Sunday, August 02, 2009


Kennebunkport: (Photos available on Smugmug) As if to slap me down, after my rants about car rentals for the last two months, I picked up a Mazda 6 (fine, fine car) in Boston using nothing but the Alamo kiosk. Took all of five minutes. Good on ya, Alamo. With Misses Kate and Anna in tow, we exited north out of Beantown on our way to the Maine coast stopping for lunch and some minor exploration in Salem, where it's all about witches.

A downpour put the kibosh on much of the strolling around, but we did get to the Witch Museum, one of the dumbest tourist attractions I have ever encountered. It consists of a 45-minute animatronic history lesson on the witch trials. Some interesting info, but on the whole, decidedly lame. Worse, it is all intended to club you over the head with politically correct maxims. You see, it turns out witch hunting still goes on today. We find out the communists were treated like witches. And racial prejudice is form of witch hunting. And now gay people are witches because of Aids. That's right, we are all Cotton Mather now. Although we no longer hang witches, we do write mean-spirited op-eds and tell hurtful jokes. But it's the same thing, really.

You pay eight bucks for a pathetic, out-dated display and to be smothered in East Coast elitist sanctimony. Avoid the Salem Witch Museum. It is awful. It's not just a waste of time and money, it's insulting and condescending.

In fact, you'd probably do well to avoid Salem entirely. It is a type of town I am very familiar with. It has a gimmick that keeps real estate expensive and the economy steady. It attracts the sorts of people who donate to all the proper environmental causes yet rationalize their gas-snorting, oversized SUVs because, well, they'll had valid reasons not to get a Prius. They will prattle on ceaselessly about diversity, but they are all pretty much identical, except of course in their case it was just chance that brought them together, not bigotry like everyone else. It's a fair bet that they are all remodeling their historic houses to have post-modern kitchens and Asian-styled sun rooms that are never used because they are too busy sipping lattes in between Pilates class and shuffling their above-average, award-winning little achievers to their developmental activities. You may know of a site called Stuff White People Like, where they skewer the contemporary shibboleths of progressive upper-middle-class Caucasoids. Well they could easily include Salem in their list. The town is loaded down with such people, and being from Ann Arbor, I know 'em when I see 'em.

On to Kennebunkport where we settled into the oddly named Nonantum Resort, which Misses Kate and Anna immediately referred to as very " Dirty Dancing." Having never seen the movie, I can't corroborate. But I can say the Nonantum is a fine enough beachside resort. It is a majestic looking old wooden building and I expect it requires constant structural attention, which it clearly gets. Along with being old -- eh, I mean historic -- comes noise; loud neighbors cannot be ignored. But even on the weekend of the 4th, we only had one bad night, despite a huge wedding reception on the 3rd and a fireworks celebration on the 4th. I have to say the service was top-notch in virtually every way. There are all sorts of little pluses: a nice little snack bar by the pool, kayaks and bikes available for rent, free snow-cones on the front lawn, rocking chairs on the porch for parking your butt while sipping your favorite adult beverages, etc.

We had time to stroll into town for dinner at Alisson's Restaurant on the first evening. The central shopping area is what you would expect of a coastal resort town. Nice little restaurants, lots of t-shirt shacks and souvenir shops, and various candy and fudge and ice cream stops. It's a pleasant walk up and down the inlet. The town is pristine and freshly paintied and pedestrians have the right of way. Just the perfect sort of place for Biff and Muffy (or perhaps Thurston and Lovee) to walk the Golden Retriever with their sweaters tied around their shoulders. (Kennebunkport leaves upper-middle-class in the wake of its Hinkley sloop.)

As with just about any town on any ocean, there are fishing opportunities, so the next a day after a brisk morning walk and some lunch at a deli that featured profanely named hot sauce, we chartered a boat and set out to become Bassmasters. Didn't quite turn out like that. We originally planned to go out and hook some bait fish first, but according to the radio scuttlebutt, the bass were biting on chum, so we headed right over to a popular spot not too far from the Bush compound. In fact, Captain Bruce suggested we may even see George the 1st out on the water. On the way out we passed an enormous motor yacht which Cap'n Bruce said belonged to a Republican Party bigwig and the elder George often had dinner on the boat when it was docked here. On deck were a set of nice young ladies scurrying about in their bikinis. Being a Republican boat, I'm sure they were just the nieces of some blueblood, home from school for the holiday. Had to be it, right?

