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This charming Maine community is a winter wonderland in February

  • 10 min to read
This charming Maine community is a winter wonderland in February

I had always thought Kennebunkport and Kennebunk, Maine, were the same place, with the latter shortened for ease and used only by those who have spent enough time there to earn the right to use the local vernacular. I was as wrong about that as I was about it being a destination no one could ever want to visit in the dead of winter. Split between the Kennebunk River as it empties into the ocean, Kennebunkport and Kennebunk are officially distinct towns in Maine, but together form a destination brimming with small-town goodness. This is classic New England at its best.

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K’bunk and K’port are 30 minutes south of Portland along the Atlantic coast, and a little less than three hours from Hartford. A bridge spanning the 17.6-mile Kennebunk River is the dividing line between the Lower Village of K’bunk, and the more touristy section of Dock Square in K’port. Both are within easy walking distance to one another and are equally delightful.

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In February, in honor of Valentine’s Day, both towns host a month-long celebration called "Paint the Town Red." It started in 2015 as a way to increase tourism. Everyone gets into the spirit with sales and specials, town-wide decorations, and fun happenings to cure the winter blues. Hearts in all shapes and sizes, lit and unlit, hang on homes, in store windows and around quiet corners. Somehow the warm glow emanating from the lights, and the hints of bold red, which add a splash of color to the pallid, snow-covered streets, make the cold seem more bearable and inviting. I experienced a full range of the festivities last year; allow me to show you around. The lineup changes every year, so if you decide to make this an annual outing, you’ll never be bored.

Many of the restaurants, drinking establishments, gift shops, inns and art galleries are housed in 18th- and 19th-century Colonial, Federal and Greek Revival buildings that have been meticulously restored, garnering the Kennebunkport Historic District citation on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Kennebunk River

Large wooden sailing vessels and colorful fishing boats embedded in the frozen river until the thaw serve as a reminder of the towns’ maritime roots when K’bunk and K’port were first established as shipbuilding and fishing ports in the 1700s. It’s peaceful and picturesque, yet lively, with plenty to see and do, even when it’s freezing cold outside. But this is cold by my standards. Mainers seem to embrace it. During a visit last February, I watched many intrepid souls playing ball with their dogs at Gooch’s Beach and it sure looked like they were enjoying it!

PLAY

The official start of Paint the Town Red always kicks off with a festive party. Last year, “Frosted! A Freezing Good Time” was held at the Boathouse Waterfront Hotel located along the banks of the Kennebunk River in Kennebunkport. It was a high-spirited event and many partygoers came adorned in red. Outside on the deck, overlooking the frozen water, were fire pits and comfy places to sit. There also was a 10-foot ice bar carved from seven, 300-pound blocks of ice with two ice luges. After the bartender makes a drink, he pours the liquid down the luge for cooling and it falls directly into the guest’s cup.

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The Burleigh Resturant & Kennebunkport Inn

Inside, there was dancing with a DJ, light snacks, sushi rolls, a s’mores bar with flames for melting the marshmallows, hot chocolate, a selfie station and cupcakes decorated in red frosting. This year’s “Igloo Lounge” launch party on Feb. 1 will also be held at the Boathouse and will include decorated igloos, a DJ dance party, snacks and cash bar. Tickets are available online for $65. With your ticket, you’ll receive a complimentary drink.

A 10-minute drive south of Kennebunkport brings you to the town of Wells, where you can work off any excess food or drink with a bit of wintry effort at the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve (207-646-1555, wellsreserve.org). There are several trails for snowshoeing, hiking and cross-country skiing through woodlands, fields, marshes and even an abandoned orchard with views of Laudholm Beach, Mount Agamenticus, Webhannet Estuary and Little River.

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National Estuarine Reserve of Wells

Treating your sweetheart to a horse-drawn sleigh ride through a snow-covered forest is about as romantic as it gets. Rockin’ Horse Stables in Kennebunkport (207-967-4288, rockinhorsemaine.com) takes couples and small groups on a 30-minute glide in an old-fashioned white sleigh or wooden wagon pulled by a team of draft horses. Blankets are provided, and a fireside hot chocolate awaits you upon your return.

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Rockin Horse Stables, Kennebunkport, Maine

EAT

There are loads of culinary choices here including fine-dining destinations, bistros, cafes, snack shacks and everything in between. During Paint the Town Red many restaurants offer “Red Plate Specials” and entertaining events.

