Sun-kissed KPT

Yes, there’s the sheltered curve of swim-ready Goose Rocks Beach, and the requisite stroll into the bustle and shops of Dock Square, but a very short drive inshore from the summer flurry is where we’re staying for this Kennebunkport getaway- in a bungalow just down the pay from the garden torchlight and fireside kitchens of Earth, at the wooded retreat of Hidden Pond.

Summer’s such an ephemeral state, especially in Maine. You’ve got your choices to make. Paramount is where to be when the clear-light days arrive—where to soak up the glorious days of sunlit warmth.

For a getaway, we head to southern shores. Hidden Pond is a 60-acre haven in the birch trees and firs of Kennebunkport that I first stopped by a few years ago. It was just before the resort officially opened for the season and the staff that day seemed energized by the promise of summer. They led me to a just-built bungalow for a peek inside, and then to the woodsy environs of Earth. The restaurant is built and decorated with so many natural elements—tree trunks and limbs hang from the ceiling are used for table bases—that it looks as if the building is a living thing, and that it grew, whole, right out of the ground.

I knew then that I’d like to experience this closer-to-nature resort in the summer. Finally, it’s time. Photographer Peter Frank Edwards and I make a plan and steal away for a couple of weekdays when it’s sunny and the temperatures are dreamy, with highs in the low 80s. We reserve a table at Earth, too. I don’t want to miss that experience. Earth’s menus are centered around locally farmed and foraged ingredients. The resort and restaurant are open from May to October each year, and are well-booked in the height of the growing and beach seasons.

Unpaved upscale

Right after arriving, I meet a young couple who were married in Scarborough over the weekend. Their stay at Hidden Pond is a mini-honeymoon, they explain, a nearby hideaway to kick back for a few days after all of the emotional highs and hoopla of the wedding. They have Hidden Pond suggestions for me. Pick flowers in the garden for your cottage, they say, and make sure to go to Goose Rocks Beach.

While checking in I meet manager Justin Grimes, who grew up in Ogunquit. As he shows me around the lodge and the cozy- sized bar on the back porch—it’s named the Back Porch Bar—we talk about some of Hidden Pond’s amenities and low-key activities, including a garden where guests are welcome to pick flowers, tomatoes, berries, and lettuces. A car isn’t necessary once here, everyone drives slowly, if at all, down the resort’s dirt roads. Guests can walk or ride a bicycle for their entire stay, Grimes tells me—the resort provides beach-style cruisers with wide, fat tires and soft seats. A shuttle is available for easy transport to Goose Rocks Beach just a mile away and to the restaurants and shops in town.

At my own bungalow lodging, I step onto a screened porch that would be big enough for a small party or to stretch out and fall asleep on the summer’s warmest nights. Directly inside is a white vaulted ceiling and walls painted chocolate-bar brown. The primary space is one large room with a fireplace, sofa, and upholstered chairs, and the king-sized bed, made deep with fluffy comforters and pillows, is a focal point.

Down a hallway is a wood-paneled bath suite with indoor and outdoor showers. From every large window I see leafy greenery.

After settling in, I hop on one of those resort bikes for some exploring and count more than a dozen other such cottages for two. Nearer the central lodge are just as many larger cottages, sized for families. Yet I can feel a pervasive sense of privacy here. Trees afford you that. As if to illustrate the idea, I pedal around a curve and see a pregnant woman standing among the trees. She’s wrapped in a beautiful sari—actually a bit unwrapped, holding the flowing fabric loosely. In the moment, I imagine I’m seeing a mythological goddess. Then I notice a  photographer with a large camera a few yards off. I’ve happened upon a naturally gorgeous scene and what’s sure to be a lovely mother-to-be portrait.

Fire inside

The story goes that Earth restaurant was created after Hidden Pond owner Tim Harrington invited friends for stays there as the resort was being developed; one of them was chef Ken Oringer of the Boston restaurants Clio, Uni, and Coppa. Many evenings were spent around bonfires and cooking dinners using local seafood, herbs, and vegetables. The idea for Earth was born. I had the chance to interview Chef Oringer shortly after Earth opened in 2010 when he described the look and feel as “rustic but elegant, which is what Kennebunkport is all about. You just want to relax.”

Earth is an amazing space to walk inside, from the giant fireplace at one end to the kitchen’s wood-fired oven at the other, and hanging overhead is an entire upside-down apple tree made into a chandelier. Photographer Peter Frank Edwards joins me at a table beside open windows, overlooking the garden and pond. Torches are lit outside at the adjoining Farm Bar, and a bonfire is set. Almost every table is seated and much of the light inside and out is from candles or fire, while the energy is pure electric with food and conversation.

