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Fall is looking golden in Maine's Kennebunks

Dock Square in Kennebunkport is navigable now that the tourist season is waning, and the view of the harbor is better from one of the shops up a flight of stairs in the square. Dock Square in Kennebunkport is navigable now that the tourist season is waning, and the view of the harbor is better from one of the shops up a flight of stairs in the square. (PHOTOS BY HILARY NANGLE/FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
By Hilary Nangle
Globe Correspondent / October 19, 2008
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KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine - The kids are back in school, the crowds are gone, the leaves are turning, the weather's inviting, and - a big plus - beach permits are no longer required. Fall is an ideal time for a visit to the Kennebunks, the collective name given the southern coastal communities of Kennebunk (and its Lower Village), Kennebunkport, Kennebunk Beach, Goose Rocks Beach, Arundel, and Cape Porpoise.

Renowned for its summer residents from the social elite, especially George H.W. Bush, the region is equally famous for its eclectic shopping, sand beaches, and architectural riches. Settled by Europeans in the mid-17th century, it became a shipbuilding and seafaring center, which left a legacy of grand homes, many of which are now inns or bed-and-breakfasts, and fishing shacks that have been transformed into tony shops.

Early morning Get the lay of the land before rubber-necking crowds arrive with a leisurely drive or pedal through K'port's Dock Square, along Ocean Avenue (there's a pullout opposite the Bushes' Walker Point estate for serious gawking), looping out to Cape Porpoise to watch lobstermen at work and view Goat Island Light, then perhaps continuing out Route 9 to Goose Neck Beach. Greet the day with a morning stroll along one of the region's prime swaths of sand, perhaps 3,346-foot-long Gooch's Beach, bordered by the breakwater on one end and rocky tidal pools on the other, or Parson's Beach, framed by salt marsh and backed by beach rose-covered dunes, making it especially popular among birdwatchers.

If breakfast doesn't come with your room, invent your own omelet or crepe or, better yet, sink your teeth into the awesome French toast at All-Day Breakfast (55 Western Ave./Route 9, Lower Village, 207-967-5132), a cheery cafe where the waitresses might call you "Dear" and know all the locals by name. It's a great spot to pick up local news and gossip. On Sundays through Nov. 30, Nonantum Resort (95 Ocean Ave., Kennebunkport, 800-552-5651, nonantumresort.com) is offering a Breakfast with an Artist series, a buffet and the opportunity to chat with and view works by an area artist.

Afterward, stroll the 66-acres of St. Anthony's Franciscan Monastery and Retreat (26 Beach Ave., Lower Village, 207-967-2011, framon.net), established by Lithuanian Franciscans who in 1947 purchased the Tudor-style mansion and riverfront estate with grounds originally landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted's company. Walking paths, most paved for wheelchair and stroller accessibility, lace the woods, and several spots provide views of the Kennebunk River. Everywhere are religious shrines, including the recently restored, eye-catching, modern sculpture created by Vytautas Jonynas (1907-97) for the Vatican Pavilion at the 1964-65 World's Fair. An inexpensive guide to the shrines is available in the gift shop or the guest house.

For a bit more exercise, pedal the 8-mile Ocean Avenue and Cape Porpoise route, the 7-mile Kennebunk Beach loop, or mountain bike the single- and double-track trails in the Tyler Brook Conservation Land. Rental bikes, route information, and guided tours are available from Cape-Able Bike Shop (83 Arundel Road, Kennebunkport, 207-967-4382, capeablebikes.com).

