NOW that tourist season is past and Christmas is upon them, innkeepers Ken and Caroline Estes are happy to be back living in their own home. For most of the year, their renovated 18th-century house lodges and feeds scores of guests. Then they and their 14-month-old daughter, Aaron, live in a 20-by-40-foot room off the kitchen.
The Esteses own and operate Summerwood Inn - or ``the Summerwood,'' as folks around here call it. On Maine's coastal Route 1, the unassuming inn/restaurant is a stone's throw from Penobscot Bay.
Here in vacationland, many residents make their primary income during the summer months, when hoards of sightseers and campers flock to this scenic state for the outdoors, L.L. Bean, and lobster.
``We needed the summer to survive this winter,'' says Mr. Estes, dressed in his chef whites. ``The bills were enormous - we spent close to $1,500 on china alone,'' he continues, referring to the start-up costs of the inn.
But this young family isn't set on squirrel economics - stocking up in order to get through the winter. They hope to make a year-round go of their fine dining and lodging endeavor, contrary to what the name ``Summerwood'' might suggest.
``We want local people as well as the away people to enjoy our place,'' Estes explains.
The Esteses were ``away people'' themselves before they settled in Searsport, a town of 250,000, known for its port and antiques shops.
They met in Colorado, when Caroline Estes, visiting from Dublin, was in the States working at a restaurant run by Mr. Estes's parents.
They married and settled in New York State while Estes went to the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park.
``That's when we used to take vacations in Maine,'' they recall.
Property values here have skyrocketed in the past five years, the Esteses note, so the chances of getting a business off the ground seemed more secure.
``We were also ready for a change,'' says Mrs. Estes in her graceful, watered-down brogue. Mr. Estes previously worked as a chef at Harrah's - the five-star, five-diamond hotel-casino in Carson City, Nev.
``It served a purpose at the time,'' he comments, ``but I worked the swing shift, and I didn't see her. I was missing her grow up!'' He points to Aaron.
``That's one of the reasons we did this,'' says Mrs. Estes. ``So we can be together.''
But in a family business such as this, ``quality time'' together isn't always easy to find.
``We haven't had a day off since April,'' Mr. Estes remarks.
``Caroline's the bookkeeper, patisserie chef, chambermaid, waitress, hostess, bartender, launderer, gofer, and housekeeper. I do all the the ordering and cooking - plus I'm the groundskeeper.
``Now things have slowed down,'' he says, pausing. ``At first I felt guilty when we weren't up until 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning!''
Still, ``it had always been a dream of ours to open up an inn and run it ourselves,'' Mrs. Esteses says.
Last April that's just what the couple did.
With the help of Mr. Estes's father, the rebuilding of the house began. After seven weeks of intensive renovation, Summerwood opened July 2.
The history behind the house is murky, but from what the Esteses have heard, the main part of the house was built in 1790.
In the 1850s, the home and accompanying 40 acres were sold for $8,000, plus $2,000 for all its contents, which put the owner into the antiques business.
In the short time it has been open, the Summerwood Inn has already earned a good reputation.
``It's nice that people recognize you when you come in,'' says Marian Fulton, a summer resident in nearby Bayside.
``We love it here - its personalized kind of service - delicious,'' says one patron. ``Where else does the chef come out to check on you?''
And, of course, Aaron, named after islands off the west coast of Ireland, is known to check on the clientele as well.
``She doesn't even know what a stranger is,'' her mother remarks.
The menu, which changes with the seasons, naturally has an emphasis on seafood. And Mrs. Estes makes all the desserts: raisin pie, cheesecake, chocolate cake, and other goodies.
In what he calls a combination American regional and classical French, Mr. Estes, like many other chefs, is particular about his cuisine.
``I use nothing from a can and do my own portioning. When food comes back, I immediately ask, `What's wrong?''' he says, a believer in ``100 percent utilization.''
``I feel, as a cook, I have social responsibility as the handler, preparer, and purchaser of food. Too much food is wasted, and I don't like to see that.''
The Esteses put high value on the concept of hard work, which in their eyes is what running your own successful business is all about.
``We both had discipline in our early lives,'' Mr. Estes explains. ``Caroline came from a Catholic family. I came from a military family. We've never gone to public schools, and we've both had regimented lives.''
``My father has always instilled `work for yourselves,''' adds Mrs. Estes, whose three sisters all have their own businesses in Europe.
And that's something that continues to run in the family.