In a Maine beach town like Kennebunkport, history is everywhere: Even on the cooktop. On a recent visit to the landmark Clam Shack, National Geographic Photographer Acacia Johnson got a peek into the kitchen while the staff prepared lobsters.
"The pot was the same one used to boil lobsters since the 1930s, when the site was a fish market," she says.
Generations have thrived—and sometimes battled—with the elements in Maine. Their legacy made an impression on Johnson, who grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, when she first visited the state as a student.
"The settler presence in Alaska is fairly recent, and so first and foremost, the history of the East Coast towns is very striking to me," she says. The land's Native American history stretches back thousands of years, and European settlers arrived in the early 1600s.
Today, the adjacent towns of Kennebunk and Kennebunkport, which are separated by the Kennebunk River, combine that sense of history with shopping, delicious food, and beautiful beaches. Kennebunk's Museum in the Streets, which features signposts with information and archival images along a trail of noteworthy sites, makes it easy for visitors to do a self-guided walking tour. The sights include several homes dating back to the 18th century, a former shipyard and cemetery, and a bell cast by Paul Revere and Sons in 1803 that originally cost $452—one of only 23 Revere Bells still in existence.
"I love the coastal culture in Maine, all of the small towns on the sea and the landscapes between them, the granite coastlines," says Johnson, who recently revisited the state on a tour that included stops along the MidCoast and mountain regions. "You get a sense of people having lived close to the sea for a long time."
Southern coast: history, seafood, and stars
Part of any Maine tour has to include stops at one of its many destinations for delicious seafood, from homey outdoor stands to upscale restaurants that might serve the state's famed lobster, oysters, clams, and fresh local fish. Visitors discover this and more through a Maine Day Ventures food tour in Kennebunkport and other locations in the state. Beyond seafood, the tours incorporate visits to distilleries, bakeries, chocolatiers, and more. When night falls, consider taking a short drive north from Kennebunk to the Starfield Observatory, where two telescopes located on a 3.5-acre plot of land offer views of galaxies in the night sky.
Visitors to Kennebunk and Kennebunkport gravitate to nearby white sand beaches like Goose Rocks, named for the offshore barrier reef that appears at low tide. The state's coastline is dotted with over 3,000 islands, many of which are uninhabited and provide important wildlife habitat. Several species of whale also populate the waters off Maine's coasts, and whale-watching tours offer the chance to glimpse them.
The area's string of beaches are all connected by sidewalks, making it easy to plan a long walk or jog among them. Another good way to navigate the coastline is via bike or sea kayak, paddling among tidal rivers and islands—outfitters such as Coastal Maine Kayak + Bike offer guided tours.
Just a few miles southwest of Kennebunk's Dock Square, with its shops and homes on stilts, the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge spans 50 miles of coastline and is a haven for birding, hiking, and fishing. The easy and peaceful one-mile Carson Trail takes you through salt marshes, tidal creeks, and woodlands filled with white pines and hemlocks.
Tidal pool discoveries
At a section of Kennebunk Beach called Gooch's Beach, Johnson went on a guided trip to the tidal pools that emerge at low tide, revealing a world of sea creatures underneath the clear water. The view revealed tiny shrimp, hermit crabs, baby lobsters, and other creatures.
"if you go with a guide, you learn much more about what you're actually seeing, and what it all means, than you would otherwise," she says. "The closer we looked at these tide pools, the more we discovered just how much wildlife was there." The view revealed tiny shrimp, hermit crabs, baby lobsters, and other creatures.
Like many experiences in Maine—bright stars against a night sky, craggy rocks, and soft sand—the tidal pools offer pleasing contrasts.
“The water was still, and you could see clear through to the bottom,” she recalls. “But on the other side of the rocks, you could hear the ocean churning and surging. You could feel the energy of the Atlantic Ocean just a few yards away.”