Featured Story

Decades of hospitality at the top of the hill: Belle Crest hosts turn guests into friends 

On a quiet, sunny September afternoon, Glory Missan was at one of her favorite places in the world, sitting in a comfortable chair on the wraparound porch of the Belle Crest Inn on North Ferry Road.

Ms. Missan, a New York City resident, has been coming to Shelter Island for more than 60 years, and has stayed at the inn at the top of the hill above Bridge Street for more than 15 of those years.

Asked why she could be found here every year at summer’s end, Ms. Missan said, “It’s so comfortable. I have a beautiful room. It’s a great location, run by lovely people.”

She was speaking about the innkeepers of close to 40 years, Yvonne and Herbert Loinig, who have survived economic downturns, pandemic shutdowns and a devastating fire, to keep the grand old clapboard and shingle institution alive and well.

Stepping into the downstairs parlor, or in one of the five high-ceilinged, light-filled and immaculate upstairs bedrooms, is making your way into an elegant, spotless, and sumptuous past.

It befits the house that Edward Crook built in the early 1900s at the crest of the hill and named for his wife, Belle. In the parlor are plush chairs easy to sink into with a good book or one of several glossy magazines displayed on a large ottoman.

A piano and grandfather clock are other time travel inspirations in the room, which has views of the porch.

Discovering Shelter Island

“We’re winding down, now,” Ms. Loinig said, as she and her husband greeted a visitor, sitting on the back deck of the house overlooking the garden. The table was set with pastries, chocolates, bottles of wine and cordials. “We’re open now mainly for guests who have come for years,” Mr. Loinig  said. “Guests who became friends.”

The couple, who were living in Queens, had a summer home in East Hampton, when in the early 1980s they saw an ad for a house for sale on Shelter Island.

“I’ve been in the hotel business since I was 15,” Mr. Loinig said. Looking at the ad, he and his wife thought the place might be an opportunity to have their own business.

Educated in the hotel trade in his native Austria, he had worked in Europe, Britain and America. Ms. Loinig, a certified registered school nurse, with a master’s degree in science, was on board with the plan.

“It was our first time ever on Shelter Island,” Ms. Loinig said. It reminded her of Cape Cod, where she had spent time, and which she loved. “But when the real estate agent pulled up to this house, I thought, ‘Dear God, don’t let this be the place.’”

It was a dilapidated nursing home, with a sagging porch roof, broken furniture and disrepair everywhere you looked. The residents — “More like inmates,” Mr. Loinig said —  seemed as ill-cared for as the house. “It broke our hearts,” Ms. Loinig said.

Operated for years by Helen and William Loper, it was sold, and the new owners at one point, according to a Reporter article, were cited with 50 violations of the State’s adult home regulations by the New York State Department of Social Services.

The level of supervision for residents, the Reporter story said, had the Island’s police chief “concerned.”

Many violations were eventually seen to, but “the town wanted the place to change hands,” Mr. Loinig said, and the couple bought the Belle Crest for $400,000, a steep price in the mid-1980s. But they saw the possibilities for a thriving business, and a summer home for themselves and their young daughter, Aimee.

After a complete renovation, the Inn attracted vacationers to the gracious spot just a short walk down to Dering Harbor and the Bridge Street shops. As Aimee grew up, she pitched in, running the reception desk and handling bike rentals as she, and her parents, quickly became enchanted with Shelter Island, spending every summer here.

Asked if the worst thing that has happened to them was a catastrophic fire in February 2013, the Loinigs showed their belief in accentuating the positive. “It was bad, but we were safe, we weren’t hurt,” Ms. Loinig said.

“We put it back together,” Mr. Loinig said.

One Night in February

A little after 9 p.m. on that cold winter night, Ms. Loinig had finished her ritual of speaking with Aimee in Connecticut, where she lives and works as an attorney, before drifting off to sleep with her husband.

“I was almost asleep when I heard some people outside talking loudly,” Ms. Loinig said the morning after the fire. “I thought they were having some kind of disagreement. I heard a man yelling, ‘Get out! Get out!’” Her husband went to the front door and Ms. Loinig heard him asking who was making such a commotion outside. “Then I heard a man say, ‘Get out, your house is on fire.’”

They had been rescued from the blaze by the actions of passersby Ian and Victoria Weslek, who got them safely out of the house.

The couple had been returning home from dinner when Victoria spotted flames soaring from the roof of the Belle Crest. She called 911 immediately and Ian raced to the front door and began pounding on it.

On the scene in minutes, it took the Shelter Island Fire Department nearly two hours to fully get the fire under control as it raced through to the top of the structure.

After an investigation by the Shelter Island Police and Fire departments, it was determined the origin of the blaze was the result of a chimney fire.

By morning, the Loinigs were stunned speechless standing in the parlor, the smell of scorched wood, furniture and carpeting filling the once-cozy room. Large blocks of plaster were crumbling on an antique table below a manhole-sized cavity in the ceiling that was dripping water.

The attic, which was filled with objects and paper, including some valuable works of art, was turned to ash. They estimated the loss at about $700,000. Insurance helped with the renovations, but didn’t cover everything, Mr. Loinig said.

And, of course, money can’t buy some of what was lost — antiques, family pictures and mementos.

“We just did what we had to do,” Mr. Loinig said. “We rebuilt. We got back on our feet.”

Winding Down

After years of closing the Belle Crest in the autumn and going back to Queens, where Aimee went to school, the Loinigs became full-time Island residents.

They’re open year-round, but it’s almost entirely guests/friends now. Full retirement is not far off, Mr. Loinig said, with family time the first priority now. The Loinigs hosted a family party recently, with Aimee and her two young boys down from Connecticut, a trip they make regularly.

Hospitality has always come naturally at the Belle Crest.