01 of 10
Sail Out of Gloucester Aboard a 65-foot Schooner
The Massachusetts North Shore is a New England coastal region that holds many surprises for visitors--all within an hour of Boston. My family and I spent a week on the North Shore in June of 2007 at a rented beach house on Plum Island. It was a perfect home base from which to explore North Shore towns: Marblehead, Salem, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Gloucester, Rockport, Essex, Ipswich, Newburyport and Salisbury.
It was a working vacation for me (I was writing a book on the New England coast), but it was also tremendous fun. In fact, when we got on the Mass Pike to head home, my four-year-old tearfully begged her father to turn the car around!
Here's a quick look at the most memorable adventures from our week on the Boston North Shore, along with tips on planning your own Massachusetts North Shore vacation.
A Relaxing Sail Aboard the Schooner Thomas E. Lannon
My husband and daughter helped to hoist the sails, but our cruise around Gloucester Harbor aboard the Thomas E. Lannon was still one of... our most relaxing and enjoyable North Shore outings. The two hours passed quickly as we drifted past lighthouses, lobster boats and other Gloucester landmarks, enjoyed a fellow passenger's impromptu serenade of a couple celebrating an anniversary and listened to our daughter giggle as she played with onboard mascot Lucy the dog.
The 65-foot wooden schooner, a replica fishing boat built in 1997 by owner Tom Ellis, sails from Seven Seas Wharf in Gloucester daily from late June through August and weekends from early May through late June and from September through Columbus Day. Call 978-281-6634 for reservations.Continue to 2 of 10 below.
02 of 10
Dine at the Top of a Lighthouse
Want to join the Lighthouse Dining Club? The Newburyport Rear Range Light in Newburyport, Massachusetts, is the only lighthouse in America with a dinner table at the top. For a contribution of $350 to the Lighthouse Preservation Society, you'll enjoy incredible views and a memorable meal while helping to protect America's fragile and beautiful lighthouses.
The cozy dinner table for two or four--a popular spot for marriage proposals and special occasions--is yours for up to five hours, and your waitress will deliver any food and beverages you wish to order from seven local restaurants: Starboard Galley Restaurant, Mission Oak Grill, Brown Sugar by the Sea, Loretta, Glenn's, Fifty Water or NIXS Ten Center. All food purchases are above and beyond the tax-deductible donation to the Lighthouse Preservation Society.
We joined Lighthouse Preservation Society president Jay Hyland for a lighthouse lunch of chowder, salad, burgers and grilled cheese for the little one and had an opportunity to... learn about what a wonderful fundraiser lighthouse dining has proven to be for the non-profit organization, which has made remarkable strides in saving America's lighthouses. Most dates are booked far in advance, so it's important to plan ahead if you hope to enjoy this one-of-a-kind dining experience while visiting the Massachusetts North Shore. For reservations and details, call toll free, 800-727-2326.
A few words of caution: You'll need to climb steep steps and a metal-rung ladder to reach the top of the lighthouse, and there are no bathrooms up there.Continue to 3 of 10 below.
03 of 10
Drink Watermelon Beer
Our waiter at Salem Beer Works told us that each batch of the brewpub's Watermelon Ale contains 500 pounds of watermelon. One taste of this light, fruity and immensely refreshing beer--served with a watermelon garnish--and we were convinced.
Order it with the blueberry sausage, as my husband did, and you'll have your fruit group taken care of for the day! The host recommended crumbling the fresh watermelon into the beer before drinking. My husband was game and said it was good, but I was reluctant to chew my beer. I'll admit, though, that I used my slice of watermelon for dunking.Continue to 4 of 10 below.
04 of 10
Hold a Sea Star in Your Hands
Gloucester is America's oldest seaport, and at Maritime Gloucester, diverse displays, including many interactive exhibits, allow visitors of all ages to explore the waterfront and its marine life and history. Watch a boat builder at work, set out aboard a schooner, observe the bustle of activity at the State Fish Pier, learn about the riches that lie offshore and peer at tiny sea creatures on computer monitors connected to digital microscopes.
My preschooler could hardly wait to get to the touch tanks, where she was able to hold a sea star (starfish) in her hands for the first time. She said it felt... "bumpy."Continue to 5 of 10 below.
05 of 10
Feast on Fried Clams at the Place Where They Were Invented
In July of 1916, Lawrence "Chubby" Woodman took a friend's suggestion and tossed some clams dipped in evaporated milk and corn flour into his potato chip fryer. "Essex Fried Clams" sold like hotcakes that Fourth of July, and the rest is Yankee culinary history.
At Woodman's of Essex, where more than 50 members of the Woodman family still make sweet, tender and delicious fried wholebelly clams using Chubby's reliable recipe, you'll enjoy casual dining and a taste sensation that has drawn customers for generations. Be sure to sample the clam chowder and steamers here, too. The North Shore's Ipswich Clams--hand-harvested from the muddy tidal flats of the Essex River--are unparalleled.Continue to 6 of 10 below.
