Kennebunkport is one of those quintessential New England towns which, of course, will always wear its blue-blood associations with the Bush dynasty on its sleeve. We love it all the same – and having spent untold hours in the Berkshires and Vermont of late, we decided to edge a little further north to Maine for that inimitable experience: the autumn seaside weekend.
Endlessly picturesque, Kennebunkport remains a living ode to old-fashioned Americana, which actually aligns it perfectly with the current travel zeitgeist; yet there’s more to this charming village than nostalgia. Beyond the corner lobster shacks and sandy beaches, a sophisticated hotel and food scene has emerged. Could Kennebunkport become an alternative to the Hamptons, a less crowded Cape Cod, or even the “new” Nantucket?
Although best known as a summer retreat, Kennebunkport is indeed equally enchanting in the fall. And, without the traffic congestion, the drive is a very manageable five hours from New York City. Local hospitality has undergone a renaissance in the last few years, rising to the standards of urbane urbanistas, with a number of classic inns, beachside resorts, beautifully renovated manor houses, and even enclaves of tiny temporary homes offering right-size accommodations for virtually every manner of traveller.
We hit the road on a rainy Thursday evening, arriving at the Tides Beach Club just in time for a welcome glass of prosecco by the fireplace in its coastal-chic lobby. Then we headed up to our impossibly stylish, Jonathan Adler-designed suite and slipped between the high-thread-count Frette sheets.
The next morning we awoke to a cerulean sky, offset by the burnished reds and oranges of the changing leaves. From our balcony, we watched the waves gently rolling in across Goose Neck Beach while sipping our morning coffee. The crisp air, tinged with the sea’s briny tang, invigorated us for morning yoga at The Tides’ sister property, Hidden Pond.
A collection of one-and-two-bedroom cottages, Hidden Pond is nestled into 60 acres of pristine birch forest. Each cottage is uniquely designed and features full kitchens, luxury baths, stone fireplaces, screened porches, and yes, even an outdoor rain shower. On the property are two swimming pools (one just for adults, thankfully), and a raft of amenities that included watercolor painting classes, a cutting garden, mixology lessons, guided hikes, and a fire pit with s’mores every evening. There was so much to do…or not!
The resort’s full-service spa, Tree Spa, is just what its name promises. Connected by a catwalk woven through the trees, the services are performed in a trio of tiny treetop cabins. Trust us, there’s something supremely restorative and blissful about the scent of pine and sound of twittering birds drifting in through the window while getting a really good massage.
Earth, Hidden Pond’s restaurant, focuses on farm-to-fork freshness, with many of the vegetables and herbs plucked right from its on-site garden. The farmhouse-chic décor extended to its two private-dining sheds, outfitted in antique furniture and romantically lit with candles and twinkling fairy lights (really, you can’t even imagine). Everything is seasonal, so menus change often, but the Hidden Pond Cheeseburger with smoked mushrooms, caramelized onions, and creamy Gorgonzola is highly recommended. We also loved the venison stew with creamy polenta, tart cherries, and roasted cauliflower, as well as the local haddock with braised leeks and garden-fresh chard.
And yes, it’s a cliche – but a trip to Maine should always include something to do with lobster. So, appropriately, the next day we had to do our share of sampling. Overlooking the harbor side of the Kennebunk River, the casual Boathouse Waterfront Hotel and Restaurant could not be beat for both classic Maine views and an always-on raw bar. We started with a selection of local oysters and then had to choose between a classic lobster roll, lobster mac and cheese, lobster tacos…or simply a whole butter-poached Maine lobster.
Equally delicious was Ocean, at the Cape Arundel Inn & Resort – offering a fine dining experience, with classic French-Mediterranean dishes in a white-glove setting. Having not had our fill of lobster, we started with lobster caprese – chunks of lobster, mozzarella, and heirloom tomatoes, drizzled with lemon aioli and balsamic reduction. Also unbeatable were the seared sea scallops with trout roe and ginger emulsion.
Kennebunkport’s notable craft brewery and cocktail scene were showcased at Batson River Brewing and Distilling. Its clubby atmosphere attracts a younger crowd, who lounge on leather sofas or play board games while sipping on their signature brews. Standout cocktails included the Batson G&T, subtly crafted with local lavender, and the quintessential fall tipple: an old fashioned made with Batson River’s Langsford Road Bourbon, garam masala and caramelized fig.
After a night of drinking, restorative brunch seemed the only reasonable activity…and The Burleigh at the Kennebunkport Inn served what we could only imagine was the best in town. While the menu offers a well-rounded selection of breakfast classics, like omelets and benedicts, we went with the Maine blueberry pancakes. They’re the size of dinner plates, perfectly fluffy, and so buttery you might not even need to drizzle them with maple syrup or blueberry compote (but we did anyway).
Having filled our bellies yet again, we took a stroll around town and for some very local shopping. And after checking out the galleries of Maine Art Hill, we hit the shops at Dock Square: Minka, for sustainably made jewelry, skincare, décor, and accessories, Benoits Boutique for cozy sweaters, and Daytrip Society for Pendleton blankets and cute Maine-themed décor and souvenirs.
Highly recommended is borrowing a bike from the Kennebunkport Inn, and taking a ride along Beach Avenue, for the expansive ocean views and spectacular mega-million dollar homes. We worked up yet another appetite, and so stopped for handcrafted ice cream cones from Rococo – specifically the Earl Grey rose hip jam and pistachio, the goat cheese blackberry Chambord, and ginger sour cherry jam). For something a little more hipstery, there’s coffee and the ultra Instagrammable mini-doughnuts at Satellite Donuts.
We decided to wrap up our trip where we began, at The Tides Beach Club, sitting on the front porch of the classic waterfront property sipping its only-known-to-locals watermelon cosmopolitan, as the sun cast its final golden glow across the sandy Goose Neck Beach. Having had our fill of lobster, we opted for snacks from the more casual dinner menu, including popcorn chicken with chili and blue cheese dipping sauce, Maine crab dip with wonton crisps, and savory corn dog bites. It all still seemed very New England.
There was no heading home without seeing at least one of Maine’s architectural icons, so we took a slight detour to York to visit the Cape Neddick Nubble Lighthouse. Perched on a rocky weatherworn islet, the red and white lighthouse and lightkeeper’s home is rumored to be the one of the most photographed in the world. Its rich history dates to the late 1800s, and today it remains in use as a beacon for travelers coming from near and far…including us.