Jack Burke shuffled into Baron’s Pub, the bar within the Pentagoet Inn, the elegant, historic hotel he and his wife, Julie Van De Graaf, own in Castine and leaned against his cane. He took a sip of his gin and tonic and somewhat sheepishly admitted he had been a bit under the weather recently.
“I picked up an amphibious tarantula in Haiti,” Burke, 64, said. “I’m moving a little slow.”
What exactly he meant by that he didn’t care to elaborate on, but it’s par for the course for Burke, a man of seemingly endless stories and an unshakeable case of wanderlust. You’d be forgiven for confusing him with The Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis commercials.
Others have done just that. Burke was sitting by himself in a bar in the Eastern European country of Kosovo a few years back, quietly enjoying a beer, when a man approached him with a curious look on his face. Burke, who sports a well-kept salt-and-pepper beard, was wearing a blue blazer and white shirt.
“This guy comes up to me and says, ‘I bet you like Dos Equis,’ and I said I did,” Burke said. “He turns to his friends and says, ‘Yes! Yes! It’s him!’ and they all come over to take pictures. I had never seen the ads before. They pulled out a laptop and showed it to me. I told them that wasn’t me, but I’d buy them a beer anyway.”
Burke and Van De Graaf purchased the Pentagoet Inn in 2000, not long after the pair eloped in Venice. They met and fell in love on Boston’s North Shore, where Burke was born.
The inn itself has a long history in Castine. Built in 1894, it has had several different owners in the past 123 years and has been expanded several times, including an additional guest house. Burke and Van De Graaf added a back patio and charming, slightly hidden garden, overflowing with roses and wildflowers.
For the six months of the year the inn is open, Burke acts as concierge, booker and sometime bartender, attending to the inn’s clientele of well-heeled boaters docking in Castine Harbor, and weekend warriors from all over Maine and New England.
Van De Graaf runs all other business matters and manages the staff and the in-house restaurant, which is open to guests and the general public. It serves a small menu of Mediterranean-themed tapas-style small plates, with a focus on fresh Maine seafood, in several Victorian-styled dining rooms.
“We just really try to focus on hospitality. We’re small. We can focus on the guest experience,” Van De Graaf, a native of the Philadelphia area, said. “Jack is the public face. I like to be behind the scenes.”
“She’s the brains,” Burke said. “I can’t be trusted.”
The other six months of the year, Burke might be in Nicaragua. Or Sudan. Possibly Oman. Or maybe Chile. He might be tramping around Southeast Asia or trekking through mountains of Tajikistan. Van De Graaf might come with him sometimes, or she might stay in Maine.
Since the early 1970s, Burke has worked with non-governmental organizations, often aligned with the United Nations, to assist refugee populations in locations all over the world. Before that part of his life began, however, Burke was always a wanderer, who started traveling straight out of high school. He worked on oil rigs in western Africa in his early 20s to fund his travels.
Burke began doing humanitarian work after backpacking through Southeast Asia in the mid-1970s. A busted tooth led him to look for a dentist, which led him to a group of nuns working with Hmong refugees. He stayed to help and essentially never stopped, though he tends to travel more for pleasure these days rather than for work.
Burke brushes off any attempt to praise him for his long career trying to make the world a less dangerous place for its most vulnerable people — he has spent time in Darfur, in Haiti, in Sierra Leone, in Rwanda — but he does admit he has a bit of a calling.
During his decades of globetrotting, Burke has picked up thousands of portraits, photographs, artifacts and tchotchkes in flea markets and antique shops, from shady characters in hidden taverns, and even straight off the walls of governmental offices.
“I’m an inveterate antiquer. So is Julie. I can’t help myself,” Burke said. “I’ve got a whole barn full of stuff. … Eventually, I had to find a place to put it.”
A heavy iron bust of Albert Schweitzer, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning physician and humanitarian, always sits on the bar in Baron’s Pub.
