On Labor Day, Fond Memories of a Restorative Break From Work in Maine at the Camden Harbour Inn
The two of us have long been — shall we say — “vacation challenged.” All right, we are downright “day-off challenged,” typically finding it more pressing to get that next project done rather than to lose a day’s work to sheer pleasure. Despite the acclaimed work of our dear friend energy expert and bestselling author Tony Schwartz of The Energy Project chronicling how important it is to lead a balanced life with regular time off to “oscillate” (a Schwartz-ism) or “sharpen the saw” (a Covey-ism), it just doesn’t typically work out that way for us. We’re more likely to barrel through 12-plus-hour workdays, and occasionally spend a few days recovering after meeting a big deadline. What can we say? We love what we do.
Fortunately, on those occasions when we finally do take a few days off, we’ve discovered wonderful places that really know how to carry out an intervention – magically providing a week’s worth of relaxation and restoration in just a few days. Last year at a lunch at hosted by Relais and Chateaux at DANIEL in New York City to introduce the newest members of the organization, Andrew met the owners of the Camden Harbour Inn in Maine, who were so charming we’d kept the prospect of a New England getaway in mind ever since.
Finding a sweet spot in our schedules between deadlines, we decided it was time to make our first road trip up to Maine from Manhattan. As New Yorkers, we actually enjoy long drives with peace and quiet and a little blue-sky time for brainstorming, so six or seven hours in a car did not deter us. Best of all, we found an irresistible last-minute online bargain for our mid-week stay on the hotel’s website, so we booked a couple of nights immediately.
Though it turned out that the Inn’s Dutch owners Raymond Brunyanski and Oscar Verest were away during our stay for their own off-season R&R, we could not have been in better hands. Taking one step into the lobby after a warm greeting, our NYC-minute life slowed down to CHI’s pace: “Your massages are scheduled, your room is ready — what time would you like dinner?” The entire team at the CHI is plugged in, and every member earned our respect and affection with their gracious hospitality throughout our visit. (Oh, and as we were visiting off-season, upon check-in we were very kindly upgraded to the best available room.)
One of the things we especially love about the CHI is its design sensibility. The owners maintain the bones and charm of this 100-year-old inn while updating it with a modern design aesthetic. From your room outfitted with sleek furniture and crazy-lush accessories, you’re able to access unparalleled views of the harbo(u)r in all its splendor.
The Inn’s restaurant Natalie’s features the cooking of husband-and-wife team Chris Long and Shelby Stevens. They have serious big city chops, with Long having spent time at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago and Stevens at DANIEL in New York. The dining room is overseen by GM Bart “Look-Up-Gracious-In-The-Dictionary-And-You’ll-Find-His-Picture” van der Veldon, who spent time working in Europe and at the Fairmont Battery Wharf Hotel in Boston. Natalie’s also has a great bar and cocktail program with a separate menu if you want something more causal but just as enjoyable.
Where did the flavored butter trend begin, anyway? At Natalie’s (as at Sketch in London), the meals begins with different flavored butters accompanying the bread service. Natalie’s presents three butters and seasons them tableside with your choice of flavorings. If you are looking to cut down on your carbs, this is a trend that is going to make that even more challenging.
For dinner, we just put ourselves in the very capable kitchen’s and equally capable wine director Micah Wells’s hands (who offers 25 wines by the glass), and were rewarded with such an extraordinary off-the-menu vegetarian tasting menu that we easily count it among the best meals of our year so far.
Breakfast at Natalie’s is served with the same level of detail and care as dinner, and begins with a first course of fresh fruit and a mini-smoothie followed by an entrée. Our breakfast strategy is typically to order one savory and one sweet dish, and to trade off, so during our stay we sampled the pancakes, waffles, and — every morning — the chilequiles.
Our only problem? After two nights at the CHI, we’d had such an unexpectedly wonderful time that we literally couldn’t bear the thought of leaving — so we decided to see if we could extend our stay another night. While the room we’d been staying in during the week was booked that night (a Friday), we were shown to yet another gorgeous room on the 2nd floor that had an even better view and a deck. Score!
At the end of last year, Camden Harbour Inn’s restaurant Natalie’s was honored as the first and only restaurant in Maine to receive OpenTable’s Diners’ Choice Top 100 Best Restaurant in America Award. Based on our experience, they earned it – it’s already one of our Top 100 favorite restaurants in America, too. This place is absolutely worth a detour — and we won’t hesitate to make another six-hour drive north to pay another visit, no matter how hard we’ve been working.