If you think the best Boston-area seaside experience is on Cape Cod, it’s time to head north to Cape Ann. This destination is a granite-strewn apostrophe of land, a promontory that juts into the Atlantic ocean 35 miles north of Boston. In working-class cities such as Gloucester, Essex and Rockport, just about every family includes a fisherman, and lobstering supplants baseball as the regional pastime, even now that the cursed Red Sox are cursed no more.
Much like the rest of New England, the region is rife with history, dating back to the first settlement by the British in 1623. What makes Cape Ann different, however, is scale -- while traffic on the more famous Cape Cod often drags on for hours, this other cape remains wonderfully and surprisingly less trammeled, a perfect getaway for a weekend or more.
One of my favorite towns on Cape Ann is Gloucester, a fisherman’s paradise. I used to work on a whale-watch boat here, and visited recently to meet up with old friends. On rickety Fish Pier, I spotted dozens of unshaven men in orange slickers unloaded boats toppling with tuna, bluefish, and cod. Many of these men spend weeks at a time puttering around the North Atlantic, a grueling life that was immortalized in Sebastian Junger’s 1997 book, The Perfect Storm, and the blockbuster movie by the same name.
Nearly 300 boats had federal fishing permits last year, taking more than 700 crew members out to sea. The resulting Gloucester Seafood Display Auction is the largest daily auction of fresh seafood in North America, and its daily sales of 100,000 to 125,000 pounds of fish set seafood prices up and down the East Coast. Even Gorton’s, the company that made frozen fish sticks famous, holds its headquarters downtown.
Those who don’t fish in Gloucester have drawn inspiration from the ones who do. Over the years, great artists such as Fitz Hugh Lane, Stuart Davis, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper all have come to Gloucester to paint. There’s sculpture, too, the most famous being Leonard Craske’s “Man at the Wheel,” which depicts a captain who stands, ever watchful, at water’s edge to honor the memory of more than 5,300 Gloucester fishermen who have died at sea.
About 15 minutes northwest of Gloucester along windy Route 133 is the town of Essex. Between the 1600s and 1949, this tiny town was one of the shipbuilding capitals of the world, producing nearly 4,000 wooden boats. Essex embraces this past even now; the town center boasts the Essex Historical Society and Shipbuilding Museum, while surrounding streets are teeming with musty antique stores.
Of course the most popular piece of local history is a museum of a completely different kind -- Woodman’s of Essex restaurant. On this site in 1916, Lawrence “Chubby” Woodman invented the fried clam. Today, five generations later, the Woodman’s specialty is as crispy and finger-licking good as ever; on my recent visit, I doused a carton full of fried scallops with Tabasco and finished every bite.
No visit to Cape Ann is complete for me without a stop in Rockport. Soon after fishermen settled this town in 1690, they discovered that it sat atop one of the largest granite outcrops in the world. Over the next 200 years, the rock was plucked from quarries and shipped as cobblestones all over the world, from Boston’s Fanueil Hall to the streets of Havana, Cuba. Today, this worked granite is especially prevalent downtown, where it is used for everything from street curbs to retaining walls inside the harbor.
Today, Rockport is a town of artists. On a pier known as Bearskin Neck, fish shacks that have been reborn as studios and galleries. Every time I visit, one shack in particular catches my eye because it clearly has not been modernized. This landmark, firetruck-red and covered in buoys, is known as Motif No.1. Not surprisingly, it also has become one of the most frequently photographed structures in America; a replica is on display at the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Fla.
Still, perhaps the best-kept secret on Cape Ann is a public park just outside of Rockport known as Dogtown Common. The 1,200-acre “Common” has had many lives over the course of Cape Ann: quarry, village, berry bog and more. Nowadays, the area’s 15 miles of trails comprise the largest public open space in Massachusetts east of the Berkshire Mountains.
Locals love the “Common” for a manmade feature they call the Babson Boulders. This phenomenon consists of 23 granite slabs inscribed with inspirational phrases such as, “Courage,” “Loyalty,” and “Get A Job.” The boulders were gifts from Roger Babson, a millionaire and one-time presidential candidate who donated the park to the town during the Great Depression.
My favorites read: “Be On Time” and “Never Try Never Win.” In beautiful and blue-collar Cape Ann, these mantras still ring true today, and perfectly capture the ethos for all to see.
Matt Villano is a writer and editor based in Half Moon Bay, California. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Forbes, San Francisco Chronicle and many other publications. When he's not working, he likes running and watching whales.