Kennebunkport is an authentic, quintessential Maine seaside village. However, since the town is just off the beaten path, there are less crowds and parking is easier to find in July and August.
Photography by the authors
We are still cruising “down east” in our Jeep Patriot but grudging the poor mileage of a SUV that can handle 4WD because the sun has come out—and Maine has been dragged into spring.
Today is an easy day as we have to drive less than a mile to get to our next inn, the Captain Lord Mansion. We expect it’ll be a treat because we stayed there about 20 years ago and since then, on our recommendations, 3 family members have gone there with their spouses and enjoyed their stay, too.
Kennebunkport differs from Kennebunk even although the two are really the same community divided by the Kennebunk River. The port is a little bit more touristy: it’s easier to buy a T-shirt or savor a Maine lobster roll; there seem to be more walks and, although the port might be offended, it has always seemed, to us, to be a tad more commercial.
Kennebunkport is one of our favorite New England places. It’s an authentic, quintessential Maine seaside village, just off the beaten path—Route 1. Except in July and August parking is easy.
The town has a river that leads to the sea, so it has all kinds of water sports: row-boating, kayaking, sailing, wind-jamming sailing, whale watching, and lobster boat cruising. Kennebunkport has the Seashore Trolley museum just north and, in town, the Kennebunkport Historical Society’s First Families Museum (“from Sea Captains to Presidents”).
Kennebunkport has the Brick Store Museum we mentioned last week. It has art galleries, too, and we would have said places to buy antiques, but the market for antiques has shrunk.
“The Millennials are not into this,” an expert tells us. “It’s out of fashion and, even as the population ages, there isn’t the huge interest in antiques there used to be.”
As we park, then roll in our luggage, we muse as we have done many times: “What is it that makes an inn successful?”
One of the answers, history, confronts us when we come into our host’s office. We are facing a painting by one Cissy Buchanan showing the mansion at an earlier time. The house was built in 7 months in 1814 during the 2-and-a-half years of the War of 1812 when merchants and shipbuilders like Nathaniel Lord were denied permission to trade across the Atlantic. Lord’s response was to use his existing resources to build his mansion.
A picture really is worth 1,000 words. It shows lots of activities in the summer—the season when Maine is just glorious and those activities are still popular with visitors.
The house is 200 years old. Maintenance of such a gorgeous Old Dame is, not surprisingly, expensive and if owners let things slide it becomes even more of a challenge. Last year, the mansion redid its parking lot at a cost of $25,000 and repainted one wall at a cost of $32,000.
(“Guests notice if paint is peeling,” says Rick Litchfield with a twisted grin. He owns the inn with his wife, Bev Davis.)
The Litchfields bought the Captain Lord Mansion in 1978 “with a very small bank account and lots of prayers.” They upgraded the electrical system and in 1986 spent $45,000 just to bring the sprinkler systems up to state codes. Asked if they’d had previous experience running a Colonial inn, they reply, “No. Never even stayed in one!”
Bev’s previous experience was in advertising for real estate and fast food, particularly McDonald’s. Rick had a degree in accounting and worked with the Burger King Corporation.
“Bev was a great cook and we had business acumen,” says Rick as if that alone could help achieve success.
Indeed, their original plan was to run a gourmet restaurant, but every property they checked had financial issues. After a year’s search their realtor had an idea and showed them the mansion, which, at that time, was a rest home of 16 rooms with a license to serve meals, and 7 little old ladies all over the age of 80 in the September of their lives.
Rick and Bev bought it.
“A friend said I would be like Norman, and I’d be putting the old ladies in rocking chairs in the basement,” says Rick with a grin despite the scolding look from his wife for his reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Actually, the little old ladies all departed over the next 2 years and each time one died, Rick and Eva renovated the room.
The inn sits on the village green. The interior creates nostalgia, the rooms are beautiful. We are in the Lincoln Room.
In 1987 Rick became the president of the New England Innkeeper’s Association, an organization now 100 years old, whose aim is to provide education for innkeepers and give them structure.
The bathroom of the Lincoln Room is high-tech modern; the inn’s kitchen is more like Grandma’s house.
