Video Tour Of Historic New England Graveyards

old tombstone Cemeteries can be inspiring. I know a lot of people who will go to great lengths to avoid visiting hospitals, nursing homes, cemeteries and anyplace else that reminds them that one day they’re going to die. I won’t admit to being a fan of hospitals and nursing homes, but I like visiting old cemeteries.

They give us a glimpse into history and remind us of our own mortality. If you’re caught up in your day-to-day life and need to be reminded of the big picture, visit a cemetery and you’ll be reminded that life is short and we all end up six feet under at one point or another, rich or poor, black, white or yellow.

New England has some of the country’s oldest and most interesting cemeteries. My favorite is Old Burial Hill in Marblehead, Massachusetts, one of America’s most beautiful and oldest settlements. The cemetery was founded in 1638, some nine years after the town was first settled, and it offers a glimpse at the history of the town, plus a view of the historic center and the sea. There are more than 600 revolutionary soldiers buried at Old Burial Hill but most aren’t marked.

old burial hill marbleheadMany of the oldest tombstones have ghoulish likenesses of crude winged skulls, which tells me that our forefathers weren’t as squeamish about death as we are. Take a look around Old Burial Hill and you’ll understand why – life in Colonial America was precarious and health care was nonexistent – there are scores of babies and young adults buried here.

If you’re in the Boston area and you like visiting old cemeteries, definitely check out the circa 1659 Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, which is right down the street from the Old North Church in the North End, and the city’s oldest cemetery, King’s Chapel, founded in 1630 right in the hear of the city.

[Photos and Videos by Dave Seminara]

Bringing My Love Of Backpacking Home

food “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things” – Henry Miller

Every year, I spend months saving money for backpacking trips abroad and learning about the foreign cultures I’ll be visiting. The farther away from home and the more exotic the destination, the more value I put on the trip. It wasn’t that I didn’t think cities drivable from my home weren’t worthwhile; but I wanted to experience unknown local delicacies, mountainous landscapes, ecofriendly villages, rich history, interesting communities and just a place that was generally different from my home of Long Island, New York. How could I possibly do that without getting on a plane?

My friend Mike recently invited me to come visit him in Rhode Island. I agreed, expecting nothing more than a long weekend of photographing Newport mansions, going for drinks in Providence and just relaxing on the beach. Surprisingly, the jaunt turned into a mini road trip of New England, as well as an eye-opening experience about how to find culture in your own backyard.1673Rhode Island

“What’s a lobster roll? And Rhode Island has it’s own clam chowder?” I asked Mike as we perused the numerous cafe signs wandering the streets of Newport.

Apparently, a lobster roll has nothing to do with sushi, as I had assumed, but is fresh cooked lobster meat tossed with mayonnaise and served on a grilled hot dog bun. Additionally, Rhode Island clam chowder is a local favorite, with a clear broth, potatoes, onions, bacon and quahogs. Both were delicious, and I couldn’t believe I’d gone 25 years without sampling either.

“Now we’ve got to get you some Coffee Milk,” said Mike, telling me about the state’s official drink. “It’s like chocolate milk, only with coffee syrup instead.”

Continuing our tour through Newport, I was able to sip a classic cocktail at America’s oldest tavern and learn about the history of the famous Newport Mansions, embodying 250 years of history and featuring among the highest number of surviving colonial buildings of any city in the country. Providence, the city I knew only for its bars, actually proved quite historical with a walk down Benefit Street. Immersing myself in 18th century architecture, it was hard to imagine that I was only three hours from home.

hiking New Hampshire

Next we were off to Franconia, New Hampshire. As we drove toward The Granite State, sea-level landscape transformed into mountain peaks reaching over 4,000 feet. The sense of adrenaline I only get while backpacking immediately washed over me, and I again I forgot I wasn’t all that far from home.

Mike and I spent three days hiking the Appalachian Trail, swimming in lakes and waterfalls and summiting Mount Washington, the highest mountain in the northeastern United States at 6,288 feet. I called my
mom excitedly about my newly discovered landmark, just as I had when hiking in the Andes in South America and the Blue Mountains in Australia.

