48 Hours In...The Kennebunks
November + December 2010 | By Melissa Coleman | Photographs Bob Dennis, Brad Maushart, & CA Smith Photography | Illustration by Jennifer Judd-McGee
48 hours, and more, of our favorite places to browse, eat, listen, drink, shop, play, and stay
“The season” in the Kennebunks doesn’t end when the snow flies. In fact, Christmas Prelude hosts as many visitors and attractions as summer, and from what I gather, both visitors and locals alike truly love Prelude—despite, or perhaps because of, the crowds and extra business. Now in its twenty-ninth year, the event decks a week and two weekends with all manner of holiday cheer.
George Herbert Walker Bush will always be “The President” in the Kennebunks, no matter who currently holds the office. This isn’t a political statement—the resident elephant-to-donkey ratio is very nearly fifty-fifty, and the Democratic Party headquarters sits prominently in the heart of town. Rather, people who live and visit here seem to have an apolitical respect for the man who has been a summer resident and friend of the town for decades, and whose home on Walker’s Point is perhaps its most famous attraction.
It’s a treat to have friends in the Kennebunks, presidential or not, and I’m lucky to know some locals and former residents who have shared with me their favorite things to do during the holiday season in Kennebunkport and Kennebunk’s Lower Village, including some highlights from the surrounding area.
The classic main street running through the adjoining downtowns of Kennebunkport and Kennebunk’s Lower Village (separated only by a slim bridge over the Kennebunk River) is not a major thoroughfare. This is both a good and a bad thing—good because the town retains that off-the-beaten-path feel, but bad if you’re trying to drive through it. So yes: the best way to enjoy town is to park on the outskirts or stay at one of the many close-by lodging options, and venture in on foot.
The festivities begin on Thursday, December 2, with a 5:00 p.m. champagne reception hosted by the Kennebunkport Historical Society at the Nott House. The signature event is the Friday, December 3, tree lighting at Dock Square (5:30 p.m.) followed by the lobster-trap tree lighting in Cape Porpoise Square (7:00 p.m.). While you’re there, check out the views of Goat Island Light, a classic Maine lighthouse, in Cape Porpoise Harbor. After that there are bonfires and hot cocoa aplenty back in town, as well as caroling parties, and a fish-chowder supper. Don’t forget to participate in the historic walking tours departing from the Nott House or horse-drawn wagon rides from Cross Street throughout the weekend.
Saturday, December 4, brings pancake breakfasts and just about every kind of craft fair you can imagine, as well as the Fourth Annual Hat Parade which begins at 3:00 p.m. The Lower Village tree lighting is at 5:30 p.m., followed by a group walk to St. Anthony’s Franciscan Monastery on Beach Avenue. Not to be missed is the monastery’s candlelight caroling concert at 6:30 p.m. in the monastery’s outdoor theater, plus roasted chestnuts provided by the White Barn Inn and Grissini Italian Bistro which can be found at the monastery gates.
On Sunday, December 5, Santa rides a lobster boat up the Kennebunk River and arrives at the Landing Restaurant at 2:00 p.m. Make sure to get there early to stake out a viewing spot from the bridge. Santa’s next visit is to Cape Porpoise Square via fire truck a week later at the same time, on December 12. Note: As the Prelude website states, “Programs and events are subject to change,” so be sure to check dates and times at christmasprelude.com.
There aren’t many settings lovelier than a classic New England town with a harbor perched at the mouth of a river, and an expanse of sparkling sea and sandy beaches beyond. Add to that a dusting of snow, decorative holly garlands, and grand shingle-style homes, and you can see why Prelude is so popular.
Prelude is also the ideal atmosphere for indulging in a little gallery hopping and holiday shopping. I’ve been told to start any such tour with a cup of something hot at H.B. Provisions on the Lower Village side of the bridge. From there you can venture further into Kennebunk by taking a right on Port Road. Head for Keys to the Kitchen, which describes itself as having “everything for your kitchen but the kitchen sink,” Fleurant Flowers & Design for unique and inspired floral arrangements and gifts, and Kennebooks for a good read (ready to tackle Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom yet?) or another hot drink in the store’s cafe below. Then head back to H.B. Provisions, cross the street to Maine Art Gallery, and check out the ubiquitous Lyman Whitaker wind sculptures that can also be seen spinning around town. If Lilly Pulitzer fashions are your thing, cross back to the prepster’s paradise Pink Tangerine, or continue on through the tourist shops to Dock Square and Compliments Gallery for high-end jewelry and glass, lighting, and ceramic arts and gifts.
Everyone’s favorite shop is Daytrip Society, which has an eclectic collection of Maine-made nature-chic, including Sea Bags, Swans Island Blankets, Angela Adams and Alisha Gould stationery, Erin Flett pillows, and Pinecone + Chickadee cards. Minka features a similar eco-chic selection of locally made art, jewelry, all-natural salves, and candles. Turn onto Ocean Avenue and poke into the Landmark Gallery for maritime scenes painted by the owner, David Fouts, and beautiful river views out the back window. Continue past the yacht club to Dannah for their selection of self-described “fanciful accessories,” and Spaces Kennebunkport for classy home accents. Turn back and pass by Greene Street’s historic mansion inns to Maine Street. The children’s murals by Louis Norton at Louis T. Graves Memorial Public Library are worth a look, and don’t miss the Pasco Lecture Series reading on Sunday, November 14, at 2:00 p.m. featuring Yarmouth-based writer Lily King, whose latest book is the riveting and beautifully written bestseller Father of the Rain.
