By John Grossmann
Except for about a half hour hiking some of the trails, and a blissful hour on a massage table, and, oh yes, a post-swim stint in a wood-fired sauna, I never lost sight of Sebago Lake during a recent two-day getaway to Migis Lodge. So it is for most guests at this venerable New England summer resort, which opened in 1916 as a fishing lodge called National Camps with 11 cabins named for states. New owners renamed it Migis (My’ gus) in 1924, borrowing the Abenaki Indian word for “the place to steal away to rest.” It is precisely that. And considering that many of Maine’s lakes might justifiably be called Remote or Faraway, it’s definitely a plus that Sebago is less than an hour’s drive west of Portland.
Reading on the porch of our one bedroom cottage, the clear waters of the state’s second largest lake lapped the shore only 30 yards away. Many of the weekend meals, including a traditional lobster cookout, were eaten en plein aire at water’s edge at picnic tables on a pretty point shaded by towering white pines. My wife and I kayaked. Took a cruise on the inn’s restored 1936 Chris Craft, the Tykona, Sebago’s mail boat in a former life. And I relaxed near the lodge in an Adirondack chair, repeatedly lowering my magazine to gaze between the column-like trunks of the pines to a quintessential New England tableau: blue waters, green islands in the foreground, and mountains in the distance—here, the foothills of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Sebago soothed me.
In summer, Migis Lodge fills with families, many of which have been coming for generations. Ownership of the 125-acre resort is also deeply rooted and unmistakably hands-on. The jovial chap with the St. Nick beard dishing out steamed lobsters and come dessert strawberry shortcake at Saturday night’s cookout turns out to be Tim Porta, whose parents bought the place in 1968. Porta and his wife have been in charge for 34 summers, nowadays with the help of their son Jed. “There used to be 17 inns on the lake. We’re the last full service inn,” Porta says, after setting aside his serving spoon and joining some of his guests at a picnic table.
Much at Migis remains little changed over the years. Sport coats (though no longer ties) are still required for men at dinner in the dining hall. Guests sit at the same table for each meal, with coveted spots by the windows typically reserved for families with the most tenure. The inn, like very few resorts in the land, still operates on the full American Plan. Cabin boys dutifully replenish cottage ice buckets. The array of bottles for the evening cocktail hour looks right out of Mad Men. Televisions didn’t make it into the rooms until 1985. Today, the updated, stylishly rustic rooms have flat screens, which a few tradition-minded regulars request be removed before their arrival. Migis now boasts an open-air fitness room. And a Wi-Fi umbrella keeps those-who-must connected to the outside world.
But with all meals included, three lakeside clay tennis courts, a flotilla of canoes, kayaks, rowboats, motorboats and a water-ski boat, even standup paddleboards waiting on the shore, the workaday world soon recedes. Golfers do need to head offsite a few miles, but the typical Migis guest never retrieves his or her car, except, possibly, for a rainy day pilgrimage to nearby L.L. Bean. “When they arrive,” says Porta, “they throw their car keys on the dresser and never leave.”
First timers are often a meal or two into their stay before they’re scratching their head. Where did I…? Did I get…? The resort’s 35 cottages and six rooms at the lodge lock only from the inside. Migis has no room keys. Cottage entrances are generally left open to their screen door, as homes in small towns. Idyllic? Wild blueberries can be plucked from bushes alongside some of the walking paths. Wednesday’s mid-day meal is served on a nearby island. The Tykona ferries most guests, but some chose to work up an appetite by paddling to lunch. Or swimming the mile to the island—a family tradition within a tradition for a few regularly returning clans.
After Labor Day, Migis becomes more of a couple’s retreat and a wedding venue. But in summer, it caters especially to families, many of which reserve the same week every year—and have longstanding friendships with other families that do likewise. Julie Hall, who is 78, recalls staying here with her parents and her father’s parents, who first came to Migis Lodge in 1924. And now she comes—always the last week in June—with her children and their children. That makes five generations carrying on their own Migis-inspired traditions, like wrestling on the dock and the de rigueur pre-breakfast swim. “On my mother’s 90th birthday, we had a birthday party for her at Migis,” says Hall. “She needed help, but she was determined to go for an early morning dip.
“What do I like most? Lots of things,” she says, pausing. “Matter of fact, I asked one of my grandchildren that, and he started naming things till he finally said, ‘Oh, it’s just everything.’ I think we all love the fact you park your cars on the outskirts and you don’t have any automobile traffic the whole time you’re there. I love that it is so beautiful and peaceful and there are so many trees. And it’s wonderful to be spoiled. There’s nothing to do except relax and have a good time. And the people are absolutely wonderful.
“This was the first year we were there without my husband, who died last September. The first time Tim saw me—it was at the outdoor lunchtime–he came right around and gave me a great big hug and told me how sorry he was. I don’t even know how he knew. I got a really nice note from Tim and his wife Joan and they made a contribution in my husband’s memory to a nearby camp for kids who are struggling with cancer.”
At the end of each stay, settling her bill, Hall always writes a second check—a deposit to reserve next year’s stay in the same cottages—Whippoorwill and Beach—the family’s lodging for last 13 years. That way, when her children or grandchildren ask, “What about next year?” she can say they’re already booked.
It’s not often that a wall hanging actually helps you put your finger on the spirit of a place, but a framed poster from The Maine Lakes Conservancy Institute in the bathroom of our cottage effectively did just that, implying that a Sebago Lake stay at Migis, with its 3,500 feet of shoreline, offers more than a getaway. Beneath an evocative photo appeared the words of someone who spent quite a bit of time around inland bodies of water inNew England. “A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. “It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.”
Migis Lodge, PO Box 40, South Casco, Maine 04077