New Bedford, Massachusetts | Finding Spring in the Whaling City
The calendar said May, but it felt a lot more like March as my wife and I gazed out at yet another gray, forty-degree morning in Keene, New Hampshire. With a full Saturday ahead and no plans of any kind, we decided a road trip south was in order. Seconds later, we established two criteria for our destination—it had to be close to the ocean and close enough to home so we could be there and back within eight hours. After briefly considering several coastal options, we decided to go someplace neither of us had ever been—New Bedford, Massachusetts.
While New Bedford, Massachusetts, receives only a brief mention in Herman Mellville’s classic, Moby Dick, you know you’re in “The Whaling City” within moments after turning onto the JFK Memorial Highway. Resisting the urge to feast our land-locked eyes on the ocean with a visit to the working waterfront, we instead turned right onto Elm Street. Noting the sign for the New Bedford Whaling Museum, we rumbled along on Elm Street taking in scenery that made me feel like I was in a different New England city every other block.
Rustic brick and stone warehouses reminded me of Portland, Maine. I saw Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in the clapboard single-family homes, galleries, and cafes. The beautiful Victorian homes along County Street brought back memories of Providence, Rhode Island. Finally, as we rolled to a stop on Johnny Cake Hill next to the Whaling Museum, I felt like I could have been at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.
I parked directly behind the two-hour parking sign, which seemed like a perfect situation given our compressed schedule. We crossed the street and made our way through the glass doors of the New Bedford Whaling Museum where we were greeted by Kobo and Quasimodo, the skeletons of a 66-foot blue whale and a 37-foot humpback whale. (See a photo of the duo here.)
Despite the fact that Kobo and Quasimodo have been hanging out in the museum since 1998 and 1936 respectively, they don’t exactly smell that way. While not overpowering, there is a definite aroma not unlike cod liver oil. As I marveled at the sheer size of Kobo and Quasimodo, I became less concerned with how they smelled and happily handed over the two $14 adult admission fees.
The New Bedford Whaling Museum is packed with artifacts, interactive displays, and models that bridge the delicate gap between present day conservation and respect for whales, and the savage pursuit of baleen and oil that define New Bedford’s past. One of the first rooms we entered featured a scale model of the tiny boats whalers used to approach their prey. Admiration for the whalers’ courage and toughness turned to uneasiness as we entered the room lined with examples of whaling tools and technology through the centuries. I’m not squeamish, but I freely admit that I found the jagged harpoon tips and menacing cutting tools tough to look at after contemplating how they were used. Fortunately, this display is in the same room as the half-scale model of the 89-foot Lagoda whaling ship that was built onsite from 1915-16 within the elegant confines of the Bourne building. Getting an up close look at the craftsmanship and attention to detail of this model is worth the price of admission.
The second floor of the Whaling Museum features an observation deck with a sweeping view of the waterfront. Feeling the brilliant sunshine and warm air on our faces made our next decision an easy one—it was time for lunch, preferably someplace with an outdoor patio.
As we roamed New Bedford on foot, the signs of spring were everywhere and I’m not just talking about the bright green buds on the trees. Like daffodils in the many public gardens and green spaces, orange construction barrels signal the economic renewal happening throughout The Whaling City.
A perfect example of New Bedford’s ongoing transformation is Cork Wine and Tapas. What was once a warehouse for nautical equipment located at 90 Front Street is now a hip and stylish restaurant that would be right at home on Boston’s Newbury Street.
The beautifully designed menu presented an array of options for almost every taste and budget. We opted to share the pulled pork empanadas and seared tuna appetizers along with a lunch-sized entree of pan seared scallops over jasmine rice with macadamia sauce. Everything was magnificent including the view from the outdoor patio, where we enjoyed imagining what life was like when the rugged warehouse was originally built in 1836.
After paying our reasonable bill for the exceptional food, we crossed the JFK Memorial Highway to explore the waterfront. Instead of thinking back on what life was like in Melville’s time, I found my winter-weary mind looking a few weeks into the future and the frenzy of activity that lies ahead when the fishing and tourist seasons shift into high gear.
When we finally checked the time, we realized we’d exceeded our two-hour free parking window by thirty minutes. While I was pleasantly surprised not to find a ticket on the car, I wouldn’t expect the same good fortune in the summertime as we experienced on this lazy day in early May. With another hour to spare before we had to head home, we decided to take a ride away from downtown to check out historic Fort Taber~Fort Rodman.
We were not alone at this local treasure on a day tailor-made for wedding and high school formal photos, beach combing, and little girls riding big girl bikes with pink training wheels. After so many months of wearing layers and sliding on ice, the simple act of walking on unfrozen grass in jeans and a t-shirt was a revelation. We strolled to the Merchant Mariner Memorial Walk Way, which is littered with the broken shells of clams and mussels dropped there by enterprising seagulls that use the concrete surface as a gravity-powered shucking tool.
The end of the walkway provided us with an unobstructed view of the Butler Flats Lighthouse, a fixture of New Bedford’s nautical history since 1898 that also offers visitors a potential glimpse into future. As you look upon this stout structure, you can’t miss the windmills in neighboring Fairhaven, MA. According to the New Bedford Economic Development Council, offshore renewable energy is one of the “emerging sectors” that they are hoping to bring to the region as a way of “embracing the challenges of thriving in a new economy.”
Will future New Bedford residents see offshore wind farms on the horizon the way past residents saw the masts of whaling ships? Only time will tell, but as I watched the windmills turning, I couldn’t help wondering if I was looking at a new definition of a “working waterfront.”
Whatever lies ahead for The Whaling City, I’m grateful for a much-needed day of warm weather, great food, ocean views, and historic charm. We came to New Bedford seeking signs of spring. We left with full bellies, rejuvenated spirits, and a greater appreciation for a city that has a lot more going on than we ever realized.