CAMDEN — Within seconds of us ringing the doorbell, the host appears in the form of a petite and sweet 10-year-old Chihuahua. He spots us and starts barking, but we can’t hear him through the two doors that keep out the wintry wind whipping at our backs.
“That’s Rocco,” says Sue Walser, one of the two owners at the Norumbega Inn. She smiles, shows us inside. She smells nice.
A fire is crackling in the nearby sitting parlor. Phil Crispo, the other owner and Walser’s partner, is cooking in the kitchen and aromas have swirled throughout the first floor.
From an iPad in the dining room, a Pandora station called “Michael Bublé Radio” fills the house with the Canadian singer’s jazzy croon, along with those of Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, and Norah Jones.
Dinner is at 7. Oh, and Sue wants to know: Would we like a drink right now? A Negroni? She’s never made one, but she’ll be right back with two of them.
The point is, this place is alive.
You wouldn’t have said that about the Norumbega at the start of 2013 and certainly not a few years ago. A historic house, known around this coastal town as “that stone castle,” it was built in 1886, then converted to a bed-and-breakfast in 1984. Since then, it has had its ups and downs, too many to relay here, including a protracted legal battle within the family that previously owned it.
When Walser and Crispo bought it in March, the Norumbega had been shuttered for nearly a year and a half. It had become a monolith, a grand old dame content to rest on her laurels and spook the locals. “That place is a little creepy, isn’t it?” says a shopkeeper when my beau and I tell her where we’re staying.
It’s not creepy, though. It’s sophisticated with real character and solid woodwork, which is what cast a spell on me on my first visit in 2006. I returned four years later, but something had changed. The inn was quiet, eerily so, and the hospitality was as chilly as the early spring evening. I never expected to go back.
“It was the kind of place where the eyes on the paintings would follow you from room to room,” Crispo jokes in an interview after our recent stay.
Seeking a change of scenery and career paths, he and Walser found the Norumbega in an online search of properties for sale. They had never stayed there before their initial visit, but they fell in love with it on first sight and now live on the premises.
As if transforming a black-and-white film into Technicolor, Walser and Crispo have brought the Norumbega back from the dead. They opened in late May, and with just a couple of months between purchase and reopening, they went to work fast. They replaced the bedding and towels, spruced up the rooms with different furniture, rebuilt the decks that offer pastoral views of the grounds and surrounding sea, added wireless Internet access, did extensive roof repairs, and took care of ceiling and floor damage in a room they have made into a solarium.
Resurrecting the Norumbega was a leap of faith not only in a business sense, but also on a personal level. Walser and Crispo had no prior experience as innkeepers. She comes from a financial-services background and was living in New York. Crispo, who was raised in Scotland, was an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
Although they have been together romantically for close to three years, already they talk like an old married couple about how they met. Crispo starts to tell the story and Walser interrupts him: “Tell him about the mashed potatoes, honey.”
It turns out Walser met Crispo at the Culinary Institute when she was taking a class there. He wasn’t teaching Walser’s course, but he had noticed her from across the open kitchen (and, if we’re being frank, liked how she looked in a chef jacket). When Walser’s mashed potatoes weren’t up to snuff, he casually gave her his business card and said he’d be happy to help. She texted him that night. They went on their first date a few days later, and here they are at the Norumbega: your humble (and rather humorous) hosts.
Walser and Crispo are at the heart of what makes the Norumbega so special again. Walser’s business acumen serves her well as a host and keeps things in order. Meanwhile, Crispo is a marvel in the kitchen. Do not — I repeat — do not skip the option to dine at the Norumbega. For an additional $65 per person, you’ll be treated to a five-course chef’s tasting menu that essentially comes to Crispo that morning, when he shops the local markets (including a nearby farm) and spots what’s good. Make your dinner reservation in advance, at least by noon of the day you arrive.
There’s no menu. Talking to him a few weeks later, Crispo doesn’t remember what he cooked for us on our visit — and the details are a bit fuzzy for me too; I blame the two Negronis — but it was wonderful. An appetizer of a pot-pie-type dish, hot and flaky with mushrooms and cheese, set the tone. Go easy on dessert, because breakfast is just as delicious and rich the next morning, starting with Crispo’s shortbread cookies flecked with local blueberries.
The inn sits, slightly askew if you look at it from the main road, on nearly four acres of property that’s mostly bare, save for two gazebos out back. Of the 11 rooms, there’s very little that connects them all; they each have a distinct feel. We stayed in the Versailles, a spacious room with carpeting, wallpaper mirroring the famous French palace that inspired its name, and exposed brick. The room is on the garden level, which really means the basement, but still it was quaint and gave us a panoramic glimpse of Penobscot Bay from our back patio.
The Library Suite is unlike any other guest quarters I’ve seen. It has a loft-like upstairs area filled with books, mostly of the academic variety. It looks directly down on the king-size bed, and there’s a sofa in an adjoining room.
As soon as we check out the Balmoral, however, we know where we’ll stay next time. Simple and elegant, everything is centered around the main attraction: the gorgeous view of the Penobscot, framed by tall trees. The bed and two armchairs face the bay window, and I suddenly wanted to spend the rest of my afternoon parked there with a cup of coffee (and Rocco perched on my lap).
There’s still work to be done, which Walser readily admits on a walk through the home. For starters, the decor is a mishmash of what existed before she and Crispo took over. This isn’t a grandmotherly sort of inn, and yet many of the tchotchkes give that impression. (I, for one, think a place so warm and engaging should never, ever have fake flowers in the rooms.)
They’ll get to that, and other projects, in due time. For now, Walser and Crispo have their hands full restoring an institution to its former glories.
“The truth is, we couldn’t have done this without the other,” Walser says.
To which Crispo adds, “And I wouldn’t want to.”