The seacoast’s trio of classic vacation towns may have dimensions
you didn’t expect.
BY CAITLIN GILMET
So you think you know the Kennebunks? Quaint, frozen-in-time seaside villages full of cheerful WASPs and tourists in their tennis whites? Nostalgic folks in Vineyard Vines bowties sipping martinis on a dock with off-duty Secret Service agents?
Yeah, guess again, bub. Sure, the setting is blissful. Clapboard houses and shipbuilders’ mansions dotting white-sand beaches. Surf pounding on rocky coves from the Little River to Cape Porpoise to Goose Rocks Beach. But Kennebunk, Kennebunkport, and Arundel add up to more than just an upscale, seaside Rockwellian idyll. The Bunks have some working-town backbone, some agrarian crunch, and — above all — a lot of heart.
“We love our waterfront and its history,” says Laura Dolce, executive director of the Kennebunk-Kennebunkport-Arundel Chamber of Commerce, “along with our beaches and landscapes and the new businesses in town that are shaking things up.” At their core, Dolce says, the Kennebunks are a year-round community fiercely committed to preserving a way of life that’s anything but stuffy.
Explore the Working Waterfront
In the 17th century, shipbuilding was big business along the Mousam and Kennebunk rivers, and the mansions along Summer Street give a sense of what life was like for sea captains, shipwrights, and merchants before the vessels got too big for the rivers and tourists discovered the coastline. For a glimpse into some of Maine’s farthest-reaching maritime history, cruise on the schooner Eleanor (207-967-8809), which Captain Rich Woodman has been sailing since 1987.
You can also learn about today’s waterfront on the Rugosa (207-468-4095), a classic New England wooden lobsterboat offering tours and a chance to watch (or help) lobstermen haul traps. You’ll see gorgeous pleasure boats and whale-watching charters, sure, but you’ll also be out among the Bunks’ commercial fleet, a motley mix of working vessels chasing lobster, tuna, shrimp, and ground fish — traditions that have sustained families in the Kennebunks for generations.
The LAUNCH! Maritime Festival (June 13–17; 207-967-0857) celebrates those traditions with activities and events across the three towns, from a lighted boat parade to a lobsterbake to the Sailors & Sirens 5K (start planning your mermaid, sea creature, or captain costume now). The week winds down with a Sunday morning “blessing of the fleet” on Cape Porpoise Pier. “It’s a lovely, solemn moment that’s been honoring our fishermen and sailors for centuries,” Dolce says.
Hadn’t considered the Kennebunks for outdoor adventures? Reconsider. The Kennebunk and Mousam rivers offer some of the coast’s best tidal paddling and wildlife watching. Coastal Maine Kayak & Bike in Kennebunk (8 Western Ave.; 207-967-6065) does kayak and stand-up paddleboard rentals, as well as tours around Cape Porpoise Harbor. Owner Theresa Willette has a master’s degree in archeology and loves telling visitors about the 1782 Battle of Cape Porpoise.
Willette’s crew rents scooters too, and this summer, she’s opening Coastal Maine Cycle Cafe (169 Port Rd., Kennebunk), with a bike shop and cafeteria offering acai bowls, kombucha, biodegradable picnic boxes, and more. “We love to promote the the Kennebunks,” Willette says, “not just as a place to eat fancy food and shop, but as a spot with places to explore, from shipwrecks to a Franciscan monastery.” The St. Anthony Franciscan Friary (28 Beach Ave; 207-967-2011) is a Tudor-style estate with a network of walking trails among English gardens and shrines.
The Kennebunk Conservation Trust has conserved more than 2,200 semi-wild acres, including Kennebunkport’s 1,100-acre Edwin L. Smith Preserve (76 Guinea Rd.; 207-967-3465), underrated by everyone but in-the-know mountain bikers, for whom its tight switchbacks and flat rocks constitute sacred ground. They share the 10-mile trail network with hikers — also with white-tailed deer, bobcats, coyotes, and more. Hike the 1.7-mile Brook Loop to see waterfalls, or head down the 4.8-mile Trolley Loop through a sea of ferns.
