Kennebunkport could have been the summer retreat that never changed. The coastal town in Maine is the quintessential New England escape, where the beaches are rocky, the seafood fresh, and the antique shops plenty. That’s not to say that anything here—not the people or places, and certainly not the lobster rolls—has gone stale. However quaint in size and nostalgic in setting, Kennebunkport (and neighboring Kennebunk, which together make up “the Kennebunks”) is an evolving destination full of dualities, where you can just as easily line up outside of a rickety shack for lunch served on a paper plate as you can sit down to a gourmet dinner in an old-barn-turned-farm-to-table-restaurant. In between the ice cream stands and souvenir shops you’ll find artisans specializing in hyperlocal design and small-batch sundries. Just beyond the shingled storefronts of Dock Square you’ll discover a collection of hotels and inns, each with something new to add to the swelling summer scene. Still, it’s the long-standing local charm—a concoction of homemade blueberry pies, straight-from-the-sea scallops, and lazy games of bocce on Kennebunk Beach—that makes this beloved destination a New England classic. And that’s one thing we’re certain will never change.
Here, a definitive guide to the perennial summer escape, from where to find the perfect lobster roll to how to pull off the classic KPT look (popped collars optional).
Know Your Oysters
“The first thing you should know about East Coast oysters,” says Abigail Carroll, “is that almost all of them are the same species. What makes them unique is their growing conditions.” The founder of Nonesuch Oysters, a seven-acre farm located just outside of Kennebunkport, Carroll knows well the fine details of what makes an oyster worth slurping. Here, she walks us through four of Maine’s most coveted shell dwellers, including a few of her own.
Abigail Pearls: Carroll’s namesake oyster comes in a snow-white shell and features a balance of sweet and salty flavors, with distinct notes of seagrass and an intense brine. “Their sleek and delicate meat pairs perfectly with a crisp Chablis,” she says.
Belon Oysters: An outlier that’s native to France, the briny Belon—also known as the European Flat—is nothing if not polarizing. “They’re considered a delicacy,” Carroll says, “but some people say they are like licking an aluminum pan.” Their metallic flavor is an acquired taste; Carroll suggests savoring them with a nice pale ale or stout beer.
Nonesuch Oysters: Earthier and sweeter than Abigail Pearls, Carroll’s flagship oysters are known for their beautiful emerald color and round shape. “The robust meat goes great with a Roederer Estate Brut,” she says.
Johns River Oysters: “This is one of my favorite oysters in Maine,” Carroll says of the big, briny bivalves grown at the bottom of the Johns River estuary. Famed for their salty start, sweet middle, and clean finish, the velvety oysters are New England legends.
Meet the Locals
Thanks to a creative cadre of passionate purveyors, Kennebunkport has become a breeding ground for small-batch producers and modern artisans. Here are the “Made in Maine” mavens to know.
Farm + Table
Liz and Bruce Andrews had been summering in the Kennebunks for more than 25 years when they decided to go full time and open this farm-to-table lifestyle shop set within a 19th-century barn. “We wanted to work with small-batch makers and creators so we could tell their story and celebrate their hard work,” Liz says. Those stories include a honey farmer from Buxton, a soap maker from Saco, and a purveyor of preserves from Limington. “It tickles us because we know we’re helping them achieve their dream.” Take Home: Don’t leave without one of woodworker Steve Doe’s serving boards, carved from naturally fallen trees around the Kennebunks. (207.604.8029)
Louise Hurlbutt’s interior design might be best described as Kennebunk chic—a timeless nautical style that can be glimpsed everywhere from the breezy Tides Beach Club to a certain local family’s famous compound. Her two shops—a small Portside boutique and a 4,000-square-foot studio in Kennebunk—are packed with an eclectic blend of local and widespread designer furnishings, from mirrors made from hundreds of Maine oyster shells to the latest collections by Barclay Butera. Take Home: A custom sculpture by artist Maralyn Menghini, who constructs miniature replicas of wooden boats and paddles to create wall art and mirrors.
Fifteen years ago, Chris Larochelle and Michelle Rose first opened Minka in a small “garage gallery” in nearby Camp Ellis Beach. “It was an actual garage,” Larochelle says. “I put some of my paintings out, and Michelle put out her skincare line. It was a little off the beaten path.” Today, the duo behind Dock Square’s coolest concept shop is right in the middle of it all, showcasing an array of innovative local artisans—from watercolor artists to laser woodworkers—alongside their own art and design pieces. Take Home: Rose’s handmade nautical Bird Huts, fashioned from lobstering rope and woven in Maine.
Jessica Jenkins and Andy West left careers in New York’s music industry to start the high-concept design store Daytrip Society in Dock Square. “We wanted to open a store that would inspire people to get out into nature and bring nature into their everyday lives,” Jenkins says. The shop’s locally made products are as innovative as they are eco-friendly, from brass cuffs welded from lobster fishermen’s gauges to beach bags fashioned from recycled sails. Take Home: Maine designer Eklund Griffin’s elevated beach tote, the Wave weekender bag, in “Fog” (dark gray).
