How to explore the seaside towns of southern Maine during COVID-19
Since March 2020, we’ve been adapting to life amid a pandemic. While many challenges arose, so too did creativity, inspiration and perseverance. A new sense of getting back to nature sprouted as many of us paused and appreciated the world around us.
To celebrate the many majestic communities across the U.S., TMRW is packing its bags and reviving the classic American road trip. Join us in the passenger’s seat as we explore, eat and rest in southern Maine. It’s time to get on the road again.
Maine is a spacious, scenic state dusted with quaint seaside towns and cities along its coast. With a statewide population that is one-eighteenth of New York City, this serene destination was made for outdoor experiences and social distancing long before COVID-19.
According to a survey of 450 people conducted by Live and Work in Maine, a nonprofit initiative that promotes quality work-life opportunities, the majority of people who came to work remotely in Maine during the pandemic decided to or are strongly considering making a permanent move. For any East Coaster looking to tip-toe back into travel after being stuck at home for months, Maine’s a great place.
So hop in the car, pack a lightweight jacket (and your mask!) and get ready to evoke the Mainer spirit on a road trip to Maine’s highlight cities, Kennebunkport and Portland.
As travel restrictions and guidelines change constantly on a state and county level, always check the local government’s site concerning travel and COVID-19 for all states being traveled to, from and through. This article was written based off of guidelines in effect for Aug. 16 through Aug. 24.
Learn how to fish for lobster (or just take in the sights)
I couldn’t spend five nights in Maine without learning how professionals catch the state’s most famous dish. Armed with a sense of adventure and some friends, I hopped aboard the Lucky Catch — a lobster boat that brings guests on a 90-minute lighthouse tour around the Portland harbor while instructors teach us how to catch lobster. The boat is large enough for adequate social distancing and its staff deep cleans between excursions. Whether or not you opt to load the lobster pot with dead fish (it’s all part of the fun), the views of majestic lighthouses and old military forts from the water are reason enough to book a trip and support the local economy.
Related: “Be prepared emotionally and psychologically … to hold off,” said Rick Steves.
Go to the 24-hour L.L. Bean store
Live and Work in Maine executive director Nate Wildes, who is an avid Maine enthusiast and runs a naval station turned brewery outside of Portland, told me, “You’re not a Mainer until you go to the L.L. Bean store and arm yourself with some winter gear.” Even if you’re not a Maine transplant, the flagship store for cozy clothing is worth the drop in.
Walk the funky, cobblestone streets of downtown Portland
Shops with eclectic home goods, handmade pottery, vinyl, vintage, medical marijuana and surf boards are just a few things to peruse in this trendy yet historic port city. My husband and I chose to keep our masks on and shop inside, but window shopping would certainly suffice. The scene was vibrant but remained relatively quiet in mid-August without the droves of cruise ship passengers that usually flood the city during summer.
Take a bike ride to the Bush compound in Kennebunkport
Our hotels offered complementary bicycles for guests, so my husband and I explored the darling little town on two wheels instead of four. Kennebunkport’s oceanside streets lend themselves to gorgeous bike rides any time of day. My favorite ride was from the Lower Village along Ocean Ave. out to the Bush Family Compound, Walkers Point, one of the areas most famous sites.
George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, spent every summer at the sprawling estate from mid-May to October (aside from their time at the White House). After their passing, the home remained in the family and is still frequented by George W. Bush, Laura and their daughters, including TODAY’s own Jenna Bush Hager.
Lobster, lobster (and more) lobster!
The Lobster Shack, Kennebunkport: This classic, family-run shack is the oldest running seafood market in the state and delivers weekly to the Bush compound. I fell in love with its lump soft-shell lobster meat, which is cooked on an old-fashioned stove in saltwater for exceptional flavor. Don’t forget to order their iconic lobster roll with both mayo and butter.
EvenTide, downtown Portland: Known for its elevated spin on lobster rolls with browned butter and chives on a steamed bao bun, this hipster-friendly downtown spot can have up to two-hour waits in summer for outdoor seating. So just be sure to plan ahead and reserve your table in-person before strolling around town.
