Rest AND Adventure

A Weekend Getaway to Gloucester Massachusetts

New England offers so many places with new experiences, and pleny of others with peace and quiet, but it’s a special joy to find a place within driving distance that offers both in abundance. For a recent weekend getaway, we scurried off to Cape Ann to Gloucester Massachusetts.

Even though I pride myself for knowing just about every nook and cranney in New England, somehow Gloucester had evaded me. I knew about Salem, Peabody, and Beverly, I’d even been to Rockport, which had required me to drive into Gloucester, but I never took that right turn at the rotory at the end of Route 128.

People who already know about Gloucester might think of the New England fishing village that was home to the lost sailors chronicaled in “The Perfect Storm”. The famous “Man at the Wheel” statue, recognizable as the “Gorton’s Fisherman” is the centerpiece to the memorial for lost Gloucester fishermen, where the long list of names of “They that go down to the sea in ships”, is a sobering reminder of the perils of sailing and fishing.

But while the sailing heritage extends from the early 1700’s, the town’s early 20th century history was one of a cooling escape from the summer heat for the well-to-do of Boston and New York. In a way, that tradition has remained – the town has a larger year-around population than in the days of grand hotels, but during the summer it hosts its share of people looking to beat the heat.

During our visit, we stayed at the Bass Rocks Ocean Inn. The original building, the Stacy House, was a summer home that is now the hotel’s lobby, breakfast room, and billiards room. The Inn welcomes you with chocolate chip cookies, encourages you to stay with evening tea and coffee, games, videos, a heated pool, and a sumptuous continental breakfast.

The Inn sits between the Bass Rocks Country Club and the Ocean, with bikes to ride along Atlantic Road and benches to sit on and watch the waves crash on the rocks. Our room in the Oceanside building was very comfortable, opening out onto the second-story veranda gave use wonderful sea breezes and views of the famous twin lights.

The twin lights are among the six lighthouses that dot the 25-mile Cape Ann coastline. To see them all, you can catch a lighthouse tour, like the 2-1/2 hour tour by Cape Ann Harbor Tours. Or if you prefer, you can take a lobstering tour and learn about how lobsters are trapped and brought to market. Or if you are less adventurous, there’s always the water taxi, all run by the same friendly and knowlegeable people.

After a morning of adventure, we wandered onto Main Street, a narrow one-way road with brightly-colored shops as quaint as any New England fishing village could boast. The restaurants were plentiful and varied on Main Street, offering Italian, Mexican, Asian… we found lunch in a sandwich shop called Café Bishco. The sandwiches were of momentous size and it was fun chatting with the owner, learning about his career as a restauranteer, naming each of his restaurants over the years after his children (like Café Kushko in Salem). The cafe has a nice cozy couch and tables for two. I got the roast beef sandwich, but I couldn’t help but gawk in amazement at the eggplant rollups that the more knowlegable patrons had ordered. Oh, and we also had coffee-flavored frozen yoghert before we continued on our way.

Shopping in downtown continued to shopping in Gloucester’s artist colony. The Rocky Neck Art Colony is a village within a village, where bright colors and improvisational materials are the order of the day. The colony dates from the early 1800’s, and over the years has attracted famed artists on the order of Milton Avery, Stuart Davis, and Winslow Homer. Today galleries, shops, and workshops abound, for the weekend visitor,and for people who wish to spend an entire summer soaking in a culture of artists and creators.

Sadly, we had only an afternoon to devote to our creative side, because we had theater tickets for Saturday evening, and needed to eat before then.

Dinner for us was at the Gloucester House, seated outside overlooking the water. The Gloucester House is one of the fixtures of the town, serving fresh upscale seafood since 1957. It was rebuilt bigger and better after the great 1991 storm that undercut the pier. The décor has a predictably nautical slant, but who would want something different when you have fresh seafood?

I enjoyed a sharp macaroni and cheese dish stuffed full of lobster, scallops and shrimp. Linda ate a cioppino, sort of a mediterranian seafood stew, with scallops, clams, mussels, and fish in a light tomato broth. A key lime pie for dessert seemed a natural.

We also had a special treat, the restaurant’s owner, Lenny Lenquata, regailed us with stories of Gloucester’s history – how an unpopular pastor led to a taxpayer revolt and a constitutional amendment against a state religion, how four early movers and shakers hosted lavish parties for the rich and powerful, parties that became known for the four men’s initials, BASH, and how a young man named Clarence Birdseye saw food in the Canadian wilderness preserved by freezing and on returning to Gloucester made a fortune for himself.

There was so much that Lenny didn’t have time to tell us that we had to research on our own, like how the “Dogtown” we had seen on so many markers and store signs (and a Harry Chapin song for that matter) came to be. That particular name came from the large number of dogs kept by the widows of sailors lost at sea. But then Gloucester is a place with a lot of history. Even the canal that gives boats a shortcut through the cape by way of the Annisquam River has an interesting story – it was dug by volunteers.

As much as we would have enjoyed listening to Lenny’s tales, we needed to get to the Gloucester Stage Company’s “Fighting Over Beverly”, written by local playright Israel Horovitz. This particular play was a comedy about two ex-WWII pilots arguing over who should be married to war bride Beverly 50 years later. With a touch of drama and heartache, just about right for a relaxing weekend getaway entertainment.

Horovitz founded the playhouse back in 1979 and over the years the plays he writes have moved out into the broader world of theater, gaining recognition on and off Broadway. The stage company was proud to announce that they had arranged to pay off the mortgage on the building, a former car dealership, early, and were about to undertake changes to make the open proscenium, 3-side seating theater more accessible, functional, and attractive.

After the play, we could have gone back into the main part of town, perhaps for a drink and late snack at the Cape Ann Brewing Company, but instead we opted for sitting on the veranda outside our room at the Bass Rocks Ocean Inn. We watched the moon rise over the sea, then the lights of boats moving toward points unknown.

The next morning, the hotel’s breakfast waited, but we had heard good things about a diner in the Gloucester’s West End and had to visit. The landmark we were told to find was a statue of a horseback Joan of Arc that the locals call “Joanie on the Pony”. Originally facing away from what is now the VFW hall, it was turned around at the request of a respected citizen who was tired of looking at the horse’s backside. Now it looks like Joan of Arc is leading a charge on the VFW.

We found the diner nearby. Two Sister’s Coffee Shop is the kind of place I wished I could visit often enough that they know exactly how to prepare my coffee as I walk in the door. I’m sure that there are plenty of people who come there almost every morning for their home made fish cakes and eggs Florintine. While they don’t accept credit cards, they do keep smiling faces and friendly service.

Finally, before heading home for the weekend, there was time to visit a museum or walk in the park. We might have checked out Hammond Castle, or perhaps the Meritine Heritage Museum, but instead we chose simply take a relaxing stroll through Stage Fort Park and watch the Annisquam draw bridge in action.

Then it was back on 128 and home to Rhode Island. Rested, relaxed, and ready to face the world again come Monday.

Here is how to find some of the places mentioned in this article:

  • Bass Rocks Ocean Inn,107 Atlantic Road, 888-802-7666
  • Harbor Tours of Cape Ann, Harbor Loop, 978-283-1979
  • Cafe Bishco, 51 Main Street, 978-283-8309
  • Rocky Neck Art Colony,
  • Gloucester House Restaurant, 63 Rojers Street, 1-888-283-1812
  • Glcoucester State Company, 267 East Main Street, 978-281-4433
  • Two Sisters Coffee Shop, 27 Washington Street, (978) 281-3378

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