Luxurious century-old property combines down-home comfort with world-class cuisine

For more than a century Montrealers have holidayed on the Maine coast, drawn to its blend of beaches and rocky points, enwrapped in the fragrant and invigorating maritime air and the timeless and relentless sound of the sea.

The appeal is accessible, too. Maine is the nearest seacoast to Montreal, just a four- to five-hour scenic drive, depending on which of an array of routes one chooses through the Green and White Mountains. The destinations are as numerous as the ways to reach them, with a dozen resort towns between bustling Portland at the top end and the New Hampshire border to the south. The names are familiar: Old Orchard, Biddeford Pool, Prout’s Neck, Ogunquit, Wells, York, Kittery – but none more so than Kennebunkport.

Cape Arundel Inn

Many of the spacious rooms have ocean views
Photo: Matthew Elder

Located at the midpoint of the Maine beaches, this picturesque fishing village, first settled nearly four centuries ago, offers vacationers quaint but luxurious inns and gourmet restaurants, amid mansions and cottages. Many of Kennebunkport’s elite resorts are part of the Kennebunkport Resort Collection, comprising eight inns and hotels located in and around town. These properties include a number of gourmet restaurants staffed by top-drawer chefs. For a classic Maine coastline experience, an excellent choice is the Cape Arundel Inn and Resort, nestled on the rocks a short drive from Kennebunkport’s Dock Square.
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The 110-year-old inn has a dozen or so guestrooms, many of which have views of the ocean, which is immediately across the street. Additional accommodation is available at the adjacent Crow’s Nest or down the street at Old Fort Estate. The rooms are spacious, with furnishings of traditional rich wood, luxurious linen sheets, thick cotton towels and Neutrogena bath products.

Common rooms include a large living room with fireplace and the Ocean restaurant and bar, which serves a full breakfast and dinner daily, and afternoon cocktails available in the living room area and outside on the long verandah and on Adirondack chairs on the front lawn.

Cape Arundel Inn

Guests of the inn have access to the swimming pool and clubhouse at the Old Fort sister property

Guests of the inn have access to the outdoor swimming pool and clubhouse at the Old Fort, which also has a bar with vintage billiards table and a library. Bicycles can be borrowed from the inn, and Kennebunkport’s Dock Square is a leisurely ride along Ocean Avenue. Another must is to take a walk in the other direction along Ocean Avenue past Walker’s Point, the summer home of the presidential Bush family. You’ll know George H.W. Bush is there for the season if the Texas flag is flying beneath the Stars and Stripes on the nautical flagpole easily seen from the road.

Cape Arundel Inn

Chef Pierre Gignac is originally from the Montreal area

Cuisine is a big part of a stay at Cape Arundel Inn. Chef Pierre Gignac, formerly chef/co-owner of 98 Provence, a long time Ogunquit favourite, was enticed to Cape Arundel two years ago to create a destination gourmet dining room. A Montreal South Shore native and graduate of the Institut de tourisme et hôtellerie du Quebec, Gignac has quickly established Ocean as one of the region’s top restaurants. A creative menu combines Maine’s superb sea catches, sea greens and local farm produce, a favourite source being Sandy Hill Farm and Greenlaw Gardens near Kittery. The personable chef uses inventive ingredient combinations cooked with a unique flair, yet respecting the simplicity of French bistro cooking. Prior to 98 Provence, Gignac worked at Amici in Winnipeg, and Prego and Chez La Mère Michel in Montreal.

For dinner on a lovely May evening, we enjoyed, as appetizers, lobster thermidor with globe artichokes, trumpet royale, English mustard cream and parmesan gratin, and scallops. For our mains, we ordered halibut, and butter-roasted lobster with langoustines fricassée, roman cauliflower, faval beans and morels.

Those were tough choices, as they were up against the likes of veal sweetbreads, Coquille Saint-Jacques and red and gold beet root for openers, and roasted duck magret with picholine olives, cardoons and Seville orange sauce, and pimento blackened monkfish, with romesco sauce, little neck clam marinière, crispy calamari and English peas as entrées.

