Summer guests at Massachusetts coastal inns are always disappearing: off to bodysurf at Manchester's Singing Beach; to feast at one of Provincetown's colorful outdoor fish-and-chips joints; to browse Rockport's galleries, many of which close come fall. It's only in winter— when the fire starts to crackle, the cider is on, and the sea turns smoky and dark— that the pace slackens and visitors linger and chat. As he looks out at Gloucester's Fisherman Memorial statue framed by bare maple branches, John Orlando, owner of the Harborview Inn, sums up the rewards of traveling the coast off-season: "You can't get a good view of the statue from here until the leaves fall." He stops for a minute and considers. "Actually, in winter you see everything better."
— J. K. Dineen
where to stay
Some of the finest inns on the Massachusetts coast stay open all winter. Here are a few of the best:
The Harborview Inn 71 Western Ave., Gloucester; 800/299-6696; $49-$139 off-season. This 1839 three-story Colonial-style inn overlooks the harbor and is a short walk from downtown, with its old-world Italian bakeries. The six luxurious rooms, decorated in French country style, offer contrast to the austerity of wintertime: pastel wallpaper, floral comforters, and oversize pillows. Five of the rooms have ocean views, and the Gloucester Suite, with a living room, pullout couch, and fireplace, is a bargain at $139 a night.
Tuck Inn 17 High St., Rockport; 800/ 789-7260; doubles $55-$75 off-season. Homemade quilts cover many of the beds in this 1790 Colonial's 11 rooms. Mahogany and oak furniture give the inn a traditional New England flavor. It's a block from Rockport Harbor, within driving distance of Ipswich's Crane's Beach and Plum Island (which are stunning in winter), and a short walk from several craft shops. Local restaurants are closed at this time of year, however, and Rockport is a dry town. Visitors looking for a cocktail and meal should try the Blackburn Tavern in nearby Gloucester.
Harbor Light Inn 58 Washington St., Marblehead; 781/631-2186; doubles from $95. On Marblehead's lively main street, these two connected early-18th-century Federal mansions are a great base from which to explore this yachty port town. Half of the 21 spacious rooms come with silver ice buckets and four-poster beds. And it's easy to stay warm here: many rooms have fireplaces and whirlpools.
Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast Museum 92 Second St., Fall River; 508/675-7333; doubles from $164. If you're looking for something a little creepier, try this B&B in Fall River, just a short drive from the ocean. The large Greek Revival house was made famous when Lizzie Borden allegedly gave her father and stepmother "40 whacks" with an ax on August 4, 1892. In addition to the traditional juice and pastries, guests are treated to a breakfast similar to the one Borden's parents ate that tragic day: bananas, johnnycakes, sugar cookies, and coffee. Guided tours of the house are given from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Manor House Inn 11 India St., Nantucket; 800/837-2914; doubles from $60. Located in a historic district whose development was halted in 1846, this Greek Revival house has village views. Most rooms have canopy beds and fireplaces, but the inn's biggest advantage is its proximity to the shops and restaurants on Petticoat Row. Great off-season packages include boat- or airfare.
Boston's water was undrinkable a century ago, much to the delight of the city's 30-plus brewers, whose beer was widely enjoyed as a safer alternative. The former Haffenreffer Brewery, down by the train tracks in the funky Jamaica Plain neighborhood, is now the headquarters for the Boston Beer Co., famous for its Samuel Adams beers. Owner Jim Koch— a sixth-generation brewer— has turned the red-brick buildings into a museum celebrating the history of local beer.
Visitors can take a tour and chew amber roasted barley, sniff Bavarian hops, and hear a master brewer— dressed in a white Sam Adams jumpsuit and safety glasses— explain how a "tall one" is made. Then it's off to the tasting room, where pitchers of ale and lager circulate. To top it off, a shuttle takes everyone to nearby Doyle's Café, Boston's most celebrated Irish pub. 30 Germania St.; 617/522-9080. Tours Thursday and Friday at 2 p.m., Saturday at noon, 1, and 2 p.m.; $1 donation suggested.
