Nebo Lodge on North Haven
The Inn and Restaurant at the Heart of North Haven Island
Nebo Lodge itself is not grand. There is no rolling lawn, no wide cut of ocean view, no gilded sign. A couple of blocks from the ferry terminal, the rambling white Victorian is tucked among a cluster of cottages in North Haven’s downtown. “Take a left at the stop sign. You’ll see a church…” a woman tells me when I ask for directions. She is the first person I encounter on foot, and although it is supposedly busy in North Haven (I’m later informed that more than a single car at a four-way constitutes summer traffic), she just so happens to be Cecily, the sister of Nebo’s business manager, Hannah Pingree, and daughter of Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, Nebo’s owner. Twelve miles out to sea, in a town of just a few hundred year-round residents that blooms to about a thousand in the summertime, these kinds of coincidences faze no one when I recall them later that day.
You’ll know you’ve arrived by the flowers. Flowers of all shapes and sizes and colors bloom around the periphery of the house in that resplendent, haphazard way only achieved by careful planning and pruning. Through a small courtyard and across a sizable porch (where, in the summer, tables are reserved for walk-in diners) you will find the reception desk just inside an open doorway, feet from the open kitchen doors.
No one says “make yourself at home,” when you arrive, and I like that—although you have free reign of a bright sitting room, shady porches, and sunny decks, this is not your home. This is someplace else, someplace special, a vacation haven, but without the suspicious sheen of some hotels. People are at work here, with such a clear sense of purpose and calm you’re tempted to join them. From the kitchen you hear chopping and chatter. When I arrive there are women hanging lights on the porches, smoothing antique tablecloths over two-tops by windows, sweeping the bar. The woman who greets me, Pam Mountain, is responsible for the most beautiful, sculptural flower arrangements I’ve ever seen, and the lovely, mismatched collection of dishware and vases, too.
The rooms on the second and third floors of Nebo are an extension of the casual elegance you find on the first. There are nine rooms in total, some with private baths and others without. All of them are airy and outfitted in a combination of antiques and modern furnishings, with carefully chosen original artwork on the walls and Angela Adams rugs on the floors. Like the collection of tablecloths and vases in the dining area, each bedroom is original without being too precious. The palettes are subtle and summery, the bedding discreetly fine. From some of the bedroom windows it is possible to see the ocean in the distance, but most views are more quaint, looking out upon neighbors’ backyard gardens, picket fences leaking rugosa roses, curtains fluttering in windows. The sounds of Nebo are pots clanging and swing doors swinging, the silence of the afternoon lull. The smells are fresh linens and homemade bread and herbs—so many herbs—filling boxes on the back stairs to the kitchen.
This inn and restaurant is so self-assured and well-established (in 2013, it was listed among the top ten best food lover’s hotels in America by Bon Appétit) that it’s hard to believe that just ten years ago the house was empty of people, its future uncertain. It was a stone’s throw from Chellie Pingree’s own home at the time. She saw potential in the abandoned property and, along with three other investors, purchased the former family residence and set about transforming it into an inn. For two years the Pingree family and their friends worked around the clock, knocking down and building back up, purging, salvaging, painting, and, finally, opening for business. “It was great getting people coming out here, but then the eating options were limited…we really needed a restaurant,” Hannah tells me. And that’s where Hannah’s lifelong friend Amanda Hallowell comes in.
A North Haven native, Hallowell had returned to Maine from New York City around the time Nebo Lodge opened. Growing up with a mother who regularly prepared fresh, French-inspired food, Hallowell brought a homegrown love of cooking to Swan’s Way, a catering company run by Stacey Glassman on the mainland. Ready for her next culinary adventure, Hallowell approached Chellie with the idea of opening a restaurant at Nebo in 2007, and, out of an antiquated home kitchen, a modern-day Maine institution was born. By now, the stay experience can hardly be distinguished from the dining experience; people make the hour-and-change ferry ride for all of it—in my case, dolphin sightings from the bow of the Neal Burgess; a sugar snap pea salad of sweet onion, fennel and feta; a sunset over the Camden Hills; and a night of soft sheets and cool island air.