Mix It Up
Yes, you can buy a flask in Dock Square that says “Kennedrunkport.” And yes, as tchotchke goes, that’s actually pretty funny. But the Kennebunks’ liquid culture runs deep and is plenty sophisticated — the Bunks are a hotbed of mixological talent, with bar menus around town offering adventurous, contemporary cocktails and clever nods to Vacationland’s lubricated history.
At Old Vines Wine Bar in Kennebunk’s Lower Village (173 Port Rd.; 207-967-2310) bar manager Charley Zimmerman spearheads a cocktail list that’s won fans among both thirsty tourists and her neighbors. “We have a strong local following, and we also have visitors who expect a big-city cocktail program with a Maine twist,” she says. “So we try to challenge our guests without being unapproachable, playing off cocktail classics.” It’s an approach that yields both a tangy blueberry Collins made with pickled local blueberries and more far-out craft drinks, like the Fall Into a Glass, a mix of Barr Hill honey vodka, pisco, carrot, lemon, and house-made gingersnap liqueur.
At the Burleigh restaurant at the Kennebunkport Inn (1 Dock Sq.; 207-967-2621), cocktails are inspired by the property’s historic roots, then tricked out with modern flourishes. So candied bacon garnishes bacon-infused rye in the Riverhouse Old-Fashioned, and the Frederick blends Jameson with Guinness and honey simple syrups. Burleigh manager Noelle Croce finds inspiration for cocktails everywhere — including a recent, ill-fated cruise vacation. “We were delayed, we were sick,” she remembers, “and then a passenger fell overboard.” Croce drank pineapple concoctions as her ship circled Cuba; back home, she developed the Perkins Line, a pineapple-and-vodka cocktail with house-made chipotle syrup and chipotle salt. It’s a smoky, spicy twist on a boat drink, named for a family that once owned the inn, because, as Croce explains, “History is the heart of what we do — with a sense of humor.”
Get around responsibly (and in high retro style) by calling HydiWagon (207-251-6611), which dispatches a fleet of ’80s-era station wagons with wood paneling. The cars seat six and roll from 5 to 11 p.m.
Go Back to the Land
The Kennebunks, Dolce declares, are “typically known as tourist destinations for their beauty and quality of life, but what makes this such a wonderful place is the year-round community that cares so deeply about preserving past and future.” Exhibit A: the Kennebunk Land Trust (207-985-8734; kennebunklandtrust.com), which has preserved some 3,400 acres of forest, fields, and waterways, including 300 acres of conservation easements.
“There’s a real commitment to our farms and farmland,” Dolce goes on. “The trust is very passionate about its work and has conserved hundreds of acres in just the last year.” Maine Farmland Trust also protected 154 acres of farmland back in 2012, when Tom’s of Maine founder Tom Chappell and his wife, Kate, donated agricultural easements on two of their farms, guaranteeing that the land will be used only for farming forever.
"There’s a real commitment to our farms and our farmland.”
The Kennebunk Farmers’ Market is “part of the fabric of life around here,” Dolce says. “Early peaches, mushrooms, fresh pasta, jam, flowers — you name it.” The market runs on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Look for Kennebunkport’s Four Star Fresh (650-743-8541), which makes tasty artisan pasta and polenta.
Outside the town centers, farmstands offer the feshest produce around. Head to Frinklepod Farm (244 Log Cabin Rd., Arundel; 207-289-5805), a diversified, MOFGA-certified organic farm growing veggies, fruits, herbs, and flowers. Frinklepod (say it again, it’s fun) offers CSA shares for summer produce or flowers, and the year-round farm store has all that along with gift-y products from across Maine. The farm also hosts cooking classes focused on plant-based eating and sells vegan “farm meal kits” that include a recipe and everything you need to make a natural, healthy meal for two. That’s the Kennebunks for you — preserving pastoral, old-school traditions while adding clever new spins.