The Long Weekend

First Look: Cliff House, Maine

In a place like Maine where nature reigns supreme, creating a design-minded retreat on par with its jaw-dropping natural setting is no easy feat. Cliff House, however, is one of those rare resorts that is mindfully engineered to frame the environment and somehow makes it even more magnificent. Last August, the 150-year-old Cliff House unveiled a stunning reincarnation that steps decidedly into the 21st century with stylish interiors, a host of amenities and a sustainable ethos – resulting in a compelling fusion of natural landscape and human ingenuity.

Commandeering an impressive perch on Bald Head Cliff, Cliff House was the vision of the enterprising Elsie Jane Weare, a captain’s wife and mother of seven, who traveled to Maine on the Boston-Maine Railroad in 1866 and realized the location's potential for a summer resort. The setting was certainly dramatic: 70 acres of panoramic oceanfront aloft a 72-foot sheet of rock that plunged precariously into the ocean below. After six years of construction, Cliff House debuted in 1872 and its repute as a seaside retreat for the refined spread quickly. The resort enjoyed decades of success until World War II when the US Army took over the property as a stationed look out for enemy ships. Although it was re-opened by the Weares and updated significantly throughout the 20th century, the grande dame never fully returned to her former glory. Destination Hotels, a hotel group that seeks properties manifesting a distinct sense of place, similarly saw the promise that Elsie Weare recognized almost 150 years earlier. With sustainable practices embedded in the construction and Vermont-based design firm TruexCollins at the helm, Cliff House was reduced to its bones in late 2015 and rebuilt, tastefully transformed from an aging behemoth into the pinnacle of contemporary seaside luxury.Related: Indagare's Guide to Kennebunkport, Maine
Throughout the architecture and interior design of Cliff House, a pervasive sense of soothing comfort is confronted by the powerful majesty of nature. The modern, grey-shingled buildings lined with glass walls wend around the rim of the boomerang-shaped cliff. Strict zoning laws today would have prevented construction so close to the edge, but because the 19th-century foundation was already in place, the resort is afforded a spectacular perch that seems to float above the Atlantic. This focus on the interplay of sea and sky is immediately illuminated upon entering the lobby: one’s gaze is swept outwards to the double-height glass windows that act like the transparent hull of a ship.Related: Melissa's Picks: Stylish Summer Escapes
The heartbeat of the property is the lobby and Tidesmark Lounge, the grand common spaces that overlook the ocean. The décor evokes a sophisticated and convivial ambiance, boasting roaring fireplaces, leather arm chairs and teakwood bookshelves brimming with weathered titles, bulbed sea-glass bowls and lantern lighting.  Cozy nooks abound in which to read a book, play a game of backgammon, enjoy a cocktail or listen to live music performances by local groups. Despite the grand scale, these curated interiors manage to feel intimate and create a finespun sense of fellowship among guests. 
The maritime-chic motif is further stitched thoughtfully into the 226 hotel rooms and suites, which achieve the perfect equilibrium of airy and cozy. The smart design hints slightly Scandinavian with a neutral color palette, blonde wood furnishings, TempurPedic beds and soft textiles balanced with nautical accents. Each of the breezy cocoon-like accommodations (some of which boast two, three or four bedrooms) open onto a spacious balcony that either faces the endless vista of ocean or coastline. With a setting so close to the water, guests are lulled to sleep by the distinct sound of waves buffeting the cliff.Related: New England Destination Report
Maine's 3,500 miles of coastline (more than California!) produce a diverse bounty of fresh seafood, and Cliff House's dining venues celebrate the local abundance. The Tiller, the relaxed but refined main dining room, is surrounded by floor-to-ceiling glass windows that overlook the waves that crash against the Bald Head massif. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the sophisticated comfort cuisine evolves with the seasons, tides and harvests. A dinner here may begin with char-broiled local oysters with cranberry-horseradish sauce or a farmers' picnic board with pickled vegetables and hummus, then entrees like boiled Maine lobster with mashed potatoes or crispy skin native salmon with mushroom quinoa follow. For dessert, guests can head to the oceanfront community fire pit and roast s’mores over the blaze. For a more casual lunchtime meal, Nubbs Lobster Shack, an open-air restaurant with alfresco picnic tables, offers classics like fresh lobster rolls, steamed whole lobster and crab cakes, along with craft beers and specialty cocktails. 

Although the striking scenery can certainly calm one into quiet bliss, the resort has an endless menu of activities. Active types can hike on nearby scenic trails, kayak or embark on boat excursions, while wellness seekers can exercise at the hotel’s state-of-the-art fitness center or indulge in a treatment at the hotel’s spa. The exquisite 9,000-square-foot spa features products from Naturopathica and Red Flower and offers sea-inspired massages, facials and body scrubs. Spa guests can relax before or after a treatment in the serene sanctuary space seemingly cantilevered over the crashing waves.

The property has two swimming pools: an indoor pool with lanes and a free-form pool overlooking beautifully landscaped terraces that level down to the cliff's edge. An adjacent flat lawn is set up with games like corn hole and spike ball. The spacious outdoor hot tub is kept heated year-round, and there are plans to build a second swimming pool geared towards families in the addition that will be completed by the end of 2017. Each day, there is a packed schedule of activities, which may include workout classes, art and crafts in the kids club, movie nights, guided hikes and live music. Cliff House is located across the road from the Cape Neddick Golf Club, where the concierge can arrange tee times, and tennis courts can be organized in nearby York. The hotel shuttles guests to nearby sandy beaches in Ogunquit with all the necessary accoutrements like towels, beach chairs and umbrellas. Art lovers should not miss the Ogunquit Museum of American Art, a wonderful, intimate museum just a few minutes’ drive from the hotel where the works of Winslow Homer, John Marin and Marsden Hartley are on display as well as a sculpture garden that extends along an oceanfront bluff (543 Shore Rd).

Published onAugust 8, 2017

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