Luke’s Lobster, Portland Harbor: Stunning views of the water from a two-story deck and cocktail popsicles were two of my favorite things about this Portland, Maine, staple. Recently renovated with clean, ocean decor, the lobster rolls were a smash, the salad was fresh and the fried chicken bites with spicy sauce were definitely worth the second order.
DIY lobster meal kits to cook at home or in your rental
To help maintain business flow during coronavirus shutdowns, The Lobster Shack, Luke’s Lobster, Eventide, Black Point, Get Maine Lobster, Hancock Lobster Co. and McLoons Lobster Shack all launched their own DIY lobster kits, which can be viewed on their websites. Most deliver nationwide in 24-hours and offer in-person pickup for locals and folks driving through. I snagged one from The Lobster Shack and from EvenTide for a friendly cook-at-home competition and it was a tough call to rule which was the winner.
A four-course meal in an 1800s barn
For those who want to transport to another time, the White Barn Inn offers a $150 per person pre-fixe dinner in its candlelit barn. The chef’s fois gras encrusted beef tenderloin or chilled lobster with mint sorbet and edible flowers can run a bit steep, but it’s a meal no one will forget.
For a more casual bistro experience, dine at the adjacent Little Barn (the Wagyu burger and seasonal burrata salad were two of my favorite menu items).
Avocado ice cream?!
If it’s not too chilly, grab an ice cream scoop at one of Kennebunkport’s finest: a Ben & Jerry’s scoop shop in a historic white home or the ever-popular Rococo, known for its unique flavor combinations. I had a scoop of creamy avocado ice cream with cayenne pepper and a scoop of salted sweet cream vanilla. I still can’t get the dreamy combo out of my head.
The Kennebunkport Resort Collection
This comprehensive resort collection has a handful of properties around Kennebunkport and quickly adapted to making guests feel comfortable during the pandemic. It has remote check-in, individual rooms that allow for no-contact stays and, at some, breakfast dropped on your room’s doorstep.
My husband and I stayed at the Yachtsman Hotel and Marina Club: a brightly colored marina-side property with individual rooms set up in the style of a retro motel. Its floating pool on the dock, umbrella-clad outdoor bar and candy-colored decor was made for Instagram.
Other properties include The Hidden Pond, a magical, wooded property that turned its hotel rooms into luxury rentals for a more remote experience for families, Cape Arundel Inn and Resort, The Tides Beach Club, The Boathouse Waterfront Hotel, The Cottages at Cabot Cove, The Lodge on the Cove, Grand Hotel and the Kennebunkport Inn.
The White Barn Inn
This New England-style barn and inn has been serving overnight guests since the 1800s. It’s secluded, off-the-beaten-path vibe is still a short bike ride or walk into downtown. It has a stone pool (which was open in mid-August and had an attendant clean each lounge chair area between guests), outdoor games, a fire pit and an array of cottages and hotel rooms. Our room was housed in an old hay loft with a clawfoot bathtub, fireplace and cozy, animal-skin rug … that’s when you know you’re in Maine.
Tips before hitting the road
If traveling from the tri-state area, the ride to Portland or Kennebunkport can be done in one swoop with just one or two bathroom breaks. It’s smart to map out your route ahead of time and make sure you check the state’s government sites for COVID-19 travel advisories. Some rest stops and bathrooms have limited hours or may be closed due to coronavirus restrictions.
Since we’re in a pandemic, make sure you bring extra cloth face coverings or masks to keep in the car in case one gets dirty or you lose it. Keep hand sanitizer handy and be sure to wash hands often.
Always check the weather ahead of time and bring a lot of layers when traveling to Maine, including a light coat in summer. Temperatures ranged by about 20 degrees during our mid-August stay and it’s cooler in oceanside areas like Kennebunkport and Portland.
Call hotels or check online in advance to be sure you’re up to speed on their pandemic safety protocols. It’s always good to keep yourself, other guests and staff comfortable!