Call him the unofficial mayor of the Kennebunks. The mastermind developer behind a slew of favorite hotels and hot spots knows everyone—and everything—in this quaint corner of coastal Maine. Here, the consummate man about town gives us the lowdown on how to play the part of a local.
What’s the summer dress code in the Kennebunks?
During the summer months, you’ve got to bring the preppy fashion. But lose the khakis and navy jackets—we love color here: Bright shorts, madras, modernized seersucker are all popular. I also wear a lot of printed pants with florals, or white jeans with patterns like blue seagulls. I’ll usually pair that with a sky-blue blazer on cool nights.
What’s your go-to spot for sunset cocktails?
The porch at Cape Arundel Inn has always been a sunset gathering spot for locals. Head over at 5:30 or 6, and order a rosé cocktail.
Best place for a beach picnic?
Goose Rocks Beach has a gorgeous—and wide!—powdery beach. But first, you have to go to Cape Porpoise Kitchen to put together the perfect picnic basket. They make crunchy loaves of French bread every day and have an amazing selection of wine and charcuterie.
Where do you find the freshest seafood?
Langsford Road Lobster in Cape Porpoise. The lobster boat comes right up to the back and delivers the lobster and fish. Captain John will slice the scallops for you right there. His salmon is also to die for. Take your pick and head to the secret tables on the back deck, where they’ll cook it while you wait. It’s first come, first served and BYOB—and it’s the freshest you can get.
Kennebunk vs. Kennebunkport: What’s the difference?
It’s really one place. The bridge splits the two towns, but nobody pays any attention to it. There’s no visible difference or divide. I’ve lived in both Kennebunkport and Kennebunk, and I love them both.
Find Your Beach
There’s a perfect stretch of sand for everyone. Here, four beaches that satisfy ever type of beach bum.
Goose Rocks Beach
The Scene • Gentle waves, warm water, and alabaster sand.
The Crowd • Swimmers, families, and low-key water-sports enthusiasts.
We Suggest • Check in at the nearby Tides Beach Club for access to the hotel’s “beach tenders,” the only attendants on the sand.
The Scene • Private, secluded, and lined with elegant summer homes.
The Crowd • No crowds here—only beachcombing locals looking to escape the masses.
We Suggest • Pack a picnic at H.B. Provisions and plan a long, leisurely afternoon.
The Scene • The largest and longest of the Kennebunk beaches, ringed by a rocky sea wall.
The Crowd • Surfers in search of fast and steep breaks, especially at high tide.
We Suggest • Arrive early; the summer waves are crowded by 9 am.
The Scene • A classic Maine beach with rocky cliffs and pebble beaches.
The Crowd • Adventurers and dogs (sans leash).
We Suggest • Bring your binoculars—the Bush compound is just across the bay.
Anatomy of a Perfect Lobster Roll
“The lobster roll is the rock star of summer menus,” says Steve Kingston. “Every restaurant has one, but few of them are really any good.” Kingston would know: The owner of Kennebunkport’s legendary Clam Shack has been making what is considered the world’s best lobster roll for nearly two decades. So what’s the secret to the perfect Maine sandwich? “It all starts with the meat itself,” explains Kingston. “We source all of our lobster locally from one fishing family that’s been fishing for five generations.” Kingston receives as many as 1,000 pounds of soft- and hard-shell lobster per day, storing it—and even cooking it—in native saltwater to maintain the freshest flavor profile possible. Then there’s the bun (a white-bread, brioche-style roll fresh from a local bakery) and the dressing (blended with made-in-Maine butter and drizzled with mayonnaise on top). “At the end of the day, it’s a really boring sandwich,” Kingston says. “But that’s why it’s so incredibly hard to make it great.”
Four More for Lobster Lovers
Nunan’s Lobster Hut is a favorite of lobster purists for its no-frills menu and classic preparation.
Alisson’s Restaurant is an ode to Maine’s neighbor to the north; this gastropub pairs French fries and lobster for a decadent poutine.
Mabel’s Lobster Claw is where the made-to-order lobster stew is a big, buttery affair. Prepare to share.
Ocean is Cape Arundel Inn’s elegant restaurant; it trumps all others when it comes to the classic French Thermidor.
For all of its summer-camp-like endeavors, Kennebunkport isn’t exactly a place to rough it. But adventure—or at least the illusion of it—is now part of the local experience with the opening of Sandy Pines Campground, a 60-acre forested retreat featuring 28 glamping tents and cottages.
Each accommodation has been envisioned by a local artist or designer, from Nicola Manganello’s safari-inspired Blixen’s Oasis to Louise Hurlbutt’s Southwest-chic Under the Stars. Outside, there are all the makings of summer camp: kayaking and paddleboarding, hiking and biking, and bocce and badminton on the great lawn. There’s also a swimming pool and a general store offering all the Maine camp necessities: s’mores, bug spray, and fresh lobster by the pound.