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Comfort in quirks and calm at a Kittery inn

Email|Print| Text size + By Ellen Albanese
Globe Staff / January 15, 2006

KITTERY, Maine -- When the wind blows, a chime on the porch of the Portsmouth Harbor Inn & Spa sends out the deep, resonant peal of a ship's bell. The nautical knell sounds just right in this sea captain's home where you can see water from most every window and the five guest rooms are named for gundalows, the shallow draft cargo ships that plied the Piscataqua River into the last century.

Built by George L. Trefethen in 1879, the inn overlooks the back channel of the Piscataqua, Portsmouth Harbor, and Badger Island. In the room we stayed in, Royal George, a cutout in an eave reveals the signature of the builder and a whimsical self-portrait.

Of course, that was then and this is now. Today, this historic building boasts Wi-Fi in all rooms, and an attached spa offers massages, manicures and pedicures, body wraps, and other services. Some 80 percent of the guests take advantage of spa services, said innkeeper Nathaniel Bowditch, who bought the property in May 2004 with his wife, Lynn. Nathaniel's background is in tourism, while Lynn describes herself as a ''recovering attorney," he said.

Two weeks before Christmas, we took advantage of the ''Sugar and Spice Winter Escape," which included a brown sugar scrub and Swedish massage for me and a hot stone massage for my husband, along with lodging and breakfast.

The inn's largest room, Royal George is tucked into the eaves on the third floor, with water views from two sides. From one window we could see the venerable Warren's Lobster House. There was a comfortable king-size bed, telephone, clock radio, and a small television with a videocassette player. We liked the mismatched but distinctive furnishings: an armoire dating from the late 1800s, an unusual low dresser with an attached file-cabinet-like piece, and a nightstand with a tray top and spooled legs. A small sitting area had two wicker chairs, a wicker table, and a floor lamp.

The bathroom was average size but felt small due to the steep eaves. It had a hair dryer, a big pedestal sink, and a deep claw-foot tub with a handheld shower extension (but no shower curtain). While the water pressure was fine in the tub faucets, it was a trickle in the sink. There was little space for toiletries and such.

We also had access to a charming second-floor sitting room with a sky-blue ceiling. It contained a guest refrigerator, corkscrews and stemware, and a well-stocked library of movies on videotape. And in the late afternoon, chocolate chip cookies, cider, tea, port, and sherry were set out in the first-floor parlor, a long, narrow room with tall, lace-curtained windows and a piano at one end and the entryway to a plant-filled sunroom at the other. Work by local artists adorns the walls.

Breakfast also was served in this parlor. We started with pink grapefruit topped with sweet meringue, followed by blueberry pancakes and sausage. It was at breakfast that we discovered butter bells, little ceramic containers that hold a small quantity of soft butter upside down over water. These ingenious devices keep butter at a spreadable room temperature without spoiling, since the water forms a seal, Lynn said, adding that she has a much larger one in the kitchen.

In the attached spa, a converted barn, rough wood beams, high ceilings, and narrow stairways create a rustic feel. The inn's homemade cookies are available in the reception area, along with coffee, tea, and spring water.

Lynn, who oversees the spa, said her aim is to create a ''neighborhood spa, a place where you don't feel when you walk in that you should have dropped 20 pounds and had your hair done before arriving." She said the key is hiring superior people, and we found the practitioners who provided our services to be warm, friendly, and professional.

The inn is within a mile of historic downtown Portsmouth, Prescott Park, and Strawbery Banke, and just 3 miles from Kittery's outlet malls. If too much sightseeing or shopping put a crick in your back, relief is close at hand.

Contact Ellen Albanese at ealbanese@globe.com.

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