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Cape Ann: Massachusetts' OTHER Cape

A lesser-known Massachusetts vacation destination offers many treasures.

What if you could drive to the Maine coast from Boston in half an hour? You can't do that, but you can get to a pretty good substitute: Cape Ann, about halfway between Boston and the New Hampshire border.

Unlike the dune and scrub tree landscape of Cape Cod, this rocky, scenic peninsula has as many cliff faces as any comparable section of Maine. Also, the humanscape is closer to Maine: small villages built up many years ago in Colonial style, undeveloped corridors between them, and virtually none of the condominium and mall sprawl that typifies places like Hyannis. A drive around the entire perimeter (roughly 33 miles) passes nine major beaches, five lighthouses, and numerous scenic views. And because it's so compact and traffic is nothing like Route 6, a Cape Ann weekend is actually relaxing.

Most of the action is on the eastern half of Cape Ann, in Gloucester and Rockport. But two more different seaside towns would be hard to imagine. Although areas outside the downtown are different, Gloucester Center is working class, with hardware stores and pizza parlors, small houses packed closely along most of the hillsides, industrial activity along the waterfront--and a confusing network of main streets radiating out to different parts of town. Most of the people walking along Main Street are under 25, and look like they live nearby.

But there's nothing working class about downtown Rockport. Centered around a shopping area called Bearskin Neck, it caters exclusively to yuppie tourists, with block after block of cedar clapboard buildings crammed with boutiques, art galleries, jewelers, international craft shops, ice cream stores and the like. The narrow alleys, harbor views, and teeming crowds feel a lot like touristy Kennebunkport, Maine--but it's easier to find a bargain here. In fact the prices on goods from Haiti, China, Latin America, Kenya, and the American Southwest seem to run consistently 20-30% lower than they do in my own town of Northampton, some 2-1/2 hours west.

Cape Ann is known for its local artists, and both Gloucester and Rockport feature dozens of galleries--most run by the artist whose work they feature. A tour of Cape Ann could start with the Rocky Neck Art Colony, off East Main Street about a mile south of downtown Gloucester. According to the Smithsonian Institution, it's the oldest working artists' colony in the country. Some twenty studios and galleries are grouped in easy walking distance along the inner harbor. Most feature the obligatory oils of ships under sail and the like, but check out the Robbie Sesen Gallery for more unusual renderings. Nearby, just before the turn off, the Gloucester Stage Company is a major part of the area's nightlife.

Keep heading south to the Eastern Point Lighthouse. Go straight through the first "no trespassing" sign--it's the only way to get to the Beauport Museum, so they obviously aren't very serious--pass a dozen or so elegant mansions--drive slowly so you can enjoy the exquisite landscaping--and park at road's end, near the lighthouse--but on the outside of the Coast Guard's imposing chain link fence--this time they mean it when they say keep out! During our visit, several cars were parked in a lot just outside the fence, and we could see a severe cliff just outside the Coast Guard property, a mammoth breakwater alongside it where a number of people were strolling, and a small pocket of sand and driftwood just to the right of the walk. Before joining the walkers, we scrambled out on the rocks, just to feel the spray and mist. These mighty brown slabs are eroded to a pretty consistent 45 degree angle; I wouldn't want to be out there during a winter storm.

The breakwater is made of huge granite blocks from one of the quarries that operated a few miles away until the 20's, no doubt. It juts out almost half a mile into the harbor, and there's plenty of room to walk. Even on the dark and foggy morning we were there, we got a great view of Gloucester harbor and the art colony. On a clear day, it should be possible to see Hammond Castle more about the castle later and the village of Magnolia, where the Hesperus was wrecked (remember Longfellow's famous poem?). The guidebook says you can even see Boston, over 30 miles away.

Speaking of local lore, Cape Ann narrowly escaped being called Tragabigzanda, after a Turkish woman friend of the explorer Champlain. But the English won out over the French, and in 1623 it was named for the then-Queen of England.

The previous night, we had feasted on a huge and delicious deep dish pizza from Valentino's, in downtown Gloucester. (Other choices included Szechuan Chinese from the Imperial Marina,Mexican at the Rhumb Line, deli style health food at the Glass Sailboat, or seafood from a couple of dozen different restaurants.) For lunch, we picnicked on the leftover pizza at Good Harbor Beach, which has some the whitest sand north of Florida. Unlike most of the peninsula, Good Harbor is also a good place to go for dune ecology rather than dramatic cliffs.

Heading into Rockport, park as close to Bearskin Neck as you can, and spend a few hours shopping. When you get tired or need a bathroom, Helmut's Strudel's harborside deck at the very tip of the neck is a good resting place, with a view of Motif #1, a lobster shack which is a favorite subject of area artists.

Past the shopping area, at the far northeast corner of the peninsula, 66 acre Halibut Point State Park features the remains of a once-thriving granite quarry, as well as some scenic trails. Then the road dips southeast, back into Gloucester but through several hamlets before reaching the center of town. The first of these is Lanesville, home of the Old Firehouse restaurant: a tiny but popular breakfast spot. Cholesterol counters need not apply; even the omlettes are made with lots of cream. House specialty is homefries baked with cheese, salsa, and sour cream. Walk off the weight gain at Plum Cove Beach, one of the most attractive of the small beaches that stud this shore.

And speaking of the sea, Gloucester boasts a seemingly endless selection of whale watches, harbor cruises, and fishing charters. Just stroll along the Rogers Street waterfront and comparison shop, or pick up brochures from the tourist information center. You can also explore a real schooner, the "Adventure," moored at Harbor Loop.

For something different, as you head back to the Valley, explore the grounds of Hammond Castle, just off Hesprus Avenue in Magnolia. Built by a wealthy inventor, John Hays Hammond (you have him to thank for remote control, among other things), this great slab of a building sits on beautifully landscaped grounds, bathed in the ocean's reflection. It replicates the castles of medieval Europe, but looking through the stone arches at the water, it feels like the ancient port town of Acre, Israel. The inside is full of art objects and interesting architecutural details, but to see it, you should to make a reservation ahead of time. Incongruously, the inside rooms visible from the lawn include a modern wood shop and a computerized office.

There's still quite a bit more to do on our next trip. A whale watch or harbor cruise, and a chance to explore a three masted schooner, the "Adventure"--last of the many sail-powered ships that once filled the harbor. We'd also like to walk through the scenic trails of Dogtown Common, Gloucester's original, long abandoned settlement--some fifteen miles of trails through the ruins of numerous abandoned quarries and dwellings, as well as woods and wild berries.

One last pleasure of this special part of the North Shore--and a sharp contrast with horrendous Route 6 out to Cape Cod: a goodly section of far eastern Route 128 with light traffic and sane drivers.

(1990. Originally published in a somewhat different form in Hampshire Life magazine)

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