When it comes to merrymaking, few towns in America can hold a holiday candle to Kennebunkport.
By Meg Noonan
Oct 06 2020
Christmas spirit comes ashore in Kennebunkport as Santa and Mrs. Claus make their way from the dock to the Boathouse Waterfront Hotel, where their fans have lined up to greet them.Photo Credit : Nicole Wolf
Editor’s note: This travel feature was reported and photographed in December 2019. Shortly after Yankee’s November/December 2020 went to press, the Kennebunkport Business Association announced that due to COVID-19 concerns, this year’s Christmas Prelude will be a mix of “safety-first” live events and virtual events. For more information, go to christmasprelude.com.
It’s only 7:20 p.m. in the Old Vines Wine Bar party tent, and already the ladies in the reindeer suits are kicking up their hooves. No matter that every head toss threatens to dislodge their light-up antlers or that each hip swirl tilts red wine close to the lips of the clear plastic cups they’re holding. These women are giving it everything they’ve got—and so is the band, digging in now to “Jingle Bell Rock.” I’m not quite ready to hit the dance floor, but I’m getting there. After all, it’s Christmastime in Kennebunkport. If I’ve learned anything since I arrived, it’s this: When it comes to embracing the holiday season, the good people of this southern Maine seacoast town are fully and unabashedly committed—and they want you to be, too.
I’d only known Kennebunkport, a village of restored 18th- and 19th-century buildings on the tidal Kennebunkport River, as a bustling summer place with stellar eat-in-the-rough lobster shacks and rocky, kayak-worthy coves. But now that its Christmas Prelude, a two-week volunteer-run festival, had put it on America’s don’t-miss list, I set off for a mid-December visit.
I envisioned a weekend sampling the quiet pleasures of an off-season resort: a craft fair, maybe a carol sing, a corner table in a snug seaside bistro. And to be sure, I found those things, but I also found a buoyant, roving block party—part Whoville, part Mardi Gras.
“There is a no-holds-barred atmosphere during Prelude,” said Michelle Rose, co-owner with her husband, Chris Larochelle, of Minka, a boutique showcasing their own art and accessories designs, as well as the work of other local artisans. I’d wandered into their pretty shop when I first arrived in town. “People who wouldn’t normally go out dressed silly come here in big groups. They’re in good moods, they’re happy. It’s meant to be joyful.”
And joyful it was—especially at twilight in Dock Square, the village center, just beyond Minka’s front door. Speakers blared sing-along Christmas standards. Hundreds of people—in snowflake sweaters and elf costumes and head-to-toe tartan—surrounded a giant spruce that was hung with colorful wooden buoys and topped with a cutout lobster, to await its official lighting. No one seemed to mind that a cold drizzle had started to fall or that this was actually the re-lighting of the town tree; cheeky Kennebunkport does it on two consecutive Friday nights during Prelude.
“When I heard they were going to light it twice, I thought it was the dumbest thing,” a shopkeeper confided in me later. “But it works. People love it.”
People also love the harborside fireworks that follow the tree lighting. I could have enjoyed them from the Boathouse Waterfront Hotel, my nautical-chic digs for the weekend, just around the corner from Dock Square. I had an airy corner room with two balconies overlooking the river and its marina. But I did one better and booked a spot on a working lobster boat so I could see the display from the water.
I walked across the low bridge that links Kennebunkport to the Lower Village of Kennebunk, and then made my way down a ramp to the Nor’easter, a 42-foot lobster boat helmed by 58-year-old Mike Perkins. His local roots run deep; his ancestors have fished these waters for 200 years. Except for Prelude weekends, when he runs a water taxi service, Captain Mike spends his winters tending lobster traps some 10 miles offshore. In summer, he offers deep-sea fishing outings, charter trips, onboard parties—even ash scatterings at sea.
“As a working fisherman, you have to diversify,” said his first mate and “shore captain,” Shelley Wigglesworth, as she handed out pretzel rods and offered shots of blueberry brandy.
We had a little time before the fireworks began, so we motored into the dark toward the open Atlantic, about a half mile to the south. Mist enveloped us, fuzzing the lights of the sprawling Nonantum Resort, where the annual Fire & Ice party was under way. The fund-raiser, featuring bonfires, music, and ice sculptures (including an ice luge that sends perfectly chilled martinis down its chute), sold out its 3,000 tickets in 28 minutes.
I looked down into the ink-dark water, eddied with a falling tide, and saw in that maelstrom a kind of portal into Kennebunkport’s storied past. In the 1600s, the first European settlers built sawmills on this river. By the late 18th century, that timber had helped transform the town into a major shipbuilding center—and made local schooner captains and traders rich. In 1872, a group of Boston businessmen purchased five miles of rocky coastline just east of the mouth of the river and called it Cape Arundel. Grand hotels and summer “cottages” went up. Among the new homes was one built by George H. Walker; his rambling shingle-style mansion on a wave-lashed promontory would become known as the Summer White House after Walker’s namesake grandson, George H.W. Bush, took office in 1989. (Members of the Bush family still spend time there and have been known to show up at Prelude events.) The arrival of rail service brought city dwellers north to take in the restorative salt air and to race canoes on the river, the popular activity of the day. Native tribe members made and sold birch-bark and canvas canoes from workshops on the banks of the river into the early 20th century.
Captain Mike swung the boat around and headed back toward town. I asked him if it was tough to fish all winter. “If you put on the right clothes, it’s OK,” he said. Later he added, somewhat cryptically, “A good day of fishing is coming home on the same boat you left on.”
