I accept the fact that I might be in the minority on this topic, but I personally feel the condominium was the single worst thing to happen to New England’s ski culture. Sure, condos were a convenient, and often less expensive, option to buying a second home in ski country. But what was lost was a slice of the “community,” the shared experience that makes skiing so special.
But I’ve found the antidote — the Hostel of Maine. Thanks to Melanie and Justin Steele, a young couple (30 and 31, respectively) who opened the hostel in 2017, skiers in western Maine can go traipsing down Memory Lane to enjoy an old-school ski experience. Though she’s literally half my age, Melanie Steele and I share a kindred spirit.
“I remember being interested in small, family-style hospitality from a young age,” she said. “All I can really attribute that to was growing up spending weekends and vacations here at Sugarloaf, where our family ski home always had a rotating door of guests coming to stay, piling into the bunk room, and creating meals from whatever got picked up along the way. They’re some of my fondest memories, trying to create a space and environment with a genuine sense of welcome for our guests.”
The hostel idea really took root in 2012, after Justin returned from his travels abroad, determined to replicate the accommodations he had enjoyed in Europe.
“Justin’s definitely inspired the idea of a hostel specifically from his experience traveling in Europe,” said Melanie. “When we met, I had never been in a hostel before and admittedly had all of the preconceived notions many others do — unclean, more of a party environment.”
That’s not what Justin found overseas, though he acknowledges that the clientele was different than the couple has found at Hostel of Maine.
“A majority of European-style hostels we’ve stayed at focused on younger adults, while we believe there is a massive benefit to having a more broadly appealing space that serves couples, solo adventurers, families and groups of friends,” said Justin. “It helps people connect in interesting ways, and helps us be a great option for people regardless of where their life takes them over time.”
The beautiful, solid 7,000-plus square foot log cabin-style lodge has a large common area with a fireplace, sumptuous furnishings and plenty of natural light. The idea is to encourage people to gather, and celebrate the shared experience that skiing once cultivated.
“You enter into the great room that acts as the common space where guests socialize and relax,” said Melanie. “We have no television, just lots of books and games, and usually some music in the background. So it’s an easy place to hang out and meet folks, or just put your feet up.”
Asked what the hostel’s “strongest elements” were, Justin replied: “Our common space, and a focus on an enjoyable and warm environment. We generally have some nice music going in the great room, and guests have access to a dining room and kitchenette where they can prepare their own food at any time, in addition to the breakfast we serve.”
“We’re also directly on the Sugarloaf shuttle route, which allows super easy access to the mountain and local establishments without the fuss of getting into a cold car, finding parking and then needing to put your boots and gear on and store the rest somewhere,” he said. “Just finish your coffee and walk out the door with your skis or board in hand.”
Situated just two miles from Sugarloaf Resort in Maine, the hostel (called H.O.ME … get it?) was built alongside the area’s spectacular cross-country and mountain biking trails. More importantly, the property is breaking down stereotypes that many guests might have about what a “hostel” offers. Guests can choose from private rooms, family rooms and bunk rooms.
“The majority of misconceptions have been in the direction where we’re able to pleasantly surprise people, rather than them being disappointed,” said Justin. “For example, we offer five private rooms, which many folks don’t realize exist in hostels.
“In addition, all rooms have ensuite bathrooms, including the private and shared rooms,” he said. “Breakfast is also included, so that’s a nice surprise when someone books thinking it’s a good price without that. We do serve alcohol — Maine craft beer and wine — so that can be complicated. Similar to a bar, folks can’t drink outside alcohol in the common spaces. We try to stock enough of a selection that everyone can find something delicious to sip on at the end of their day.”
Still, the hostel owners make it clear that their facility was never designed to be “party central,” unlike some of those nostalgic ski clubs of days gone by.
“Sure, some guests have shown up expecting a party, and that’s just not our environment or intent,” said Melanie. “So honestly, they see pretty quickly that it’s a relaxed environment and just go to the bar to do their partying. Others definitely show up expecting a younger, 18- to 25-year-old crowd, and are surprised to see that we honestly have guests of all ages staying frequently. Up to this point I think our youngest has been 7 months and our oldest has been 87.”
In fact, guests Marnie and Hank Read discovered that the hostel was the perfect lodging option for their multi-generational clan.
“We stayed in a private room that first time, and then booked one of the bunk rooms for ourselves and my daughter’s family — seven of us — so we took the whole room,” said Hank Read. “It was fabulous. Shuttle service, accessible with a phone call, allowed us to skip the parking rigmarole at the mountain with the grandkids. And it’s within walking distance to one of the best restaurants on the mountain, Hugs, an Italian joint with superb food.”
Read’s wife, Marnie, was particularly pleased with the hostel’s quality bedding, but also raved about her hosts.
“They’re world travelers and are modeling H.O.ME on their very best experiences from those travels,” she said. “They are working their butts off, and loving it.”
In addition to comfortable sleeping quarters and social common areas, the hostel provides fresh breakfast each morning.
“We serve breakfast everyday and like to give our guests options, serving an assortment of cereals, fresh fruit, bagels, fresh bread and spreads, various homemade baked goods, eggs, coffee, tea, juice and honestly whatever else I feel like whipping up in the kitchen,” said Melanie. “It sounds tacky, but just like a hostel, a continental breakfast can be totally satisfying or completely blah. It just depends on how much love you put into it.
“We hear in guests voices sometimes how unenthused they are at the prospect of a continental hostel breakfast, expecting stale bagels and instant coffee, but love seeing their faces light up in the morning at the surprise of warm bread right out of the oven and freshly ground coffee,” she said.
Another member of the hostel staff is Zoe, the Steeles’ official greeter, a tailwagging bonus for lovers of our fourlegged friends.
“Melanie and Justin and their greeter dog, Zoe, are simply wonderful,” said Hank Read. “They are young entrepreneurs and seem to be thriving in their role. We’ve also met Melanie’s father, Kendall, who fills in when Melanie and Justin need to be elsewhere. We have stayed there three times, and I would call these folks good friends.”
However, success has its drawbacks, and Hank Read is concerned that the secret that is the Hostel of Maine won’t be kept under wraps for long.
“I simply hate the fact that you have been asked to write this, because the publicity will make it impossible to find a vacancy at this lovely place,” he said. “Word is going to spread and they’ll be booked for the season before you know it.”
It’s a potential problem, but a good problem. New England needs more places like Hostel of Maine, and hosts like Melanie and Justin Steele (and Zoe). It’s not an experience that’s right for everyone — a point that Hank Read would like me to emphasize — but it’s sure to warm the heart of any longtime skier. Which means my wife and I will be visiting this winter.