Poland Spring, Maine

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A blast from the past: an old-style New England resort at old-style prices

The Inns of Poland Spring, a sprawling resort of 179 rooms (212 including the ten cottages) located in Poland Spring, Maine, some 30 miles north of Portland in a town more famous for its bottled H2O, bills itself as "the last of the vacation bargains." And with room prices beginning at $25 per person per day-including hearty all-you-can-eat breakfasts and dinners, and for another $20 a day, all-you-can-play golf -it's an intriguing boast indeed. I'd heard mixed reviews-everything from "it's the best place on earth to take a vacation" to "what a dump!" - but quickly learned that this three-inn complex attracts a clientele as varied as its reputation (though generally on the older and blue-collar side). At one end of the spectrum are guests who faithfully visit every year, like Dee and Irwin, a cheery seventysomething couple from Florida. They've been vacationing here for two weeks annually (the resort is generally open from mid-May to mid-October) for the past 22 years. When asked why they're so loyal, they rattle off reasons: the price is always right; glorious sunsets; good farm food; and the stress-free environment (something constantly touted here).

Then there are the Poland Spring "virgins" like Elizabeth and Charlie from Massachusetts, thirtysomethings I encountered playing bumper pool in the inns' game room. They were turned off by this unusual resort's quirks and house rules: no coolers allowed in the rooms; fixed meal times; simple food; and the old-fashioned, sometimes tatty decor (peeling wallpaper, worn carpets). The one thing both couples could agree on: They liked the no-one-under-18 and no-pet rules, in effect since 1978.

This no-minors edict perhaps explains why the average guest age here is about 60 during the week, although it drops considerably on weekends, when the younger set - which appears to travel in packs-arrives for a weekend away from the city and to play a few rounds of golf.

Rates, as advertised, start at just under $25 per night including two meals a day, which raises some eyebrows. "The most common question we get," remarked Cyndi Robbins, who has owned the place with her husband Mel for 30 years, "is, 'What's the catch?'"

There is none, really, as long as you're not expecting the Ritz - or even the Ramada. Guests have to bring their own towels, soap, and in-room beverage glasses, park their own cars, and carry their own bags. There's even a warning on the Web site and in the brochure that "Poland Spring Inn isn't for everyone!" How's that for truth in advertising?

Down to brass tacks

But the brochure and Web site don't prepare guests for the real thing. Situated on almost 500 acres of land, of which about 200 are in a pristine state, it's an enormous property. The size and grandeur of the main building, where guests check in, is also a pleasant surprise; with five stately columns and an expansive front veranda, it hardly fits what one would expect from a low-cost vacation spot.

The lobby resembles a hunting lodge with its wood-paneled walls and dark plaid carpet, and a huge fireplace complete with a moose head mounted above it. The check-in desk sells popcorn, sundaes, souvenirs (including T-shirts and Cyndi and Mel's Poland Spring Cookbook), and bottled water (Poland Spring brand of course, and a bargain too, at $3 for six half-liter bottles).

As for the rooms, they do have A/C, but don't expect down comforters, 300-count Egyptian cotton sheets, or even telephones (the sole pay phone is in the lobby next to a bulletin board plastered with messages for guests and requests for bridge partners). Rooms in the 82-room Maine Inn (from $39.80 per person per night, double occupancy, including two meals daily) are simply furnished with comfy beds, a dresser with a chair, a night table, two lamps, two lounge chairs - and, yes, a 13-inch TV, but black-and-white (appropriate since the decor can best be described as '60s flashback); bathrooms are private but simply furnished.

There are two other inns and ten cottages; the Victorian-style four-story Presidential Inn (from $35 per person nightly, again with two meals daily) has 64 rooms that are the complex's most recently renovated; some offer working fireplaces. The third and least-expensive component is the 33-room Motor Court Inn (from $23.80 including two meals), which has the smallest rooms of the three (some so tiny you can barely turn around without bumping into something).

The cottages (from $35, including two meals), of various sizes, are scattered over the property and can accommodate two to five couples. Maid service isn't provided, but each has a collection of books, a small kitchen (equipped with toaster, coffeemaker, refrigerator, flatware, and glasses), and some have screened-in porches.

