Kennebunkport: Maine Coastline Towns Extend Tourist Season

Special To The Courant

Yep, Labor Day has come and gone and so has what most consider the primo vacation season in New England, especially when it comes to grabbing the suntan lotion and heading to the beach.

But if you are still dreaming about that seashore vacation missed, say maybe along those Maine coastal towns of Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel, it's still possible.

As most in the Northeast start their annual fixation on the inevitable snow and freezing rain season, more hotels and motels and even vacation-home communities in this popular summer getaway destination on the Atlantic shore have spent the past three years extending the tourist season well beyond the summer sun and leaf peeping seasons. As travel patterns, economics and lifestyles change, the popular seaside tourist area has reinvented itself, offering a vacation opportunity that extends well into March.

"We are pushing the boundaries of what was considered the 'shoulder season,'" says Laura Dolce, executive director of the Kennebunk/Kennebunkport/Arundel Chamber of Commerce. "It used to be things quieted down after Columbus Day and the foliage season. It's not like that anymore."

For 36 years, Kennebunkport nudged the season by coming back to life in December for its Christmas Prelude, which runs Nov. 30 to Dec. 10 this year. That event includes the tree-lighting ceremony, fireworks, ice and fire displays, entertainment and a downtown stroll. And while it does bring thousands to town each year, it has been too short-lived to entice more seasonal businesses to stay open beyond the traditional summer/fall tourist season.

In the past three years, however, area business owners, town officials and the chamber have crafted a combination of additional off-season activities that have steadily grown in popularity, drawing numbers and financial benefits that have prompted a growing number of retail businesses, hotels, motels and inns and restaurants to stay open throughout the winter.

Among them is the Paint the Town Red, a special winter event in February that originally was designed as a Valentine's Day promotion.

"Now it's a monthlong," says Dolce, about the activity-packed festival that features a downtown decked out in red twinkly lights, and special events like cooking classes and spa experiences as well as savings promotions by restaurants, hotels, galleries and shops (gokennebunks.com).

"We are seeing more and more people every year. The extension of the season has prompted other kinds of development as well," says Dolce. "More and more businesses that used to shut down in the fall are staying open and that's good for everyone."

Besides hotel and motel lodging being more available, the extended season has also prompted more permanent developments like Cape Arundel, a cottage preserve of vacation homes that offers seven-month residency in custom cottages near the beaches with amenities including clubhouses, pool, fire pits and fitness centers (capearundelcottages.com).

"It's a getaway place and not just for the summer," aid marketing director Kim White says about the community that is bordered by a nature preserve. "More and more people are not just looking for a summer beach house. They want more."

While the area attracts a diverse tourist population, the extended season offers something special to those who aren't all that crazy about or have outgrown "high" season at the beach.

"We prefer to go on our beach vacation" in the winter," says Vernon resident Barbara Melendez, a retired grandmother who says that as a young family their Maine coast vacations were always in July and August.

"Now my husband and I head to Kennebunkport in January. Our sunbathing days are done and we want to eat at our favorite restaurants, walk along the beach without stepping over a crowd, do some reasonably priced shopping and just kick back and relax," says Melendez. "We love the tradition of going to the Maine coast but, frankly, we love it even more and because it isn't hot, crowded and overpriced."

Businesses also have taken a look at early June as another opportunity to expand the season a bit. A time when potential vacationers some might think is just a bit too cold yet in Maine, the towns host the Launch Maritime Festival, which features fresh local seafood, nautical history and a host of family-friendly events. This year's event is June 13 to 17 (gokennebunks.com)

"I think it's the winter when the area has taken on a new identity," says Dolce. "We offer people a chance to get away at a time of year when you are just tired of winter, tired of being cooped up inside and want to get away for just a few days somewhere nearby."

Bad weather does play into the mix, she says, and one year put a damper on the Paint the Town Red event, but there was still a flurry of die-hards who just needed a break and arrived as planned.

"Besides the business growth, I think the other nice thing is that extending our season allows people to see how nice the Maine coast is," says Dolce, "even after the leaves fall off the trees."

More information at gokennebunks.com and destinationkennebunkport.com.

Copyright © 2017, CT Now