CAMDEN, Maine - Fine inns are a dime a dozen in Camden, a seaside town wrapped around a picturesque harbor with a mountain backdrop. The setting for the 1960s TV series "Peyton Place," Camden has been a tourist magnet for decades, and with the competition keen among local lodgings, the bar is high. What sets the Hartstone Inn apart are its food and, in a business renowned for reeling in and spitting out corporate refugees, the longevity and training of its owners.
Michael and Mary Jo Salmon are the ideal bed-and-breakfast team. Both were educated in the hospitality trade. They met working at a resort, Mary Jo on the management side, Michael, a Culinary Institute of America grad, in the kitchen. Since purchasing the downtown inn in 1998, they've earned a reputation for providing an elegant retreat combined with excellent fare. It's an ideal base for exploring the town's plentiful antiques and specialty shops, boutiques, and bookstores.
The Hartstone encompasses three properties, the main Victorian-style inn, the adjacent Manor House, with two suites decorated in a more contemporary fashion, and Hideaway House (previously operating as the Nathaniel Hosmer Inn), about a block away in a residential neighborhood. The latter, added to the fold this year, has French-country flair and a massage room (expected to open next month).
We booked the Arbor Suite, in the ell of the separate Manor House, but accessed through the inn's parking lot and gardens. With king-size sleigh bed, love seat, flat-screen TV, DVD, CD player, gas fireplace, and Jacuzzi bathtub, robes, soft linens, and fluffy towels, it came almost as described on the inn's website. Almost, because I inferred that the sun porch was private and part of our room. It wasn't. It was shared with another room, and getting to it required going outside.
Still, we loved the suite's feeling of privacy. It was just steps away yet removed from the in-town action, and only a driveway provided access. A water fountain gurgling behind it masked street noises, and high windows on the back wall and skylights in the beamed cathedral ceiling allowed us to draw the blinds on the front windows for even more seclusion, and still have plenty of natural light.
There are other quibbles, the biggest being that none of the room's lamps was bright enough to read by. Also, though the inn serves a nice selection of decent teas, along with decadent, house-baked cookies every afternoon, the coffeemaker in the room came with coffee only (and strangely, just one cup). Luckily I noticed that early enough to request both a second cup and tea bags for the morning. An in-room electric teapot would have been even better.
Now to the food. Michael came to Camden already having achieved notoriety as Caribbean chef of the year at a resort in Aruba, and earlier this month, he cooked at New York's Beard House by invitation. Every night, he prepares a five-course, set-menu, single-seating dinner. Advance reservations are essential for the $45 feast, which also attracts in-the-know locals. As advised, we made reservations when booking our room.
Tables aren't assigned, and we chose one in the dining room as opposed to the more crowded porch. The meal began with an appetizer of honey-seared duck breast with peppered papaya and a walnut-honey dressing that left us wanting more, despite the ample portion. Next came cream of carrot soup with nutmeg croutons and dill cream, which was sublime. A blueberry sorbet provided a brief respite and a chance to chill the taste buds. The night's entree, haddock Oscar, with Maine crabmeat and grilled asparagus served with wild rice pilaf, was perfectly cooked and accompanied by grilled red peppers, haricot verts, and carrots. Although determined to only sample my dessert, the Grand Marnier souffle with orange crème Anglaise proved irresistible. We waddled out of the dining room and walked the quiet streets and did some window-shopping before returning to our stylish retreat.
We generally eat breakfast early, but after the previous night's indulgence, we appreciated that the first seating wasn't until 8:30. On this morning, we experienced a version of "life's too short, eat dessert first." The first course, zucchini-walnut bread sandwiching vanilla pastry cream and topped with a mango-and-raspberry yogurt with citrus curd, melon, and star anise, could have been a meal in itself, but it was the appetizer for cranberry-crunch French toast with bananas accompanied by Michael's house-made pork sausage wrapped in bacon. Sigh. One doesn't go hungry at the Hartstone Inn.
Those left salivating for more can register for one of the inn's Fun for Foodies packages, ranging from a day with a local cheesemaker or pastry chef to cooking classes and wine dinners.
Hilary Nangle, a freelance writer in Waldoboro, Maine, can be reached at her website, HilaryNangle.com.