Marblehead, Massachusetts: America’s best preserved historic town?

marblehead massachusetts Tourism boards across the country have long struggled to find innovative ways to market destinations large and small, inviting and mundane. We have “historic districts” that have been turned into vast parking lots; towns that play up tenuous connections to living and deceased celebrities; states that promote Amish tourism even though the Amish simply want to be left alone; hokey festivals; and any number of other contrived gimmicks to try to get you to come visit.

West Virginia is Wild and Wonderful. Pennsylvania promises that You’ve Got a Friend There. New Mexico is The Land of Enchantment. In Kansas, There’s no Place Like Home. Louisiana is a Sportsman’s Paradise. Virginia is for Lovers (and pathological drivers, in my estimation).

Massachusetts likes to call itself The Spirit of America. That might sound a bit grandiose but there is a town on Boston’s North Shore that I think is the best-preserved historic town in America. The American landscape gets more homogenous by the day, but Marblehead, perched on a dramatic finger of land on the Atlantic Ocean just thirty minutes north of Boston, was founded in 1629 and has improbably managed to retain many of its historic homes, cemeteries and churches.

Tourists descend on Colonial Williamsburg like packs of hungry hyenas on the trail of a fresh carcass, but somehow, Marblehead’s atmospheric streets remain largely tourist free. The town is the birthplace of the U.S. Navy and remains one of the east coast’s premier yachting centers, with three yacht clubs and a host of regattas. It isn’t close to a highway or train station and that’s probably why it has managed to avoid the strip mall scourge that’s plagued so many old towns around the country.

On the edge of Marblehead you’ll find a Starbucks, a CVS and some other chain stores, and there are big box retailers ten miles away, but Marblehead’s historic core is filled with independent shops and restaurants with nary a national chain in sight. Everything is pretty much Wicked Local. But the town’s biggest draws are the colorful 18th and 19th century homes, many with nameplates showing the name and occupation of their original inhabitants, and its spectacular natural setting on the Atlantic Ocean.

Marblehead is an undeniably upscale place with its fair share of millionaires but unlike other cutesy historic enclaves, it also has its share of lower income residents and budget friendly dining and drinking options. I have family members who live in Marblehead, so I’ve been visiting this town for more than twenty years and I never get tired of it. Aside from the beauty and the charm, it’s a real community where people know each other well and wouldn’t dream of living anywhere else.

Here’s what to do in Marblehead.The Muffin ShopIn a town filled with history, you might wonder why I’m sending you to a muffin shop. Well, for the muffins, obviously, but this place is more than just a damn good place to add to your waistline with homemade muffins or lobster rolls made fresh each morning. It’s the heart and soul of the town and if you want to meet locals, you’ll find them lingering here in groups over breakfast every morning. But come early because they never seem to bake enough to keep up with demand.

old town marblehead massachusettsOld Town – Get lost on the backstreets of Marblehead’s Old Town. There is no single neighborhood in the country that gives one a better flavor of what life was like in Colonial America.

Shops along Washington Street – There are a host of interesting, if pricey, shops here including the new Atlantis & Cloudveil outdoor specialty shop.

Crocker Park – A great place to sit and watch the boats go by.

The Driftwood – One reviewer on Yelp called this hole-in-the-wall eatery “Swamp Yankee territory,” and I couldn’t agree more. Another great spot to meet locals.

Devereux BeachThis great little beach is dramatically situated at the foot of a little body of land referred to as Marblehead’s Neck.

marbleheadHit the Neck – Take a drive or bike ride out to the very end of the Neck and enjoy the unbelievable view from the benches in Chandler Hovey Park next to the Marblehead Lighthouse. On the way back to town check out the Old Corinthian Yacht Club. Just try to look like you belong and you probably won’t be asked to leave.

Old Burial Hill Cemetery – One of the most atmospheric old cemeteries in New England and it offers a spectacular view to boot.

Fort Sewall – This was an armed fort used to defend against British invaders in the War of 1812. If you have kids, they’ll enjoy sitting on top of the cannons and looking out onto the Atlantic.

Dark and Stormy on the Waterfront – Have a tall 16-ounce dark & stormy, rum and ginger beer, cocktail at Maddi’s Sail Loft and visit the Barnacle for an early, harbor-side dinner.

old tombstone marbleheadGetting there – You can take Express Bus 441 or 442 from Haymarket downtown right to Marblehead’s Old Town but it takes a good hour. If you drive, follow route 1A, which isn’t quite as straightforward as it sounds. Signs on this twisting road can be elusive.

Images by Dave Seminara, Rick Harris and Garden State Hiker on Flickr.

Why Plymouth Rock Is New England’s Biggest Tourist Trap


Have you ever been to a tourist trap? A scam of a site, something over-hyped and talked about until it can’t possibly be worth it? The sort of thing you walk up to, snap a photo of and curse as you walk back to your car?