Late morning Time to shop. Dock Square, a jumble of former fishing shacks turned into shops, galleries, and restaurants, is Kennebunkport's heart and mostly open by 10 a.m. Don't miss the shops with second-floor locations, such as The Good Earth (207-967-4635), a pottery shop that's been here since 1974, as these often offer fine harbor views. Compliments Gallery (800-248-2269, complimentsgallery.com/gallery.cfm) sells wonderful and sometimes whimsical American crafts and jewelry; Catwear (800-270-3592, catwear.com) is a must for locally-made fleece fashions; Scalawags (207-967-2775, scalawags.us/kennebunkport) is the place for that perfect souvenir for your pooch - perhaps a lobster suit to wear for Halloween? - and it also has information about pet-friendly spots including the Kennebunk Dog Park (36 Sea Road, kennebunkdogpark.org). While most of the clothing shops tend toward the pricy and upscale, Arbitrage (207-967-9989) carries an eclectic selection of new and consignment items.

Continue the spree across the bridge in Kennebunk's Lower Village, with dozens more possibilities. Find toys for toddlers at The Little Red Wagon (207-967-3422, thelittleredwagon.com) and fanciful antiques and decorator furnishings at Hurlbutt Designs (207-967-4110, hurlbuttdesigns.com/antiques).

Stray a bit off the beaten path to find Mast Cove Galleries (Mast Cove Lane and Maine Street, 207-967-3453, mastcove.com), showing work by more than 100 artists. This is the heart of the historic district. Be sure to meander down the side streets between Route 9 and Ocean Avenue to admire the impressive homes.

Stroll out Ocean Avenue to find Dannah (123 Ocean Ave., Kennebunkport, 207-967-8640), a fabulous find for fanciful accessories. It faces Port Lobster (122 Ocean Ave., Kennebunkport, 207-967-2081), where you can pick up a lobster-roll lunch, then continue walking along Ocean Avenue, passing the grand and historic Colony Hotel and its beach, and out Parson's Way to St. Anne's Church, stopping to picnic en route.

Otherwise, when hunger strikes, slip into Hurricane (29 Dock Square, 207-967-9111, hurricanerestaurant.com) for excellent soups, salads, sandwiches, and entrees, served in a river-view dining room. Across the bridge in Kennebunk's Lower Village, Hurricane's Port Bakery & Cafe (181 Port Road, Lower Village, 207-967-2263) is an order-at-the-counter spot with a nice selection of soups and salads and indoor and outdoor seating.

Not a shopper? Check out the Seashore Trolley Museum (195 Log Cabin Road, Kennebunkport, 207-967-2712, trolleymuseum.org). The museum owns more than 250 transit vehicles from around the globe. Some are fully restored; others are undergoing restoration. Ride a streetcar along a 2-mile track as often as you wish. For a special experience, reserve in advance to be a motorman and drive an antique streetcar.

Afternoon Head uptown and dip into Kennebunk's history. Browse exhibits about dollhouses, art, community treasures, fans, and the 1947 fires, at the Brick Store Museum (117 Main St., Kennebunk, 207-985-4802, brickstoremuseum.org); better yet, take a walking tour of the town's historic district.

Pair it with a visit to Kennebunkport Historical Society sites (207-967-2751, www.kporthistory.org), Nott House (8 Maine St., Kennebunkport, closed for the season until next June) and Pasco Exhibit Center (125-135 North St., Kennebunkport). At Nott House, you can purchase a booklet-with-map for a self-guided tour of the port's architectural history.

If you still have shopping in mind, browse the region's antiques shops. Antiques on 9 (81 Western Ave., Lower Village, 207-967-0492) doesn't look like much from the road, but step inside and it seems to expand, with nooks and crannies on two floors filled with antiques, folk art, fancy linens, even jammies.

Antiques USA (207-985-7766, antiquesusamaine.com) and Arundel Antiques (207-985-7965, arundelantiques.com), adjacent emporia on the corner of Route 1 and Log Cabin Road in Arundel, are multidealer shops with from-my-basement-to-your-attic finds along with some bona fide treasures. Sandwiched between them is a flea market.

Consider breaking for a proper English cream tea, with scones and sweets, served by reservation Thursday through Saturday from 2 to 4 p.m. at the English Meadows Inn (141 Port Road, Lower Village, 207-967-5766, englishmeadowsinn.com). Choose from more than 20 teas or European coffee or cocoa.