The downtown area where Mike and I went for a nice dinner on our last night in town reminded me of some of the small towns I often visit abroad.

“This is the theater district,” Mike joked, pointing to a group of older men playing guitar at a one-stop pizza/ice cream/T-shirt shop, which was adjacent to an all-in-one dry cleaning/postal/Internet cafe/dog daycare. We walked across the street to the locally famous “Dutch Treat,” where I was once again introduced to a new meal, a burger topped with a flaky crab cake. While not authentic New Hampshire cuisine per say, it still made me feel like I do on backpacking trips when I’m able to find a cozy local restaurant selling a never-before-tasted food.

windham hill inn Vermont

In Vermont, I experienced a degree of culture shock. It began at the Windham Hill Inn in West Townsend, a beautiful hotel in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the rolling hills of the Green Mountains, peaceful meadows and colorful gardens. The inside smelled of fresh-roasted granola, and locally made teddy bears adorned each room. I thought the emphasis on local products and country living was unique to the hotel; however, journeying into the nearby towns showed me southern Vermont was passionate about going local and community closeness. In fact, I didn’t see one chain establishment during the five days I was there.

In Brattleboro, almost every shop had a sign advising people to “go local.” Remnants of the town’s rich hippie culture from the 1970s are still visible, as you weave in and out of the many bead stores, eclectic galleries and laid-back cafes and bars. Colorful signs advertising events like poetry slams, indie film screenings, farmers markets, environmental workshops and fiddle contests abound, and it isn’t surprising to find locals fighting for moral cause.

Venturing off to the small village of Chester, I was transported to a time when Late Victorian, Colonial Revival and Federal-style architecture was the norm. In Chester, it still is. I was astounded by the depth of warmth conveyed by the city. Wandering down Lovers Lane as well as nibbling on scones at Inn Victoria‘s high tea and playing with the 10,000 plus teddy bears at Hugging Bear Inn and Toy Shoppe helped me experience an unusual culture.

Before heading home, we stopped in Grafton, and sampled some of Vermont’s local cheeses made with raw milk from nearby farmers as well as Vermont maple syrup candies at Grafton Village Cheese. Here I purchased souvenirs from the trip, Pure Maple Butter for my mom and Palmer Lane Maple Jelly Beans for my dad. I felt like such a tourist, but in a good way.

Going Home

For me, the trip wasn’t a “staycation,” “nearcation,” or any other “nearby getaway” term that implies escaping from reality to relax. Instead, it was a chance to experience cultures different from my own, learn about interesting pieces of history and sample foods I had never tried. I discovered new sites, sounds, flavors and lifestyles, but most importantly, I discovered a new way to travel by bringing my love of backpacking home.

Learn About The Bloody Whaling Trade At The New Bedford Whaling Museum

new bedford whaling museumIf you’ve always wanted to read “Moby Dick” but have never made time for it, grab your sleeping bag and head to the New Bedford Whaling Museum the first weekend after the New Year, for their annual Moby Dick Marathon. Each year, the museum, located an hour south of Boston, marks the date in 1841 when Herman Melville set sail from New Bedford on a whaling vessel bound for the South Pacific by staging a marathon reading of the 225,000 word classic.

Anyone can sign up to take a 10-minute turn reading from the book and those who make it through the entire 25-hour performance wins a prize. Visitors camp out on the museum floor, and some bring hardtack and grog in order to dine like 19th Century whalers.

I’ve yet to make it to the Moby Dick marathon, or the whaleboat races the museum hosts in the summer, but I visited the museum last week and loved it. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, thousands of men earned their living hunting whales for their valuable oil, which illuminated lamps and lighthouses and served other purposes as well. Nantucket was America’s first real whaling capital, but New Bedford eclipsed it in the early 19th Century.

The whaling trade made New Bedford one of the wealthiest cities in the country by the mid 19th Century. By 1857, the town boasted some 329 whaling ships, barks, and schooners, valued at $12 million, which provided employment for some 10,000 men in the area.

whale skeletonsWhalers made a living traveling on the high seas for years at a time. Melville deserted his ship after 18 months in the Marquesas (and later hooked on with other boats before eventually returning to Boston more than three years after he set sail from New Bedford), but it wasn’t uncommon for sailors to be gone from their families for 3-4 years at a time or longer. The low ranking crew members lived in deplorable conditions and were paid based on a profit sharing system that sometimes left them with little to show for years of toil under near-starvation conditions.

