Serene Splendor -August 2013
by: Lindsay Pykosz
photography by: Terry Pommett
Head out to the northeast end of the island, to the little village of Wauwinet, and, even at the height of summer, you will find yourself in an oasis of calm.
Once a fishing village with access to the Atlantic on one side and Nantucket Harbor on the other, Wauwinet today is largely a community of summer homes, anchored by the luxury resort named after the hamlet, The Wauwinet.
This year The Wauwinet is celebrating its 25th anniversary under the ownership of Jill and Steve Karp, who have transformed the 138-year-old New England inn into the Relais & Châteaux property it is today with over 50 accolades and awards, including numerous appearances on Condé Nast Traveler’s Gold List, Travel + Leisure’s Best 500 Hotels, Zagat’s top Nantucket restaurant rating three years in a row and the Grand Award from Wine Spectator 16 years running. Awards aside, there’s a story to be told here that dates back more than a century.
A Nantucket History Lesson
In 1875 The Inquirer and Mirror reported that a hotel named the Wonoma House was to open on the east end of the island, named after Miss Charlotte P. Baxter’s poem “Legend of the Wauwinet,” in which Wonoma is pictured as the daughter of the Chieftain Wauwinet, and is made the heroine of the story.
Flash-forward to today to The Wauwinet: An Inn by the Sea, a name that is quite literal for its main attraction: Location, location, location. Nestled at the Head of the Harbor, between the wild Atlantic Ocean and calm waters of the harbor, it is Nantucket’s only Relais & Châteaux property and represents the epitome of luxurious, secluded accommodations and fine dining on the island. And it has a long and storied history.
One of the island’s first hotels, the building was named for Chief Wauwinet of the Wampanoag tribe that once inhabited the island. At the beginning of its history, the fare on the steamboat from Hyannis to Nantucket was only 50 cents, and in the early 1900s, a second floor was added to the building. But it wasn’t until the 1930s that taking a trip across the harbor to the remote part of the island for a shore dinner became a tradition for many families.
In fact, it became so popular that a second mode of transportation was established to shuttle guests to and from town. A little steamer called Wauwinet arrived on the island in 1877 under the command of Captain J.C. Small of New Bedford. At 47 feet long and with a vertical engine with 16 horsepower, she was built in New York with intentions of being used on the Erie Canal. With an original capacity of 80 persons, she later was changed considerably to meet demand.
“A railing will be placed around the top of the house on deck, and seats placed there for patrons,” reads the Oct. 6, 1877 issue of The Inquirer and Mirror. “A large three-fan propeller is to take the place of the one now in use, which will tend to increase the speed of the vessel. Before the season for summer travel again rolls around, we may expect to see her in fine condition for the business for which she is intended. We learn, from a reliable source, that Capt. Charles E. Smalley, master of the yacht Lillian, which has been on the route to the Head of the Harbor for two seasons past, has been tendered
the command of the Wauwinet. We hope he will accept.” In 1882, the hotel was purchased by new owners for $1,700 and reopened with a new look. The bedrooms were remodeled and refurnished, a new dining room for guests was arranged and the building was redone in its entirety. In 1934, a third floor was added, creating the building that people are most familiar with today.
“The House has ample room for sixty guests and each chamber has a full view of the harbor or ocean or moors,” a 1934 edition of The Inquirer and Mirror stated. “The House is simple still, but gracious, and adequate as a Country Inn with modern comforts and provisionings. The place has a new dignity, but it is still unpretentious. It is still unspoiled.”
In the late 19th century the hotel was bought by the Backus family. James Allan Backus and his wife Linda owned and operated it until after World War II, when their son Robert and his wife Jane took it over and ran it with their four children. In 1961 a consortium of Wauwinet homeowners bought the old hotel and held it for a few years. The hotel then went through another series of ownerships: Harriet Backus, Molly Backus Sziklas and finally Bob and Barbara Bowman.
Linda Backus Morral remembered working there as a child with her siblings Jim, Deborah and Barbara, when her parents, Robert and Jane, owned it.
“We did everything, from cleaning rooms to working the front desk. Back then there was a real sense of community in Wauwinet. Everyone who had houses out there ate at the hotel all the time. We were all like family,” said Morral, who still lives in Wauwinet today with her husband Frank. “I go by there every day, and I say ‘That’s my house’.”
Memories of those early years were celebrated during the hotel’s centennial celebration in July 1976. The doors opened to a flood of visitors from across the island who enjoyed free lunch on the beach at the Head of the Harbor, where the boat had been dropping visitors off for almost 100 years.
It was the hope back then that the building and the surrounding land would remain as it had been for the previous 100 years, and just as “unspoiled” for the next century.
A New Vision
Then came the Karps, long-time summer visitors to the island. They would drive past the hotel on their way to Great Point with their children, always joking about buying the property and making it a family business.
Karp, who had been coming to Nantucket since his college days at Boston University, fell in love with the island. He recalled stopping by the Wauwinet House for food and drinks over the years that Harriet Backus and Barbara Bowman owned it. As CEO of New England Development and a lead developer of shopping centers and mixed-use developments on the mainland, he saw potential in the run-down building.
“It was in disrepair,” he said. “It had been closed for two years when we went out to look at it.”
The Karps were originally interested not in buying a hotel, but a store for Jill to run, now that their children were getting older to give her something fun to do.
