January 17, 2017
Kennebunkport, known locally as “The Port”, actually has two distinct faces, if not personalities—and a third face few even know about. The Port, on the east bank of the lower Kennebunk River, is decidedly up-tempo and attracts huge crowds of daytripping summer visitors. Kennebunk, however, is on the west side and is an entirely separate town, attracting significant crowds too, but usually with a longer term view on hanging around.
In any case, the river is a terrific harbor for safety and most anything else you might want. It’s also home to two full-service marinas (the Kennebunkport Marina and Chicks Marina), two resort/marina complexes (Nonantum Resort and the Yachtsman), and two private yacht clubs (Arundel and the Kennebunk River Club).
Chicks is easily the best-known marina in town. In the 1980’s it gained national notoriety as the place where President George H. W. Bush kept his Fountain powerboat. The marina is named after Booth Chick, who owned and ran the facility for nearly 25 years, mostly with a paternally benevolent attitude toward transient boaters. His famous Labor Day parties emphasized his generosity.
These days, Chicks is a much quieter place: well-heeled and spic-and-span, and designed mostly for transient yachts. It and the nearby Kennebunkport Marina are both within easy walking distance of the throbbing center of The Port’s summer tourist center, Dock Square. Thousands daily throng this downtown mecca, which comprises scores of restaurants, tour trolleys, curio shops, boutiques, galleries and anything else you might want for a summertime diversion.
A walk into downtown will take you past many new buildings that attempt to look like old-time Kennebunkport. The buildings are jammed together closer and closer until you get to Dock Square, where much of the architecture is simply continuous shops without any space between them. Fortunately, these are one- and two-story structures with a turn-of-the-century, mercantile look to them. Clapboards and cedar shingles still dominate many storefronts, along with chalkboard restaurant menus nailed to the walls.
Be forewarned that the river gets so crowded in midsummer that it’s best to call the marinas at least a week ahead of time if you want an overnight berth. By sundown on a Friday night, virtually all slips are taken.
If beaches are your passion, you’ll want the Kennebunk side of the river. Gooch’s Beach and Kennebunk Beach are hugely popular and help define the town. Trollies, rented bikes or a cab are the best way to get to the beaches.
If you’re seeking tranquility and small-boat adventure, there is yet another side of Kennebunkport that bears mentioning: the Kennebunkport marshes, a rare treasure that few visitors realize is there or bother to investigate. Getting to the marshes is simple. Halfway into a rising tide, take a dinghy, skiff, canoe, kayak or paddleboard to the head of the harbor and under the “Taintown Bridge” (Rte. 9). Bear to starboard, go around one bend in the stream and suddenly all of Kennebunkport’s summer activity fades into silence.
You are surrounded by tall marsh grass and a natural world that seems totally out of sync with a summer tourist town. The most familiar faces on this waterfront are those of blue herons that gaze at you impassively, or sandpipers hurrying about their shoreside chores, or at twilight a raccoon that might amble away from the river’s edge, back into the jungle of marsh reeds.
The only humans in these marshes are ghosts from forgotten shipyards. One hundred years ago, ships up to 200 feet were born on these banks. Pilings of forgotten piers can still be seen. Locks that once held the waters high for launchings are still plainly visible. Depending on the tide, this side journey can run up to three miles inland, past fields full of cattle or corn and a slice of Maine long forgotten by many.