New England B&Bs go back to the immediate post-World War II years, says Rick. They were “tourist homes,” essentially accommodations offered to families by single women who had lost a husband in the war and had a spare bedroom. There were also some old full-service inns, occasional stagecoach stops and a new idea, motels—and there was the writer Norman T. Simpson.
Simpson, who was really the father of the inn/motel industry, wrote a book called Country Inns and Back Roads. It was immensely successful. One of Simpson’s preferred places was the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, MA. Even if he wasn’t a guest there he would sit in a rocking chair on its porch.
“It was like his office,” says Rick, “and he’d chat to guests, ’What did they like about inns?’ he’d ask. He found people wanted to hear about similar properties. He started a very successful nation-wide independent association of innkeepers (that has now become Select Registry) and he began to self-publish his books. When we began in Kennebunkport in 1978, 75% of our guests would come in carrying his book. He was the ‘Ambassador of B&Bs.’”
The kitchen, open for guests, is welcomed by those who have just been walking around the village. Like chocolate? Enjoy wine? The Captain Lord Manor has a special night-cap for you: ChoCo Noir.
Everything is accessible in the mansion. Guests keep bumping into staff, especially in the kitchen. Members of the staff take a keen interest in whether things are going well with their guests.
Eva and Rick have run the inn for 36 years.
“We have trouble finding good year-round housekeeping help,” Rick admits. “We have no trouble keeping staff. We treat ’em well and pay ’em well with benefits. Turnover is low.”
What is not low is repeat business. Asked if he has a handful of guests who return to their inn, Rick gives that crooked grin again and says, “30 to 50 is not a handful. This winter between Dec. 1 and Feb. 28 we had 25 savvy couples making their fifth visit.”
“Savvy?” we ask.
“Yes, guests who know, like you, there’s value in the winter months and in winter prices,” Rick says. “They’ve been to the Kennebunks before, they’ve seen it all and now come for time to relax and rejuvenate.
“The essence of our inn is our staff,” he continues. “They give our guests a genuine warm welcome: We will help you up the stairs with your bag, we will make dinner reservations for you and we willingly accommodate dietary issues. We care. The gracious goodbye we give you is sincere. But before you leave you will see our friendly face at breakfast.”
The breakfast is, of course, great—they always are at the best B&Bs. That’s a given. What was a dinner surprise was finding at a simple family restaurant Alisson’s at 11 Dock Square the best lobster roll we’ve ever eaten—yes, better than our favored Cape Cod! $19 for each roll, but a treat. (We went back the second night for more!).
We look around at breakfast. Four couples and us, all talking about their previous day: a couple who run a B&B in New Hampshire and are here for ideas; a couple of young Asian doctors in their residency programs in Boston almost asking if any older physicians at the table would encourage them to continue; a retired ophthalmologist (and his wife) the eye doctor a collector of antique spectacles—and how!; and an elderly couple who have lost count of how many times they’ve stayed here. For us, it’s our second visit.
It’s easy enough to walk off the calories.
We wandered down Maine Street, along Wildes District Road past a pond swelled with melting ice and on to Ocean Avenue. We were doing the tourist thing, gazing out at the peninsula called Walkers Point and the long established home of George H. and Mrs. Barbara Bush. It turned out to be a fairly long walk of almost 5 miles in a fairly stiff breeze. We felt like seasoned Maine citizens when we finally got back to the church and museum on Spring Street
The steeple of the South Congregational Church UCC stands as a prominent landmark in town. The original gilded weathervane atop its 1824 steeple was restored 3 years ago by a local retired OBGYN, Gregg van Gundy, MD, and an enthusiastic friend.
This is such a quiet, safe part of the country that walking enjoyment doesn’t have to stop when it gets dark. Our steps inevitably take us back to the Captain Lord Mansion.
As we let ourselves in and head for cookies in the kitchen, we think, cliché or not, it really is like coming to grandma’s house. We think, also, about the couple in Beverly, in the North Shore region of Massachusetts, who are coming, Rick tells us, for their 100th visit.
“They’re like family,” Rick says, “They came to our daughter’s wedding!”
For this series of articles the Andersons, resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest, drove 1,300 miles in 14 days across northern New England to review 7 B&Bs for Physician’s Money Digest. The Andersons live in San Diego. Nancy is a former nursing educator and Eric is a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written 5 books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.