This is a place to share dishes, and I taste all I can. There’s a charred broccoli with tomato curry and chamomile yogurt, crab toast topped with tiny edible flowers, and garlicky wood-fired meatballs. With glasses of a syrah/merlot blend and an Oxbow saison (for Peter Frank) it’s a delicious, no-rush dinner as the sun sets. The tomato salad with ultra-thin slices of pickled nectarines is a favorite, and I love the deep, rich flavor of the maltagliati—a house-made stinging nettle pasta.

Leading Earth’s kitchen these days is Chef Justin Walker, who looks a bit like a young Andy Garcia or Al Pacino and cooked for 15 years at Arrows in Ogunquit before joining Earth in 2013. When we first see him, Walker’s just stepped from the fiery kitchen to the garden to pluck cherry tomatoes with skins so dark red they look black. His wife, Danielle, is the general manager of Earth, and she’s busy with the front-of-house operations. The couple lives with their young son on Danielle’s family’s 17-acre farm in Cape Neddick, where, the chef explains, they do some of their own farming, raise dairy goats, and forage for mushrooms.

When we make our way to leave I see again something I’d noticed earlier. The staff
in the dining room wears all black. When each person steps back from a table after bringing wine or clearing a plate, he or she disappears. That must be intentional; another way the darkness of the Maine night blurs the indoor and outdoors at Earth.

Beach splash

The next morning in Kennebunkport I wake to find pastries on our doorstep— actually in a satchel on a hook just next to the door. The basket of breakfast treats is dropped off at the bungalow each day. That means guests can stay in their robes a while longer—at least that’s what I do.

For after-breakfast exploring, I pass an outdoor yoga class in a meadow and follow trails in the woods. At the garden I see tomatoes and herbs for the picking and make a small bouquet of flowers in a canning jar. I want to take them to the bungalow, but first is a stop at the Tree Spa, where treatment rooms are along a system of wooden decks and boardwalks. The light-touch Pure Therapy Massage is popular, according to massage therapist Crystal Goede of Wells. Before her next client arrives, Goede shows me one of the treehouse-like treatment rooms and talks about being inspired by the elasticity of the birch trees she works near daily—they bend in the wind but don’t break. She offers to put a dot of oil on the back of my neck. “It’s peppermint oil and lavender, a tension remedy,” she explains as I lift my hair. “This will naturally let your body breathe better.”

Refreshed, it’s time to head to town. I’ve decided that I need a duffel bag for an upcoming camping trip. At Daytrip Society in Dock Square I buy several small gifts for friends, and at the retail shop of the Port Canvas Company I find just what I’m looking for. It’s the roomy Long Range Sailor model in solid blue—a classic made by a company that’s been sewing sturdy bags and duffels in Kennebunkport since 1968.

My next stop is at H. B. Provisions, the jumble- crowded general store with wine, coffee, cookies, newspapers, and other necessities, including sandwiches and cooked-to-order hot food. While I’m waiting to pay for a lobster roll, I happen to be standing next to Canadian comedian Caroline Rhea, who tells me she’s in Kennebunkport for the summer. She is the woman who played Hilda on Sabrina the Teenage Witch in the 1990s and she’s had about 30 appearances on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, but at that moment I don’t recognize her, and she gets a kick out of that. “Actually, Helen and Bonnie are more famous than me!” she says about the store’s founding owners, Helen Thorgalsen and Bonnie Clement, who made headlines when they married in 2013 with Kennebunkport summer residents President George H. W. Bush and Barbara Bush in attendance.

Back at Hidden Pond, we head to the Back Porch Bar. I can see through the trees the faces of other guests glowing with light. Torches are aflame and sparks float above a fire pit and into the evening sky that’s slowly changing from slate blue to black. The pool shimmers. A line-up of cabana beds with soft cushions and flowing, saffron-colored linens are part of the backdrop. So is an outdoor ping pong table for play. Before we head for dinner at the Ramp, a few miles away in Cape Porpoise, we join a few other guests who are sitting in Adirondack chairs arranged in a circle around the fire.

Everyone’s talking of favorite memories of their stays at Hidden Pond. I recall one of mine. Earlier in the day, Peter Frank and I followed Goose Rocks Road, past the salt marsh and beach houses, and made our way down the beach path in front of the Tides Beach Club. (The Tides is a sister property to Hidden Pond.) From the lineup of yellow beach chairs and white umbrellas I watched the serene slick of saltwater. People who were out for a walk looked like ants on a shoreline that curves in both directions, up and down the beach. Timber Island is out there. A man in blue jeans had fallen asleep in a chair a few yards away with a book tented across his face. A sailboat gently rocked on its mooring beyond the breakers.

Suddenly, a ruckus and splashing of water breaks the calm. Three men run into the water in bathing suits, laughing and shouting out to each other all the way. Then a fourth, who’d been walking with them, runs into the water too—wearing only what looks to be white underwear. That brings even more yelps and laughter. The whole scene is pure joy, and just the kind of freeform fun that summer inspires. Around the fire at Hidden Pond, we all clink a cheers to that.