Even before figuring out where to go on vacation in early June, we decided it had to be a road trip.
We had just taken our annual ski trip to Utah two months earlier, and neither my husband nor I could muster the energy to search for reasonable airfares and itineraries, or rental car deals.
As for possible destinations, the Adirondack Mountains and Finger Lakes were contenders, although brief business trips to Maine had left us wanting to see more. We were going to Kennebunkport.
We left Buffalo early on a Sunday morning in my husband’s SUV. Nine hours later, after a couple of bathroom breaks and a hurried lunch in a Massachusetts restaurant, we pulled up in front of the Kennebunkport Inn, a 19th century mansion built by a tea merchant, on the edge of Dock Square.
Founded in the 1600s, Kennebunkport once was a center for shipbuilding. These days, it’s known for the summer retreat of former President George H.W. Bush, whose longtime family compound is perched on Walker’s Point. The family was in town that week, celebrating the birthdays of Barbara and George H.W.
Kennebunkport proved to be an ideal base for exploring southern Maine.
The Kennebunk River creates a natural boundary between the towns of Kennebunkport and Kennebunk. The Atlantic Ocean is a short walk away, via Beach Avenue on the Kennebunk side or Ocean Avenue in Kennebunkport.
Heading toward the ocean, along Beach Avenue, that first night, we talked to a resident who suggested we also walk the grounds of St. Anthony’s Franciscan Monastery, which was on the way. Dappled sunlight cast an ethereal glow on the stone chapels and grounds, which were designed by none other than Frederick Law Olmsted.
Taking the Ocean Avenue route another day, we stopped to explore Ganny’s Garden on the River Green. The garden was dedicated in September 2011 to former First Lady Barbara Bush for her service to the local community. “Ganny” is what her grandchildren call her.
Restaurants, galleries and shops line the streets of the business district, where the main drag – Western Avenue, aka Dock Square – is decorated with dory-shaped planter boxes. And whenever pedestrians step into the crossing zones, motorists unfailingly stop.
It should go without saying that seafood – particularly lobster – dominates the menus of local restaurants.
That first night, we went to the Clam Shack in Kennebunk, which is, in fact, a shack on the river’s edge. Acquaintances said we must try a lobster roll while traveling in Maine; the Clam Shack’s has received national acclaim.
Each is made fresh, using the meat of a one-pound lobster. It’s served warm, on a crusty roll, with butter and/or mayonnaise and a dill pickle on the side.
We also ordered a half-pint of battered, fried clams. With a lemonade to share, our bill was $38!
Sticker shock aside, that first bite set me off on a crustacean binge: lobster mac and cheese, lobster fettuccine, and a lobster, scallop and shrimp concoction for our last meal in town.
Whalewatching topped our to-do list. Because the local boat still was on a weekends-only schedule, we made reservations with Odyssey Whale Watch in Portland, a short ride up the coast.
Tickets for the four-hour trip cost $48 each and require emergency contact information.
With an overcast sky and port temperatures in the 60s, I was thankful for the ankle-length tights and long-sleeved shirt that I had tucked into my husband’s backpack that morning.
It was a choppy ride out, but the farther we traveled in Casco Bay the smoother it became. Eventually, it was difficult distinguishing where the mirrored surface of the water ended and the sky began.
Which was perfect for spotting whales.
The first we saw was a minke, which broke the surface in a dark-colored arc, followed by its dorsal fin. The smallest of the great whales, it can reach 35 feet in length and weigh 10 tons.
A finback whale made its presence known by spouting – exhaling at the surface.
Smaller only than blue whales, finbacks average 70 feet in length and 70 tons. An empty NFTA Metro Rail car, by comparison, is just shy of 67 feet long and weighs 35.5 tons.
We saw the finback’s length as it rested at the surface, displaying a behavior known as “logging.”
Harbor porpoises and seals also were spotted occasionally that afternoon.
A stiff breeze accompanied us back to port. Though the temperature was 61 in Portland, we turned on the heat as soon as we reclaimed our car from a nearby parking garage.
We returned to Portland a couple of days later, to ride on the mailboat Maquoit II as it made the rounds of several islands in Casco Bay. Tickets were $15.50 each, and the route took almost three hours.
With summer approaching, a handful of passengers were headed to their seasonal homes or rentals, pulling carts loaded with provisions and personal belongings.
Little Diamond Island, our first stop, has just one year-round resident, the captain said. The summer population swells with the arrival of 52 families.
The last stop was Cliff Island, where young children attend a one-room schoolhouse. For grade six and beyond, students commute daily to Portland aboard the mailboat.
Our plans also included a visit to the L.L.Bean flagship store and adjacent factory outlet shops in Freeport, north of Portland. Having been caught unprepared for the cool, rainy weather that dominated our visit, I took the opportunity to buy warm clothes and a raincoat, which I wore out of the store.
It was a sunny, blue-sky morning our last day in town. We headed to Goose Rocks Beach, a three-mile expanse of soft, white sand in Kennebunkport.
Parking permits, which cost $12 a day for nonresidents, are mandatory between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day, and are available at the nearby Goose Rocks General Store. By the time we parked and settled in on the beach, the skies had clouded over and the temperature dropped; we left soon after taking a barefoot walk along the water’s edge.
For the trip back to Buffalo we headed west out of Kennebunkport on Route 9, driving through New Hampshire and Vermont before jumping on the New York State Thruway at Albany. It added an hour to our travel time, but we wanted a glimpse of small-town New England at a slower pace.
While we had seen gas prices as low as $3.39 a gallon near Kennebunkport, the price jumped by 15 cents a gallon once we entered New York. Even so, we spent less than $200 on gas that week, while putting more than 1,250 miles on the car.
If you go:
Getting around: We paid a total of $40.71 in road tolls in New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. E-ZPass covered them all. Mailboat tours through Casco Bay Lines, 56 Commercial St., Portland, (207) 774-7871, www.cascobaylines.com. Odyssey Whale Watch, 170 Commercial St., Portland, (207) 775-0727, www.odysseywhalewatch.com.
Staying: The Kennebunkport Inn comprises three buildings, two of which are connected by an enclosed hallway and the third a short walk away, along the wharf. Public spaces are decorated in crisp blue and white, with nautical motifs. Our room, in the River House, had a queen bed and was a cocoon of black and white toile. Our bill was $875.65 for five nights, which included a daily continental breakfast. (800) 248-2621, www.kennebunkportinn.com.
Eating: In and around Kennebunkport (the area code is 207 for all phone numbers): The Clam Shack, 2 Western Ave., 967-2560, www.theclamshack.net; Alisson’s, 11 Dock Square, 967-4841, www.alissons.com; Mabel’s Lobster Claw, 124 Ocean Ave., 967-2562, www.mabelslobster.com; Pedro’s Mexican Restaurant, 181 Port Road, 967-5544, www.pedrosmaine.com; and One Dock, One Dock Square, 967-2621, www.onedock.com. Also, Harraseeket Lunch & Lobster Co., 36 Main St., South Freeport, 865-4888, www.harraseeketlunchandlobster.com; and Flatbread Company, 72 Commercial St., Portland, 772-8777, www.flatbreadcompany.com/FlatbreadPortland2010.html