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Chef Gina Melita reigns in the kitchen but relaxes in the Passports Pub at Pentagoet Inn, a lively Victorian with a wraparound porch in Castine, ME.

Great meals, grand visages in Castine, Maine

By Sarah Schweitzer, Globe Staff  |  July 30, 2006

CASTINE, Maine -- Lenin was following us. As we moved from the bar to a table under a fat-bladed fan, the Russian revolutionary's eyes peered out from a portrait and seemed to track our steps.

There were others : Queen Victoria, Gandhi , Sadat, Mobutu , Castro, a kaleidoscope, we would learn, of the barkeep's travels. Jack Burke, 53, a former relief worker in Asia and Africa , collected the portraits in bazaars and the occasional embassy.

"Conakry !" Burke exclaimed upon learning that my companion had been stationed in Guinea as a Peace Corps volunteer. "That's a shoot 'em up town!"

"Is Paddy's still in Freetown? The Cape Sierra still there?"

He seemed disappointed to hear that one of his favorite haunts in Sierra Leone had been shuttered -- as though its end reminded him of how long past his days of global adventure were. Hence his shrine to those memories in the Passports Pub of the Pentagöet Inn, which he co-owns with his wife, Julie Van de Graaf .

A whimsical Victorian in a town full of symmetrical Colonials and Georgians, the Pentagöet Inn has a personality of its own. It has traditional trappings , such as lace curtains, floral patterned carpet, and a manicured garden , but offers delightful twists. Jamaican workers on temporary visas turn down beds and serve breakfast. Foreign Affairs magazine is available for guests . And the bar, with its rattan furniture, lazy fans, and visages of foreign dignitaries, feels more like an expatriate hangout than a genteel inn on the Maine coast.

The Pentagöet is one of the livelier spots after dark in Castine, a wonderfully uncluttered town perched on Penobscot Bay. Both nights of our stay, the bar was crowded and the dining room filled to capacity. We snagged an 8 p.m. reservation for dinner on Saturday, the last available for a late-in-the-day request.

We were glad to have gotten it. The grilled scallops were jumbo-sized and flavorful, with a hint of anise; the slow-cooked lamb shank was tender. For dessert, we chose mango sorbet, so fresh tasting that we asked if it was made on - site. It was.

We moved to the inn's wrap around porch to drink the last of our wine , with hopes of catching Burke for the tale of his nomadic path to Castine. But he was busy repairing damage wrought by a guest's spilled red wine. His story would have to wait for morning.

We had chosen a room in the cottage behind the inn, the older of the Pentagöet's two buildings, built in 1791 as the home of the inn's first owner. The room was modest in size but felt spacious with three open windows drawing a breeze. The antique furnishings, found at auction, made the space feel neither spare nor overstuffed.

The night passed with the sounds of rustling trees and the occasional passing car on Main Street. In the morning, the clattering of the cottage's screen door (on Burke's fix-it list) provided a rude awakening for this light sleeper .

Breakfast was another lovely meal: a buffet of zucchini bread, bacon, eggs, granola with fruit and yogurt , and freshly squeezed orange juice. Burke offered us a newspaper, but dashed away before we could talk.

Still eager for his story, we found Burke behind the bar . His arms folded across the counter, he related it:

Raised in Portland, he read a National Geographic story about oil rigging , and after graduating high school, headed to Houston to become a roughneck. Oil rigging took him around the globe, including Thailand , where his tooth led him in search of a dentist. He found instead nuns working with Hmong refugees . Asked if he wanted to help, he did, and never returned to the ship.

Working with refugees under the aegis of United Nation's agencies, Burke traveled throughout Asia and Africa and collected mementos, particularly portraits. In Zaire, before it was renamed Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indian embassy workers gave him the sepia portrait of Gandhi; he found the 3-foot-tall oil painting of Lenin in a Tajikistan flea market.

Burke gave up refugee work after the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and in 2000 they bought the inn. He still travels extensively in winter , when the inn is closed. Last year, he walked from Belize City to La Ceiba in Honduras. This year, he is planning a trip to the Mideast.

"I wanted to see the world," he told us. "That's all I ever wanted."

We thought of Burke as we drove out of Castine, past the Maine Maritime Academy that sends young seamen and women to far-flung points. It seemed fitting that Burke had hung his memories in the town, giving guests at the Pentagöet something to wonder and dream about.

© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.

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