Work it off with a late afternoon or sunset kayak paddle with Cape Able Bike Shop's guided Port Paddle tours (207-967-4382, capeablebikes.com) or indulge a little at Cottage Breeze Day Spa (31 Western Ave./Route 9, Lower Village, 207-967-2259, cottagebreeze.com). Or catch the waning light in Cape Porpoise, with visits to the Wright Gallery (5 Pier Road, 207-967-5053, thewrightgallery.com) and Bradbury Brothers Market (167 Main St./Route 9, 207-967-3939, bradburybros.com), which has been serving the community since 1934.

Evening For an ultra-splurge, reserve a table at the White Barn Inn (37 Beach Ave., Lower Village, 207-967-2321, whitebarninn.com), a Relais & Châteaux member that is the only AAA Five Diamond, Mobil 5 Star restaurant northeast of New York.

Too pricey, too froufrou? Calm it down at chef-owned Pier 77 and The Ramp (77 Pier Road, Cape Porpoise, 207-967-8600, pier77restaurant.com), with a wall of windows framing the lobster boat-filled harbor. Upstairs is a casual fine dining restaurant with a pianist playing during most dinners. Downstairs is The Ramp, a cozy pub with a sports-bar motif without a wall of blaring big-screen TVs (just one by the bar).

For dinner in a romantic setting, make reservations at On The Marsh (46 Western Ave./Route 9, Lower Village, 207-967-2299, onthemarsh.com) or the Cape Arundel Inn (208 Ocean Ave., Kennebunkport, 207-967-2125, capearundelinn.com), where every table has a knockout view of crashing surf.

For a creative organic menu with vegan, vegetarian, and carnivore choices, and live music on Friday nights, snag a table at Bandaloop (2 Dock Square, 207-967-4994, bandaloop.biz).

Hilary Nangle can be reached at hilarynangle.com.

If You Go

Keep in mind that some businesses are seasonal, closing by mid-October, but most stay open through Christmas Prelude.

Where to stay

Budget accommodations are available at the Franciscan Guest House (26 Beach Ave., Lower Village, 207-967-4865, franciscanguesthouse.com, rooms start at $69) on the grounds of St. Anthony Franciscan Monastery; Fontenay Terrace Motel (128 Ocean Ave., Kennebunkport, 207-967-3556, fontenaymotel.com, rooms $75-$175) about a mile from Dock Square; and the Cape Porpoise Motel (12 Mills Road/Route 9, Cape Porpoise, 207-965-3370, capeporpoisemotel.com, $65-$175). The oceanfront Seaside Motor Inn (80 Beach Ave., Kennebunk Beach, 800-967-4461, kenne bunkbeach.com, rooms $105-$249) fronts on Gooch's Beach. The Green Heron (126 Ocean Ave., Kennebunkport, 207-967-3315, greenheroninn.com, $135-$325) is a midpriced, pet-friendly bed-and-breakfast; the upscale Captain Lord Mansion (6 Pleasant St., Kennebunkport, 800-522-3141, captainlord.com, $189-$499), the Captain Jefferds Inn (5 Pearl St., Kennebunkport, 800-839-6844, captainjefferdsinn.com, $125-$365), and the Captain Fairfield Inn (8 Pleasant St., Kennebunkport, 800-322-1928, captainfairfield.com, $156-$361) are all bed-and-breakfast inns in the historic district, and allegedly were owned by brothers-in-law, all sea captains. The Colony Hotel (140 Ocean Ave., Kennebunkport, 800-552-2363, thecolonyhotel.com/maine, $99-$510) is a historic grand resort with a green reputation; pets permitted in some rooms. Priciest digs are at the White Barn Inn (37 Beach Ave., Lower Village, 207-967-2321, whitebarninn.com, $370-$905).

What to do

When planning a visit, keep two prime events in mind: Christmas Prelude in December (christmasprelude.com), and Arts in the Inns in June (artsintheinns.com).

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