For example, the Whaling Museum Visitor’s Center shows a graphic about the earnings of a typical whaling vessel that was at sea for 2 years, 9 months and 22 days from 1853-5. The boat made a total profit of $75, 402, and of that, the merchant who bankrolled the enterprise made $19,793, the captain made $1,885, the chief mate $1,131, and the seaman brought home just $133 bucks a piece. Adjusted for inflation, that $133 is still only $3,442 for nearly three years of work!

But there were some perks for engaging in this bloody, thankless work. Some men preferred being out on the open seas to the bleak factories that employed so many in the 19th Century, and the opportunity to couple with comely lasses in the South Pacific was also a clear bonus.

The museum sheds light on the life of the whalers and the creatures they hunted, with some amazing visuals, like a huge replica whaleboat and some whale skeletons that kept my kids occupied while I read the displays. A series of displays showing all of the high and low tech spears and guns that were used to hunt the whales show how bloody and brutal the occupation was.

The development of kerosene from coal and advances in petroleum drilling in the mid to late 19th Century caused the gradual decline of the industry, starting in the 1860’s. The last whaling ship left New Bedford in 1925, but the town is still a busy port with a tidy, historic downtown.

The experiences Melville had at sea launched his career, though his first books, Typee and Omoo, were published as novels because few could believe that the adventures detailed were true. Americans haven’t hunted whales in many decades but the Japanese still hunt these beautiful creatures, under the dubious claim of scientific research, despite the fact that an international treaty banned the practice in 1987.

According to The Daily Telegraph, Japanese whalers intended to slaughter up to 900 whales this year but ended up hauling in 266 minke whales and one fin whale. (Whalers historically hunted fin whales but not minke whales.) The disappointing haul was due to bad weather and harassment by environmentalists, who actually succeeded in halting Japanese boats in 2011 after they killed 172 whales.

According to a display at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, whales, though generally docile, did occasionally fight back, managing to sink ships on at least three occasions- the Essex in 1820, which served as the inspiration for Moby Dick, the Ann Alexander in 1851 and the Kathleen in 1902. Here’s hoping the whales figure out how to fight back against Japanese efforts to kill them for “scientific research.”

What To Do In New England’s Berkshires

moby dick arrowhead herman melvilleOne hundred sixty-two years ago, Herman Melville made an impetuous decision to move to the Berkshires after going on a picnic with Nathaniel Hawthorne and Oliver Wendell Holmes. He was taken with the region’s beauty and believed it would be a quiet refuge that would be an ideal place to write.

Melville penned Moby Dick at Arrowhead, the farm he bought in Pittsfield, but the book was a commercial disaster and he wasn’t able to support his family from his writing and half-hearted attempts at farming. He left the Berkshires to become a customs inspector in New York after a 13-year stint at Arrowhead, but retained his strong affinity for the region.

The rural splendor that seduced Melville and others continues to bring creative types to the Berkshires from around the world, but the high cost of living means that it’s still difficult for starving-artist types to afford to stay for very long. There may be no other rural area in the country that has the combination of natural beauty and abundant cultural offerings as the Berkshires. The region’s proximity to New York and Boston makes it a popular, and pricey, weekend getaway.But you don’t have to break the bank to enjoy a short getaway in the Berkshires, especially if you visit during the week. On a recent trip to the region, we found a double room for $89 at the amiable Yankee Inn, just a few miles outside Lenox, a delightful town within spitting distance of a host of natural and cultural attractions. We liked it so much that we considered extending through the weekend, until we found out that our room rate would skyrocket to $259 per night.

Below you’ll find some suggestions for how to spend a short getaway in the Berkshires without breaking the bank. You can hit all of these places if you start in Williamstown, and proceed east and south to N. Adams, Adams, Hancock, Pittsfield, Lenox and Stockbridge.

