What you imagine a place will be like rarely turns out to be the reality. But that’s not the case with Kennebunkport, the crown jewel of Maine best known as the summer residence of Bush 41 (and Bar). I thought it would look like Collinsport, the seaside village from the ’60s gothic soap opera Dark Shadows (God, I’m dating myself here) — and it does, complete with charming wharf, cutesy shops, and imposing estate set on a cliff. (No vampires, though.) But seafaring whimsy is hardly its lone asset. Its biggest might be fresh-out-of-the-water seafood — something even old Barnabas Collins could sink his teeth into.
STAY: As Maine’s answer to Cape May, Kennebunkport is chockablock with postcard-worthy B&Bs. For a nice hybrid of hotel and inn, consider the Breakwater Inn and Spa, which sits a few blocks away from all the hubbub of the shopping district and offers comfy rooms ($99 to $249) along with pampering spa luxury. The 80-minute relaxation massage ($165) is an I-never-want-to-leave-here must. 127 Ocean Avenue, 207-967-5333, thebreakwaterinn.com.
EAT/DRINK: If you eat only one thing here, make sure it’s a lobster roll. Lines at the Clam Shack often stretch a block, but the creamy, dreamy rolls stuffed with fresh lobster meat are sooo worth it (2 Western Avenue, 207-967-3321). For evening, bring your best duds (jackets required for gents) to the rustic and romantic White Barn Inn, where chef Jonathan Cartwright’s inventive seafood-centric menu is matched only by the cozy, candlelit ambience inside two lovingly restored barns (37 Beach Street, 207-967-2321).
SHOP: Located between the east side of the Kennebunk River and the Atlantic, the town is ideal for walking, whether you want to gaze at ocean views or into shop windows. While there’s some predictably cheesy retail (lobster sweatpants!), quaint emporiums like the Silver Nutmeg (24 Ocean Avenue, 207-967-0089) and French country furniture purveyor Kate Madison in across-the-pedestrian-bridge Kennebunk (3 Coveside Lane, 207-967-8989) are worth the browse. For something luxe-ily indulgent, buy some original art at the Scott Bundy Galleries (in the Breakwater Inn, 207-967-2575).
WATCH: Each day, visitors line the stone-fenced causeway along the Atlantic to watch the sun set over the shaker-shingled Bush compound, where George H.W. and Barbara summer every year. No matter what your politics, there’s no denying the sheer New England beauty of the estate — or an orange sun going down behind it.
GETTING THERE: US Airways offers several nonstops to Portland, averaging about $250 round-trip; from there, rent a car for the 30-mile drive to Kennebunkport. DO: Go in the off-season, since summer traffic is a nightmare. Mid-weeks in May, September and October offer spectacular weather and scenery, sans crowds. DON’T: Forget a sweater. Maine can get chilly at night. (Upside: Lots of inns with fireplaces to sit by while sipping wine!)