Take a boat to experience the dream of Maine island life.
Late afternoon on the graceful porch of the Chebeague Island Inn encompasses all one imagines Maine to be. Farmer Chuck Varney of Second Wind Farm, in rubber boots and jeans held up with suspenders, leans on the rail, talking with a guest from San Francisco about woodworking, as lobsterman Mike Robinson walks by to join his brother at the bar. General manager Caitlin Prentice, walkie-talkie in hand, is arranging for a launch to pick up guests who have arrived by boat. Server Sean Fitzpatrick descends the steps, balancing a tray full of blueberry lemonade cocktails, and heads for a group of guests playing cornhole on the sweeping lawn. And inside the screened-in dining area, tables are being set for dinner. It’s an enchanting, idyllic snapshot with a mixture of visitors and locals, who are in no hurry to be anywhere else.
On Chebeague Island, it can feel as if time stands still. Everyone waves a hand in passing, whether on foot, bicycle, or vintage pickup. The island is just a short ride from Portland, either by Casco Bay Lines ferry or islander Kevin Wentworth’s private water taxi, named The Result. “I love people and I love running boats,” says Wentworth, as he helps us on board. “This is the result of a dream to have my own business.” He’s a confident, enthusiastic captain, and our trip to the island is scenic and comfortable. “‘Relax, we’ve got this,’ is our slogan,” Wentworth says. “It’s all about making your trip easy, taking any stress out of it.”
As we arrive at the dock, kids are taking turns jumping into the chilly water and putting around in dinghies. In full view of the water, the yellow inn is set grandly on the hill, just beyond the Great Chebeague Golf Club, a nine- hole course that’s much more casual than its name implies. The inn was rebuilt in the 1920s, after a fire razed the original structure, and very much retains the feel of that era. The spacious, paneled living room, with its stone fireplace, boasts tasteful, comfortable seating. On that captivating porch, oversized wicker furnishings invite lingering, and the view of Casco Bay is phenomenal, especially late in the day when the sun starts its descent. The peace and quiet, the tables set on the lawn under strung lights, and the fire pit for s’mores add up to offer a welcome respite from a hurried and harried life. Service is graciously old-fashioned too, with all the details attended to by a welcoming staff. They hail from seven different countries, Prentice tells me. “This is more than a job for them,” she says. “It’s their whole summer and it makes for a very tight-knit group.” Dining room manager Alexandra Andronesi is here for her third summer, far from her home in Romania. “Guests say there’s something about the vibe here,” she says. “It gets attached to your soul. You just have to come here and feel it. Guests always say to me, ‘I can’t remember the last time I sat and did nothing.’”
Executive chef Matt Ginn has returned for his second season overseeing the inn’s kitchen. Ginn, who also runs Evo Kitchen and Bar in Portland (owned by Prentice Hospitality, as is the inn), spends a few days each week out on the island. “This is a far cry from za’atar and tahini,” he says, referring to the eastern Mediterranean menu at Evo. “It’s very refreshing for me to come out here and cook a cheeseburger or a Caesar salad very well. The food here isn’t precious, but it’s all from scratch, even the bread. There’s a lot of integrity in the food.” The menu is focused on New England cuisine with a contemporary twist. Lobster, provided by island lobstermen who deliver it to the back door in tote bags, is available at all times of day, from lobster benedict at breakfast to a delicate and decadent butter-poached lobster dinner. There’s lobster bisque as well as lobster sliders on house-made biscuits to enjoy with cocktails on the porch. Produce comes from the inn’s garden, and is dictated by micro-seasons. Today’s offering of seared salmon with strawberries will evolve to make use of other berries as they ripen. “We’ll change the menu at least five or six times between now and Columbus Day,” says Ginn. I’m hoping the deconstructed hake “chowder” stays on, as well as the tender goat cheese gnudi in a luxurious roasted red pepper sauce. The chef also relies on Farmer Chuck’s island garden, especially later in the season for root vegetables and beans. He and chef de cuisine Addie Davis artfully use the inn’s produce in gorgeously arranged plates, like the asparagus salad with mint and preserved lemon. When Ginn is off the island, Davis takes over the helm, carrying on the inn’s vision of refined dining and genial hospitality.
Signature cocktails are light and refreshing libations with fresh ingredients, created especially with summer in mind. Before dinner, I sip on the Tea Minus, a delightful blend of Pimm’s, Stoli Razberi, blueberry simple syrup, and lemon juice. Favorite local beers are available too, as is a short but well-curated list of wines by the glass. If you’re harboring a fantasy about Maine island life, you might find it here at the Chebeague Island Inn. The Sunday jazz brunch is a particularly pleasant experience, but really, any time you’re looking to slow down the day, enjoy the company, and relish the best of Maine, pull up a seat on the porch.