Sun and the sand are primary reasons for heading, lemming-like, to the seashore in summer. The Maine coast around Kennebunkport has some of the best beaches in the Northeast, with miles of fine sand and gentle surf, but it also offers a variety of things to do when the sun doesn’t shine.
The Kennebunk-Kennebunkport region is about two and a half hours from Keene, but it is a different world entirely. In addition to the beaches, which range from long stretches of dune-backed sand to secluded little rock-bound coves, there are trails and wildlife to discover, bicycling routes to explore, tidal estuaries to kayak, ocean cruises to enjoy and some of the finest seafood dining on the East coast – especially lobster.
The hive of activity in Kennebunkport is on either side of the Lanigan Bridge, which crosses the Kennebunk River and links the Kennebunk Lower Village on its west side with Kennebunkport on its east. Sidewalks on the bridge make it easy to explore the shops and dining options of both banks.
The town’s port with its working lobster and fishing boats, sailing and other pleasure craft are visible from the south side of the bridge. Also docked off the bridge is the sailing ship Spirit of Massachusetts, the last ship built in Boston’s Charlestown Naval Shipyard and a veteran of more than 500,000 miles on the world’s oceans, now a popular floating restaurant.
On the Kennebunk Lower Village side of the bridge, a turn south onto Beach Avenue leads to a series of wide sand beaches along the Atlantic: Gooch’s Beach, Middle Beach and Mother’s Beach. These beaches were favorite places for the late Barbara Bush to walk her dogs. Parking passes, required in the summer, are available at the Kennebunk Town Hall (207-985-2102, or kennebunkmaine.us/308/Beach-Passes).
Another way to get to the beaches is via the trolley, which runs hourly ($15 all day), but note that the last trolley back to town starts its circuit at 4 p.m. The trolley also makes one-hour tours, a good orientation to the two villages. Rockin’ Horse Stables also runs a horse-drawn carriage tour ($15), half an hour, daily from the trolley stop on Ocean Avenue.
To avoid the biggest crowds and find parking, arrive at the beaches early or in the late afternoon. You can check tide schedules with the hotel to be there at low tide, when the beach is biggest. Mother’s Beach, the last in this line, is particularly popular with families. It has a large fenced playground with all the climbing, sliding and challenges that kids love, right next to a beautiful cove beach where it’s easy to keep an eye on kids.
On the Kennebunkport side of the river head down Ocean Avenue, past the Nonantum Resort, to the smaller Colony Beach, also known as Arundel Beach. Again, low tide is the best time to find sand, but it is also popular for clambering over rocks on the seashore while waves dash themselves on the rocks all around.
Perhaps one of the best beaches in the area is Goose Rocks Beach in the north part of town. Route 9, on the Kennebunkport side of the river, continues north through Cape Porpoise, another village of Kennebunkport. Beyond Cape Porpoise, look for Dykes Road and turn right to the beach. King’s Highway runs along the beach shore. On your way out Ocean Avenue, look for the Bush family summer home at Walker’s Point. You can’t visit but there is a pullout where you can get a photo.
Explore the low rocky coast and tidal pools alongside Ocean Avenue by walking Parson’s Way around Cape Arundel, past Spouting Rock and Blowing Cave – rock formations that force the crashing sea into sudden spouts and bursts of spray. Another perspective on the shoreline is from the trails through the Rachel Carson Natural Wildlife Refuge, just off Route 9 (Western Avenue). The refuge is rich in birdlife, and its sea views stretch across the waving grasses of the saltmarshes.
While I am not a shopper, I still find it fascinating to poke around in the small shops and galleries that cluster on both sides of the river and around Dock Square and Ocean Avenue. Handcrafted gifts, a forgotten bit of beach clothing or just a souvenir; you will find it here.
For women’s clothing, stop at This is It; for Maine-made crafts browse in The Port; and for jewelry made from Maine’s state stone – tourmaline – look in Coastal Jewelers on Dock Square. To satisfy a sweet tooth, look around Dock Square for the Candyman Fudge Shop and close by Saltwater Taffy, which also sells fudge and chocolates
What I find the most fascinating are the number of shops and galleries selling artwork by Maine and New England artists. Original art is really appreciated here, with many galleries showing and selling original works in oils, watercolor and other media.
Around Dock Square and out Ocean Avenue, look for the Northlight Gallery, True North Gallery and Thompson and Company, shops run by artists Jill and Harry Thompson. In addition to their own works, they show those of a number of other extremely talented artists, both well-known and emerging. The subjects range from the Maine coast and nautical themes to portraits and abstracts, and the atmosphere of the galleries is low-key, as comfortable for casual browsers as for serious collectors.
One of the most popular shops is the Stadium Gallery on Dock Square, which features photography and art related to sports and sports figures. Look here not only for those big stadium shots, but sports figures as well.
Lodging options in Kennebunkport are in as wide a range as shopping, both in style and price. You can step into the restored homes of prosperous 19th-century ship owners and captains at the Captain Jefferds Inn (captainjefferdsinn.com) and the Captain Lord Mansion (captainlord.com). Both of these high-end inns are luxury experiences in elegant surroundings and are within easy walking distance of Dock Square.
For a full-service resort with a grand hotel flavor, the Nonantum Resort stretches along the banks of the Kennebec River, just a half mile or so from it’s opening to the sea. Although its rooms are contemporary in décor and have all the necessary 21st-century amenities, the resort maintains an old New England feeling with its wide front porch and lawns sweeping to the waterfront. Along with traditional games like shuffleboard, and a pool, the resort has kayaks for paddles in the Kennebec River and a marina (in case you come in your own yacht).
The Ketch Pineapple, a gorgeous sailing ship, conducts two-hour sailing trips as well as other cruises from the resort’s dock (pineappleketch.com). Rugosa, a classic wooden Maine lobster boat, also does regular lobster cruises from the Nonantum dock. (rugosalobstertours.com) Another attractive option, the motel-style Rhumb Line Resort, is out of town and not within walking distance. It has both indoor and outdoor pools and is budget friendly.
Stillman (Tim) Rogers is a travel writer and photographer, author of “It Happened in New Hampshire” and co-author of “New Hampshire Off the Beaten Path.” He blogs about travel news and destinations at bestgetaways.wordpress.com.