Newburyport, Massachusetts | It’s a Wonderful Life
Newburyport embraces the holidays in a Charles Dickens glow of gaslit streetlamps. Shops stay open late on “Friday Invitation Nights,” plying visitors with refreshments. You can tour 10 historic homes, fully decked, in a much-anticipated yearly event sponsored by the Custom House Maritime Museum (December 14 this year). Naturally there are Christmas concerts and performances. And don’t forget your shopping list. You can score unexpected treasures, such as wooden-ship models at Piel Craftsmen or French-style curios from A Shore Thing.
“People enjoy the joie de vivre that Newburyport exudes at this time of year—they’ll just come and wander around for the day,” says Al Clifford, owner of the Compass Rose Inn, an elegant Federal-style mansion in town. “I reserve rooms a year in advance for Invitation Nights.” Other visitors rest their heads at historic hotels such as the Garrison Inn, named for native son and fervent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. It’s like a stage set for holiday revels, but this is no movie, and the settings and events are real.
Foot meets cobblestone, far-off tang of salt air meets nostrils, and the whip of a late-November wind flips your hair like a sail in this snow globe come to life. Which century are we exploring? There are places in New England where the past overlaps the present like a second skin, and even the hopeless pragmatist feels its pull, like moon tugging on water. So it’s no surprise (except it’s always a surprise) when Newburyport’s past begins seeping into the present, and we get tangled in the web of streets and alleys spreading out from the river. We duck into the Custom House Maritime Museum to get our sea bearings.
“The Merrimack is a violent river,” says Lloyd Sanborn, a fascinating older gent who’s our well-informed guide. “The fifth or sixth hardest river to get out of.” We linger over ships’ logs and sketchbooks of astonishing beauty, intricate models of clipper ships, and, of course, U.S. Coast Guard memorabilia—this is where the gutsy, high-seas organization began. Most haunting of all are the tales of legendary ships and their demise. The Dreadnought, launched in 1853—she could travel from New York to Liverpool in 13½ days; wrecked off the coast of Cape Horn in 1869. The Sovereign of the Seas, an extreme clipper, broke all speed records; ran aground off Malaysia in 1859.
Back out on Water Street, with visions of hard tack dancing in our heads and swags of greenery festooning the brick façades around central Market Square, we decide ’tis the season to stroll. Also, since we’re in that crazy stretch between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we feel like quaffing some old-fashioned cheer. Streets and alleys pinwheel out from the square, like the arms of a starfish, and restaurants teem with activity along State Street. Hard to choose, so at various times during our three-day visit, we’ll warm up at Ceia (meaning “supper” in Portuguese), with coastal European; Agave Mexican Bistro, with spicy sopa de tortilla; and Anchor Stone Deck Pizza, with ooey-gooey pesto pizza.
Later, in search of the ultimate dessert, we stumble on The Tannery, a tangle of restored brick mill buildings along the waterfront. The place is stuffed with tantalizers such as Jabberwocky Bookshop (a city of books, with towering shelves) and Newburyport Olive Oil Company (scent of eau de popcorn and buttered olive oil). But oh, the delights of Chococoa Baking Company—bite-size gourmet whoopie pies, in chocolate ganache, espresso cream, and pumpkin, with organic buttercream fillings. Be grateful that Alan Mons and Julie Ganong turned their backs on the financial world to make whoopies.
To shift gears (and walk off a little ganache), we head up to High Street, where ship captains once were kings. Cheek by jowl, their boxy and beautiful Federal mansions line up like yachts, trumpeting the assets of these early one-percenters: Cushing, Marquand, Bartlet. “The best address was High Street,” Al Clifford says. “You never lived on the water. It was dangerous, dirty, all about business, and not a very clean business.”
Indeed, the fortunes of Newburyport have risen and fallen like a stormy sea, but its talent for renewal is phoenix-like. The last time this beauty rose from the ashes—literally, after a fire destroyed the waterfront in 1811—it rebuilt in the warm, mellow brick that gives the entire triangle radiating out from Market Square a rosy glow. Hard times hit town again in the early 20th century, but in the ’70s, a handful of visionary citizens bucked the urban-renewal trend of tearing down decrepit buildings and fought instead to restore the town’s ruins.
We all reap the benefits today. Newburyport’s past and present, sea and land, are as skillfully entwined as one of those marine-rope bracelets sold in a few of the local stores. On a wintry day, what could be finer than exploring these cobbled streets, ducking into Piel Craftsmen, a tiny storefront that’s been selling handcrafted wooden-ship models for more than 60 years? Or heading down to the waterfront to Oldies, a massive warehouse, to sift through its trove of funky collectibles?
Or coming in from the cold to a steaming bowl of Enzo’s house-made pappardelle pasta, sauced with locally grown mushrooms, a concoction so exquisitely light that it melts in your mouth? When chef/owner Mary Reilly—self-taught—comes to the table, she makes her credo clear: “It’s all about palate and passion.”