Renovations and Renewal at Kennebunk’s White Barn Inn

Recently acquired by Auberge Resorts Collection, the iconic inn offers year-round lodging, relaxing spa treatments, and impressive on-site dining.

Renovations and Renewal at Kennebunk’s White Barn Inn

Recently acquired by Auberge Resorts Collection, the iconic inn offers year-round lodging, relaxing spa treatments, and impressive on-site dining.

by Sandy Lang
Photography by Peter Frank Edwards

Issue: January // February 2023

I see them in the sea fog. Just a few surfers out there, and some bundled up people walking on the gray expanse of wet sand, off-leash dogs running ahead. Everyone’s silhouetted in the silvery mist. It’s mid-March, and the marsh grass along the tidal creeks won’t be summer-green for months in the Kennebunks. Trees are bare, and the salt air is so brisk it feels sharp. Forecasts are for flurries later in the week. And I’m leaning into it all. Mud season is underway—no carpet of snow, but you still need boots and sweaters. The frozen ground is thawing, and the scenery and crowds are spare.

These end-of-winter days are also known as “fake spring,” according to a woman at the White Barn Inn, Auberge Resorts Collection, whom I meet a few minutes later, just after photographer Peter Frank Edwards and I check in. She’s right: there’s no sign of new leaves and blooms, but I swear the air smells green with the promise of what’s ahead. Besides, it’s perfectly warm by the brick hearth in the inn’s mid-1800s farmhouse, which is within a half-mile of the ocean, and even closer to Dock Square and the Kennebunk River.

I settle into a chair by the fireplace in the steel blue painted parlor where guests gather. I’m still thinking of that monochrome seascape down at the beach. A quieter scene is just what I’d hoped for on this trip, to better immerse myself in the landmark inn’s coziness, and maybe find some head-clearing peacefulness before the buzz of spring and summer.

Renewal Everywhere

At a circa-1859 farm in Kennebunk, the landmark White Barn Inn includes two restaurants inside historic barns. Guest rooms and the spa are located in the renovated farmhouse.

The inn itself is likewise in a phase of renewal. During the pandemic, the original portions of the 150-plus-year-old property underwent a comprehensive design renovation, including the addition of Little Barn, a more casual option to the much-lauded, AAA Five Diamond, Forbes Five-Star dining at the White Barn Inn Restaurant.

Reflecting its evolving history as a saltwater farm, Civil War–era boarding house, ice creamery, and eventual inn, the rooflines of the original farmhouse, additions, and two barns meet in an L-shape set back from Beach Avenue. The tall barn was fully renovated into the White Barn Inn Restaurant by 1973, and actually is painted white on the outside (the main inn’s exterior is blue). Tall windows at the front and rear of the barn let in natural light, so you can already get a glimpse inside when walking up. Even the gray day brings light streaming onto massive vases of flowers and a baby grand piano, white-tablecloth-draped tables, and the original wooden floors, beams, and haylofts above. A large chandelier hangs above the entry beside a well-stocked bar. And because everything’s connected, it’s possible to walk from guest rooms upstairs at the inn to the spa, bar, restaurant, and Little Barn—all without going outdoors.

Shortly after we arrive, we’ve got spirit-free libations in hand and executive sous chef Wilson Suliveras stops by our fireside parlor seats with a tray of mini lobster rolls as a preview—each is a lobster bite on toasted brioche topped with caviar, truffle, and the tangy zip of rice vinegar mayonnaise. Originally from Puerto Rico, Suliveras trained at the Culinary Institute of America in New York and is known to be particularly good at pastas. Now I can’t wait for dinner. We have reservations at the restaurant for the following night. (Since our visit, Mathew Woolf has arrived to helm the kitchen at the White Barn and Little Barn. He moved to Maine from New York City, where he was the executive chef and pastry chef at the Rainbow Room, after beginning his culinary career in London.)

We continue exploring and making ourselves at home in the inn, which has 27 guest rooms, a spa, a pool, and gardens. Interior design firm Jenny Wolf Interiors of New York led the most recent design changes, including new Farrow and Ball paint colors, upholstery and curtains in soft velvets and some plaids, and throws of sheep’s wool. The style is rustic modern, European country estate meets New England. (The inn was recently acquired by Auberge Resorts Collection, which also has resorts in California wine country, the Colorado mountains, and at several Mexico beaches.) Comfort is everywhere at the White Barn, along with interesting details. I’m captivated by the art selections. Vintage and contemporary pieces include historic photographs, large seascape paintings by Frank Handlen of Kennebunkport, and a coastal forest mural on the Little Barn walls by Dean Barger, who has a studio on Mount Desert Island. The dream-like glow of the mural is familiar, and I later learn that I’d seen another of his works on visits to New York City: a Barger mural is behind the bar at the restaurant Le Coucou in SoHo.

Speaking of bars, a bartender is giving a cocktail-making lesson to a couple of guests when I walk past—a concoction with mint leaves and green-tea-infused gin that has everyone smiling and talking giddily. It looks like a good time, and is one of the optional food and drink activities guests can choose from when booking.

