, rewiring, and addressing structural problems. They opened walls, gave every room a harbor view, and added the full-service restaurant and a boutique spa. “Every time I opened a door, somebody was working behind it,” Brunyanszki says.
“If you consider that we closed on the inn in mid-February and reopened the inn on May 31, and the restaurant three weeks later, we did everything in three-and-a-half months,” Verest says. That included sourcing furnishings in Europe and consolidating and shipping two-and-half containers full of finds from France, Spain, the U.K., and the Netherlands to Maine.
Brunyanszki drew on his experiences as a consultant for high-end hotels in Asia in choosing he decor. “We wanted contemporary and modern with happy colors,” he says. “We wanted rooms that were light and bright in summer but had warmth in winter.” What guests experience is a blend of B&B ambiance with hotel amenities, European style and verve with American comfort and casualness.
Playing against white walls are furnishings upholstered in varied shades of silver, purple, and red velour and striking accent pieces from Asia and Africa, such as framed silver necklaces and plates, as well as eye-catching antiques, Delft Blue ceramics, and Chinese prints. All the fabrics were created for the inn, as was the floral carpet in the living room.
All guestrooms are named after ports of call for the Dutch East India Trading Company. “Maine’s schooners reminded us of the ships at that time,” Brunyanszki says. It is as if the inn’s decorative accents might have been brought back by schooners navigating the world. Every room has a king-size bed covered in clouds of white down. Some have balconies, and a few have fireplaces, whirlpool baths, or even a steam shower.
Verest and Brunyanszki are aiming for five-diamond status, but they also want to preserve the inn’s relaxed atmosphere. “People don’t travel with suits on yachts or on vacation. We need to find a way to achieve five diamonds yet keep our values,” Brunyanszki says, citing as an example the robes on the bed at turn-down. The inn tried it, but guests complained. “To us, doing that isn’t five-diamond service, it’s annoying our guests.” Instead, at evening turndown the robes remain in the closet, but housekeeping staff leave slippers, chocolates, and a “dream card” bearing a quote from a famous writer.
The Juliana Lounge has a telescope trained on the Penobscot Bay, a pantry stocked with sweets, tea, books, and DVDs, a guest computer, and comfy seating grouped for conversation. Just off it, and opening onto a porch and another harbor-view porch, is Natalie’s, the inn’s restaurant that, under Chef Lawrence Klang, has already received national acclaim and a Wine Spectator award. Dinner possibilities include a light menu in the lounge, a la carte choices, and a seasonal tasting menu. Breakfast, included for guests, blends a European-style continental buffet with a choice of entree, such as lobster Benedict.
Dutch interior designer Mascha Brunia helped create Natalie’s decor. The red chairs and fringed shades, antique rose lights, European-style moulding, herringbone wood floor, 1930s wallpaper, and a bar crafted out of 100-year-old doors from a convent in France evoke the ambience of an early-nineteenth-century Parisian brasserie on the Left Bank. It’s bright and comforting, elegant yet casual and relaxed. Service is meticulous but not stuffy. The food is divine.
“We always said we wanted to have one of the best restaurants in Maine and the U.S., but we didn’t want stiff and formal service,” Brunyanszki says. “We wanted it to be approachable for everyone, we wanted the wine menu to compete with the best: we trained our staff with the knowledge about the technical part, but at the same time, we wanted them to be approachable and comfortable communicating with our guests.”
That easygoing style and service has served the inn well. “The biggest compliment we get from our guests is that they feel comfortable here,” Verest says. “And that’s what we’re trying to achieve.”
Camden Harbour Inn | 83 Bayview Street | Camden, Maine | 236-4200 | camdenharbourinn.com