Getting fed

Breakfast (8 a.m.-9:30 a.m.) and dinner (5 p.m.-6:30 p.m.) are included (as we've already noted), except for Friday's dinner, which is $8.95 per person plus tax. Meals are home-cooked and served buffet-style in the Maine Inn's dining room (which reminded me of my high school cafeteria), and most of the food comes from local farms, so everything's impeccably fresh. Breakfast typically consists of scrambled eggs, ham, home fries, muffins, French toast, and the like. Dinner can be anything from baked chicken or lasagna with meatballs and Italian sausage to corned beef or chicken stir-fry. Desserts (pumpkin bread, apple crisp, and chocolate pie) are usually the best things on the menu. While the food is good and plenty, it tends to be on the bland side; if you have any special dietary needs, you're out of luck. For lunch - which most guests take on the property - Melee's Delee serves such fare as lobster rolls, corned beef sandwiches, burgers, and some of the best fries I've ever had.

On the liquid front, dinner libations are limited to water, iced tea, lemonade, milk, and coffee, but from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. the Maine Inn's bar is open for business, mixing rum-and-coke specials for $1 and making a mean martini for $4.50.

Keeping busy

Although Poland Spring seems plunked in the middle of nowhere, it's not far from some engaging activities. Guests can drive to things like the city of Portland, remarkable discount outlet shopping in Freeport, the Maine Wildlife Park, the original Poland Spring House and Bottling Plant (now restored as a museum) or, right next door, the functioning Shaker Village, said to be the only remaining one of its kind in the world, still inhabited by four elderly Shakers.

There's plenty to do on-premises, too, including 18-hole championship golf (Maine's first, and reputedly the first resort course in the country). Other amenities include a putting green, four grass tennis courts, shuffleboard, three bocce courts, and an "almost Olympic-size pool." Activities such as tai chi, bingo, movies, chair massages, and tours of the property with Mel, who knows everything about everything locally, make for pleasant pastimes.

In the evenings, guests relax in Adirondack chairs on Maine Inn's porch, sucking in pine-scented fresh air and oohing and aahing at sunsets. Others indulge in spirited games of bocce (a.k.a. lawn bowling). Occasionally, music concerts are held in the gazebo; for something more lively, local bands entertain nightly in the dining hall and guests try to outdo each other boogying to country-and-western or oldies tunes. Tickets cost $10 at the door, $6.95 with a reservation.

Finally, history aficionados will love highlights such as the octagonal Maine State Building, built in 1893 as the state pavilion for the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The resort's founder, Hiram Ricker, bought it and moved it here, where it's now a museum with memorabilia on the inns, the founding family, and more. It's listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as is All Souls Chapel, dating from 1912, with its atmospheric stained-glass windows, a paneled oak ceiling, and a pipe organ.

History buffs aside, is Poland Spring for everyone? Not for those who expect everything to be sparkly new and to be waited on hand and foot. As Elizabeth, the first-timer from Massachusetts, observed, "It's a few steps up from a motel, but several steps down from a hotel resort." But for those who can enjoy what it has to offer - fresh air, good solid food and lots of it, and a host of simple but fun activities - then we say it's a great place to spend a weekend (or more) without spending a lot.

More information

Info/reservations: 207/998-4351, fax 207/998-2811, polandspringinns.com.

Season/pricing: In 2002, the inns are open from the third weekend of May through Columbus Day Weekend (May 17-October 14). There are three package plans; rates listed are per person, double occupancy, for the entire stay; two-night weekends (Fri.-Sun.) with three meals total start at $49 for a double-twin bedroom in the Motor Inn to $139 for a full suite in the Presidential Inn, Maine Inn, or Roosevelt House. Three-night holiday weekends (Fri.-Mon.) with five meals, $89 to $179. Five days midweek (Sun.-Fri.) with ten meals, $119 to $235.

Getting there: Fly to Portland (about 30 miles away) or to Boston (125 miles) and rent a car. Otherwise, driving distance is 225 miles from Montreal, 230 from Hartford, 260 from Albany, 350 from New York City, 450 from Philadelphia, 570 from Buffalo, and 580 from Washington, D.C. Amtrak has service from Boston to Portland (800/872-7245, amtrak.com). By bus it's about two hours from Boston to Portland on Vermont Transit Lines (800/552-8737, vermonttransit.com), which runs seven times a day Monday to Friday, eight times a day on weekends, for $13.75 one-way and $24.25 round-trip.

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