By now, it’s late afternoon, and Peter Frank and I have been smelling wonderful aromas from the kitchen since our arrival. We drop our bags in our room, freshen up, and both realize we’d rather stay in for dinner at Little Barn than go out. It’s a tavern-cozy room with soft light on the mural-painted walls and a fireplace at one end. We’re early, and only a few tables are filled, so when a man dining solo nearby says hello, we get to talking and fall into a conversation about travel and food. A corporate executive from Florida, he’s been staying frequently at the inn while checking on the house with guest rooms and a wine cellar that he’s building about a mile away on the oceanfront. He’s ordered the half-chicken, too, and when our orders arrive, we all remark on how perfectly roasted it is, with a bit of crisp to the skin. Peter Frank and I also share a side of turmeric-pickled cauliflower that’s tossed with feta cheese and a campanelle pasta with Bolognese sauce. It’s a terrific first meal, with the bonus of meeting a fellow guest, which makes it more like a small dinner party.

Watching Tides and Waves

One of the White Barn Inn’s recently updated guest rooms.

Our room is not in the original farmhouse but in one of the White Barn’s newer cottages across the street, perched on a private landing along the Kennebunk River. Soft greens, blues, and sand colors are the palette of the furnishings here, and we leave the blinds open to watch the boats and the river rising and falling with the tides. The inn has stocked the room with snacks and drinks, and there’s wood stacked and ready for the fireplace, which we light after dinner. In the morning a thermos of hot coffee is delivered to the doorstep along with pastries. Breakfasts of made-to-order farm eggs, fruit-oat smoothies, and other specialties are also available in Little Barn. We could relax all morning, but we want to get out and explore.

Near the entrance of the White Barn, we see a group wearing backpacks, and they tell us they’re part of a local walking club nearing the midpoint of a six-mile coastal hike. Their lunch destination is the 60-acre grounds of the St. Anthony Franciscan Monastery on the river side of Beach Avenue, where they plan to unpack a picnic. It’s open to the public, and we’re headed there too, to wander the riverside walking paths and gardens designed by the Olmsted Brothers, landscape architects of the firm founded by Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park. There we see tall evergreens framing the stone buildings and hear a variety of busy birdlife, including chickadees, mallard ducks, geese, and towhees.

The misting fog is setting in again, so we take a drive up Ocean Avenue along the rocky shorefront and stop for the view near the sea spout that splashes high above the rocks in a saltwater plume and again at the Walker’s Point lookout in Kennebunkport (compound of the Bush family). We don’t go far, though, and spend much of the day on a slow tour of the rolling, coast-hugging road to Cape Porpoise and back. In the afternoon, inspired by seasonal menus and the Maine outdoors we’ve been observing, we’re tempted by the “Nurture and Nourish” spa offerings at the White Barn: wraps, soaks, and massage treatments, plus special punch cocktails and treats made with ingredients such as local honey, berries, ginger, and maple syrup.

When it’s time to dine again, we’re headed for a lamplit table in the barn, to experience some of the traditions and flavors that have brought the White Barn so much acclaim. The specialness begins as soon as we sit down and get a close-up view of the rooster sculpture on the table—it’s made completely from fine silver cutlery, a work by French sculptor Gérard Bouvier. Each table is adorned with a similar custom piece. (On other tables are the glimmering forms of other roosters and wild-life, including toucans and crabs.) Chris Bayley, our table’s server, shares that it’s his twenty-ninth year at the White Barn, and he explains that the sculptures have been a guest favorite for decades. From a wine cellar of about 500 bottles, he pops open a bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne as we settle into the prix fixe menu—guests choose either four courses or a six-course lobster-focused menu. We taste seared scallops arranged with slivers of radish, a creamy butternut squash soup topped with pepitas, and tender tagliatelle pasta with Maine lobster. From a tour of the wine cellar—and a wonderful glass of cabernet franc—to coffees with the S’mores Baked Alaska dessert, it’s a night of indulgence and high service, including a visit from the sous chef, checking in at each table mid-meal.

The next morning, we wake again to Kennebunk views and the sound of gulls. I sense a gentleness outside, another day when the fog rarely lifts. It’s like there’s a hush over the world. Everyone’s awaiting spring—or, like me, reveling in the peace and rejuvenation of these in-between days.

A White Barn Stay, Kennebunk

The White Barn Inn and Spa is part of the Auberge Resorts Collection and offers year-round lodging in the historic farmhouse and its newer cottages. Guests may book cooking and cocktail-making classes, farm visits, and seasonal excursions, from bicycling to snowshoeing. Spa offerings include individual and couples’ treatments, and the inn features two on-site dining options: the White Barn Inn Restaurant (celebrating its 50th year) and the newly added, more casual Little Barn.
37 Beach Ave., Kennebunk

There’s plenty of antiquing nearby, including these two favorites:

R. Jorgensen Antiques
502 Post Rd., Wells

Antiques on Nine
81 Western Ave., Kennebunk
On Facebook @antiquesonnine

Art inspired by the sea can be found at Landmark Gallery, located on Kennebunk Harbor. The gallery shows regional artists and marine subjects.
31 Ocean Ave., Kennebunkport

For a fresh-air walk, head to St. Anthony Franciscan Monastery, established in 1947 along the tidal Kennebunk River with woodland and riverside trails and gardens, an outdoor stone chapel, and monuments.
28 Beach Ave., Kennebunk

Kennebunk beaches and Kennebunkport’s Dock Square shopping and dining begin within a half-mile of the White Barn Inn.

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