It’s no secret that travel in the time of COVID-19 is a polarizing subject. While some of us can no longer resist the urge to escape and resume some semblance of normalcy, others are wary about resuming travel as usual. I’m still hesitant to get on an airplane, so for my recent Labor Day getaway, I focused on locations within driving distance of NYC. And I’m so glad I did, because it gave me the opportunity to explore a place I’d always meant to check out but often put off in favor of more exotic spots: Kennebunkport, Maine.
Kennebunkport is a shipbuilding and fishing village in southern Maine known for its beautiful beaches and delicious seafood, and is also the summer home of the Bush family (#TBT). Dock Square in the center of town is chock-full of adorable shops, fantastic restaurants, and incredible views of the Kennebunk River.
Maine is a great option for travel right now because it’s one of the states with the lowest number of COVID cases, and it takes safety precautions very seriously. All of the restaurants we visited spaced out the tables and took down names and phone numbers of diners for contact tracing purposes. Almost everyone walking around Dock Square wore masks (I even spotted a mailbox with individually packaged, free masks), and shops encouraged visitors to utilize their hand sanitizer while limiting the number of shoppers that could be inside at the same time. It’s also worth noting that, as of September 13, Maine requires out-of-state travelers to quarantine for 14 days or show proof of a negative COVID-19 PCR collected no more than 72 hours prior to arrival, excluding New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York.
How To Get There
Travelers from exempt states can easily get to Kennebunkport by car. The trip from NYC took just over five hours (with a short stop for food). We left on a Wednesday night and hit virtually no traffic. Coming back on Labor Day took us somewhere between five and a half to six hours. If you’re not within driving distance, other options include flying into Portland International Jetport, which is about 30 miles away, Manchester NH Airport, which is about 75 miles away, or Logan International Airport in Boston, which is about a 90-minute drive from Kennebunkport. Amtrak also offers a route to Wells, Maine, which is just ten minutes away from town.
Where To Stay
There’s no shortage of great options for accommodation in Kennebunkport at a variety of price points. Some hotels are right on the water near the center of town, while others are in slightly more residential areas that are just a short walk or drive from the action.
After some serious debate, we decided on Captain Lord Mansion, a charming bed and breakfast, which was at one time the home of sea merchant and shipbuilder Captain Nathaniel Lord. What really stood out about Captain Lord Mansion was the combination of its charming Federal-style architecture with all the modern amenities of a luxury hotel. It was great being just a five-minute walk from town—removed enough that it felt like our own home, but close enough to all the spots in town we wanted to check out. The hotel was also meticulous about safety. Instead of the traditional sit-down communal breakfast, each morning we were sent individualized and pre-packaged breakfasts that were home-cooked and delicious. I’m still thinking about the freshly baked muffin with melted chocolate inside that I ate the first morning.
If you’d like to be right in the middle of town, The Kennebunkport Inn is a popular choice with an unbeatable location in the heart of Dock Square. If you’re a beach bum, The Tides Beach Club is the only waterfront hotel on Goose Rocks Beach, which is one of the most gorgeous beaches in the area. Keep in mind, though, that you’ll be five to six miles from Dock Square, so unless you’re going for a Cast Away vibe, having a car will be key if you choose this hotel and want to explore the heart of Kennebunkport. Each hotel’s webpage details its safety precautions, so you can compare and decide where you feel the most comfortable.
How To Get Around
One of Kennebunkport’s selling points is its walkability. Almost all of the most popular spots are within walking distance of each other. That said, it was useful to have a car when exploring Goose Rocks Beach and some of the more remote restaurants. Though we didn’t have the need for an Uber or Lyft, they can be difficult to come by.
One popular alternative to a car is to rent a bike. It’s so popular, in fact, that when we tried renting bikes for fun for a half-day, Coastal Maine Kayak and Bike had none left! We did snag two of the few remaining bikes at Kennebunkport Bicycle Company, though, but if you’re committed to biking, it’s best to book early on during your trip or possibly make a reservation in advance.
Where To Eat
One of the main reasons I travel is for food, and my favorite part of planning any trip is mapping out each night’s dinner. Kennebunkport did not disappoint. Not only are the lobster and seafood options incredible and fresh, but you can also find places to eat that range from a casual shack to a multiple-course prix fixe dinner.
Our favorite spot was Mabel’s Lobster Claw. The ambiance was quaint and casual, with two large outdoor dining sections under tents. Mabel’s is a favorite of the Bush family and other famous names. I overheard a waitress telling another table that Martha Stewart and Patrick Dempsey were there earlier that week. After eating there myself, I can attest that the food is definitely worth the hype. The New England clam chowder was creamy and loaded with clams, and the lobster was perfection. For dessert, Mabel’s offers a blueberry pie featuring Maine wild blueberries, which are smaller and more flavorful than your typical blueberry. I’m not normally a huge fan of blueberries, but after this pie, I am a wild blueberry convert! FYI, they close for the winter starting September 27th, but they should open back up in April.