On the evening of my stay I pass through a bar full of servers, so many women with messy buns and strong, tan shoulders in aprons taking note: the freshly printed dinner menu is in, and it features creations like sugar-braised pork belly with fresh ricotta, medjool dates, island honey, and fleur de sel. The main course offerings are few and spectacular sounding, from the North Haven Lamb Mezze Plate to the Swordfish Gribiche with fingerlings, egg, parsley, capers, and lemon. And then there are the smells and the homey commotions coming from the kitchen. But it is a Thursday night on North Haven in the summertime and, for some locals and visitors, that means one thing: barn supper.
A few miles away down winding rural roads, Turner Farm sources almost all of Nebo’s ingredients. A historical oceanfront farm, Turner Farm was purchased by Donald Sussman, Chellie Pingree’s husband, in 2008, and since then has undergone a remarkable revival—complete with the construction of greenhouses heated by a wood-fired furnace which, in their first year, made it possible to grow leafy greens for islanders all winter long. A new barn was built on the property a few years ago. Unable to expand Nebo itself, and given the interest in the farm, Hannah and Amanda decided to offer weekly barn suppers through the summer and into September. Not surprisingly, almost every seat had been reserved before July.
After roaming the property with a lavender-infused gin cocktail and appetizer of spicy pulled-duck lettuce rolls (“add butter,” everyone tells me, and I don’t regret it), we sit down to what can only be called a feast. The food is of course amazing, but so is the company. When the summer squash tempura comes around, Sussman makes sure everyone has as much lemon aioli as their hearts desire. While indulging in endless salads and grilled rosemary-marinated pork loin presented by farm manager James Blair, I discuss North Haven’s “wave culture” with Linda Darling. As a visitor, you quickly learn that waving to folks in passing cars is mandatory. What takes longer to learn are the individuals’ particular habits—who lifts a single finger from the wheel always, and who only does so when they’re in a bad mood. I’m told that the minister, Dave Macy, who sits across from us, is a “particularly enthusiastic waver.”
Hoping to chat with the chef and general manager, Amanda Hallowell, I skip out of the barn supper early and find her back at Nebo. “Cheers, my love bug,” Hallowell says to her young daughter, who scampers off with a Shirley Temple to the nearby courtyard while her mother nestles into a couch on the front porch with a glass of white wine. It is half past eight at the end of a long summer day. With help from her hard-working staff, Hallowell has cooked some of the most delicious food I’ve ever tasted. She has made hundreds of people very happy.
Nebo takes the farm-to-fork rage of the last decade to an extreme using some of the highest quality ingredients there are and editing the menu according to what’s available at Turner Farm on that particular day, but I refuse to deny credit where credit is due. Ingredients matter, but so do chefs. “It has a lot to do with seasoning,” Hallowell says of her cooking style, about coaxing out “the fullest flavor” and being “bold with natural flavors.” She works by feel, she tells me, and adds, with a laugh, “I have a hard time writing down recipes for the staff.”
When the bugs come out, we leave the porch for Calderwood Hall, North Haven’s new market and brick-oven pizza restaurant and bar, started by Cecily Pingree, Hannah’s sister, and Jessie Hallowell, Amanda’s sister. I can’t help but get excited; there is so much story between these pairs of sisters building businesses in the place where they grew up. As young adults, they never expected to be living, working, and raising kids on North Haven, but here they are, part of a small but significant group of young men and women who have decided to make a life out here. Talk turns from cooking to New York City, where Amanda Hallowell lives for part of the year, to North Haven. Although it is hours later, I still have Hannah’s words ringing in my ears: “My whole family has a sense that you want to give back,” Hannah said to me that morning, “that you want to be involved in your community. And this is a place where you can be. You’re too involved. It’s unavoidable here. But it’s awesome. Everyone has to be to some degree if you want to make it work.”
Nebo Lodge is working. It has become a kind of heartbeat at the center of town during the summer months. On the night of my stay—like most nights in the summer—all of the rooms are booked. In the morning, I find myself in the good company of guests who look as though they slept as well as I did. With cups and saucers of rich coffee in hand, we all smile and nod. Some talk on the porch and in the dining room while others, like me, are inclined to begin the day in a quiet nook of Nebo with a bowl of fresh fruit. It is a shame to leave on the midday ferry, but I marvel at the distance I’ve traveled—how 12 miles extending into the Atlantic can feel like so many more. Even in a short visit to Nebo, I have gotten a taste for what North Haven has to offer—beauty, hospitality, unforgettable food, and community.