Kennebunk, ME, has some unusual history. While its port was famous for ships that sailed to ports around the world, its river spawned the ice trade in the 1800s.
Photography by the authors
The old sea captains in Boston sailed downwind to get to Maine whose coastline was actually east of them. It sounds strange as we drive north to think they were sailing down east, but there’s a lot in life that’s strange.
Maine! “The Pine Tree State” is more than 90% forested and, as comedians say, “with only 3 seasons: winter, blackfly, and mud.” The state’s motto, according to writer Dave Barry, is “Cold but Damp.” And we are driving into it—at the tail end of the most miserable winter in decades. Occasionally, the fog is so intense, traffic actually comes to a stop.
Winter house call, perhaps. York’s Old Gaol.
We park off the highway and poke about in an antique shop. A painting from a previous century shows a vintage automobile parked in front of a house of indeterminate age. Maybe it’s a doctor making a winter house call.
The fog clears and we resume our drive.
We pass York Old Gaol, built in 1719, the “oldest surviving public building in the United States.” We make an effort to remember that in case we are ever on Jeopardy! But a lot of kids in Maine will know about the Old Gaol. They live in the first state in America to give laptop computers to all 7th grade students.
The coastal road sparkles in the weak sun; the ice is melting. We are making time on a detour to the 1876 Nubble Light at Cape Neddick. The lighthouse is one of the most famous on the coast of Maine. It has had many keepers over the years although the second one, William M. Brooks, was discharged in 1912 because he was making money charging tourists for entry to the lighthouse.
Nubble Light is one of the most photographed lighthouses in North America, but the fog came in again for the rest of the day. We have inset a photograph of how it looks in sunshine, courtesy of Kraig Anderson and Lighthousefriends.com.
We get in the Jeep and back on Highway 1A and keep going till we get Highway 1. Wells Auto Museum is boarded up for winter. Memorial Day is when most Maine tourist attractions open for their short 10-week summer season.
The fog is lifting and we no longer feel like characters in a Stephen King story.
Before turning down Beach Avenue to our lodgings, we park at the junction of Highways 9 and 35 and walk to the bridge that separates the town from its port and stare at the Kennebec River and the houses reflected in it. Imagine a river famous for its ice!
Kennebec river water was considered so pure it helped spawn the ice trade in 1806 when ice from North America traveled in frozen blocks across the world. Other countries followed; in Britain contracts were signed in 1822 to import ice from Norway, but “the cargos melted before they reached London.” Maybe that’s why the Brits drink warm beer. Yet we have dined in Hong Kong even recently to see prominently on the menu “Kennebec Ice”!
We drive down Beach Avenue and there’s our hotel, one of the 2 Relais & Chateaux in Maine: The White Barn Inn.
White Barn Inn, with a bed that sure seems soft after a long day. It’s not often San Diego feet need to be warmed at a fireplace.
We are received graciously by Albert Black, the assistant innkeeper and senior member of the staff on duty tonight, who takes us up the stairs to the Blue Junior Suite himself. This personal service is very European.
We are too tired from driving in the fog to go down to dinner and appreciate the snack the inn puts out for arriving guests.
Relais & Chateaux is, of course, very French, originally, but we suspect in our host tonight there’s something else going on: Black taught English for 4 years at the Browning School for Boys, a college prep school founded in 1888. We had heard about the school before; one of its first students was, for example, John D. Rockefeller Jr. We find that Black shares some of our favorite authors, such as R. F. Delderfield, and one of our favorite James Hilton movies Goodbye Mr. Chips. Talking to our assistant innkeeper this evening is as delightful as watching a character in Downton Abbey.
Breakfast is in the restaurant, the former barn.
The art on the dining room tables is made from hotel-silver cutlery by Gérard Bouvier, a French artist who lives in the Dordogne region in France. We will be on that river ourselves in 3 months with Uniworld cruises and wondered if we might buy a few as presents.
Then we looked at the prices before we had the sense to sit down! The lobsters, for example were available for $4,414 (small) or $6,969 (large). The toucan was $4,171.
Dinner is elegant. We choose the less expensive bistro menu.
Our server, Angela Bourque, brings us a special treat that was not on the menu, an extravagance from the chef. What a delightful end to the day and there is still courtesy sherry and port laid out for guests in the library.
Bourque has worked for the inn for 18 happy months and been in the hospitality business for 13 years. She has seen Maine’s culinary changes where chefs challenge themselves with the new emphasis on “farm to table.”
Summer Street on Highway 35 takes us past the magnificent houses—some the clichéd “sea captain’s homes”—but they’re beautiful. The Wedding Cake House is a private home, perhaps the most photographed building in Maine.
The pleasure in Kennebunk is just driving around and hanging loose, but several homes have been designated as “The Museum in the Streets.” The Brick Store is open to the public and is empty at the time of our visit, so we had a lot of time to poke around again.
Maine has an unbelievable maritime history and Kennebunkport was famous. More than 140 ships were built here during the 19th century and, as the Brick Store map shows, they sailed to important ports all over the world.
What’s in the little bottle? Sand from the volcanic eruption on Krakatoa in 1883 that killed 36,000. The 1880 ivory trinket box was brought back by the first clipper ship to visit Hong Kong.
Beautiful antique furniture graces the Brick Store and, covered with a black cloth to avoid light damage, lies a linen and silk sampler (detail in photograph) made in 1780 by Sally Fairfield Cleaves of Saco, ME.
We wonder who were those people? For whom did a mariner bring such a large and rare ivory box back to his home? A wife? A mother? Imagine, too, the dedication of a woman bending over a piece of cloth for the months it would take to sew her sampler.
We go into what is really Kennebunk’s General Store, but it prefers its real name, H. B. Provisions. We find Bonnie Clement, the owner. She’s the “B” in the name. Her partner Helen, the other co-owner, is the “H.” It was a convenience store way back in 1865. She and Helen bought it together in 2002 and “closed it for 5 weeks to re-brand it” so it would appeal to the community.
“We are open 365 days a year and on the 8th day we rest!” she says. Bonnie worked for 20 years in mental health and for the last 5 she was “director of extended services at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center working with doctors,” she looks at us and continues, “who were teaching the God 101 Class.”
She grins at us. We grin back.
H. B. Provisions, its signs, coffee bar and “Gathering Place.”
“Has your experience with doctors helped you deal with customers?” we ask, tongue in cheek.
“I tell my staff to treat each question from customers as it’s the first time you’ve ever heard it,” she says.
Example? We ask. She points to the arrow and the sign that says Coffee This Way. Customers come in, look around, stand under the sign and say, “‘Do you serve coffee?’” she explains. “Or they hang around the newspapers and say, ‘Do you sell newspapers?’ The only correct answer I tell my staff, is ‘Yes, we do, right here!’”
Bonnie calls her lobby entrance “the landing pad” and loves it when she hears new arrivals stand there and say, “Wow! This place smells so good!”
The Bushes are friends and are always welcomed here. Bonnie has a wall in her store with some of her favorite photographs of Bush Sr. She has photographs, too, of Bill Clinton and golfer Phil Mickelson—people she’s met through George H. W.
Bonnie is proud to be from Maine and of the Maine people.
“We have a stubborn streak but the Maine personality, mostly, is resilience with a need, an ability to provide a life for family,” she says. “The Maine person doesn’t care what his job is because it’s not the job that marks a person, but his life and the satisfaction he gets in it. You can work hard in Maine—not always with much in the way of results—but it will always be quality work and the person will be happy from working hard. We know ourselves. We have respect for the process. We have pride in Maine.”
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, Eric 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.