I saw one just the other day. It was Plymouth Rock, the lump of granite that supposedly marks the spot where a ragged band of English religious refugees washed up on Massachusetts’ shores.

It was such an awful disappointment, and here’s why.

There’s just nothing to it. You know why they call it Plymouth Rock? Because that’s all it is. A rock, covered by a little pavilion, guarded by a small rail. The day I visited, a historian was standing nearby, not doing much of anything.

Tourists, including me, would walk up, take a look, take a photo… and then shrug. There it is, I thought, if that’s actually the rock. Questions of authenticity were not assuaged, at least for me, by the fact that 1620 has been stamped into the stone and the sandy footing on which it rests has been manicured like a Japanese rock garden.

It reminded me of other totems to which we travel, only to tick them off our list. Old Faithful is one, the Statue of Liberty is another. You’ve heard so much about them, had them drilled into your head as an essential piece of American lore, heard grandiose promises about the meaning they hold. And yet nobody seems to actually enjoy them. When you visit, you visit to click the camera shutter and to say, “Oh yeah, I went there on vacation and saw it. Great time!” when you’re at a backyard barbecue with those neighbors you don’t really like. That’ll show ’em.

Was it totally the worst thing ever to go see Plymouth Rock? Of course not. I’m sort of humble-bragging about it with this post! But there was so little happening aside from the rock itself-a few ice cream shops, a couple of t-shirt stands-there seemed little reason to visit Plymouth but to see the disappointing rock.

I could be wrong about that last bit. But I didn’t leave time to explore Plymouth. I was just there to see its Rock.

Five steps to a romantic New Hampshire getaway

New Hampshire romantic getaway
Put the stress and pressure of the workday behind you. This is exactly what was on my mind a few weeks ago. I needed to get away from the daily grind for a bit, and the back roads of New England were calling. I wanted something quiet, remote and relaxing. New Hampshire came to mind immediately.

It had been a while since my last trip to New Hampshire – close to 20 years since my last visit to the White Mountains. So, I had to reacquaint myself with the local options. In the process of doing so, I found five crucial steps to planning a great romantic getaway to the Granite State.

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When you’re planning your long weekend (or longer) in New Hampshire (or western Massachusetts, Vermont or Maine), keep the following in mind:

1. Invest some time in picking the right room: for me, this was probably the most important part of planning my getaway. I wanted to find an inn (not a bed and breakfast or a hotel) that had a fireplace and an in-room Jacuzzi. I wouldn’t compromise on these criteria … and I wanted them at less than $200 a night (all in). Since the New England Inns and Resorts Association website allows you to search member properties based on these elements, that’s where I went to do my homework and book, finding the Christmas Farm Inn, in Jackson, NH. It wound up being exactly what I was looking form.

2. Remember the New Hampshire state liquor stores: wine is not expensive! The state liquor stores have a wide selection of wines, and they’re a bit cheaper (in most cases) than they are in nearby Boston and not-so-nearby New York. Pick up a few bottles, depending on the length of your stay, for in-room enjoyment. Think about it: (a) wine by the fireplace, (b) wine in the Jacuzzi, (c) wine on the deck and (d) wine in bed. This really is a no-brainer.

3. Get a sense of the cuisine ahead of time: if you’re visiting northern New Hampshire from a city, be ready for some differences. The restaurants close a lot earlier, especially off season. So, hitting the local restaurant at 10:30 PM just isn’t an option – you’ll starve! Plan to eat earlier dinners, leaving more time for chilled wine in the Jacuzzi back at your room (there’s an upside to everything). While there are some interesting options in the area (such as Wine Thyme in North Conway, NH), upscale alternatives aren’t as common as they are in New York or Boston. Be ready to de-prioritize culinary and focus on the “romantic” part of “romantic getaway.”

4. Fight the urge to stay in your room: the whole point of a romantic getaway is to enjoy the person you’re with … which sometimes leads to longer mornings in bed and the temptation not to wander too far from the room (hint, hint). Keep the spirit without becoming a hermit by packing a lunch and a bottle of wine before heading over to Rocky Gorge in White Mountain National Forest. Sit on the rocks as the river rushes by, and sip on a glass of Pinot Noir if the air is crisp (Gruener if it isn’t). Circle the nearby lake for a bit of privacy; the trail is easy to walk and won’t draw as much traffic as Rocky Gorge.

5. Take in a sunset: for a fantastic sunset, head over to Cathedral Ledge. It isn’t far from the Conway, NH area, so you won’t lose much time to the drive. In summer, the later sunset might leave you scrambling to find dinner afterward, so choose a restaurant that’s nearby to make sure you aren’t scrounging after enjoying a bit of natural beauty.

The Old Leather Man: controversy over digging up a legend

Leather Man, Leatherman, Old Leather Man, The Old Leather ManInvestigators in Connecticut are planning to uncover a local legend, but they’re facing a backlash of public sentiment.

