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Kennebunkport warms Maine-lovers year round

Email|Print| Text size + By Karen Hammond
Travel Arts Syndicate / January 9, 2005

KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine -- Seagulls circle the deserted beach. A biting wind blows over Walker's Point, the Bush family's compound and retreat.

But leave it to innovative Mainers to turn the coldest month of the year into the most romantic. In Kennebunkport, ''February Is for Lovers." Next month, inns and other businesses in the historic seaside town will offer attractions for lovers of all ages and at all stages of romance.

Vince Thelin, owner of the Rockin' Horse Stables, has been at the reins of his sleighs and carriages during countless marriage proposals, giving blanket-bundled visitors a postcard-perfect ride. Weather permitting, on Valentine's Day weekend, Rockin' Horse Stables offers horse-drawn carriage rides through downtown Kennebunkport. Visitors to Thelin's farm and stables on Arundel Road also can opt for an old-fashioned sleigh ride that ends with hot chocolate and a tour of the 100-year-old barn.

Those who prefer to stroll with their sweetie will find Kennebunkport a perfect place for walking. The Kennebunkport Historical Society publishes a brochure of walking tours, but many visitors prefer simply to wander through downtown, a national Historic District. Examples of Greek Revival, Colonial, Federal, and gingerbready Victorian architecture show the evolution of the village. In neighboring Kennebunk, the Wedding Cake House at 104 Summer St. is an unusual, maybe even unique, example of late Federal architecture, thickly frosted with Gothic embellishments. Legend has it the original, straightforward hipped-roof brick home, constructed by shipbuilder George W. Bourne in 1826, was soon thereafter garnished with pinnacles, crenellated battlements, elaborate fretwork, and other fripperies. Bourne himself did all the carvings, says the legend, while he was away at sea and pining for the bride he had left before he had a chance to eat his wedding cake.

In fact, around 1852, Bourne seems simply to have decided that the house was too plain and set out to indulge himself after his retirement. First, he built a new wing and a new barn, patterning their elaborate carvings after those in the Milan cathedral that he had admired on trips to Europe.

Perhaps an ''oops" moment took place about then, when he realized the Federal-style house looked a tad odd connected to the Gothic-style barn. Attempting to unify things, he added yards of carved trim to the house, followed quickly by a buttress here, a cornice there, a pierced archway over there, and a large wooden finial to top off the front door.

Kennebunkport and Kennebunk, about 29 miles south of Portland, are popularly known as ''The Kennebunks." The area was an established community long before the first president-peepers arrived to train their binoculars and cameras on Walker's Point, the Bush family summer home. (The estate is on a promontory easily visible from Ocean Avenue.)

Historians believe the first settlement in the area took place shortly after the founding of Plymouth Colony in 1620. It was incorporated in 1653 as ''Cape Porpus" and reached its maritime zenith between 1800 and 1860, when many stately homes belonging to ship captains and owners were built.

Today, the town of Kennebunkport includes two harbors, one in the village and the other called Cape Porpoise. Those interested in New England maritime history should visit ''The Cape" as it's known locally, with its traditional fishing fleet and lighthouse at Goat Island -- although seeing the boats rimed with ice on a winter afternoon may dispel any romantic notions about life at sea.

The History Center of Kennebunkport offers a typical New England one-room schoolhouse, used until 1951, a shipwright's office, and old jail cells, as well as the Pasco Exhibit Center with permanent and changing exhibits related to the area.

Lovers preferring a quiet walk in the country can make the short drive to the Wells Reserve at Laudholm Farm, where seven miles of trails wind through 1,600 acres of salt marshes, sand dunes, and forest. Bustling three seasons of the year, Laudholm Farm is a peaceful oasis in winter with trails opening to memorable views.

Finally, there is the ''Kennebunk Workout," a hearty walk at any season but never more so than with winter winds blowing off the ocean. Beginning at Gooch's Beach and continuing past Lord's Point, ''the workout" encompasses several small beaches connected by sidewalks. Bundled in hats and mittens, and with the knowledge that drinks and dinner await in front of a fire, a short walk here can be both fun and romantic in its own invigorating way. (Insider tip for February walkers: Go directly to the Kennebunkport Inn's Port Tavern afterwards and ask the bartender for a Red Hot Kiss.

Many visitors will choose to stay in one of Kennebunkport's cozy bed-and-breakfast establishments or inns, where special amenities during February range from hand-dipped chocolates on the pillow to souvenir champagne flutes.

One of the most romantic places for a marriage proposal or a celebration of life together is Kennebunkport's White Barn Inn, where twosomes can enjoy a butler-drawn candlelight milk bath amid floating orchids. By prior arrangement, the chef will prepare an elaborate round chocolate box in which to hide an engagement ring or other small gift, which servers present at dessert time. How sweet it is.

Karen Hammond is a freelance writer in Maine.

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