Dock Square, the main drag of Kennebunkport, Maine, is a slip of road that sidles past a few shops and restaurants, humps over an old drawbridge and past a clam shack, then, as aimlessly as it arrived, drifts off towards Maine’s other coastal towns. The impression that there’s not much going on in Kennebunkport is unavoidable and that’s exactly why you should visit.
The trip up from Boston is a breezy hour and 40 minutes: I-95 out of the city weaves up through Portsmouth, New Hampshire, takes you under the green trusses of the Piscataqua River Bridge and into Maine, then just as the yellow moose-hazard signs begin to emerge on the shoulder, exit 25 beckons you off the interstate into a New England pastoral paradise.
The speed of the highway dissolves into a delta of roads with names like Saw Mill Road, Log Cabin Road and Lady Slipper Lane, that wind lazily through thickets of beech, tamarack and white ash trees. These woods give way to white clapboard barns with red roofs, and withering farmhouses spilling out of themselves onto pastures of green and yellow grass. With every turn of the road it seems a different salt marsh cuts through the landscape, their perfectly blue, glassy creeks wandering through the bright green Spartina grass like the roads that loll through the trees.
Farms and thick green trees dominate the landscape, yet a pile of seaweed-laced lobster traps or freshly painted Styrofoam buoys let on that something big and blue is always waiting around the next corner.
Throughout most of the state, the beach arrives suddenly, when mossy forests of pine stop abruptly and a rugged line of black rock ledges tumble into a frothing and freezing ocean. In Kennebunkport however, just south of the center of town, the tidal river marshes fan out and the tree line gradually thins, as the road narrows and skirts off in lanes of sand dotted with cottages and beach houses. Rather than dominating the coastline, two ledges of black rock cradle a vast swath of sand called Gooch’s Beach.
This long arc of sand is a fertile crescent of summertime leisure: long slow waves, fresh arrivals from Spain and North Africa, unfold with a crash along the flat sand, while surfers paddle to keep up. Golden retrievers and black labs wander from group to group like strays across the beach, as free of their owners as barefoot kids are from their parents on a summer day.
Then the heat begins to wane, the sun drops and people reach for sweaters as Maine’s cool ocean breeze creeps between them. Chairs, towels, books and baseball gloves are packed up and the town goes looking for a shower and dinner.
The Maine lobster is no mere stereotype, it’s a piece of the local identity. Along the many coves and inlets around Kennebunkport are numerous drooping shingled shacks where lobstermen pull their boats up to unload out back, while hungry customers file in to get their fill in front. It goes without saying that an ocean-to-boat-to-stomach lobster shack is about as good as it gets, so to put Kennebunkport to the test I stopped at a barn-red deli, a few miles inland, that was advertising lobster on a chalkboard propped out front. I ordered the chowder and a lobster roll, sat down at a picnic table and took a bite. Pure Dionysian ambrosia. If a nondescript, inland deli can make a lobster roll that good, I’ll leave it to you to find out what those coastal shacks can do.
It’s not all lobster and fried clams in Maine, however. Just like Portland to the north, Kennebunkport is a hub for farm-to-table, fresh, local and organic cooking; one of the best places to experience that in town is Bandaloop, a converted barn just around the corner from Dock Square. Inside, a warmly lit steel bar top is watched over by exposed wooden rafters. “Our focus is simple really, we just try to make local, healthy, fresh, good food. What more could anybody want?” they told me. The ingredients have a local freshness you can taste and see: the dishes spring to life in an array of color, and you walk away positively stuffed yet light on your feet.
When dinner is over and you’ve had your ice cream and a drink at one of the local bars, the next thing to do is settle in for the night.
There are beach houses, inns, seaside hotels, and cottage-ringed motels aplenty in Kennebunkport, but for a unique and properly Maine experience, consider a stay at Sandy Pines Campground. Tucked amongst the tidal flats of Goosefare Bay Wildlife Refuge, Sandy Pines is a traditional Maine campground with a twist: while you can pitch a tent or pull up your Airstream, just opened this season is a cluster of 430-square foot canvas tents furnished by New England interior designers. Each is equipped with a king-sized bed, seating areas, a front porch, and all the amenities of a hotel room except for the occasional chipmunk that may skitter in and out under the tent flap.
Sleeping in them is a wonder: One moment you’re standing in the pitch darkness of the Maine woods, then with a step and the move of a flap you find yourself in a dimly lit bohemian pad; lying in bed the steady crash of ocean waves on the nearby Goose Rocks Beach filters through the trees and dissolves into the white noise of the woods; come morning, the rising rays fall on the tent and the canvas glows with the morning light and blanketing warmth. It’s an unforgettable experience and the perfect cap to a quiet Kennebunkport day.