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Salem and Cape Ann

Salem and Cape Ann
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Salem, Gloucester, Rockport, and Essex, MA

Cape Ann, Mass. Itinerary

Unlike most towns with fond ambitions to become tourist destinations, Salem actually has a wealth of attractions. The only problem is, it has too many. (I impose on myself a limit of one hour inside any museum: Any more time spent wandering galleries makes my head aches and my feet hurt.) This loop from Salem to Cape Ann takes in, manageably, some of the best the North Shore has to offer, and at a time of year when getting around isn’t going to be amid summer traffic-clogged roads.

First stop is Salem. From Route 128 north, take the exit onto Route 114 east. Follow signs carefully; this road makes lots of turns as it winds its way into Salem. Driving is nearly as bad in Salem as in Boston, so park at central Riley Plaza.

Better known today for the witch-hunting hysteria in 1692, Salem was best known 200 years ago as the “New World Venice.” Although south of Boston fortunes were mostly made from whaling, the prosperous towns north of the city — Salem, Marblehead, Newburyport — made their wealth through canny worldwide trading and shipbuilding.
For a view of what all the commerce was about (as well as the booty of those voyages), visit the Peabody Essex Museum (admission $7; open Tues.-Sat. 10-5, Sun. noon-5, open Mon. after Memorial Day; 132 Essex St.; 978-745-9500). As the name hints, two museums have joined forces here. The Peabody, founded in 1799 by those mariners and seamen who were fanning out over the globe, is the oldest continuously operating museum in the country. It presents an eclectic mix of Asian art, porcelain, Pacific cultures’ art, maritime history, and maritime trade.

The museum’s other half, the former Essex Institute, is the historical society of a county rich in history. Devoted to the more domestic culture of Essex County, it is, to me, the more interesting. Definitely schedule yourself for one of the tours of its three house museums — the 1684 John Ward House, the 1727 Crowninshield-Bentley House, and the 1804 Gardener-Pingree House, a brick mansion designed by Salem’s famous architect Samuel McIntire. In each, the hardships of day-to-day living come chillingly alive.
If time and weather permit, stroll around Washington Square or down Chestnut Street to view the fine brick town houses of other early 19th-century merchants.

Dining, unfortunately, never seems to be among Salem’s high points. Eat in the Peabody cafe, or walk to the nearby Lyceum Bar and Grill (43 Church St.; 978-745-7665). Long before it became a restaurant, this was a lecture hall; in 1877 Alexander Graham Bell gave the first public demonstration of the telephone here.

Leave Salem along Route 1A, then follow Route 127 — the road jigs and jags, but eventually runs straight along the coast, skirting the lush estates of Boston’s wealthy Gold Coast. Destination is Cape Ann. Very different from Cape Cod, this northern peninsula has a more subtle and laconic style. The secret to getting the most out of this cape is to overnight in Rockport, but to eat in Gloucester. A reminder (should you not follow my advice): Rockport is a dry town; that is, no alcohol is sold within its limits (but you can bring in your own).

Among Rockport’s many accommodations: Addison Choate Inn (double room rates Inexpensive; 49 Broadway; 978-546-7543 or 800-245-7543) is an 1851 Greek Revival with an eclectic interior that mixes antiques and reproductions. The Sally Webster Inn (Inexpensive, including breakfast; 34 Mount Pleasant St.; 978-546-9251) is all antiques in an 1832 clapboard house just south of downtown. Seacrest Manor (Inexpensive-Moderate, including breakfast and tea; 131 Marmion Way; 978-546-2211) occupies an elegant house in Rockport’s toniest neighborhood. There are many more inns, although early season openings may be spotty; call the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce (978-283-1601), or the Rockport Chamber of Commerce (978-546-6575) for other suggestions.

For dinner, head to Gloucester and escape to France with help of the bistro-inspired menu at Cafe Beaujolais ($$; 118 Main St.; 978-282-0058), where live jazz is also a draw Thursday through Sunday evenings.

This is museum-respite day, and instead of looking at highboys and four-posters behind silk ropes, I’d prefer to go antiquing to find my own treasures. But first an early morning stroll of Rockport. This is still way ahead of “season”: Not many of the galleries and shops will be open, but the charm of this town is all the easier to experience.

Then drive north on Beach Street (which turns into Rte. 127). Have an early lunch at The Grange Gourmet (457 Washington St., Annisquam; 978-283-2639), an erstwhile take-out gourmet deli that recently added bright red tables so you can enjoy sandwiches in situ. (Do not leave without a bag of chocolate chip cookies for the road.)

Continue on Route 127/Washington Street to Grant Circle, then take Route 128 to exit 14 for Route 133. Heading north, you’ll soon arrive in the town of Essex, where a rich shipbuilding history (more than 4,000 two-masted fishing schooners) has been overshadowed by nearly three dozen antiques stores. My favorite shops include packed-to-the-rafters Howard’s Flying Dragon (978-768-7282) and the more selective and pricey Americana Antiques (978-535-1042). Chebacco (the Indian name for Essex) Antiques (978-768-7371) strikes a happy medium.

Retrace your route back to Rockport, and then into Gloucester again for dinner. Passports (110 Main Street, 978-281-3680), Thymes on the Square (197 E. Main Street, 978-282-4426), and White Rainbow (65 Main Street, 978-281-0017) are three options which offer intimate dining experience and food with flair.

Back to Salem, this time to the harbor and the nine-acre Salem Maritime National Historic Site (free; open daily 10-5; Visitor Center at 2 New Liberty St.; 978-740-1660). Begin at the Central Wharf Orientation Center on Derby Street. Once again the National Park Service does a superlative job (despite its bashed budget): If you’re lucky, ranger Jack Farrell will be around to share his enthusiasm and knowledge. Pick up the well-written brochure and take ten minutes to watch the new video presentation. Hourlong ranger-led tours (admission $) take you into most of the houses and buildings.

Stretching into the harbor is the half-mile-long Derby Wharf, scene of much of the trading hubbub that made Salem second only to Boston as a maritime center from the end of the Revolutionary War to 1807. The harbor around the wharf was recently dredged; expect to see visiting tall ships moored here once again. Two houses down from the Custom House is the three-story brick home built in 1762 by Elias Haskett Derby, owner of Derby Wharf and America’s first millionaire. In a national 1798 tax assessment, Mr. Derby’s house was deemed one of the two best houses in the United States, its value placed at just over $30,000. (For some perspective: 40 percent of Americans then lived in houses valued at less than $100.) Inside the cramped space of the West India Goods Store, Mr. Derby’s contemporaries could buy exotic fruits from the Caribbean and silks from India; look in here today for an eclectic selection of history books.

End your Salem strolls with lunch at next-door Claudia’s Cafe (197 Derby St.; 978-740-3200) or in one of the restaurants of nearby Pickering Wharf. If nothing else, you’ll have plenty of history to chew on after this weekend.

–Janice Brand

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Updated Saturday, March 30th, 2013

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