As the lazy days of summer approach, it is time to recognize the sport of rocking. The none-too-vigorous activity takes place on the front porch of country inns across New England from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Said rocking is carried out in straight-back wooden rockers, deep-seated wicker rockers, and perhaps the occasional swinging glider in a slow and easy motion, with time out for the occasional pause to sip lemonade.
For many of us summer in New England simply wouldn’t be the same if we couldn’t enjoy it from the front porch. Just watch guests hover at the edges of the grand porch along the front of the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge waiting for a rocker to become vacant. It’s simply the best seat to watch the human parade as visitors — from Manhattan gentry to Tanglewood lawn rats — stroll down Main Street past the venerable inn. Window boxes and hanging plants provide cover for the watchers to engage in discreet commentary on the spectacle.
Settled in 1734, Stockbridge was barely into its second century when the railroad arrived and brought with it a well-heeled clutch of urban rusticators. The Red Lion Inn, then called Stockbridge House, was ready for them, as it had been a stagecoach hostelry since 1773. In a stroke of architectural genius, the porch was added in the 1897 reconstruction of the inn following a fire the previous August.
But small towns hardly have a monopoly on great porches. Americans began flocking to the White Mountains in the decades shortly before the Civil War to behold the spectacular wilderness scenery that had been exalted by the likes of writer Nathaniel Hawthorne and painter Thomas Cole. Grand hotels sprang up to receive those who sought transcendental uplift minus the discomfort endured by earlier explorers. The properties often occupied the catbird seats — small ridges in the valley bowls where the majestic peaks could be fully appreciated from the front porch. No inn nailed the architecture better than the Whitefield, N.H., property that aptly calls itself Mountain View Grand.
Originally called the Mountain View House under stewardship of the Dodge family, which built the core of the hotel in 1872 and continued to operate the resort until 1979, the lodging was constructed to give each room a view of some portion of the White Mountains. But the long porch, added at some point during the hotel’s various expansions, exemplifies the original intent of White Mountains tourism. The porch faces south, and in the long days of high-latitude New England summer, the sun marches in a high arc from one end of the porch to the other, all the while illuminating the peaks. Off to one side stand Cannon, Prospect, the Percy Peaks, Starr King Mountain, and the Pliny Range. Slightly askew to the left, the view is dominated by the mighty Presidential Range — Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Clay, and the loftiest of all, Mount Washington.
The view is so expansive and the mountains so majestic that they dwarf mere humans sitting in awe of the vision. Somehow, though, it doesn’t feel so bad to feel so small, especially while rocking.
The porch certainly has a civilizing effect. In a 1977 interview, artist Lee Krasner spoke almost longingly of sitting on the porch (albeit a back porch) of their Long Island home with her notoriously difficult but brilliant husband, Jackson Pollock. “With Jackson there was quiet — solitude — just to sit and look at the landscape, an inner quietness,” she recalled. “After dinner, to sit on the back porch and look at the light.”
Coastal light casts a special kind of spell, and one of the best places to enjoy it is the wide, deep porch at the Cape Arundel Inn in Kennebunkport, Maine. The boxy Shingle Style structure was erected in 1895 on a turn in Ocean Avenue going from the village to nearby Walker’s Point, and was known for many years as Seacrest. Rockers are in short supply, but commodious white wicker chairs offer their enveloping embrace and petunias cascade from the window boxes.
There is a distinct rhythm to porch-sitting at the inn. The coastal light is so intense and diffuse — even on an overcast day — that readers will far prefer real books to the screens of e-books. Besides, it’s easier to overturn a paper book on one’s knee to look up and behold the schooner Eleanor as she sails past on her two-hour excursions from Kennebunkport past Walker’s Point to Cape Porpoise and back. The sailing ship is silent, but porch-sitters might occasionally catch the low rumble of a power boat as lobstermen tend their traps on the shoreline ledges below the inn’s aerie. Early birds (around 5 a.m.) have the bonus of watching the sun rise over Walker’s Point.
Even better is sunset with a meal and a bottle of wine. The Inn on Newfound Lake, successor to a stage stop established in 1840 in Bridgewater, N.H., on the route between Boston and Montreal, serves dinner on what the innkeepers insist on calling the “veranda,” a term often used to denote a large roofed porch with no side walls. In effect, a veranda is the outdoor parlor, and the combination of veranda and dining tables is so delightful that the inn can be forgiven the fact that wicker armchairs outnumber rockers.
Viewed from the veranda, the lake has its own quiet charms. While ocean light is all about diffusion, lakeside light is focused and directional. The blue overhead light of midday warms as the sun sinks lower in the sky until it glows in the afternoon with an amber hue. Oceans have sailing ships, but lakes like Newfound, located in west-central New Hampshire, offer the simple spectacle of canoes and kayaks plying the water.
Along the shore, great blue, Eastern green, and black-crowned night herons forage for minnows in the shallows. On the water, several kinds of ducks pop up like Whac-A-Moles and dive back down. When the last light of gloaming fades from the surface of the lake, the loons begin to call across the waters, and just outside the reach of the porch light, fireflies wink on one by one.