Empty beaches and quiet coves mark Maine's southern coast during the early winter. Snaking lines of cars might be replaced with horse-drawn carriages and the tinkle of harness bells, and whiffs of wood smoke linger where the smell of suntan oil once permeated the air. As Christmas creeps closer, galleries and small gift stores tend to limit hours — some close on Sundays — but most downtowns remain vibrant and actually take on a special cheer at this festive time. You may even catch Santa. After all, we're not the only ones who know where to find the best gifts in Maine.
With a nearly complete 30,000-square-foot expansion and a new two-story boatyard, Kittery Trading Post, Route 1, Kittery (888-587-6246), has more outdoor gear and apparel than the people on your shopping list could ever need. Located at the gateway to Kittery's renowned outlet shopping district, this outdoor outfitter started out sixty-seven years ago swapping pelts for ammunition in a small Cape. It's grown to three floors and a largely expanded ski shop. Make dad merry with a two-person, inflatable, polyester kayak, $239. Or keep grandad warm with a genuine, shearling bomber hat, $49.95.
On the north end of the outlets, G. Irwin Fine Jewelry, 436 Route 1, Kittery (207-439-2299), offers a wide selection of precious stones, silver, and gold from Maine to East Africa. Designer Ann Pardoe designs colorful combinations such as the multi-colored, faceted, tourmaline bean bracelet, $298, for mom. Or make your sweetheart glow with gold, hand-cut, lady's slipper, loon, or sailboat drop earrings, $149, by Harvest Gold, of Lovell, Maine.
Heading into historic York Village on Route 1A, Rocky Mountain Quilts, 130 York Street (800-762-5940, open Thursday through Saturday), is renowned for its hundreds of antique quilts, some of which date back to just after the Revolutionary War. What many folks don't know is that owner Betsy Telford also designs and sews twenty-four-inch Big Belly Bears, $125 and up, from vintage quilt tops. Each extraordinarily soft teddy is a true collector's piece for mom, but with felt eyes and an embroidered mouth, it is also safe for kids. Telford also creates quilt-pieced lobsters, bunnies, cats, and bears, from $28.
Past the homesteads of Old York, in the center of the village, River Place, 250 York Street (207-351-3266), makes shopping easy with its select, natural-fiber, women's apparel, handmade jewelry, books, bath accessories, and gifts. Give a friend a gift for the tree or from the sea, with the hand-blown glass ornaments and sculptures, $32.50, of Luke Adams, who glorifies Maine marine animals, including clear and colorful fish, sea stars, and mussels. Or pick mom a pair of contemporary, candy-colored, glass earrings with silver clasps, $36.50.
Just off Route 1, the sprawling headquarters of Stonewall Kitchen, Stonewall Lane, York (800-207-5267), offers Maine-made provisions that have become staples in kitchens across the country. Started by two local waiters in a farmhouse kitchen a decade ago, this fancy-food retailer now has stores scattered throughout New England, including its main facility and café here. Stuff mom and dad's stockings with bags and jars of yummy gingerbread cookie mix, $5, mulled cider mix, $10.95, or maple pumpkin butter, $8.50. Or sign grandma and grandpa up for the Specialty Food Club, which will deliver a variety of gourmet treats to their door each month — $80 for three months; or $160 for six.
Just before Flo's famous hot-dog stand, Heirloom Toys, 1300 Route 1, Cape Neddick (800-309-9998), is a small red ranch offering some of the fanciest chess sets and wooden toys in Maine. Give dad some armchair fun with a Civil War resin chess set with a traditional wood board, $95. Or check out the lighthouse checkers, $49, for gramps. Kids will be captivated by the company's rainbow-colored, interlocked wooden Sta-Blox, $10 for four strings, which can be rearranged in endless variations.
Cottage Home, 10 Mountain Road, Cape Neddick (207-363-9799), is to home decorating what Stonewall Kitchen is to home cooking. Set in the attached barn of a Maine homestead, this fine furnishings store, inspired by Maine cottages and country living, offers two floors of upscale furniture and gifts. For dad there's a nautically-themed brass barometer, $160. Or wrap up a wood-framed mini print of a sailboat, $28, quaint village, or horse-drawn sleigh for mom. The shop also carries a fine assortment of Christmas linens, ornaments, and seasonal decorations.
No Christmas would be complete without sweets, and you won't find anything much sweeter than an eleven-pound Belgian milk chocolate bar, $99.95, at the Harbor Candy Shop, 248 Main Street, Ogunquit (800-331-5856). The bars are coveted by candy makers for mixing and molding, but who says you can't wrap up one for your sweetheart? This small chocolate and gift shop has been making Christmas sweeter for nearly fifty years.
Children will smile when they find their stockings stuffed with penny candy, hand-pulled lollipops, Santa-shaped chocolates, and old-fashioned candy sticks, from less than a dollar. Or make mom smile with the shop's Favorite Sampler, $30, full of fresh-made fruit chocolate, barks, caramels, truffles, and pistachios, all made in the attached kitchen.