WilliamstownHome to Williams College, one of the country’s finest liberal arts colleges, this handsome, walkable town has more going on than many cities with ten times its population. With the Williamstown Theater Festival, The Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute and the Williams College Museum of Art in town, there’s always something going on in this classic New England town.

mass moca MASS MoCAThe Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is one of the coolest museums I’ve ever been to, even though most of the exhibits went right over my head and reminded me of something that might have been discussed on an episode of Sprockets (see video). Three things I love about this place: 1) it’s located in a restored 19th century factory complex that’s an attraction in and of itself, 2) my kids loved the dinosaurs, Legos and opportunities to do arts and crafts projects in the museum’s Kidspace, and 3) the museum café is one of the best of its kind anywhere, with good food, drinks and ice cream at reasonable prices.

Bike the Ashuwillticook Rail TrailA scenic 11-mile bike/recreation path that begins next to the visitor’s center in Adams, and winds its way through Lanesborough and Cheshire. If you want to get your adrenalin flowing even faster, the region is also well known for its whitewater rafting.

Mt. Greylock State ReservationMt. Greylock’s peak is the highest point in Massachusetts and it’s a great spot for a scenic drive or hike. Melville is said to have loved the view of Greylock from the window of his home in Pittsfield.

pigs cute onesIoka Valley FarmMy boys, ages 2 and 4, loved the farm animals, slides, games and hayride at this family farm, which was established in the 1920s. It’s not dirt cheap at about $30 for a family of four, and I found their syrup for sale at a supermarket in Lenox for a lower price than they sell it for at the farm, but if you have young kids, you’ll want to bring them here for some low-tech, educational fun.

Melville’s ArrowheadThis is a great place to learn more about Melville’s fascinating life story and there’s a replica whale and whaleboat in the yard that makes for a great photo opp (see above).

Lenox- Classy little Lenox has a great, walkable little historic core that boasts some classic old New England homes, a great little bookstore, a host of expensive restaurants and the Old Heritage Tavern, a great place for dinner and drinks that’s a rare bargain in these parts. While in Lenox, you might also want to hear some live music at Tanglewood or take in a show at Shakespeare & Company.

kennedy park lenoxKennedy Park in LenoxRight next to Lenox’s lovely 18th Century Church on the Hill, you’ll find Kennedy Park, which is a beautiful, quiet place for hiking, jogging and mountain biking. There are 15 miles of shady, wooded trails – my favorite is the Red Neck – but all of them are quite pleasant.

Stockbridge– This is yet another enticing little town that’s perfect for a leisurely stroll. And if you like Norman Rockwell, who lived in the Berkshires for the last 25 years of his life, you’ll want to visit the Norman Rockwell Museum.

See How the Other Half Lived- The super rich have been summering in the Berkshires for a very long time, and there are a host of posh estates you can tour, or if you’re frugal or have a short attention span, gawk at from the outside. Check out Naumkeag in Stockbridge, and homes built for Edith Wharton (The Mount) and J.P. Morgan’s sister (Ventfort Hall) in Lenox.

ventfort hallSee How the Other Half Lives- You might get kicked out, depending on how you’re dressed, but stop by the Wheatleigh in Lenox to see where those with some serious cash stay and eat when in the Berkshires. Room rates range from $715 for basic rooms to $21,000-$35,000 per night for use of one of their 19-room “palazzos.”

[Photos by Dave Seminara]

Art On The Rhode: Take A Creative Vacation In Providence

New England is known for its captivating coastline and rural charm, but it is also a great retreat for artists and art lovers. Sure, big cities such as Boston have thriving art scenes, but there are several smaller-sized cities with artsy vibes throughout the region. One such place is Providence, Rhode Island, a city recently tagged “The Creative Capital” that has become a magnet for cultural action. Spend some time in Providence and you might agree the city could very well be the next Austin, Texas, or Portland, Oregon. Below are just a few of the ways you can immerse yourself in the arts while in the city.