The menu at The Burleigh at the Kennebunkport Inn (207-967-2621, kennebunkportinn.com) changes seasonally, but when I was there last February, executive chef Eric Murdough offered a pasta-making class, and paired his succulent grilled pork chop with squid-ink fried rice and a four-course beer tasting from a local brewery. The Burleigh also hosted a mixology class featuring Barr Hill, makers of gin and vodka. Barr Hill’s spirits are distilled using raw honey, and the gin is infused with juniper-forward botanicals. While sampling cocktails, I learned about the history of vodka and gin, the flavor profiles of the drinks I sampled such as the Bee’s Knees and Tom Cat Boulevardier, how to properly make them, and the synergy between agriculture and the cocktail culture, and between the farmer and the bartender. This year’s 90-minute mixology class on Feb. 22 is $45 per person and will feature four classic cocktail recipes and bar snacks.

The inn and restaurant are housed in an 1800s Federal-style mansion that once belonged to Burleigh S. Thompson, a wealthy coffee and tea merchant. A series of small rooms with fireplaces make up the cozy dining areas. Before having dinner, I enjoyed hot appetizers and limited-edition cocktails at the Igloo Ice Lounge located on the outside deck. The choice of seating was either in a heated igloo or around a fire pit with doting waitstaff. Both come with plush blankets to keep the chill out. The igloos have since moved across the way to the deck of The Boathouse, a quick 2-minute walk. 

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Alisson's Restaurant, Dock Square, Kennebunkport, Maine

Alisson’s (207-967-4841, alissons.com) is a fourth-generation, family-run restaurant in Kennebunkport frequented by friendly locals. It’s casual dining with the usual pub fare such as salad, pizza, fried seafood platters and burgers, but this is lobster central. They serve up six kinds of hot and cold lobster rolls, some with smoked bacon mayo, or avocado and cracked pepper bacon combinations you wouldn’t think work well together but do. The lobster feeding frenzy doesn’t stop there. They also have lobster bisque, lobster mac and cheese, lobster pizza, and your typical steamed lobster. All can be washed down with any of the 22 rotating beers they have on tap. Last year, Alisson’s hosted a “Choose Your Own Adventure” beer dinner, “A St. Valentine’s Gifting Tree” with prizes ranging from a free dessert to a $100 gift card, and drink and dinner specials all month.

Bandaloop (207-967-4994, bandalooprestaurant.com) is primarily a vegan and vegetarian restaurant, although they offer some options for meat lovers. Bridget Lee, who co-owns the eatery with her husband, chef W. Scott Lee, notes, “We are a veggie family. This is the way we eat at home, so a lot of our dishes have made it onto the menu.” Everything is prepared fresh and from scratch using locally sourced and organic ingredients. The food is wholesome, inventive, delicious and artfully arranged. While Bandaloop recently moved to nearby Arundel, a short 5-minute drive from downtown, it’s worth the trek. Last season, Bandaloop had distinctive desserts and Valentine’s Day specials. Call ahead to find out what new offerings this year will bring.

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Bandaloop

DRINK

There are so many places to get a drink, from rowdy taverns to quiet inns to intimate wine bars to inviting pubs, that it’s a good thing Kennebunk and Kennebunkport are walking towns.

Though I never had mead before, I now can’t get enough of it after visiting the tasting room at Maine Mead Works (207-204-0945, mainemeadworks.com), dubbed the HoneyMaker Mead Room, next door to Federal Jack’s. But somewhere in my memory, I knew it was a drink made and consumed by the Vikings, perhaps because of my affinity for the History channel’s Vikings. The staff is more than happy to give you a mead education as you sample the different flavors such as blueberry, apple, lavender, honey or spice. (I can vouch for all, but blueberry is my favorite.)

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Maine Mead Works, Kennebunk, Maine

“Mead, also commonly referred to as honey wine, is more than likely the oldest fermented beverage, brewed in a very similar way to beer, wine and hard cider. Rather than using the sugar from grains, grapes or apples to produce an alcoholic drink, mead is primarily made from the natural sugars in honey,” explained Tom Preti, the manager.

A word to the wise: Exercise caution. The drinks are strong.

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Kennebunkport Brewing Company from Kennebunk, Maine

Federal Jack’s in Kennebunk (207-967-4322, federaljacks.com) is a local watering hole with pool tables, trivia night, a mug club and music. The two-story building with a wraparound deck and large panoramic picture windows overlooks the fishing boats on the Kennebunk River. The only beer served is brewed on site downstairs at the Kennebunkport Brewing Co., the birthplace of Shipyard beer. Free brewery tours and hands-on brewing experiences make up for any lack of drinking options.

The atmosphere at Kennebunk’s Old Vines Wine Bar (207-967-2310, oldvineswinebar.com) feels a bit like Cheers. If you are seated at the curved, wooden bar alone, everyone will talk to you. It’s a hopping place with a substantial wine list, handcrafted cocktails and craft brews. The decor is stylish, yet rustic, as you might expect from a renovated bi-level barn. The entire back wall is plastered with old wine boxes bearing the names of the world’s finest vineyards, all of which can be found on the menu. For last year’s Paint the Town Red, they hosted a number of events including a cocktail class, a French family dinner and an “Avalanche Ice Party.” Check out their website to see what’s on tap for this year’s festivities.