Cape Arundel Inn

Ocean has a fine reputation as one of the region’s top restaurants

The only distraction from our plated masterpieces was the landmark view, enjoyed through large picture windows, of waves crashing over the rocks off Cape Arundel, against the Atlantic seascape backdrop. The restaurant itself, as aptly described in the Inn’s literature, is designed in an elegant colour palette of crisp navy and tan with a rich geometric carpet.

Cape Arundel Inn offers a quiet, oceanfront experience. For those who prefer to be right in town, Kennebunk Resort Collection has a number of first-class offerings. One is the venerable Kennebunkport Inn, a classic New England Inn on Dock Square, the town center, and its steakhouse One Dock Prime. Around the corner, just off the square and literally right on the harbour, is The Boathouse Waterfront Hotel, with its cozy nautical-theme rooms and restaurant, David’s KPT, which features contemporary dining, a raw oyster bar and a fabulous deck overlooking the harbour. Up the street is The Grand Hotel, a large and new hotel on the hill overlooking the village and its harbour drawbridge.

Two quieter properties round out the resort group’s in-town offerings. The Lodge on the Cove comprises spacious accommodations in several buildings on a quiet cove off the harbour. It includes The Dory restaurant, a casual poolside eatery known for its build-your-own burgers. Next door is The Cottages at Cabot Cove, a collection of traditional but luxurious cottages. Both resorts are an easy walk to Dock Square.

A bit farther afield at Goose Rocks Beach is the Tides Beach Club and its classic seafood restaurant. The former Tides Inn-By-The-Sea has been completely renovated and taken upscale – yet still retaining its classic turn-of-the-last-century character. It is directly on Goose Rocks Beach, long a favourite of Montreal families who still rent summer cottages in the area. A few minutes inland is Hidden Pond, a luxury cottage resort set amid hiking trails and comprising its own farm. The resort includes Earth restaurant and its “field-to-fork” organic cuisine, as well as the Tree Spa with treatment rooms located in tree houses. Guests of Hidden Pond and Tides Beach club enjoy reciprocal privileges.

Sea sights and delights along the Maine coast

As easy as it could be to kick back and enjoy the view and the sound of the sea at Cape Arundel, there is a lot to explore and enjoy up and down southern Maine’s beaches. It begins with the boutiques of Kennebunkport, where you’ll find everything from designer clothing to antiques to classic souvenirs, not to mention a good cup of coffee or an ice cream. And of course there’s The Clam Shack at the bridge for takeout seafood snacks. If you need more action, you can go whale watching or deep sea fishing, or check out the nearby Seashore Trolley Museum or the antique-car museum in Wells.

To the south is Wells and its fabulous long and wide beach, and array of restaurants and attractions, including mini-golf, along the main coastal highway, U.S. 1. A few minutes farther south is Ogunquit, with another great beach and, for an easy hike right along the water’s edge, the one-mile, paved Marginal Way path that ends at picturesque Perkin’s Cove. There’s summer theatre at the Ogunquit Playhouse. Turn left on to U.S. 1A through funky York Beach and stop for a photo of Nubble Lighthouse, on its own little island a stone’s throw off Cape Neddick. Your southbound Maine coast tour should end at Kittery and its strip of high-end outlet malls and its crown jewel, Kittery Trading Post, an outdoors outfitting paradise.

North of Kennebunkport are the old twin mill towns of Saco and Biddeford. Carry on to Old Orchard Beach, a big destination for Quebecers drawn to its kitschy amusement park and endless take-out food. If you have time, visit Portland, Maine’s metropolis, and its beautifully restored waterfront – although most visitors to the area will tell you it is worth a separate trip. Past Portland is Freeport, another outlet shopping mecca best known for L.L. Bean’s anchor complex, which dominates the town. At this point the coast turns northeast and the shore primarily is classic Maine rocky cliffs and covers all the way to Bar Harbor and New Brunswick.

