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Those who spend the summers of their youth in seaside Kennebunkport now return to introduce their own youngsters to the long, sandy beaches, the salty air and rocky shores. : THE MAINE ATTRACTION

June 19, 1988|JERRY HULSE | Times Travel Editor

KENNEBUNKPORT, Me. — This is a summer place where traditions linger, and where more than one romance has reached high pitch during the pleasant days that unfold between June and September.

Gales blow in during winter, but in spring, vacationers trek back, as they do year after year, to spark new life in this seaside resort along the rocky coast of Maine.

They hunt for shells and explore sweeping Atlantic beaches and stroll the sands of wild and lonely Parson's Beach. The sea turns white with sails and youngsters romp among the dunes while gulls wheel overhead, wings spread against the gentle wind. Graceful yachts move among lobster boats and the sun shines warmly from a cornflower sky.

As an escape from the political cooker of the nation's capital, Vice President George Bush maintains a home in Kennebunkport. Perched in a serene setting at Walker's Point, it is his sanctuary from the pressures of D.C.

Since before the turn of the century, Kennebunkport has welcomed summer visitors--wealthy Bostonians and others up from Connecticut, the Carolinas and New York.

Couples who spent the summers of their youth in Kennebunkport return to introduce their own youngsters to the long, sandy beaches and the salty air and rocky shores.

And new romances warm with summer's endless days as the population swells by the hundreds with soon-to-be-gone vacationers. Traditionally, Labor Day signals the season's passing. Later the skies grow gray and Atlantic gales whip the dunes, carrying the salt spray to boarded-up homes.

Before its renown as a resort, Kennebunkport was recognized throughout New England as a shipbuilding port. During nearly a century, more than 800 vessels slipped into the Atlantic from its shores.

Finally, as the shipbuilding industry came to an end, Kennebunkport turned to the vacationer, becoming one of the outstanding resorts of the 1880s and '90s. Private homes opened their doors to guests and an old farmhouse was expanded into Kennebunkport's first hotel.

Kennebunkport's reputation as a summer place was about to begin.

Soon, land speculators made their appearance, buying farms along the coast and building a magnificent hotel, the Ocean Bluff, which took up to 300 guests.

After that they ran a spur line off the railroad to bring prospective buyers to the hotel to be entertained--and sold on a summer place.

Elegant Victorian homes appeared on the Atlantic shore while Kennebunkport grew famous as a resort catering to the whims of the wealthy.

Later, when the Ocean Bluff was destroyed by fire, the Colony rose from its ashes and, before long, other resort hotels took shape along the rugged New England coast.

With the arrival of June, train loads of vacationers swelled the population of Kennebunkport. They came with half a dozen trunks apiece. Some chartered entire freight cars and brought their own carriage horses. Liveried coachmen stood by to deliver both passengers and baggage to the growing colony of splendid homes and resort hotels.

Vacationers swam in the Atlantic and boated down the Kennebunkport River, and clambakes were held at Goose Rocks while others carried picnic baskets to Fortune's Rocks.

In those early days it was difficult for the onlooker to tell the bather from the stroller. Ladies wore knee-length dresses, bloomers and stockings, while men promenaded in striped tops and swim trunks that fell below the knees.

And now, although fashionable swimwear has reached Kennebunkport, old traditions refuse to die. There are still clambakes and picnics on the beach, and new romances that begin in June spend their fires by early September, the melancholy end of summer's sweet days.

Traditionally a proud old hotel by the sea, the Colony opens with the approach of June. During the next 2 1/2 months, vacationers swim in its saltwater pool and gather for lawn games and tennis while others take to the putting green.

Guests stroll through the gardens at the Colony and study the ocean from a snug guest house between Spouting Rock and Blowing Caves.

Beyond the beach stands a proud old home, a descendant from Kennebunkport's seafaring days, the Captain Lord Mansion, a 26-room home that's been restored to its original splendor, first by Shirley and Jim Throumoulas and most recently by Rich and Bev Litchfield.

Strolling through its doorway is like stepping back into the 19th Century. Topped by a cupola, the old, three-story home contains more than a dozen fireplaces, an elliptical staircase and rooms that feature priceless antiques and beds with firm mattresses. And there's good news for city types suffering from jangled nerves: No telephones or TVs disturb the tranquil atmosphere of the Captain Lord Mansion. Still, to keep guests aware of the mansion's past, a resident ghost crops up on occasion, a benign 18th-Century figure who appears swiftly and is gone just as quickly, like a sudden wisp of smoke.

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