Check Out A Gallery Show or Performance at AS220
Downtown Providence is home to AS220, a community arts center with multiple exhibitions spaces, a performance space and artist workshops spread throughout several buildings. The galleries are worth a peek, especially if you are interested in scoping out some up-and-coming talent. There is also an AS220-run bar and restaurant, Foo(d), that uses locally-sourced ingredients and has plenty of menu options for vegetarians and vegans. Adjacent to the restaurant, the organization runs a venue hosting live music most nights of the week. If you come early or a band isn’t scheduled, check out the locals-only jukebox in the restaurant for a true taste of Providence. In the summertime, AS220 puts on Foo Fest, a block party featuring music, performances, art installations and more – but year round anyone can check out great art in their public spaces or sign up for a workshop to create some art of their own.

Take a Peek Inside Nazo Lab
Crammed with sci-fi stage props, larger-than-life puppets and other bizarre creations, Nazo Lab is the workshop of a local performance art troop called Big Nazo. The lab has an “open door” policy, meaning passersby are welcome to pop in and check out what creatures the local visual artists and masked musicians, who call the lab home base, are working on. Past projects have include masks and body parts for Broadway shows and props for television commercials and Mardi Gras celebrations, while puppets made at Nazo Lab have been spotted on stage with the Flaming Lips, George Clinton and more.

Partake in a Workshop at the Steel Yard
If you’d like to pick up a new skill or hone a talent you already have, consider planning your trip around a weekend workshop at the Steel Yard. Once a contaminated industrial wasteland, the Steel Yard is now a fully functioning, community-based space focused on technical training in the industrial arts. Individuals, couples or even entire families can take classes that range from blacksmithing to jewelry making. No matter what you choose, it’s guaranteed you’ll always walk away with a unique reminder of your trip. Free public tours are also available at the site every Wednesday at noon.

Browse Art at the Rhode Island School of Design’s Museum of Art
With more than 86,000 works of art that range from ancient artifacts to contemporary pieces, the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design has a little something for everyone interested in the arts. Just a few of the famous names you’ll find hanging in the museum include Picasso, Monet, Warhol, Koons and Twombly. Don’t miss the enormous 12th-century Buddha, the largest historic Japanese sculpture in the United States. On Sundays, museum admission is pay-what-you-wish (normal admission is $10 for adults).

Watch WaterFire
What is WaterFire? Well, I guess it’s exactly what it sounds like. In 1994, artist Barnaby Evans began lighting bonfires that burn just above the surface of three rivers that converge in the middle of downtown providence on fire. Part performance art, part urban festival and part public art installation, the work forever transformed downtown Providence and has become known nationally and internationally. The event’s symbolism can be interpreted however you choose, but one thing is certain: with an average attendance of 40,000 people per night, everyone seems to love the spectacle. WaterFire can be seen on select Saturdays from May through October, plus some additional dates on special occasions.

Shop for Goods by Local Artists
With so many artists around, it’s natural that Providence would have a great collection of local shops, coffeehouses and restaurants. Take a stroll down Westminster Street and you’ll pass by several shops worth peeking into, including Craftland (pictured above) where you can purchase shirts, prints and jewelry by local artists. Across the street is Symposium Books, where you can check out zines made by locals (while also browsing through beautifully-bound art books, a great collection of comics and more). Near to Symposium you’ll also find Queen of Hearts, a locally owned fashion boutique where you can purchase pieces by the shop owner and designer, Karen Beebe.

Celebrate Locally Made Foods
You’ll probably be hungry after all that shopping, and what the heck – food is art, too. Take a break at Flan y Ajo (also on Westminster Street), a cute bohemian eatery with pictures of bullfighters on the walls and a pinball machine that serves up small bites in the form of tapas. As their website advertises, they only have four stools and do not take reservations, but the wait is worth it. If, instead, you’d like to talk a walk around the Rhode Island School of Art and Brown College campuses, consider first stopping at Duck and Bunny, a cozy “snuggery” with an unassuming pink facade. The white vinyl booths, lace window treatments and marble table tops will have you feeling like you stepped into Alice in Wonderland. Order afternoon tea and some finger sandwiches or go for dessert with a locally made cupcake or ice cream sundae. If the cafe sounds a little too ladylike, remember that the Duck and Bunny isn’t all soft – there’s also a beer and cigar menu. Ship Street Farmers Market (pictured at the top of the page) and other area markets also make for a great lunch option.

[All images by Libby Zay]