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Camden inn maintains grand old aspirations

Norumbega was built in 1886, the Camden castle of a Weld farm boy grown successful. The inn's common room, left, welcomes warmly. Norumbega was built in 1886, the Camden castle of a Weld farm boy grown successful. The inn's common room, left, welcomes warmly. (PHOTOS BY FRED FIELD/FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
Email|Print| Text size + By Sarah Schweitzer
Globe Staff / January 28, 2007

CAMDEN, Maine -- With its stone facade, midnight-blue trim, and towering turret, the Norumbega Inn has the imposing appearance of a medieval castle, where a king might have plotted the takeover of a neighboring country and the start of an empire.

No doubt, the Norumbega's designer and first owner, Joseph Barker Stearns, intended to make a splash with his home perched high above Penobscot Bay. The farmboy-turned-wealthy-inventor had toured Europe and taken close notice of its castles. He came away with grand ideas for a home on the coast of his native Maine. While others were building big and boldly in Camden -- the "new Newport," as it was known in the late 19th century -- white clapboard and symmetry still dominated the architectural landscape. Stearns departed tradition with hulking stone and jaunty angles.

As if to underscore his point, Stearns chose a worthy name for his mansion, Norumbega, after the mythical New World city where homes were said to have pillars of gold and natives carried quarts of pearls on their heads.

Today, the Norumbega's reputation still precedes it. As my friend Ami and I pulled into Camden for our January weekend stay , we stopped to ask a passerby for directions. "Oh, you mean the castle?" he asked.

It is a place that is at once grand and creaky, studiously proper and idiosyncratic, starting with its abundance of nooks and alcoves. Take, for example, the half landing, where cushioned window seats front a fireplace and paneled doors can be pulled to close the area off from peering eyes, giving the space it s name: the courting corner.

There are touches of artistry throughout the house, such as the golden oak gargoyles adorning the music room's fireplace, carved by craftsmen recruited from Europe.

The Norumbega has just 13 guest rooms, but it is sprawling. Generously, a good deal of space is common, including five downstairs rooms. The shared areas create a convivial spirit among guests: Shortly after our arrival, a couple invited us to join their improvised game of backgammon in the library, a rounded room that fills out the turret.

The setting was unexpectedly cozy. As the wind howled against the stone walls, sconces threw warm light, heat pumped generously, and a dining room sideboard remained stocked with hot beverages and inn-made cookies. We enjoyed the airy chocolate-chocolate chip confections with orange spice tea while trying to recall the rules of backgammon.

We might have stayed put all night, but the Norumbega does not serve dinner. So we bundled against the dipping temperatures and made the roughly half - mile trek into town along a boulevard of pristinely kept houses. We had reservations at the Francine Bistro, and the trip was worth it, especially for the grilled lamb with golden raisin polenta. The wind off Camden Harbor was fierce, however, and by the time we arrived back at the Norumbega, our thoughts had turned back to warmth and comfort.

Sadly, the inn's fireplaces, including the one in our room, were not working. (A number are being converted from wood to gas and others are undergoing repairs, expected to be completed this month.) Hot cocoa sufficed and we settled in once again, this time in the music room, where a scrapbook offered more of the inn's history .

Photos showed that the Norumbega remains remarkably intact from its early years, though many of its original 25 acres have been parceled out, including its waterfront. Stearns, who made his money through the invention of the duplex telegraph, a device that allowed messages to be sent simultaneously, paid $100,000 for its construction in 1886. He lived there until his death at 64 in 1895.

The house remained a private residence until 1984, when then-owner Hodding Carter III, a State Department spokesman in the Carter administration, sold it to a couple who converted it to a bed-and-breakfast. In 1987, the Keatinge family purchased the home, and today it is held in trust for their son, Kent Hammond Keatinge, who is responsible for much of the Norumbega's decor.

Our room , the Warwick, was a classically appointed space, awash in pastels. The carpet was light blue, the drapes pink and creme, and the wallpaper a flourish of blooms. The furniture was a mix of American and European antiques. Come morning, bay windows offered a water view that stretched far and wide, despite an overhang of clouds.

Breakfast is served from 8 to 9:30 and offered good reason to rise. Courses arrive in unhurried succession in the solarium, which has water views, a slanted ceiling, and six tables. First up was fruit and homemade granola, a mix of flax seeds, oats, raisins, coconut, and olive oil. (Karen Young, the inn's chef, explained that the oil provides the light but earthy flavor.) Next up were blueberry muffins, with more blueberries than batter, and, finally, gingerbread pancakes with a wedge of orange.

The evening's rain had turned to snow, and after breakfast we strolled the inn's three acres, which had been transformed by a coating of white. When we returned, the other guests had departed. We knew we ought to be going, too, but we helped ourselves to one more cup of tea.

I thought about Stearns's trajectory from farm boy to estate owner. I imagined him sitting in his music room surveying all that was his to enjoy. And now, his castle was ours, shared only with the wind and the snow whirling just outside.

Contact Sarah Schweitzer at schweitzer@globe.com.

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