11 August 2017

Two Weeks on Boston's North Shore: Bex's Guide

I'm a city girl and tend to fill two-week holidays with multiple destination and many activities, but when my parents suggested a family holiday at a beach house near Gloucester, 40 miles northeast of Boston, the idea appealed greatly. We spent two weeks in Cape Ann 24 years ago and I was keen to return as an adult. I thought I'd spend time on the beach, read and write a lot, and take advantage of the regular trains into Boston. The weather was gorgeous so I did get lots of beach time but very little writing time as there were so many other things to do. Apparently, some 2,000 words' worth of things to do, thus this is a long read.

Gloucester and Rockport are the main urban areas on Massachusetts' second most famous cape, Cape Ann, although neither is a sprawling metropolis. There are hotels and B&Bs in both, and myriad rental houses throughout the Cape, although they tend to get booked up early.

We booked this house towards the southern tip of Cape Ann, near Eastern Point Light. Our review (9/8/17) is on the website if you're interested in our thoughts. Eastern Point Boulevard is a long, private road, and we had a private (but not really swimming-worthy) beach and superb sunsets and views of the distant Boston skyline. The lighthouse and Dog Bar breakwater were just a short walk. If you like to walk (as I do), Gloucester was too far (3.5 miles) to make 'just popping in' on foot feasible. Good Harbor Beach, the best beach on the Cape was also about 3.5 miles away and the nearest bar, restaurant and convenience store were all 1.5+ miles down the road. We had a car but it was a shame to have to rely on that. In this area, though, you generally have to compromise between 'beautiful ocean-side setting' and 'proximity to places to eat, drink and shop'.

I loved my 6.5-mile morning running route to Good Harbor Beach and back, cutting up through the centre of the Cape and returning along Atlantic Road, which had stunning views. There are several hotels, including Ocean House Hotel, along this road, perched upon the rocks above the ocean and just a mile south of Good Harbor.

With a population of not quite 30,000, the city of Gloucester was first settled in 1623 and remains an important fishing centre with its busy working port. As such, the waterfront area isn't especially picturesque, although is worth visiting. Gloucester is perhaps most famous for the devastating storm that hit in late 1991, which was depicted in Sebastian Junger's book The Perfect Storm and the film of the same name. A memorial to Gloucester's many fishermen lost at sea over the years is just west of the city centre.

The downtown area itself is quite pretty and lively, especially around Main Street, and there is an impressive number of independent shops and eateries, including three bookshops, such as The Book Store (61 Main Street) and Dog Town Books (132 Main Street). There was also a cool lifestyle store, Goodlinens Studio (130 Main Street), various antiques shops and a small cinema and record store, Mystery Train, at 21 Main Street. We watched the excellent Dunkirk at the multiplex (well, Gloucester's version) just outside town — the same cinema where, aged nine, I saw Jurassic Park! Sadly, the only bike rental shop in town had closed.

I didn't eat out in Gloucester, but I've heard good things about the hip pizza-and-seafood restaurant Short & Main (36 Main Street), and my brother and his wife had fun at Cape Ann Brewing on the harbour (11 Rogers Street). I went to the new-ish Sandpiper Bakery (65 Middle Street), which serves lovely cakes, pastries, sandwiches and Tandem Coffee. When I stopped by, they also had a nice Ethiopian coffee from Ipswich-based Little Wolf Coffee on the batch brew. CafĂ©, Brew & Spirits (3 Main Street) is opening soon and will serve, among other things, nitro cold brew, craft beers and cocktails; it was a shame I missed them! Another restaurant I really wanted to go to, which is technically in Gloucester but really about five miles north, was The Market Restaurant, which is said to have excellent food in a stunning waterfront setting on the Annisquam River. Unfortunately, we didn't book early enough.

Various companies run whale-watching excursions — in 1993, we went with Captain Bill and Sons; in an on-board prize draw, I actually won a voucher for a free second trip but forgot to bring it with me. This time, we took a wonderful evening sail on the Schooner Thomas E. Lannon. We had beautiful weather, and despite the limited wind, we had a lovely time enjoying the view and watching the sun start to set. The crew were great and I'd recommend the experience.

If you imagine Cape Ann as being shaped like a northeast-facing lobster claw, Rockport would be at the hinge. Smaller than Gloucester and quainter, it is understandably popular with visitors, and the many gift and souvenir shops, particularly on Bearskin Neck, reflect this. There are a few nice boutiques, though, and a bookstore (Toad Hall at 47 Main Street), which was there in 1993 too. You may wish to eyeball the red shack on Bradley Wharf, Motif Number 1, which is reported to be one of America's most painted buildings.

We had our first lobster roll of the trip at Roy Moore's Fish Shack Restaurant (21 Dock Square), which was fine, although we had many better ones during our trip; if you get there before 6 pm, try their shack on Bearskin Neck instead. We had a lovely meal at the hip Feather & Wedge (my three courses — scallop crudo, chicken under a brick, and lavender panna cotta — are pictured below) at 5 Main Street. The brunch menu and cocktails looked awesome but sadly, I was the designated driver on the night we visited.

Just northwest of Rockport on the northernmost part of Cape Ann, The Lobster Pool (329 Granite Street), is a casual but fun seafood shack with awesome sunset views. It's super relaxed but the food is very fresh and my lobster roll was very good indeed.