The first chrysanthemum-shaped colors exploded in the sky, illuminating a silhouetted, cheering crowd on the bridge. Each booming report added a low layer of pale smoke to the moisture-laden air. After the finale, I disembarked and found myself swept along in another tide—this one in a sea of Bruins jerseys and blinking bulb necklaces, L.L. Bean parkas and Santa hats. I was borne up Chase Hill and into the Batson River Brewing & Distilling tasting room, set in an 1825 house where coffee-colored walls, deep leather sofas, old fishing reels, and paintings of hounds suggested a snug English hunting lodge. At the packed first-level bar, I called out an order for a beer made with local hops, which I had selected for the pure poetry of its description on the menu: “Notes of dry crackers and hay, bright and bitter marmalade, orange blossom and pine pitch.”
In the morning, I found serenity a few miles out of town in the compact fishing village of Cape Porpoise, Kennebunkport’s original English settlement. From my sunny window seat at Musette, a bright bistro set in a white clapboard house, I could see the distinctive facade of Atlantic Hall, the century-old fire station turned community center and library. Just out of view was what is surely Cape Porpoise’s most Instagrammed attraction: a Christmas tree made of weathered lobster traps.
Musette opened in 2017, after Jonathan Cartwright, the executive chef at Kennebunk’s posh White Barn Inn, took over the Wayfarer Restaurant, an unfussy institution for nearly 60 years. Regulars fretted that the celebrated fine-dining chef would transform their beloved hangout. But they needn’t have worried: The stools and lunch counter are still there, as are the pale wood shiplap walls and the blue cushioned banquettes. Even local legend and longtime hostess Bert Austin, known for her saucy good humor—and fried-egg earrings—stayed on. It was important to Selena Gearinger, the warm 31-year-old whom Cartwright picked to be head chef, that locals felt welcome.
“When Prelude is done, locals are all we have,” she said when she stopped by my table as I was polishing off my eggs Benedict with Musette’s signature corned beef hash. “But I do love this time of year—the outfits and the crazy hats. And everyone is so positive. It’s people who just want to be together. We get big families who come every year, and they make reservations for next year while they are here. I think my favorite thing is that after the carol sing at the church up the road, people stroll down for cookies and hot chocolate—and they keep singing.”
I walked past that 163-year-old white church and crossed the street to Farm + Table, a gift shop set in a freshly painted red barn. Inside, I found owners Bruce and Liz Andrews, busily restocking shelves. The couple had vacationed in Kennebunkport for 25 years when they spotted the old barn in 2013, and knew it was the space they’d been seeking for a long-dreamed-of shop.
Bruce knows how much effort goes into Prelude. He is a member of the Kennebunkport Business Association, the group that puts on the festival every year and marshals hundreds of volunteers to deck the town with greenery, red bows, and twinkle lights.
“Christmas Prelude started 37 years ago as a way for businesses to give back to locals, and it grew into this giant monster,” he said with a laugh. “When we first opened, we were told, ‘Be ready for Prelude weekends. You’re going to need a doorman.’ We were shocked when we had a line of people waiting to come in. I saw locals in the line and said, ‘What are you doing here? You can come anytime!’ But they wanted to experience it.”
I could see why. The old beamed barn, made fragrant with fir tree reed diffusers (among the store’s best-sellers, Liz told me), was the perfect rustic showcase for their carefully curated wares, most in neutral or wood tones and produced by some 400 small-batch regional makers. I was tempted by the lathe-turned maple rolling pins and striped linen tea towels. I left with three soft-sculpture bearded gnomes, plus a box of salted caramels, which I told myself would make a nice little host gift.
The caramels were gone by the time I pulled into the Adams Family Christmas Tree Farm on a rural stretch of road about a mile from Dock Square. Wayne Adams ambled out of a daffodil-yellow farmhouse to greet me.
“It was a hobby that got out of control,” the 78-year-old told me as we surveyed the crop of fir trees he started planting 11 years ago on land that has been in his family for generations. “I’m a lawyer, but this allows me to say I live on a working farm. There are only two in Kennebunkport.”
I asked him how he learned the business.
“I joined the Maine Christmas Tree Association. They are real Mainers. They didn’t talk to me for three years,” he said, keeping a straight face. “I understand. I’m a Mainer.”
Back in town, I headed out for more shopping. In Daytrip Society, on Dock Square, I spotted Sara Fitz recycled-sail bags adorned with local watercolorist Sara Fitzgerald O’Brien’s charming renditions of lobsters, hydrangeas, and Breton striped shirts. In Spaces, a beachy home decor shop in the Lower Village, I fell in love with bottle-brush trees in shades of tangerine, melon, and coral. As I made my purchase, I discovered that the woman behind the counter was Cheryll Pendergast—also known in these parts as Mrs. Claus.
“I ride in the lobster boat with Santa when he arrives during Prelude with two of Santa’s helpers, who are dressed in lobster costumes,” she said. “It’s amazing. We come down the river, and there are so many people on the bridge, cheering and yelling. It’s like Santa is a rock star.”
I told her I was sorry I missed that.
“I’ve done it for 20 years, and I’ve been through five Santas,” she said, adding, “No one else will put on that dress in the middle of winter.”
I laughed with her, but I got the feeling she wouldn’t hand over the red dress even if another volunteer came forward.
Back at the Boathouse hotel’s water-view restaurant, I dug into lobster mac and cheese made sublime and decadent with a spicy ’nduja-cheddar Mornay and big chunks of claw meat. I studied the Prelude schedule. I’d missed the festival-opening hat parade (I’d heard some people worked for a year on their elaborate headgear), but I would be able to catch the dog parade before I left town tomorrow. Tonight, I planned to hit the party tents at the Kennebunkport Inn and the Old Vines Wine Bar. I’d listen to some live music, sample some more local brews. And I’d watch with pleasure—and a little bit of envy—as dancing ladies in reindeer suits lost themselves in the joyful noise of the season.