Pennie and Bob Beach had unique childhoods growing up on their family’s lodging property at the end of the road on Lake Champlain in Vermont. Summers meant finding a new set of friends each week as guests cycled on and off of the property, many returning year after year. Today, the two siblings and fourth-generation hosts of Basin Harbor still welcome back guests—now longtime friends—they knew in those early days. Just as they have sustained these relationships over the years, Pennie and Bob Beach have preserved the authenticity and history of Basin Harbor and its 700 acres of land. Historic Hotels of America recently recognized the family as 2018 Legendary Family Historic Hoteliers of the Year, including Basin Harbor’s Food and Beverage Director, Sarah Morris, who represents the fifth generation of hosts.
While the Beach family’s management of Basin Harbor dates back to 1886—when great Aunt Ardelia had a vision for a farm with a lodge that would board city folk—the history of the property stretches back much further. Bob recalls how, as a child, he and his grandfather would hunt for arrowheads on the land. “I got my early love of history from him,” he explains. Basin Harbor’s first inn started in 1790, many years after Samuel de Champlain explored the region in 1609. “There are 300 shipwrecks sitting on the bottom of Lake Champlain representing all these various time periods,” Bob says. “Our history is so rich and deep—not only our own but the area between Vermont and New York State.”
Even as the world around it shifted dramatically—reshaped by revolution, war, and industrialization—Basin Harbor did not change significantly. Aside from the steps the family has taken to keep up the property and modernize it with amenities like WiFi, Pennie says that it remains much the same from her earliest memories. “Part of its attraction is that it doesn’t really change at all,” she explains. “We have guests that come back year after year—they’re so invested in the property. They don’t really want it to change. They come here because it’s very low key. If you want to unplug, you can unplug. They open the door when they get here and their kids swarm out and play with their friends. Kids can be kids again.”
Those are the traditions that make Basin Harbor what it is and keep guests returning each season, Pennie says—“Active tranquility. Time to play. Time to be still. Time to celebrate the good things in life.”
“It’s a real Vermont experience,” Bob adds. “We don’t take nature for granted. You drive six miles from the nearest town to get out here. We’re at the end of the road, you’re right at the lake, you’re looking across at this beautiful vista. We have 25,000 flowers that we put in the ground every year. We’re surrounded by farmland—the sense of space is very great. Even if we’re full, you never feel impacted by an overabundance of people.”
“We feel that the longer we can keep it the way it is, the more special it will become.”
Pennie Beach, Fourth Generation Host, Basin Harbor
When asked how they balance modernizing the property while preserving its personality and celebrating its history, Pennie points to Basin Harbor’s dedicated staff. “We have about 35 people who work here all year round, and then we have 270 or so who come in the summertime. Everybody who’s here is part of the Basin Harbor family. We have a lot of staff who have worked here a long time and they know the guests and the guests know them,” she explains. For example, after check-in, many guests mention that they plan to go find and say “hello” to Jerry Ashline, Basin Harbor’s repairs and maintenance lead. “Imagine going to a Four Seasons and saying, ‘I’ve got to go see the maintenance head because he makes a difference in my experience,’” Pennie adds.
While most staff come back each summer and even with a seasonal return rate of 50 to 60 percent, finding the right employees remains an ongoing challenge for the business. “In Vermont where we are, we’re at the lowest unemployment rate since 1976. It’s 2.4 percent. Staffing is probably our biggest hurdle,” Bob says.
Even with these strains, the future looks bright for Basin Harbor and the generations to come who have yet to experience the unique property for themselves. “We feel that the longer we can keep it the way it is, the more special it will become,” Pennie says. “There used to be lots and lots of family hoteliers, particularly in New England. As time has gone along, there are fewer and fewer of them for business reasons and others.”
“We just feel really fortunate that we’re here doing this,” she continued. “It gives us a very wonderful, warm spot in our heart to be doing what we’re doing and knowing all the people who have gone before us, and, hopefully, will come after us on the other end, too.”
There are many beautiful places in the world, Bob says, and Basin Harbor certainly ranks among them. He never grows tired of the view or the sunsets to the west behind the rising peaks of the Adirondacks. “We’re lucky and we love to share it,” Bob adds. “We’re really just stewards of the land. We’re caretakers of a great property.”