In a small, clay-colored, clapboard house along Route 1, the Coastal Candle Company, 44 Post Road, Wells (207-646-5344), offers a huge assortment of handcrafted candles from teeny votives, $1.25, to towering pillars, $15.95. Make a friend's Christmas more fragrant with the scents of Balsam, Coastal Cranberry, Christmas Cookies, and Candy Cane — some of the season's most popular. Or pair your picks with a set of hand-carved, Maine stone candleholders, from $16.95, or a wrought-iron chandelier, from $18.95.
At Compliments, Dock Square, Kennebunkport (800-248-2269), you'll find a dazzling collection of fine American crafts, stained glass, sculpture, and jewelry. Seasonal favorites sure to light up a grandparent's holiday are the store's exclusive pyramid-shaped, stained-glass Christmas tree sculptures in layers of snowy greens. These locally made sculptures start at $48 for a ten-inch model, and come as tall as three feet. Best of all, there's no watering!
Across the square, The Whimsy Shop, Dock Square, Kennebunkport (207-967-5105), offers handcrafted and painted furniture, hooked rugs, hand-cut lampshades, tapestry handbags, and Maine Christmas ornaments. Its 2006 New England Weekenders Calendar, $16, is filled with the dates and locations of 500 fairs and festivals, along with colorful prints (including some of Maine's Mount Katahdin), and makes a fun gift for a friend. Or keep dad close to Maine with the sounds of the harbor sung out in a three-tone, wrought iron, Kennebunkport buoy bell, $70. Mom is easy to please with a black tapestry lobster and clamshell purse by My Maine Bag, $20 and up.
Around the bend and on the water, the Landmark Gallery, 31 Ocean Avenue, Kennebunkport (207-967-0020), contains a selection of fine Maine art and sculpture along with locally made lightship baskets. Sailors would create these handy baskets while at sea, and these tight-woven, wood-bottomed containers start at $105 for the "two-egger," and make a nice gift for mom. Or select a finely carved scrimshaw pocketknife, $160, and up, with lighthouses, whales tails, and ships at sea for dad. If you're especially lucky, you may even make it in time to purchase a hand-carved Santa, $150 and up, by Linda Littell, who makes just half a dozen a year and drops them off in time for the holidays.
Where to stay
The York Harbor Inn, Route 1A, York Harbor (800-343-3869), has been a long-standing favorite from the turn of the last century. This gracious clapboard inn overlooking York Harbor offers fifty-four rooms, starting at $99 for snug quarters above the main inn to more than twice that for a luxury suite next door with a Jacuzzi and gas fireplace. An expanded continental breakfast with fresh fruit, pastries, and blueberry muffins is included.
In the heart of Dock Square, the grand, federal-style Kennebunkport Inn, One Dock Square, Kennebunkport (800-248-2621), offers antique- and reproduction- filled rooms in its elegant Main Inn as well as snugger quarters in the Riverhouse, from $109. Overlooking the village and Dock Square, the inn has forty-nine rooms and a restaurant just steps away from village festivities and shopping.
Just three miles from Dock Square, The Waldo Emerson Inn, 108 Summer Street, Kennebunk (207-985-4250), is a historically distinctive house that once belonged to the great uncle of Ralph Waldo. With antique furniture, handmade quilts, and fireplaces in each room, the inn offers a full gourmet breakfast and plenty of local history. Room rates start at $95. Quilts are also for sale in the inn's carriage house.
Where to eat
Carla's, 241 York Street, York Village (207-363-4637), is a favorite breakfast and lunch spot that has been written up in Gourmet for its quaint, down-home dining room and delectable treats, including an ever-changing variety of scones, muffins, cakes, cookies, and pies. A tasty lunch is the seasoned, in-house roast turkey and stuffing sandwich on hearty bread with the café's own cranberry sauce. Open Monday through Friday, breakfasts are $3 and up.
In Ogunquit it is hard to miss Amore Breakfast, 178 Shore Road (207-646-6661), with its white and red décor and checkered tables. It is also one of the area's most popular breakfast eateries with tempting omelets such as the eastern-smoked salmon, red onion, capers, and cream cheese, $8.95. You'll also find fifteen varieties of eggs Benedict, as well as Belgian waffles and stuffed french toast. Closed Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Offering contemporary New England cuisine in a romantically restored antique barn, the White Barn Inn, 37 Beach Avenue, Kennebunkport (207-967-2321), is among the world's best restaurants. Open for dinner, the menu changes weekly with such specialties as crisp shrimp fritters, pan-seared scallops, or steamed lobster on a bed of fettuccine. The four-course, prix fixe meal is $89 per person, plus drinks, tax, and gratuity. Reservations are often booked months in advance, and dinner jackets are required for men.