“I don’t consider him a personal inspiration, but I do think he is a great example,” Burke said. “His hospitals are still making a difference in the world. That’s pretty amazing.”
Not long after they bought the Pentagoet, Burke set to transforming one of the first floor dining rooms into a bar — a bar unlike any other you’ll find in Maine and probably unlike any other you’ll find this side of a Graham Greene novel.
Nearly every square inch of Baron’s Pub is covered with framed images of world leaders, despots and thinkers, as well as those tchotchkes Burke loves so much, all documenting a partial history of the past 100-odd years of geopolitics. The rattan furniture and vintage lamps only add to the allure. Despite its small size, walking into the bar feels a bit like walking into some mythic past, where diplomats, spies, smugglers and wanderers converge. Think Rick’s Cafe in “Casablanca” or perhaps the Mos Eisley Cantina in “Star Wars.”
The world leaders on display hail from every corner of the globe, and are of every sort of temperament. Gandhi. Chairman Mao. The Dalai Lama. Mobutu Sese Seko. Nelson Mandela. Ayatollah Khomeini. John F. Kennedy. Papa Doc Duvalier. There’s a portrait of Mikhail Gorbachev with his birthmark and chubby cheeks airbrushed out, and there’s a photo of Saddam Hussein greeting government officials, taken in the 1980s — except it’s not actually Hussein but one of his body doubles, as Burke delights in pointing out.
A huge portrait of Vladimir Lenin glowers over the room, as does one of Queen Victoria, though focus is inevitably drawn to a portrait of the Baron Jean-Vincent d’Abbadie de Saint-Castin, the French baron for whom the town of Castine is named — and for whom the bar itself is named.
Burke said the overall theme of Baron’s Pub is saints and sinners. There are plenty of saints, to be sure, but it’s often the sinners that make the better conversation piece. Burke is quick to caution, however, that the equal attention paid to the baddies and the goodies doesn’t mean he’s a big fan of dictators.
“I have no special affinity for dictators. I truly don’t. But they are more interesting, generally. People recognize them,” Burke said. “I’ve been in countries run by dictators. I’ve seen what happens. I was in Zaire when Mobutu fell. It’s ugly.”
Burke has a corresponding story for just about every one of the items on display in the bar. That Lenin oil painting? Found in a Tajikistan flea market. The Augusto Pinochet picture? Purchased from a puzzled Chilean antiques dealer, wondering why on Earth anyone would want a memento of the deposed despot. The Gandhi portrait was given to him by Indian embassy workers during his years in Zaire.
Baron’s Pub only shows a small fraction of all the stuff Burke owns.
“My wife has prohibited me from adding anything else to this room,” Burke said. “If I want to add something I have to take something away. I’m not allowed outside anymore. This is my pen.”
Though Burke holds court in the bar after check-in hours most days, he admits he’s not the best bartender. He’d rather deal in stories, not booze, though he’ll make a cocktail if another staff member isn’t around to do it. More interestingly, you can get a crash course on geopolitics, peppered with personal anecdotes and philosophical musings, free with the purchase of one beverage.
The bar has a list of excellent, strong, classic cocktails, with an emphasis on gin. The Ambassador, a gin, lemon and ginger cocktail, is a perennial favorite, as is the Diplomat, a gin and mint concoction, though mojitos and bellinis are also popular and a small but interesting wine list rounds out the drinks menu. A regular gin and tonic or old fashioned can also hit the spot, after a day spent on the water or in the woods.
The ideal pairing? A story or five from Burke, if he’s not busy attending to other hotel matters.
“Everybody that comes in has questions. Some people are offended that we have people like Lenin on the walls. Some people are just curious,” Burke said. “Some people just want a drink and to share their own stories. And I’m happy to oblige.”
The Pentagoet Inn is open through the end of October. The bar is open and the restaurant serves dinner until 9 p.m. most nights, and reservations are recommended. For more information, visit pentagoet.com, or call 326-8616.