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Light, space, sea -- and away from it all in Maine

Email|Print| Text size + By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / March 14, 2004

Cape Elizabeth, Maine—Some romantic souls believe that the Inn by the Sea, built in the '80s and a youngster among New England lodgings, is already haunted. They talk about an empty elevator that goes up and down and table settings that are mysteriously rearranged overnight. Guests have even reported awakening to find the imprint of a visitor on the foot of the bed.

Maybe the gray shingles, sloping rooflines, and low profile fooled the ghost: The inn looks as if it could have been squatting on the bluff above the marshes since Roosevelt was president. Teddy Roosevelt.

This getaway south of Portland was hopping when we checked in on a Friday night. The fellow behind us balanced a Samsonite suitcase in one hand and a suitcase of Bud in the other. We figured he was planning to stash the brewskies in the fridge of a two-level suite with a kitchen.

We lacked such foresight, though we'd booked the same type of accommodation, with a well-equipped galley kitchen, complete with a lobster pot. The 850-square-foot suite was larger than our Cambridge condo and the combination living/dining room felt like the Great Hall. Out its two-story windows was a jaw-dropping view of marshlands and, in the distance, the ocean. The soaring space felt like a cross between a business hotel and a golf-course condo, but we made ourselves at home by sprawling on the long couch and lounge chair to channel-surf the immense TV stuffed into an armoire across the room.

Upstairs, our loft bedroom was furnished with a king-size bed, dresser, and another TV. The bathroom was a two-room affair, one with a deep soaking tub and a large vanity and sink, the other with a shower stall and tiny low-flow toilet. Soaps and other toiletries were carefully labeled as ''environmentally sensitive amenities." (To the inn's credit, the message reminding guests to reuse towels ''to save the planet's resources" was absent.)

Our package included dinner in the Audubon Room, so named because framed original Audubon prints from the Elephant Folio cover the walls in the lobby, hallways, and dining room. (If the prints pique your interest in local bird life, you can borrow binoculars and a field guide from the front desk.)

The restaurant is cozy by night, bright and airy by day, thanks to two walls of windows that overlook the grounds and open to a deck for summer dining. The menu reads like New American light, but even entrees tend to be sweet and creamy. The lobster bisque was more like newburg sauce with dots of lobster, and the lamb chops (cooked rare, as ordered) swam in an unfortunate pool of heavy cream doped with curry powder. Still, the polished service was friendly and the room was full of good vibes from a birthday group and a couple celebrating an anniversary. Asked how they liked the meal, the woman told the waiter, ''This is even better than our wedding dinner here!"

The wine cellar is a refrigerated, glass-fronted affair that holds 360 bottles at 56 degrees. We ordered a modest wine from a good list that ranged from $25 bottles of California chardonnays and merlots to $200 Opus One with a few European options in between. Our waiter hustled our red Cote du Rhone to the bottle warmer in the kitchen, confessing, ''Before I worked here, I didn't even know red wine was supposed to be served warm." Two robust glasses remained at the end of the meal and we asked if we could take them to our room. ''By all means!" he said.

Saturday couldn't decide between rain and snow, but the gray weather was fine for poking around the shops of Portland's Old Port, only a 15-minute drive away. By the time we returned, the storm had made up its mind, sliding from rain to sleet to snow. Dark came on in a rush, and we could hear the foghorns of big ships moving safely through the channel, going in and out of South Portland's industrial docks.

The Charles wasn't so lucky. Back in 1807, the schooner was sailing from Boston to Portland when it struck a ledge off Cape Elizabeth. Sixteen of the 22 aboard perished, among them Lydia Carver, 23, whose body was found next to a trunk containing the wedding dress she had purchased in Boston. Some believers think she haunts the inn, while others claim they have seen the ''Spirit Bride of Cape Elizabeth" walking the beach in white.

About five inches of snow fell overnight and after some eggs and French toast, we shuffled through the fluff on the boardwalk to Crescent Beach, where exuberant dogs were dashing into the surf. (The inn has several rooms reserved for guests with pets.) Before we left, we followed footprints in the snow to the old cemetery where many of the shipwreck victims are buried. We weren't the first to visit Lydia Carver's grave that morning. It was as close as we got to seeing her.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon are freelance writers in Cambridge.

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