SORRENTO — “The air is laden with the odor of pine, balsam and fir from the surrounding forests, which mingle with the salt breezes of the ocean and renew the vitality of all who breathe it, and gives summer sojourners a new lease on life.”
That’s how the summer resort of Sorrento was described by a late 19th century booklet.
Sorrento, as with many other coastal towns in Hancock County, was a prominent summer resort destination in the 1880s and 1890s. Those years were the subject of a presentation given by Willie Granston last week at the Sorrento Community Building.
Granston, who is a Boston University Ph.D. candidate in the history of art and architecture, is originally from Mount Desert Island, and has long studied the architectural history of the region.
The area’s association with tourism began with the development of Bar Harbor in the 1870s. This made the once sleepy Downeast coast “a mecca of land speculators.”
Between 1885 and 1890, there were more than 10 proposed summer resort colonies between Bar Harbor and Winter Harbor.
In this time of speculation — and the nonexistence of Google — it’s not surprising that the advertisements produced by land companies in the area employed rather generous language in describing what awaited potential investors.
Booklets for the Petit Manan summer hotel contained etchings of buildings still on the drawing board. Today’s Lamoine residents may be amused to know that the Lamoine and Mount Desert Land Co. described a proposed summer resort colony near present-day Lamoine Beach as “certain in becoming the foremost watering place on the American continent.”
The proposed hotel never did materialize.
Other places, such as Sorrento and Grindstone Neck, did indeed become esteemed summer destinations. Sorrento in particular was described as a respite from the “discord, strife and gay beauties of Bar Harbor.”
The previously undeveloped land at one point had 4,400 planned lots. And while only a small number of those lots were ever sold and developed, Sorrento was home to a large hotel and dozens of spectacular summer cottages, many of which remain to this day.
The summer colony in Sorrento promised a “pleasant, flannel-clad life” of forests, shoreline and fresh air to its residents. At the Hotel Sorrento, which opened in 1891 with over 100 rooms, guests could enjoy tennis, fishing or a dining experience featuring cheeses, salted mackerel, lobster patties with béchamel sauce, and roast duck. As the New York Times described it, “the busy merchant, the overworked lawyer and the perplexed statesman find rest and relaxation.”
Beginning in the early 20th century, the summer hotels and colonies waned, partly due to economic troubles. The Hotel Sorrento burned in 1906. Many cottages, not refurbished with modern amenities, were eventually torn down. By the 1920s Sorrento’s land was sold off to private developers, and it continued on as a town.
As Granston noted, though, today’s Sorrento is not unlike those resort days, the “modern bohemia, where people can have good air, good scenery, comfortable quarters and the privilege of ‘leading a flannel-shirt life.’”