Find a Summer's Worth of New England Charm on the Coast of Maine
Fathom editor Berit Baugher shows us around the quaint coastal towns of Kennebunk and Kennebunkport, Maine, a place she's been lucky enough to visit each year for the past decade.
The East Coast is home to several iconic summer destinations: the Hamptons, Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard, Newport. Then there are the small coastal towns along the shoreline of Maine: Slightly less flashy, a bit more wholesome, and charming to boot, these towns haven't changed much since their heyday in the late 1800s. Today, the Kennebunks remain one of Maine's most popular summer getaways with tranquil beaches, a family-friendly atmosphere, laid-back vibe, and easy access to large cities like Portland and Boston.
LAY OF THE LAND
The Kennebunks are made up of two small coastal towns — Kennebunk and Kennebunkport — just north of the Massachusetts boarder along the Atlantic Coastline. Although separated by a river, residents and visitors traverse between the two as though they are one. Divided by Kennebunk River, a small bridge links the towns together in downtown Kennebunkport, which is more commonly known as Dock Square. Kennebunk has its own slightly less touristy downtown area called Lower Village. Cape Porpoise, a small village within Kennebunkport is a ten-minute drive from Dock Square.
IF YOU ONLY DO ONE THING
Go for a cove walk. This may sound basic, but it is without a doubt my favorite activity when visiting Maine. Head to the beach during low tide and take a walk on the boulder-sized rocks that decorate the ocean floor. It can be slippery, so wear sneakers; and the light is magical, so bring your camera.
WHAT TO DO
Be one with nature. From beaches and ocean sports, to biking trails and a golf course, the Kennebunks are teeming with opportunities to spend time basking in the great outdoors.
The two towns really come to life during the summer months and winter holidays, which are marked by a series of annual festivals. The summer season is kicked off with Maine magazine's Kennebunkport Festival, a week-long showcase of the state's top chefs, artists, musicians, wine purveyors, and beer makers. If you're in town for The Spirit of Maine, a boozy dance party with an tasty selection of small bites, an abundance of drinks, and amazing people watching, I recommend adding it to your agenda. Another favorite is the Christmas Prelude, a highly anticipated event celebrating the winter holiday season with a tree lighting in Dock Square, evening bonfire, and blueberry pancake breakfast.
WHERE TO SHOP
Although there are plenty of touristy T-shirt shops, the Kennebunks are also home to a handful of stores that feel extra special.
In Dock Square, a small design-centric gift shop called Daytrip Society sells beautiful handmade soaps, seaside-inspired scented candles, and tote bags made from recycled sailboat sails. Around the corner, Daytrip Jr. has a similar ethos, but focuses on children's toys and clothing.
Farm + Table, one of the few businesses in the small village of Cape Porpoise, is housed in a picturesque red barn and sells a thoughtfully chosen selection of foods and kitchen items from talented makers and creators around the U.S.
Snug Harbor Farm is quite possible one of the most enchanting shops I've ever visited. The specialty home and garden store sells everything from miniature topiaries and handmade pots from Frances Palmer, to homemade maple granola and imported French soaps. Spend time exploring the beautifully landscaped grounds and keep your eye out for the resident peacock and flock of chickens.
The thirty-mile stretch of Route 1 that starts in Kittery and ends in Arundel is known for its abundance of antique shops. For those wanting a more curated selection, Antiques on Nine has a lovely assortment of local finds, along with pieces from England and France. The small home goods shop also sells nautical decorative pieces, mirrors, rugs, and luxury bed linens.
WHERE TO STAY
There are many small hotels and bed and breakfasts in the area, but a few stand out.
The Boathouse Waterfront Hotel is probably as central as you can get with a harbor side location in downtown Kennebunkport. Contemporary nautical decor is complimented by extras like Frette linens, Malin + Goetz bath products, and a fun restaurant with a great happy hour deal from 3 to 6 p.m. every day of the week.
For a boutique b&b with a memorable (and free) morning meal, try Captain Fairfield Inn. Overnight oatmeal with coconut and currant and a breakfast pizza with arugula, goat cheese, and prosciutto are two of several rotating dishes that will tempt you from your bed each morning. The inn is a short walk from town, which makes it easy to take advantage of the thriving local food scene.
Further afield, you'll find The White Barn Inn & Spa, an elegant inn just a ten-minute walk from Dock Square. Chef Derek Bissonnette's Maine-inspired American and European dishes at the inn's restuarant are talked about up and down the East Coast. This is a particularly good option if you're looking to indulge in a romantic, food-filled, spa weekend.
On the Kennebunkport side, The Tides Beach Club is probably one of my favorite local spots for the lively seafood restaurant — but more on that later. The boutique hotel is preppy and modern with punchy patterned fabrics in bright pastels and a cozy hotel lobby that you will never want to leave. Guests love the oceanside location and easy access to Goose Rocks Beach. They can also take advantage of the pool and spa at nearby sister property Hidden Pond.