Anyway, we hit the fishing hole and chummed ourselves silly without a single bite. After an hour of this we sacked the chum and headed to deeper waters to snag some bait, but even that was only marginally successful. Even using the fish-finder to guide us we seemed to snag as many lobster buoys as herring. After an hour or so of that we headed back to fishing hole and, even with live bait, we got skunked. Cap'n Bruce was more disappointed than we were; he said it was his first skunking of the season. Snagging some bass would have been awesome, but the fact is, we were just happy to be out on the water and engaged in some serious relaxation. It was the only sunny day of the trip and we got ourselves nice and crispy by the end of the day.

That evening, despite being told to abandon hope without a reservation, we were able to walk down the street and snag a table at Mabel's Lobster Claw for dinner. A proper lobster, perfectly steamed, opened manually, and no frickin' bib. This is why God created the Maine coast.

The next day, the 4th of July proper, we rented bikes. Normally, Nonantum keeps a few bikes available for their guests but they had no helmets and decided that liability concerns forbid them from letting us use them, even though we hadn't intended to wear helmets anyway. Instead, they arranged for a local bike shop to set us up with rides free of charge (see what I mean about great service). From the bike shop we pedaled through winding wooded roads to a nearby village called Cape Porpoise which is little more than a general store and a post office, then back around through the verdant neighborhoods to our hotel.

It's easy to see that Kennebunkport is rife with old money. The smaller houses along the waterfronts are perfectly weather beaten, as if these folks had been here years before the influx of the bluebloods. Move somewhat inland and the houses become enormous, sized for the extended families of New England aristocracy to come and spend a couple of months in the fresh air. (In Maine you get about three months total of decent weather - mid-June through Labor Day.) Many of these estates are almost completely obscured by old growth trees on all sides, with private property signs at the edge of the driveways. No new-development McMansions here.

Almost 25 years ago, Paul Fussell wrote a famous book about social class in America called Class: A Guide Through the American Status System. Some of it may be a bit out of date now, but I recall that in his taxonomy of classes, he referred to the lowest and highest classes as "bottom out-of-sight" and "top out-of-sight". At the very lowest end of the spectrum are people who are hidden from our daily lives for the most part -- they are sleeping in refrigerator boxes and eating out of dumpsters. We occasionally see (or smell) them but they are not engaged with society on any meaningful level. Ironically, this trait is shared with folks on the very top end. They are constantly on guard against, and perhaps a little fearful of, the world, knowing they will be treated differently and judged differently, and will be susceptible to the prejudices and jealousies of the less wealthy. So they build walls of servants and security and surround their homes with thick foliage that you can't see through. Kennebunkport is full of top out-of-sights.

In contrast, the Bush compound is anything but out of sight. It sits on a spit of land extending out into the Atlantic open on three sides to the water and without much flora of any sort. You can walk by, within a few hundred yards, and watch everyone going about their activities, you can even use you camera zoom to get an up close view. The vulnerability of place has to be a Secret Service nightmare. Interestingly, there are markers a few hundred yards off the shore around the home indicating that you are not to go any closer, but Cap'n Bruce hadn't batted an eye when ducking inside of one of them on the way back to port the day before. The compound itself consists of a handful of brown, not terribly attractive buildings. It's nothing all that notable, but another point Fussell made was that those who are true bluebloods have no desire to flaunt. Gaudy shows of wealth are for the Upper Middle Class wanna-bes.

During a break I took the opportunity to cruise around town a bit while I had the bike. Needless to say, the place was filled to the gills with weekenders. Swinging south across the river from our home cape are the primary public beaches in the area. Now, let me just say that the beaches in Maine are not remotely what I would call attractive. After all, it's Maine -- you were expecting St. Barts? The sand is muddy colored and the run-off from the river darkens the water. Yet, under the heading of Everything is Relative, at a whopping 72 degrees with cloudy skies and the constant threat of rain, the beach was filled with folks clad in swimsuits and sprawled out on blankets. The water had to be frigid, but a few brave souls were dashing into the waves. I'm sure they were enjoying themselves, but it just made me wish for Florida.

Our last dinner was al fresco, at Grissini's, a decent Italian spot in town. Back at the resort they were finishing up a big Independence Day todo, with the local orchestra playing classics and showtunes and patriotic music. At dark everyone sat back in lawn chairs to watch the fireworks. It was all small town mid-summer perfect.

The next day it was up early and back to Boston for our flights. It was about as nice a holiday weekend as you could imagine, but all in all, I don't see anything in Kennebunkport, that I couldn't get in upstate Michigan with perhaps even a bit less...what's the word I want?...intensity, maybe. Of course, if you're in New England, it probably works the opposite. And pulling apart a genuine Maine lobster in a genuine Maine beach town is a savory experience not to be missed. No complaints.