For a splurge meal, it’s worth checking out The White Barn Inn Restaurant. They offer a four-course prix fixe dinner that combines local ingredients with the inventiveness of a Michelin star restaurant. The service was impeccable and worthy of the hefty price tag, which is more than I can say for some of the other expensive restaurants in the area (ahem, Earth at Hidden Pond). This was one of our only indoor dining experiences, but my concerns were assuaged when I saw how far apart the tables were.
For lunch one day, we went to Arundel Wharf, which has a large outdoor seating section on the water. The seafood was fantastic, the vibe was casual, and the service was outstanding.
There’s an ongoing debate about where to get the best lobster roll in Kennebunkport. Perhaps the most widely touted spot is The Clam Shack, which is a literal shack in the center of town that has a long line of patrons at seemingly every hour. We enjoyed our rolls, but didn’t really understand the obsession. (I actually preferred the half-pint of fried shrimp we ordered as an appetizer.) A more underrated roll, absolutely loaded with generous chunks of lobster (an important consideration given the price), was the one at Arundel Wharf. But if you’re like me and prefer a hot, buttered Connecticut-style lobster roll to the traditional Maine style that’s cold and mixed with mayo, this won’t be your jam.
While some places are casual and seemed to have availability for walk-ins, it’s best to make dinner reservations in advance, especially if you’re looking to catch the sunset at waterfront spots like Alisson’s and Hurricane.
Last, but certainly not least, you must brave the line and grab ice cream at Rococo Ice Cream in town at least once. Rococo has a selection of 14 artisan flavors that rotate daily, unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. With flavors like Goat Cheese Blackberry Chambord to Sweet Avocado Cayenne, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how good something so seemingly strange tastes in the form of ice cream. It’s also a woman-owned business, so we have no choice but to stan.
What To Do
Kennebunkport is a popular summer destination, especially for New Englanders, so the town was bustling with people when we stayed there. Whether you’re looking to simply lounge on a beach, or get more active, there’s plenty to do within and outside of town.
Maine has a number of beautiful beaches. If you’re looking for something close to town, Gooch’s Beach and Mother’s Beach are one and two miles respectively from Dock Square. Because of their proximity to town, they are popular and can get a bit crowded. For our beach day, we opted to drive the five miles to Goose Rocks Beach, which is a beautiful sandy beach that, though also popular, was a bit less congested than those close to town. We did do a quick trip to Mother’s Beach one night before dinner to catch the incredible sunset. Parking at the beaches can be a bit of a pain and you’ll need a pass from one of the nearby kiosks, so it’s best to get there either early or later in the day so you can find a spot without contemplating murder.
Maine also has a number of beautiful national parks, with one of the most famous being Acadia National Park. However, that’s another three to three and a half hours north of Kennebunkport. We didn’t want to make that kind of a drive, so we opted for a more local and off-the-beaten-path option for our dose of nature: a forest therapy guided walk. Forest therapy is inspired by the Japanese practice of “forest bathing”, or shinrin-yoku, and encourages participants to activate all of their senses and immerse themselves in the natural world. Some of the benefits of forest therapy include a boost to the immune system, lower blood pressure, and relaxation. It was just the escape we needed after living through six months of the dumpster fire that’s been 2020.
For casual drinks and a fun, lively outdoor patio, we spent a couple of hours one afternoon at Old Vines Wine Bar. The service was great and they had fun, live music.
In case my food obsession wasn’t already apparent, we spent one afternoon doing a foodie walking tour, which was a great way to get to know the town and familiarize ourselves with the local cuisine. We sampled clam chowder, the aforementioned Federal Jack’s lobster roll, tried local mead (also known as honey wine), had hand-roasted coffee and macaroons, and capped the day off with whoopie pies, the official state treat of Maine. How I’d gone 30-plus years without ever trying a whoopie pie is a shame that will stay with me for years to come.
Dock Square has a number of cute shops with local provisions. One of our favorites was Maine-ly Drizzle, which featured a number of unique infused olive oils and vinegars that you could sample (the stations were frequently cleaned and refreshed and only a few patrons were allowed in at a time).
☆ Check into hotel
☆ Explore the town, either on your own or with the foodie walking tour
☆ Catch the sunset at Mother’s Beach
☆ Dinner at Arundel’s Wharf
☆ Spend the day at Goose Rocks Beach
☆ Late afternoon ice cream at Rococo’s
☆ Dinner at Mabel’s Lobster Claw (car needed if you’re staying near Dock Square)
☆ Forest therapy guided walk (car needed if you’re staying near Dock Square)
☆ Rent bikes and ride alongside Gooch’s Beach
☆ Late afternoon drinks at Old Vines Wine Bar
☆ Dinner at White Barn Inn (car needed if you’re staying near Dock Square)
Images: Amanda Reiss