06 of 10
Squeak Your Feet on the Singing Beach
The Singing Beach in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, is named for its unusual sand, which squeaks or "sings" beneath your feet. I was a bit dubious until we tried it for ourselves. You won't produce a tune by simply strolling along the sand (and it's not very musical when wet), but if you shuffle and scuff your feet on the dry sand with a bit of authority, you will, indeed, produce a distinct squeaking sound.
Musical sand isn't the only thing that makes this a special beach. Its small parking lot, which is open to the public Monday through Friday but reserved for Manchester-by-the-Sea residents only Saturdays and Sundays, makes this Boston North Shore beach rather exclusive, although Manchester Parks & Recreation Director Matt Casparius assures me: "Anybody can go to the beach."
A few hints:
- Arrive early; the parking lot is usually full by 11 a.m., even on weekdays.
- Take the commuter rail from Boston to Manchester, and the Singing Beach is just under a half-mile walk from the... station.
- Head to the Singing Beach in the off-season: before Memorial Day or after Labor Day (but keep in mind the parking lot is reserved for town residents only during the off-season).
- Dogs are permitted on the Singing Beach between October 15 and April 14, subject to these rules.
- Check the Gloucester Harbor tide chart before your visit, as more of the beach is underwater at high tide.
As of 2016, walk-on admission to the Singing Beach is $5 for residents and non-residents over age 12. Parking for non-residents Monday through Friday is $25 per car including admission.Continue to 7 of 10 below.
07 of 10
Meet the Artists at the Rocky Neck Art Colony
John Nesta takes his paints and canvases outdoors--even in the wintertime--and captures the drama of Cape Ann seascapes. Elynn Kröger's paintings are abstract and complex, but they nevertheless reflect the colors and flow of the coast. Joseph Flack Weiler's black and white photographs capture New England's ethereal beauty. Judy Robinson-Cox's eye-catching and humorous color photos--at least the ones she dubs "Lilliputian Landscapes"--feature tiny plastic people in unusual settings.
There are three dozen artists who welcome visitors to their galleries at Gloucester's Rocky Neck Art Colony, and chatting with them about their work and inspiration is as much a part of the experience as strolling in and out of each studio and shopping for everything from affordable gifts to singular works to adorn a home or workspace. While their work may be divergent, these artists share a passion for place and a desire to make their creations accessible to a larger audience.Continue to 8 of 10 below.
08 of 10
Shop for Vintage Jewelry and Other Antiques in Essex
There are more than 30 antique shops along Route 133 in Essex, Massachusetts, a North Shore town that's just a 45-minute drive from downtown Boston.
I have a penchant for vintage jewelry, and my favorite antiques spot in Essex is the eclectic White Elephant Shop, where customers can rummage through bins of affordably priced pins, earrings and necklaces from the past. Not surprisingly, I couldn't resist the lobster pin and earrings I found, nor two sparkly vintage leaf pins.
The White Elephant Shop also has antique books, paintings, furniture and collectibles.
Hint: Be sure to explore their half-price outlet upstairs to hunt for bargain antiques, as well.Continue to 9 of 10 below.
09 of 10
Taste the World's Best Popcorn
While we were playing at the beach on Plum Island one day, a nice couple told us that we had to go to Salem Willows for the "world's best popcorn." Over lunch (and Watermelon Ale) at Salem Beer Works, Derby Square Tours owner and Salem historian Jim McAllister also recommended a visit to Salem Willows, and he told us that even Jack Welch--the former GE chairman and Salem native--loves the popcorn. How could we resist?
Salem Willows is the rare surviving waterfront park of yesteryear; it dates to 1858. It has a few kiddie rides, picnic grounds, a fishing pier, waterfront walking trails and a bandstand... and the world's best popcorn.
When we tried our first bite, we were actually unimpressed. But as we continued to consume the fluffy, butter-soaked kernels, we became more and more enamored of Hobbs' popcorn. There was something immensely addictive about the taste and the crunch, and we were devastated to reach the bottom of the box. Okay, that's a bit strong, but if you're on... the Massachusetts North Shore, you really have to try this popcorn.Continue to 10 of 10 below.
10 of 10
Spy on Shorebirds at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge
Of course, we also enjoyed spending time on our own little island hideaway. Plum Island not only has uncrowded miles of public beach (June and August are the best times to visit; you might run into bothersome greenhead flies during a few weeks in July), it is home to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, a terrific birding spot with its own pristine beaches to explore.
As of 2016, admission to the refuge is $5 per car ($2 per person if you arrive on foot or bikes), and on busy weekends, you'll need to arrive early, as there is a limit to the number of vehicles that can enter the protected property. In the summer, you'll be able to spot magnificent shorebirds without leaving your car. Parker River Wildlife Refuge is also a great place to observe songbirds during spring and fall migrations.
When we visited in June, much of the public beach was closed to protect the nesting habitat of endangered Piping Plovers. More of the beach is usually opened to the public beginning in July.
As is... common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary dining and services for the purpose of reviewing those services by the following: Schooner Thomas E. Lannon, Lighthouse Preservation Society, Gloucester Maritime Heritage Center, Woodman's of Essex, Singing Beach. While it has not influenced this article, About.com believes in full disclosure of potential conflicts of interest.