Lobster and such: Any trip to the Maine seacoast is a seafood adventure. The Kennebunk Resort Group’s restaurants provide Maine seafood at its gourmet best, but at some point you likely will want to step away for a traditional bare-bones lobster feast. Ten minutes north of Cape Arundel Inn, just past Cape Porpoise, is Nunan’s Lobster Hut, an east-coast classic that serves up lobster in various weights, according to their strict steaming/boiling formula that requires a fresh pot of cold water for every new batch of lobsters. Another must-experience lobster emporium is Ogunquit Lobster Pound, south of Wells on U.S. 1, where you choose your lobster from one of several giant outdoor tanks, then enjoy a drink on the lawn before you are called in to crack claws and chow down.

Other favourite eateries along this stretch of the coast include Billy’s Chowder House (on the causeway to Well’s Beach), Barnacle Billy’s at Perkin’s Cove, Mike’s Clam Shack in Wells, and the elegant Pier 77 on the dock at Cape Porpoise. And if you want a traditional blueberry-pancake breakfast, it’s hard to beat the Maine Diner, between Kennebunk and Wells.

How to get to Kennebunkport

Part of the pleasure of a vacation in southern Maine is, believe it or not, getting there. The reason is the mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire that lie between the St. Lawrence Valley and the sea. A series of winding but excellent highways take your through tight passes – or “notches”, as they are called in New England – through the biggest mountains east of the Rockies. But if freeways are your thing, there’s also an Interstate highway route to southern Maine. Here are three recommended routes to Kennebunkport:

Crawford Notch: The is the most direct route. Take A-10 east past Magog, then exit 121 on to A-55 south to the U.S. border at Derby Line, VT. Here you pick up I-91 south past St. Johnsbury, where you take exit 19 on to I-93 south past Littleton, then take exit 40 on to U.S. 302 east through Bethlehem on to Bretton Woods and the majestic Omni Mount Washington Hotel and down through Crawford Notch. Once through the White Mountains, a good lunch stop is North Conway. Then continue on U.S. 302 in the direction of Portland. Before Portland, take I-95 (the Maine Turnpike toll road) south to exit 25 at Kennebunk. Then follow state highway 35 east to Kennenbunkport.

Franconia Notch: Follow the above directions, instead of exiting on to U.S 302 east at Littleton, stay on I-93 south through Franconia Notch. This used to be known as the home of the Old Man of the Mountains, the iconic rock face that once graced a mountain on the right (west) side of the pass. Sadly the renowned formation collapsed one night several decades ago – although its familiar shape, a New Hampshire state symbol, lives on in highway route signs. At the south end of Franconia Notch is Lincoln, a good lunch stop, before you decide on which of several back-highway combinations to take eastward to the coast. The safest bet is, in Lincoln, to set your GPS to Kennebunkport as your destination and follow its recommended route. This will take you through on one side or the other of picturesque and vast Lake Winnepesaukee, through the seacoast lowlands to Wells or Kennebunk. GPS aside, a good route – albeit in need of a navigation co-pilot – is exit 25 off I-93 toward Holderness, then follow routes NH-175, U.S. 3, NH-25 and NH-171 to Ossipee, NH; NH-16 south to Wakefield; then Maine state highway 109 through Sanford, ME, and finally ME-99 to Kennebunk and Kennebunkport.

The freeway alternative: This route is no slouch in the scenery department either, following the valleys of Vermont and New Hampshire. Somewhat longer in distance than the mountain routes, follow A-10 east to exit 22 and south on Route 133 to the U.S. border at Highgate Springs, VT. Follow Interstate 89 past Burlington all the way across Vermont and New Hampshire to the junction of I-93 near Concord, NH. Follow I-93 south to exit 7 and east on NH-101 (a freeway despite its number). NH-101 ends at I-95; take 95 north to exit 25 at Kennebunk, then ME-35 east to Kennebunkport.

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