“Steve had a business meeting out here, and on the way home we talked about how the kids are getting older and as they get older, they won’t want to come down here with us. Maybe we should look at a little business for me, a little boutique on Main Street. I had it in my mind that it would be fun,” Jill said.
“I went into Maury (People Real Estate) on Main Street and said we were interested in buying a store. They said we should really look at the Wauwinet House. It had been closed for two years and if it’s closed for another year it’s going to fall down,” Steve added.
After taking a thorough look at the property, the decision to buy it was made in 1986, but the couple knew the building required more than a new paint job, and Jill started thinking of ways their family members could get involved.
“His mother is a beautiful cook, so I thought his mom could do the cooking, my dad could do the tennis. My mother would greet everyone,” Jill Karp said of their early conversations.
Eventually, however, they hired professional staff to run everything from the kitchen to housekeeping to general management.
The entire building was lifted, as there was no foundation, and two years and $3 million worth of remodeling later, the new hotel was finished. Major changes included a totally redesigned interior with larger guest rooms with private bathrooms, and a gracious dining room and more efficient kitchen. The building’s cottages were refurbished, and in some cases, rebuilt, and in 1988, it reopened with a breath of fresh air and a brand new name: The Wauwinet: An Inn by the Sea.
With 40 guest rooms – since reduced to 32 – it was the first hotel the Karps had owned and operated. The inn was decorated with antique country-pine furniture and period pieces, little nooks for reading and enjoying the views and a pathway that led straight to the beach. No two rooms were decorated the same, said Jill, who became actively involved in the interior design of the hotel and each of its guest rooms.
“I just wanted something different,” she said. “There is active and passive water, and I understood the water concept, but I wanted more ‘Nantucket cottage by the sea.’ I didn’t stick to any one design of fabric or wallpaper. Instead of putting a strip as the border, I put it on the ceiling. That was something new for a lot of people. Every armoire in the rooms was different.”
Limited in space due to the building’s historic nature, Steve Karp said they had to figure out a way for guests to store clothes, as they couldn’t install closets: thus the armoires. Jill, a former fourth-grade teacher, lined the library with popular books and autobiographies. Today, she still stocks the shelves with new books every year and notices which books are gone.
“That, I love,” she said. “That means people are enjoying them.”
The two tennis courts that are set back from the road were rebuilt, and small sailboats were added for guests to take out during their stay. Soon after opening, the Karps opened the restaurant Topper’s at The Wauwinet, named after their former dog Topper, which showcases the finest and newest tastes of the season. The formal dining room is elegant and tasteful, and features one-of-a-kind antiques, antique equestrian prints and direct access to a more casual deck and patio where breakfast, lunch and dinner are served.
Named the number-one restaurant on Nantucket by Zagat, the menu features a 25th-anniversary menu with a $75 prix fixe option that includes items like a chilled corn soup with cilantro, pickled jalapeno and smoked lime aioli; foie gras with cherries and fig paired with a glass of Domaine Huet Vouvray Le Mont Sec; a butter-poached lobster with cauliflower and mushroom purée, cauliflower two ways and shaved summer truffles; Boston brown bread with molasses; fresh blueberry parfait; and warm pieces of banana bread with crumbled walnuts, chocolate and caramel sauces and banana ice cream.
But the restaurant is just one part of this luxury hotel where amenities include a spa, private nature tours, surfcasting, a private beach and lawn lounging. When everything is put together, it creates the perfect vacation experience for a wide range of guests who walk through the doors of The Wauwinet.
“We’re situated between the Atlantic and the Head of the Harbor, so it’s all about location,” said general manager Eric Landt, who has worked at The Wauwinet for over a decade. “I think it’s very bespoke in the respect that we’re not a very large hotel. We’re 32 rooms, so you get the feeling or sense that you’re in someone’s private home. All the attention to detail, all the little furnishings, they’re all individually hand-picked. Not one room follows a cookie-cutter style hotel. Every room is different in size and color. They all have ensuite bathrooms and tubs, but every room has dormers or a different wallpaper. One room may be east-facing, another west-facing. So you’re really getting a sense that it’s a very small boutique.”
Landt described Wauwinet as “a little community” with the hotel acting as the “anchor of the village that is supported by great neighbors.” That support also comes from a dedicated staff, some of whom have been around for over 20 years, including Capt. Rob McMullen, who brings passengers back and forth from town on the Wauwinet Lady, to James Gibbs, the attentive bellman who has held his post for 23 years, always with a kind smile.
“We have a very loyal staff,” Landt said. “I think these staff members we have here, the team we have, they find what they love and they continue to do it, and it’s due largely in part to the Karps. It’s not about the job, it’s really about the family.”
The Karps also credited Khaled Hashem, managing director of Nantucket Island Resorts, which manages the their Nantucket lodging properties, for the over 70 percent return of seasonal employees.
To celebrate their silver anniversary, a handful of perks will be available for guests throughout the season, including several specially-selected $25 wines, a surprise at turndown with fun facts about The Wauwinet’s history on the first night of a stay, and a chance to buy their Woody 25 single-malt, Scotch-style whiskey that was distilled, aged and bottled on-island by Triple Eight Distillery. Topper’s will feature a Silver Cocktail Menu with commemorative specialty drinks, and the hotel’s antique Woody, a 1948 Chevy Fleetmaster station wagon, will be parked right outside of the restaurant, on display for guests and visitors to see, and also for tours of historic Sconset village on the island’s east end.
Lindsay Pykosz is a Nantucket native and a staff writer for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.