Rocky Neck
We stayed in Rocky Neck, a nubbin of a peninsula a quarter of a mile across the sea from Gloucester's harbour, on our 1993 visit. It is a working artists' colony and there are various shops and restaurants. We stopped one day for a super-creamy ice cream at Rocky Neck Ice Cream. Nearby, there's a nice bistro called Duckworth's, where we ate one night. The food was great and the staff were lovely.

My favourite beach was Good Harbor Beach, a couple of miles east of central Gloucester. It costs $25–30 to park but we spent five glorious sunny days there. The beach is wide with soft, clean sand and boogie-boardable waves. It isn't great for swimming as the water is so shallow but for everything else, it's great. Depending on the tides, you can walk out to Salt Island, just off the shore — just follow the crowds!

There's a decent enough food shack at the beach — my lobster roll was not bad (for the beach!) but the salmon and the grilled chicken sandwiches were pretty good. As at most beaches in the area, you can't bring alcohol, and if you're used to the Mediterranean and/or a wuss like me, you'll probably find the sea rather cold.

A mile north of our rental home, Niles Beach (20 Eastern Point Boulevard) is much smaller and more pebbly than Good Harbor. The sea also felt painfully cold and I didn't swim here. It's great at sunset, though, and if you're lucky you'll get a fab view of the Boston skyline.

We didn't go to Wingaersheek Beach as its location, some five miles northwest of Gloucester, was less convenient, but it's supposed to be another of Cape Ann's best beaches.

Getting around
There are a few infrequent bus routes that run around Cape Ann, but even the closest bus stop to our house, at Niles Beach on the red line, was a good 25-minute walk so we drove most places. There's also a shuttle boat between Gloucester and Rocky Neck, and we were able to use taxis and Uber when we needed to. Alas, cars are king around here. MBTA runs the train line from Rockport to Boston, via Gloucester and Salem, but engineering works meant the trains were replaced partially or fully by slow shuttle buses during our stay. It's usually about 1h10 from Gloucester to Boston's North Station, though.

Day trips from Cape Ann
I have listed these from south to north. The route would make a nice weeklong road trip (and Lonely Planet's New England Best Trips guide is great for more information and inspiration), although we visited most places as separate day trips.

We went into Boston several times during our stay, which I'll write about separately (you can read my previous posts about Boston here). In the absence of trains, we drove in and it took just over an hour. Parking and navigating were pretty straightforward.

I'd been to Salem before and didn't return, but some of our party went for the day. They enjoyed the Salem Witch Museum (the actual greatest witch hunt in American history) and my brother ranked the wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas at Bambolina (288 Derby Street) in his all-time top three. Eater has more food and drink suggestions here.

Esssex & Ipswich
Ah, New England, where Manchester (this one, at least) and Essex are only five miles apart. We didn't stop in downtown Essex, with its many antique shops, but did go for superb lobster rolls at Woodman's of Essex (103 Main Street), which has been serving up delicious seafood since 1914.

Up the road in Ipswich, you could spend a couple of hours strolling around the pretty, historic downtown. I wrote more about the town in my blog post about the excellent Little Wolf Coffee, which is easily the finest speciality coffee establishment on the North Shore.

Ipswich is a few miles inland, but the Ipswich River flows through the town and enters the sea just to the east near Crane Beach, a big, beautiful sandy beach operated by The Trustees (the conservation non-profit who co-organised the coffee extraction class I did with George Howell). Parking is $25–30 for non-members but arrive early and you'll make the most of it. The sea here is calm and it's great for swimming, wading through the shallow waters and admiring the many intact clam (and other) shells that wash up. Although the central section can be busy, you can stroll a mile or more until you find your own piece of paradise. There's a food stall and shop near the entrance. Just watch out for the vicious, persistent greenhead flies, one of which savaged my leg. If it's a 'high-risk day' take insect repellent (the Crane shop and TripAdvisor recommend Avon's Skin So Soft range).

We didn't go to Newburyport but passed it on our drives north. It is said to be like a smaller version of Portsmouth, which, in turn, is said to be like a smaller Portland. If you don't have time to go to Portsmouth or Portland, Newburyport might make a good alternative.

Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Kittery, Maine
We went to Portsmouth on a whim after a morning of shopping at the Kittery Outlets and fell in love with the characterful, historic city. For a city of just 20,000 people, Portsmouth has a splendid number of independent shops and eateries, the downtown area is attractive and walkable, and everyone was friendly. I wrote about Portsmouth in my review of Profile Coffee Bar, and Eater has a great dining guide to both Portsmouth and Kittery (whose downtown we didn't visit).

The South Maine Coast
If you're driving up the Maine coast, Ogunquit beach is supposed to be beautiful, and we've stayed before in Kennebunkport for lighthouses and lobster rolls.

Portland and Cape Elizabeth, Maine
I really loved my day in Portland, Maine, which gave its name to Portland, Oregon, after a fortuitous coin toss saw off competition from a Bostonian rival. My food, drink, shopping and speciality coffee recommendations are in this blog post, but you could easily spend two or three days in and around the hip little port city. I wish we had had time to do a boat trip out to the islands but I'm glad we drove both to the iconic Portland Head Light and The Lobster Shack at Two Lights, both just a few miles south on Cape Elizabeth. More details about both are in my Portland post.

Freeport, Maine, and beyond
If you didn't get your outlet-shopping fix in Kittery or are a big L.L. Bean fan, Freeport's your place! We didn't go any further north this time, but Maine has much more to offer.

No comments:

Post a Comment