An archaeological team will open the grave of The Old Leather Man, a mysterious wanderer who from 1883 to 1889 walked a 365 mile loop from the lower Hudson River Valley into Connecticut and back. It took him 34 days to make the journey and he was so punctual that well-wishers used to to have meals ready for him when he showed up. He spoke French but little English, slept only in caves and rock shelters, and never revealed information about himself. He got his name from his homemade, 60 lb. suit of leather.

His grave in Ossining’s Sparta Cemetery brings a regular flow of the curious, but local officials are afraid it’s too close to the street and is a safety hazard. They plan to dig up The Old Leather Man and move him to a different part of the cemetery. They also want to take a DNA sample. Legend claims he was a heartbroken Frenchman named Jules Bourglay, but Leather Man biographer Dan W. DeLuca says this is an invention of a newspaper of the time.

The DNA might prove a clue to who he really was and that’s where the controversy starts. History teacher Don Johnson has set up a website called Leave the Leatherman Alone, saying that his privacy should be respected. Judging from all the comments on his site, he seems to have a fair amount of backing.

As a former archaeologist I love unraveling a good mystery but I have to agree with Mr. Johnson on this one. The Old Leather Man obviously wanted his identity to remain unknown, and just because he was a homeless man why should his wishes be ignored? He never committed any crime besides vagrancy, he died of natural causes, and there are no known inheritance issues, so what’s the need?

As a teenager growing up in the Hudson Valley, I loved the mysteries of New England and the Mid-Atlantic states–the strange rock constructions, the Revolutionary War ghosts, Mystery Hill, and, of course, The Old Leather Man. Most of this is the stuff of imagination, but The Old Leather Man was real, living person.

And because of that, we should let his mystery remain buried.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Goby.com names top New England ski resorts to brave the winter storm warnings

ski resort

There’s another massive snowstorm heading up the east coast and making its way to Boston, Providence, Nashua and beyond. As the storms get worse, the New Englanders get daring. What better excuse to brave the slopes than with a fresh few feet of snow at a favorite ski resort?

Goby.com, a travel and events search engine, pulled together a list of the top ski resorts in New England. Our advice: Instead of sticking around the airport hoping for a flight out of the winter wonderland, bundle up and head to one of these hideaways. There’s snow, there’s a fire, there’s a bar, and there’s a lot of skiing, sledding and snowboarding to be found.

  1. Nashoba Valley: Cruise the slopes of Nashoba Valley’s Snow Tubing Park seven days and seven nights.
  2. Acadia National Park: Acadia offers hiking trails up Cadillac Mountain, a 44-mile system of carriage roads (open to hikers, bicycles, and horses), naturalist programs, and plenty of cross-country skiing.
  3. Blue Hills Ski Area: Blue Hills Ski Area is conveniently located in Canton, MA, making it the closest ski area to the Boston Metro Area.
  4. Wachusett Mountain: Wachusett is the highest mountain in Massachusetts east of the Connecticut River and stands some 2,006 feet above sea level at its peak.
  5. Bousquet’s: A family-friendly area offering skiing, bording and snow tubing at affordable rates, including a bed and breakfast option.
  6. Butternut Ski Area: One of New England’s most beloved ski resorts, Butternut has slopes for all levels and plenty of children’s activities.
  7. ski resortCatamount: The mountain offers 1,000 feet of vertical descent and the most diverse terrain mix in the Berkshires.
  8. Blandford Ski Area: Owned and operated by the Springfield Ski Club, and open to the public, Blandford has 22 trails, half pipe, terrain park, and four lifts.
  9. Loon Mountain: The ultimate winter getaway, including 35 km cross-country trails, fabulous slopes, snowshoeing, ice skating along with night and day snowtubing.
  10. Wildcat Mountain Ski Area: You’ll have impressive view of Mount Washington from the massive 4,000 foot plus summit on Wildcat Mountain.
  11. Tenney Mountain: The mountain has joined forces with Eastern Mountain Sports to offer family-friendly and children-friendly winter and ski activities.
  12. Cranmore Mountain Resort: The popular ski resort has 11 lifts, including a high speed detachable quad and 200 acres of skiable mountain. It is practically at the center of North Conway, and 10 minutes from Storyland.
  13. Okemo Mountain Resort: Okemo is home to a 500 foot long superpipe, six action-packed terrain parks, and award winning children’s programs. The nearby Okemo Valley Nordic Center offers cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and a Winter Indoor Golf Academy Center.
  14. Stowe Mountain Resort: The famous mountain resort is the perfect place for nordic, cross-country and back-country skiers.
  15. Killington Mountain Resort: Located in central Vermont, the resort stretches across seven mountain areas, including Pico Mountain, and features access to 191 trails and 30 lifts.

Have a favorite? Let us know where you love to ski in New England.