A new lease on life for the Surf
The doors and windows once again stand open at the iconic Surf Hotel, where the sounds of hammering and vacuuming fill the morning air at the corner of Water and Dodge streets. Workmen, some moving furniture, others ripping up carpeting, pursue a hectic schedule as they attempt to meet a
July 4 deadline for re-opening.
Restoration work began on the old building, which has stood empty for the last five years, immediately following the Cyr family’s announcement last month that they had arranged to bring the 19th century structure back to life.
Retaining ownership of the building, the Cyrs have entered into a lease agreement with another family — sisters Kimberly Afonso and Heather Rasemus — giving them an option to purchase. Afonso is in charge of preparing the hotel for opening and will manage it this summer.
A visitor is immediately struck by Afonso’s enthusiasm for her “project.” She can’t wait to share the news that she has just “discovered gorgeous hardwood floors under several layers of carpeting in the lobby” and that’s become one of her many projects for the day.
“Each day,” she adds, “there is a new discovery.”
‘She does have a life’
It’s truly become a labor of love. As her affection grows for the hotel, Afonso has come to refer to the Surf as “she.”
“That’s what I call her: ‘She!’ I talk to her each day,” Afonso enthuses. “She does have a life. She does have a history, and each day I find out something new about her.”
When Afonso approaches Old Harbor on the ferry and the hotel comes into view, the new manager thinks, “She should be open. I can’t wait to hear her filled with the sound of laughter and children running around. ”
She’s found books with notes from former guests. “Lorraine always had a guest book,” Afonso says. “I can’t wait to come back,” one note reads. Another addresses the Cyrs directly: “We think about you as family.”
The latter sentiment resonates with Afonso. “I want to preserve that. I want people to consider us family,” she says.
The Cyrs have been generous in sharing photos, memories and recipes.
“Bea [Cyr] has given me her secret recipes for baked apples and oatmeal,” both of which Afonso plans to add to her menu.
Because the Cyrs maintained the hotel so well Afonso can largely concentrate on cosmetics, such as painting, small repairs and cleaning rather than any structural alterations. “The Cyrs took loving care of her during the five years she was closed,” she says.
The wallpaper and carpeting throughout the 34 guest rooms and upper hallways are in quite good condition, as are the fixtures and woodwork in the hotel’s 15 bathrooms. In many areas, wood trim and ceilings will be refreshed with a new coat of paint, some sinks will be replaced, floors will be sanded and carpeting will be steam-cleaned.
However, Afonso’s time is also spent grappling with the many regulation and code requirements she must satisfy in order to open.
She is in constant touch with Town Building Official Marc Tillson and other town and state agencies that need to weigh in. “I even asked the Historic District if I could plant flowers out by the monument in front of the hotel,” she adds. She was granted permission.
Meant to be
Seven years ago, Afonso visited the island for the first time. She spent a week and took note of the Surf. Two years ago, she was back for a day and made an offer on the hotel that was rejected. Then a month ago, Afonso was sitting beside a pool in Florida when she overheard the lifeguard speaking with a couple from Block Island. The woman, Afonso says, “was Kelsey McCrea, who turned out to be Lorraine’s cousin.”
Within three days of meeting Kelsey, Afonso says, “We had an offer in to the Cyr family.” She adds, “I believe everything happens for a reason and two years ago was not the right time for me to be with her, but now it is.”
Afonso and Rasemus come from a family with a history in resort renovation. In addition, Afonso earned a degree in hospitality at the University of New Haven. Her first position out of school was as part of the opening team for Water’s Edge Resort and Spa in Westbrook, Conn. That stint was followed by work at a Vermont resort at which “there were 40 cabins on a half-mile lake frontage, which my family and I ran successfully.”
Rasemus is a licensed massage therapist and has worked for the last 15 years at the Norwich Inn and Spa. She is in the process of setting up a spa at the Surf.
From 1991 to 2004, Afonso was the director of operations for the Cheeca Lodge and Spa, a five-star resort in Islamorada, in the Florida Keys. Returning to Connecticut, she followed a more traditional route, working Marriott Hotels and the Intercontinental Hotel Group (which operate hotels such as Holiday Inn). However, she learned rather quickly, “This is not me.”
With eyes sparkling as she glances around the familiar Surf Hotel porch, “This is what I’ve worked for my whole life: to meet and greet guests personally and to be a part of this whole family atmosphere.”
Though it is a huge undertaking, Afonso says, she knew from the day she walked into the Surf, “it was meant to happen.” She admits to loving “the chaos of it all, the busy-ness, and the process of getting things ready.
‘Orphans of the Surf’
Afonso mentions the devotion of former Surf guests. “When the Surf closed, a group of them created a Facebook page known as ‘Orphans of the Surf Hotel!’” On it, they commiserated over their intense sense of loss. However, as the reopening news spread on Facebook, many of the Surf’s scattered family began doing phone chains, with one individual admitting she is “hoping our reservations get in before the others.”
The Surf received its first reservation from a woman Afonso identifies as Donna Aboog, who stayed at the Surf for many years and knew precisely which rooms she wanted. Afonso can’t get over it.
“Over the phone she gave me directions: ‘Go to the third floor; go down the hall to the fourth room on the right ….’ She walked me through the hotel, selecting the locations and specific rooms she wanted for her family for a 10-day vacation. She knew more about the hotel than I did,” Alfonsa relates, still astonished.
Afonso credits the April 7 Block Island Times Surf reopening story for setting off the inquiries, which haven’t let up. “That story ran,” she says, “and our phone started to blow up!”
Looking ahead and planning
Looking ahead to the summer, Afonso sees herself coring apples at 4:30 in the morning, recreating the famous Surf breakfasts. She says she’s “going for a very relaxed atmosphere,” and plans to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“I hope to have a pianist in the parlor on Thursday evenings, a form of musical entertainment as yet undetermined on Friday nights and a vocalist on Saturdays.” She wants music people can listen to and enjoy and “still speak comfortably to each other.” She notes she is still working out the details of where and when to serve meals and she wants to make certain, “I do things correctly. I want to provide good service, good food and good hospitality.”
She tells the story of Megan Hennessey, a “wonderfully accomplished jazz singer.” At the age of seven, Afonso says, “Megan debuted on the front porch of the Surf. In July, she’s graciously agreed to perform for our opening, bringing things full-circle.”
As to the island, it appears to be the answer to Afonso’s dreams. “I love coming out here [on the porch], looking at the ocean. To have all this [sweeping her hand to include the sky] I must be the luckiest person alive.”
It will be a new way of life for her and her 10-year old daughter Alyssa. “This is where I want to work, live, play and watch my daughter grow up.” Though she has moved to the island, she is waiting for her daughter to join her in June — soon after her graduation from the fourth grade.
“I don’t have an old connection with the hotel,” Afonso says, “but I have a new one. I get misty thinking about her! She’s going to come back to life. She’s going to be an ongoing part of Block Island’s history.”
She has found herself swamped by well-wishers. Many island residents have called and stopped by to welcome her, and she is deeply grateful.
All the goodwill leaves her quite optimistic about the future: “I am leasing her for two years and will successfully run her. We have an option that can be exercised at any time between now and the end of two years, which I fully intend to exercise.”
Afonso hopes old and new friends will ring her up at the hotel’s same old number: (401) 466-2241. You also can reach her by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and find information at www.thesurfhotelblockisland.com.