Every summer brings a parade of traffic along Route 1 in Maine as travelers press onwards to the goal of so many coastal vacations, Acadia National Park. The park is spectacular, but the Bar Harbor area can also become very crowded in the summer’s heat.
Few visitors turn off that busy road and drive down one of the narrow peninsulas between Brunswick and Camden, the area known as Midcoast Maine. The hallmarks of these less-discovered parts of the coast include saltwater farms, lobsterman’s cottages and the shingled summer residences of the well-to-do. There is magic to be found driving these narrow, twisting byroads that offer glimpses of Maine’s famous rock-bound coast and rocky islets battered by the waves of the Atlantic Ocean. They’re a world away from the traffic humming steadily along Route 1.
The most famous of these roads lead to the buzzing summer destination of Boothbay Harbor. Yet others, like the one that crosses a bridge over to Westport Island, are truly sleepy, much less traveled and a bit of a local secret. That’s where you’ll find The Squire Tarbox Inn, whose origins date back to 1763.
The inn offers a design story as well as a travel story. Houston-based interior designer Lisa Dalton and her business partner, Michelle Adams, bought the inn from its previous owners in 2018 and transformed it into an 11-room retreat.
The Inn is a long, connected Maine farmstead and had been a restaurant and inn for years before they purchased it. It’s also on the National Register of Historic Places.
Dalton, who has vacationed in nearby Boothbay Harbor for years, had a strong and clear vision of her version of a coastal Maine retreat.
“It was very “Ye Olde” so we removed all of the wallpaper, opened up walls, remodeled every bathroom and got rid of most of the furnishings,” Dalton said.
She eschewed coastal clichés like lobster buoys and shells and created a sensitive, stylized version of an older century. Beams are exposed, distressed walls are preserved, and the original wide floorboards and wavy glass windows transmit a strong sense of the past. Bathrooms are modern. Coastal Maine was long a place where you could open a window and get a cool breeze in summer but in a changing climate, the state-of-the-art air conditioning during a recent hot spell was more than welcome.
The Squire Tarbox is a minimalist’s delight yet it always offers something for the eye to treasure. Such as a preserved hornet’s nest the size of a rugby ball, a cowhide-covered chest of drawers, a collection of Majolica plates or vintage baker’s paddles used as sculptural ornaments. Dalton has the vision of a set director and the color palette of a seasoned painter.
During a recent stay, it felt like I was on a film set for a rural period drama or maybe an Ingmar Bergman movie on an island off the coast of Sweden.
The barn was built in the 1820s and Dalton has altered the interior to accommodate events and weddings. The Inn attracts solo travelers and couples who are clearly enjoying their privacy. It is also very dog-friendly, and while we were there, new canine friendships were constantly being struck.
The dining room has the charm and feel of an English coaching inn. While it’s breakfast-only at the moment, a restaurant will open here in October, which will be a welcome alternative to driving to nearby Wiscasset, Boothbay or Damariscotta for dinner.
The Squire Tarbox is profoundly quiet, a major attraction point. You can hear footsteps crunching on a gravel path outside your window and the occasional passing car or lobsterman’s truck. That’s about it. There is terrific Wi-Fi, but cell reception is in and out, while the lone television, situated in the corner of a sitting room, stayed dark when we visited. You don’t visit the 18th century to stay on top of every passing scandal and news byte.
A respite here is about slow travel, taking a cup of coffee and wandering around the rolling 12-acre grounds through the manicured gardens and across the fields to woods that end in a salt marsh, where blue herons and egrets are frequently seen. It’s the kind of idyll that attracted the organizers of the legendary Secret Supper events that avid foodies follow around the country. Last May, Squire Tarbox hosted one prepared by Chef Damian Sansonetti of Chaval in Portland, Maine.
The Inn is a short drive from away from kayak rentals, lobster shacks like Five Islands, the busy resort town of Boothbay, and the sands of Popham Beach. But at day’s end, after rambling around the peninsulas of Midcoast Maine, it was a treat to head down the wooded road to the Squire Tarbox, to hear the crickets and little else, and to sink into a deep slumber in a period house far removed from the cares of the 21st century.
Visit The Squire Tarbox Inn.