SLEEP

The towns offer a variety of accommodations, including quaint inns, B&Bs and beach resorts. None of the downtown lodgings are by any means conspicuous. Instead, thoughtful care was taken to ensure they blend in seamlessly with the existing antique streetscape in color, design and scale. Like the shops and restaurants, the establishments mentioned here are open but have limited hours during the colder months, so it’s best to call ahead. Look for special packages and rates for romantic getaways during Paint the Town Red.

The Grand Hotel (207-967-0354, thegrandhotelmaine.com) is part of the Kennebunkport Resort Collection, comprising nine inns, hotels and resorts sprinkled throughout the area. They pride themselves on their personalized service and attention to detail, and certainly deliver. The Grand Hotel in Kennebunk is conveniently located within walking distance to everything; yet just off the main drag enough to ensure a peaceful night’s rest. The rooms are clean and contemporary and some offer sweeping views of the town, river and bridge from the upper floors. Guests are treated to a continental breakfast each morning in the lobby surrounded by cheerful paintings from local artists. Be sure to check out the large heart covering the front of the building that lights up at night in celebration of February’s theme. This year the Grand Hotel is offering a caviar and champagne tasting on Feb. 22 for $35.If you are not yet a caviar connoisseur, you will be after sampling the variety paired with different types of bubbly.

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The Grand Hotel, Kennebunk, Maine

The Breakwater Inn & Spa (207-967-5333, thebreakwaterinn.com) is a short drive and 25-minute walk toward the ocean from Kennebunkport proper. But it’s very nearby to Colony Beach, with its spectacular sunsets. The inn has 20 updated guest rooms, each uniquely different, as one would expect to find in a historic 1800s building. Common areas include a deck and lawn facing the Kennebunk River. This is the only property in both towns with a full-service spa, fitness center and restaurant on site.

The Seaside Inn (207-967-4461, kennebunkbeachmaine.com/seasideinn) has oceanfront accommodations on Kennebunk Beach and is a mere mile from Kennebunk. Opened in 1660, it’s the oldest family-run business in the country, now managed by the ninth generation. The two-story, motel-style building has simple, clean rooms with either a private balcony or terrace, all overlooking the ocean. The price includes a continental breakfast served inside an 1850 boathouse, the use of the beach, and a shared hot tub with sea views.

SHOP

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Maine Art Hill, Kennebunk, Maine

Not every store is open in winter, but there is still plenty to buy, including Maine and lobster-related souvenirs. Many shops partake in the merriment, so keep your eyes open for Red Tag Specials.

Maine Art Hill (207-967-2803, maine-art.com) showcases the work of 35 artists who are originally from, live in, or have some other connection to Maine. The gallery is a bright and airy two-story building directly across from the Grand Hotel in Kennebunk. The walls are covered in abstract, realistic and Impressionist paintings depicting scenes befitting a coastal community. There is also a fair bit of traditional sculpture and wind sculptures that move playfully and give the illusion of changing shape with each breeze. Some of the artwork from the gallery is also on display in the lobby at the Grand Hotel.

Sea Glass Jewelry Studio (207-967-1982, seaglassjewelrystudio.net) is a lovely little boutique jewelry store in Kennebunkport’s Dock Square. They have a team of artisans who handcraft one-of-a-kind pieces fashioned from sea glass, freshwater pearls and precious and semiprecious gemstones, set using sterling silver and mixed metals. The designs range from simple to elegant and honor Maine’s ties to the sea.

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Minka, Kennebunkport, Maine

In Kennebunkport, Minka (207-204-0275, minkahome.com) is truly an eclectic shop featuring handmade fashion, art, kitchen accessories, pottery, home decor, organic herbal teas, and much more. It’s owned by husband and wife Chris and Michelle Rose Larochelle, both artists and designers. They make the majority of the goods themselves, including Michelle’s jewelry, handbags, and all-natural skin and body care lines; and Chris’ fine art and hand-printed linens. What they don’t have time to make, they outsource to other Maine artists using their designs. Every year they create a new product or invest in a new artist, so their inventory is always fresh, and they only use materials that are eco-friendly, all-natural, renewable or responsibly sourced, and are made locally or in the U.S. 

This article appeared in the February 2020 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get the latest and greatest content from Connecticut Magazine delivered right to your inbox. Got a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com, or contact us on Facebook @connecticutmagazine or Twitter @connecticutmag.

The senior writer at Connecticut Magazine, Erik is the co-author of Penguin Random House’s “The Good Vices” and author of “Buzzed” and “Gillette Castle.” He is also an adjunct professor at WCSU’s MFA Program and Quinnipiac University