Next stop on Maine Street is Mast Cove Galleries, which represents more than eighty-five artists and is located in a lovely Greek Revival building. Then turn left onto Spring Street (Route 9) to see Brad Maushart’s photography at F-8 Gallery, located in a 200-year-old sea captain’s barn on the edge of Dock Square.
You may already know from experience (and September’s Eat Maine column) that Kennebunk and Kennebunkport are home to a number of fine warm-weather eateries. Thanks to Prelude, many of these places are still open in December, and some claim to do more business on its first weekend than at the height of August.
Bandaloop is the popular go-to, featuring two airy rooms, a lively bar, local organic ingredients, and hormone-free meats—try the “egg rolls” if you’re looking for an appetizer with a twist. Other meet-and-eat favorites include Big Fish, a prime sidewalk-side venue for people-watching on the Lower Village side of the bridge, and Old Vines Wine Bar on Port Road for a refined evening of wine and tapas, open till midnight. There’s Hurricane Restaurant for local Spinney Creek or Damariscotta Wiley Point oysters at the bar. Alisson’s Restaurant and Federal Jack’s Restaurant and Brew Pub pack everyone in for lunch, dinner, and late-night revelry. During Prelude, check for live music and karaoke from 10:00 p.m. to midnight. Alisson’s also has a long-running rivalry with the Clam Shack on the bridge for the best lobster roll—the winner will be announced on Travel Channel’s Food Wars, scheduled to air November 3.
The well-known triumvirate of the White Barn Inn, Grissini Italian Bistro, and the Breakwater Inn’s Stripers Seafood Restaurant were nurtured for years by the omnipresent and much loved Laurie Bongiorno, whose recent passing is still mourned by the town. The White Barn Inn’s excellence in the local and fresh ingredient category has inspired a number of venues with a similar focus, including 50 Local a few miles away in downtown Kennebunk, a location one friend frequents to escape the crowds in the Lower Village.
Cape Porpoise’s Pier 77 Restaurant and the Ramp Bar & Grill offer yet another excuse for a food field trip, with tourists heading for a nice meal at Pier 77 and locals to the Ramp below for its variations on pub food and boathouse kitsch. And, hands down, the best dinner with a view of the Atlantic (and the Bush compound on Walker's Point) is the Cape Arundel Inn.
“It’s hard to go wrong with the lodging options in the Kennebunks,” said one innkeeper I met. And it’s true that there’s something for everyone, from the historic “Captains” to the secluded gems and the grand resorts.
Captain Fairfield Inn, Captain Lord Mansion, and Captain Jefferds Inn—“The Captains,” as they are known locally—are neighboring mansions built by three sisters who all married sea captains, and although one of the captains was lost at sea, the homes remain as fine examples of early Federal-style architecture. The quiet historic neighborhood is an easy walk to downtown. I stayed at the nine-room Captain Fairfield Inn, where innkeepers Finn and Loryn treated me with just the right balance of personal service, comfortable accommodations, and an inspired breakfast.
The “gems” are the well-loved hideaways that you may not have heard about but that are well worth seeking out. Many of these are closed during winter, such as Cabot Cove Cottages and Hidden Pond, but the Gott family’s beautifully decorated Bufflehead Cove Inn remains open. Located on a lovely riverside property just outside of town, the inn features five rooms and a cottage, locally sourced breakfasts, and an afternoon wine-and-cheese reception.
The resorts are the ones you have likely heard about, and they generally entail expansive buildings, Old World charm, and heated pools. There’s the classically rambling Colony Hotel, situated on a point above the sea, which has been providing elegant hospitality since 1914 but is closed in winter. Across the road is the similarly grand Nonantum Resort on the edge of the river, and about a mile and a half from town is the Rhumb Line Resort, billed as “Kennebunkport’s affordable resort.” Spas abound, as you might expect, including the celebrated ones at the White Barn Inn and Spa, the Breakwater Inn & Spa, and the stand-alone Cottage Breeze Day Spa & Boutique. On the other end of the spectrum, the Franciscan Guest House is described by one friend as “a camp with hotel amenities,” and is affordable and close to town.
While many accommodations are booked a year in advance for the first weekend of Prelude, it’s worth asking about the second weekend. Still no luck? Come back in January when it’s nice and quiet. It may be winter on the coast of Maine, but that doesn’t deter the seasoned locals, or Nanci’s Aquaholics Surf Shop surfing students, from heading for the waves on Gooch’s Beach with their boards and full-body wetsuits. Others might prefer a quiet stroll on windy Goose Rocks Beach or along the Carson Trail at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. After the frenzy of the holidays, nature always brings renewal.