At its core, Hidden Pond is a luxurious summer camp nestled in the backwoods of Kennebunkport that caters to small families and couples. The resort is set amongst 60 secluded acres of beautiful birch forest — a ten-minute drive from the beach or Dock Square. Each of the two- and one-bedroom guest cottages has a New England vibe — think plaid and floral textiles, sisal rugs, stone fireplaces, and ginger jars. Guests are welcome to use a fleet of beach cruisers or take the shuttle to the beach. Both onsite swimming pools are heated for the sometimes chilly Maine weather. Nightly bonfires, guided nature walks, kids crafts, and a full service spa ensure the best summer camp experience money can pay for. If you need a luxurious place to unwind and truly disconnect — this is it.
As someone who has always stayed in a house, I would also recommend looking into vacation rentals for longer visits. Airbnb, VRBO, and Kennebunk Beach Rentals are three good places to start.
WHERE TO EAT
Start your day at Boulangerie, a modern bakery housed in a big red barn on a backstreet in downtown Kennebunk. The assortment of fresh baked breads are easily the best you'll find in Maine and it would be foolish not to try one of the buttery ham and cheese croissants. Everything is baked the morning of and sold until they run out. Before driving back to New York City, I like to drop in for a loaf of bread and a container of housemade soup for a simple, no-fuss dinner.
Casual sandwich options are plentiful, as they should be in a beach town. Bennett's Sandwich Shop, which looks and feels like it's been around forever, makes a great cheesesteak and sells excellent, oversized whoopie pies. If you have a sweetooth, you must try at least one while in Maine — it is the state dessert after all. H.B. Provisions has the feel of a small town deli/general store with the goods to match. Cape Porpoise Kitchen is a gourmet grocer with a nice selection of prepared foods, sandwiches, cheeses, and wines.
For a small town, the dinner options are surprisingly vast — so much so that after a decade of annual visits I'm still working my way through them. The Tides Beach Club restaurant is a personal favorite for a night on the town. It has a chic coastal vibe and great cocktail selection that pairs nicely with local seafood. Earth at Hidden Pond, a seasonal farm-to-fork restaurant, is probably the hardest reservation to secure. It's best to book months in advance, but if you're like me and tend to wait until the last minute, try swinging by around 5:30 p.m. on a nice night. They'll serve you the same menu outside at the pool bar. For casual bistro food, try 50 Local. The menu changes daily, but always features an array of fresh produce and meats from local farms. If you're in the mood for elevated pub food, The Ramp Bar & Grill is a good casual dining option. Arrive around sunset, order a glass of wine, and settle into one of the Adirondack chairs overlooking Cape Porpoise Harbor. For a truly unique dining experience, the 125-foot Spirit of Massachusetts is the only floating restaurant in the Kennebunks.
If you like to cap your night off with something sweet, Rococo makes small-batch ice cream in innovative flavors like goat cheese, blackberry, chambord, and sumac lemonade sorbet. If you prefer a traditional nightcap, Old Vines Wine Bar has a roaring bonfire out front, cozy barn vibe inside, and lengthy menu of wines and spirits.
Although I'm personally not a lobster fan, the beloved dark red crustacean is practically a religion in Maine, so I would be remiss not to mention it. The Clam Shack is a charming New England-y fast food stand on the bridge linking Kennebunk to Kennebunkport. Clams are obviously a specialty, but locals line up for what, I am told, is a mean lobster roll. Mabel's Lobster Claw sources from the pier across the street and offer one of the area's best traditional Maine feasts: New England clam chowder, native steamed clams, and a Maine lobster (fun fact: this place is a favorite of long-time summer resident President George H. W. Bush). The Ocean Roll is a sweet spot for a quick afternoon bite at one of the picnic tables. The vintage food truck is set up on the corner of Ross Road and Route 1. If you enjoy lobster the old fashioned way — at home — Herb's Seafood (58 York St.; +1-207-985-6249) is the go-to spot for backyard lobster bakes. And last, but not least, in nearby Wells, you will find the Maine Diner, a family-operated joint with the biggest and best selection of lobster dishes for very reasonable prices. If you're heading towards I-95, you'll pass it on your way out of town.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
How to Get There
By car, the Kennebunks are a short drive from several major cities: Boston is 90-minutes, Hartford is three hours, and New York City is five hours away.
Portland International Jetport (PWM) is a half-hour drive from the Kennebunks and serviced by Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, United, and US Airways. Logan International Airport (BOS) is a little under two hours away and serviced by all major airlines. Manchester Regional Airport (MHT) is also a little under two hours away and serviced by Delta, Southwest, United, and US Airways. Sanford Seacoast Regional Airport (SFM) handles private planes and is a half-hour drive.
Having your own car is the easiest and best option for navigating the two towns.
When to Go
The Kennebunks are beautiful year-round, but the fall, spring, and summer months are when most people visit. Many businesses are seasonal and close between the New Year and early spring, so call ahead to see what's open.
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