Distance: 30 miles northeast of Boston
Driving Time: 45 minutes each way
Mention to friends in Boston that you're heading to "the Cape," and they'll immediately assume you're off to Cape Cod. But there's another cape in the state; a less trendy but stunning alternative to Cape Cod is Cape Ann. Only 30 miles in length, it's the cape of no ostentation, from the famous fishing town of Gloucester (the unassuming blue-collar setting for the film The Perfect Storm to some of the most breathtaking-and uncrowded-beaches on the East Coast.
The fastest way out of Boston to Cape Ann is on Rte. 1 North, which wends its way through downtown and over the Tobin Bridge. Ten miles after you cross the bridge, pick up 128 East to Rockport, the easternmost tip of Cape Ann. If you have some time to meander on ocean-view roads, hop off Rte. 1 and pick up Rte. 16 East, which turns into Rte. 1A. After a winding 20 miles on 1A, take Rte. 127 into Gloucester and then to Rockport.
Where to Eat
Essex, on the West side of Cape Ann, is known for its fried clams, with several roadside shacks claiming to have the best in the state. Legendary Woodman's of Essex (Rte.133, 121 Main St., Essex; 978/768-6057; www.woodmans.com; dinner for two $36) has reason to be proud-after all, it claims to have invented the fried clam in 1916. But don't expect much of the décor beyond slightly shabby red-and-white-checked tablecloths. On the other hand, J.T. Farnham's (Rte. 133, 88 Eastern Ave., Essex; 978/768-6643, dinner for two $36), a small shack with several picnic tables out back overlooking the Essex Salt Marsh, cooks up the plumpest clam bellies in the tastiest corn-flour batter. The Clam Box of Ipswich (246 High St., Ipswich; 978/356-9707; www.ipswich.com/clambox; dinner for two $36) is shaped, yes, like its famous rectangular cardboard container. Its chowder is an ultra-creamy delight, with far more than your average number of clams.
For a meal with actual utensils, do whatever it takes to find yourself at dinner time near the truly spectacular Duckworth's Bistrot (197 E. Main St., Gloucester; 978/282-4426; www.duckworthsbistrot.com; dinner for two $84). Duckworth's is located a few steps from the town's sweet but occasionally cheesy (oil paintings of boats!) collection of galleries, the Rocky Neck Art Colony (53 Rocky Neck Ave., Gloucester; 978/282-0917; www.rockyneckartcolony.org). Every town should be lucky enough to have this kind of cozy but sophisticated bistro. Chef Ken Duckworth honed his skills at Le Relais de Auteuil, a two-star Michelin restaurant in Paris, and it shows. From an impressive wine list, which includes hard-to-find French Chablis and California zinfandels, to inventive new-American dishes, such as a New England-inspired "haddock-style chowder" of delicately poached fish, bacon, and potatoes in a creamy sauce, Chef Duckworth knows his stuff.
The Yankee Clipper Inn (127 Granite St., Rockport; 978/546-3407; www.yankeeclipperinn.com; doubles from $139) compensates for its somewhat run-down features (chipping paint, dusty glasses) with all-ocean views from most of its rooms. If possible, book the "Neptune's Car" room in the "Quarterdeck" annex, which is a separate property 200 feet from the main inn, featuring a private deck and massive windows offering water views and lighthouse views. Set your alarm and watch the sun rise over a quiet ocean from outside the inn, which sits on a typically rocky New England bluff.
(7) Halibut Point State Park (Gott Ave., Rockport; 978/546-2997; www.mass.gov/dcr/parks/northeast/halb.htm), accessed by a poorly marked sign on the right, off Rte. 127; it's 1.5 miles north of the Yankee Clipper Inn. There's ample parking for a $2 fee. Follow the signs to the visitors' center, where you can pick up free park maps, and find the entrance to a few short walking trails. If you stay right at the trailhead and follow the dirt Woodchip Path for about 20 minutes down to the ocean's rocky shoreline, you'll be treated to the sight of a seemingly endless number of gigantic granite boulders. Take a seat and be hypnotized by the waves crashing in.
Take the Long Way Home
For one last scenic look around, hug the Northwest side of Cape Ann on Rte. 127, until you can pick up Rte. 133 toward Essex/Ipswich. You'll pass a handful of coves and lighthouses as you drive toward Crane Beach (Argilla Rd., Ipswich; 978/356-4354), a 5.5-mile span of pristine, dune-backed stretches of white sand. To get there, make a right onto Northgate Road from Rte. 133 in Ipswich (about eight miles from the Rte. 127 switch) and then make another right on Argilla Road. You're headed in the right direction if you've passed Russell Orchards (143 Argilla Rd., Ipswich; 978/356-5366, www.russellorchardsma.com), a friendly farm worth a stopover. Open spring through fall (closed winters), you can pick your own fruit-apples (September) and strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries (June-September)—or, in the fall, visit the farm's country store, which is housed in an 18th-century barn, and treat yourself to the Russell family's award-winning homemade cider donuts for the ride home.