Skylands, my home on Mount Desert Island, off the coast of Maine, is the perfect place for a house party. Guests can come and go easily, many can be put up as if the place were a small, luxurious hotel, and the magic of the house and its surroundings is extremely appealing. The location has been a favorite summering destination for families from Philadelphia, New York, and Boston for generations. In the late 19th century, Rockefellers, Fords, Eliots, and other illustrious American families discovered the appeal of pink-granite mountains, verdant forests, and shimmering ocean vistas in their search for natural beauty and American splendor.
My property was developed in the 1920s by Edsel Ford; his wife, Eleanor; and a spectacular team headed by Duncan Candler (a very talented New York architect) and Jens Jensen (a Prairie School landscape architect). Space, views, comfort, fresh air, and rustic luxury are the best words to describe the place where I decided to invite a group of friends to celebrate my birthday last August.
Things have changed greatly since the golden age of Mount Desert Island, when families made the long journey north by train, or horse and carriage, or steamship to the port of Bar Harbor. With trunks of belongings, horses (no cars were on the island prior to 1917), and large numbers of household staff -- cooks, maids, butlers, laundresses, coachmen, and stable hands -- entire families came and stayed two months or longer in beautiful, large summer establishments very similar to those in the Hamptons, in New York; Newport and Jamestown, Rhode Island; and Marblehead, Massachusetts. Of course, there were some big differences: for example, the vast distance from a metropolitan center, and the fact that Mount Desert Island was indeed a sparsely populated island.
Now there are scheduled flights, taxi services, easy highway access, and even buses and cruise ships from everywhere. The town of Bar Harbor grows exponentially in population during June, July, August, and September.
The big houses are much less formal and used very, very differently nowadays. But there is a desire to preserve, a holding on to some of the old traditions. I have tried hard to maintain many of them at Skylands.
I have a fraction of the staff once enjoyed by Mrs. Ford, but the house works very well, thanks in part to the fine and thoughtful architecture of Candler. Every bedroom has a copious walk-in closet, a large comfy bed, and a beautiful bathroom, and most have a fireplace. And the house is so well built that barely a sound penetrates from room to room or floor to floor. There are two tennis courts, there are kayaks and canoes for intense upper-body exertion in the ocean or lakes, there is the picnic boat for day trips or lunches or dinners on some of the outer islands, and there are walking sticks and backpacks ready for daily excursions into the mighty Acadia National Park, where 125 miles of well-designed hiking and climbing trails await intrepid and serious hikers. There is bird-watching from the shores of ponds and tarns, there are miles of wide carriage roads for driving or riding horses, and there are miles and miles of paths for cycling enthusiasts.
And the house, known as Skylands, is friendly and accommodating. The kitchen, once solely the domain of the cook staff, is now the true heart of the home: Early-morning coffee and tea are served there (the house boasts one of the earliest cappuccino machines on the island) prior to the first hike of the day. The large dining room table is laid for a later breakfast -- generally 9 o'clock, when all the guests sit down to plan or discuss the day's activities. Lunch is usually an informal affair, served alfresco or on the boat, and dinner is at 7:30 or 8 in the dining room or on one of the terraces.
For the birthday weekend, we altered this pattern a bit so that we would use more of the 62-acre property -- the stable and carriage house was the site of the first dinner, an interestingly cooked outdoor buffet, and the playhouse, where there are shuffleboard and squash courts and a pool table, was perfect for cocktails before dinner.
The weekend officially began on Friday with a lunch of cheese, fruit, and cookies. There was no set arrival time, and since people were coming from everywhere -- by car, by plane, and some by boat -- the food was set up in the butler's pantry so guests could help themselves as they arrived.
Dinner Friday night was served in the carriage house, and a long table for 30 was set in the entrance. The food, prepared by our cook staff (my dear friend Pierre Schaedelin headed the weekend effort), had been meticulously vetted and planned. On an island, one cannot leave anything to chance since supplies and variety of offerings are limited. Much of the food that night was cooked outdoors, on the grill, in a La Caja China roasting box, and in the stable kitchen.
The weather for the entire weekend was spectacular. It did not rain, it was not foggy, it was not hot or sticky or humid. But that is why, for more than a hundred years, this area has been a favorite destination for summer vacationers.
The big party was planned for Saturday evening, when my houseguests mixed with summer residents on the island, and 65 of us sat down to an alfresco dinner on the large stone terrace overlooking Seal Harbor. In Maine, it does not get dark until after 9:00, when the festive string lights were turned on, creating a cafe-type atmosphere. The food was delicious, the birthday cake spectacular, and another year of a good life was celebrated in a spot near and dear to everyone in attendance.