John F. Kennedy Library & Museum Columbia Point, Boston; 617/929-4523. The second level of this building's glass pavilion looks out over Dorchester Bay, the passage that so many Irish families (the Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys among them) crossed en route to America. The museum recently received a major gift from the estate of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, including pictures she drew as a child, a poem she wrote when she was 10 years old ("And the seagulls were swirling and diving for fish / Oh, to live by the sea is my only wish"), and the red wool suit she wore when leading her famous televised tour of the White House.
New Bedford Whaling Museum 18 Johnny Cake Hill; 508/997-0046. The world's largest collection of whaling paraphernalia, featuring an 80-foot model of a whaling bark, is in this cobblestoned downtown that Herman Melville frequented in 1840, when he worked on a ship based here. If you're a fan of Moby Dick, try to pay a visit on January 3: every year, volunteers gather to read from the novel for 24 straight hours. (Last year 150 people read, including Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank and three of the novelist's great-grandsons.) You'll be treated to a celebratory glass of warm grog, which museum promotions director Mint Evans refers to as "nasty stuff."
Peabody Essex Museum East India Square, Salem; 978/745-9500. Better known for hanging adolescent girls in the 1600's, Salem is also the home of New England's finest maritime museum. Founded in 1799, this is a treasure chest of porcelain, silver, and ivory, with exquisite lacquered screens from Japan and China. There are 18th- and 19th-century paintings of the hongs, or trading houses, of Guangzhou and Hong Kong, as well as a natural history exhibition that includes a 750-pound turtle found in this area in 1795, and a horn fashioned from the penis of a sperm whale.
Off-season Nantucket is yours. Yours to roam cobblestone streets, hearing the echo of your steps, yours to explore undisturbed over windswept dunes. Roses have given way to vines; seals winter along the jetties, ducks and geese on the island's harbor side.
When the first snow falls, children take over Main Street with the only vehicles allowed: sleds. It is the season of candlelight and fire, when Nantucket peacefully reflects its original Wampanoag name, "faraway island."
I hired a guide with a four-wheel-drive vehicle to take me into the moors. She was a thirtysomething woman in a sixties time warp— beads, long cotton skirt, and hiking boots. We walked among brambles, beach plum, and gnarled trees, their profiles stark and piercing against the blanket of gray sky, then through a cranberry bog. I ate a berry encased in ice. While strolling languidly along the moors, my guide became unnaturally quiet. Then, for no apparent reason, she began to scream— shrill howls interspersed by wide, maniacal grins. It was impossible for me to escape her; we were several miles from the road.
But when my camera jammed, the guide offered to leave me to wander while she took it to the local dealer for repairs. This act of generosity saved my photos and gave me time to pilfer some unusual driftwood from the beach fronting a cottage rumored to belong to the Mellon family (as in Carnegie-Mellon). Examining my loot, I turned my back to the Atlantic and was belted by an enormous wave, no doubt delivered by the Mellons. My guide returned to a shivering specimen of humanity and offered me a thermal blanket. We continued on our way, she screaming and laughing. Later I learned that she has a reputation for somewhat erratic behavior— and for her good heart— and had been known to leave people stranded on the moors.
I stayed at the Jared Coffin House (29 Broad St.; 800/248-2405 or 508/228-2400; doubles in winter $95-$110), one of two mansions that Coffin built for his bride, this one in 1845. His wife informed him that neither was suitable, and they returned to Boston. I guess I was born a century too late— the inn fit me perfectly. My room was strong and masculine with Oriental rugs; it was easy to picture Coffin tossing his boots off, lighting a cigar, and inhaling a snifter of cognac by the fireplace.
At the Boarding House (12 Federal St.; 508/228-9622; dinner for two $100), I dined by candlelight on succulent Nantucket Bay scallops. The chef, Seth Raynor, cooks contemporary Euro-Asian cuisine with a passion usually reserved for those who own their restaurants. As a woman alone, I was treated royally in this intimate belowground dining room.
On my way to the airport, enchanted by mallard ducks gathering at Consue Spring, I coaxed my driver to stop. The ducks encircled me as if conspiring to keep me on the island. My driver gently honked and pointed to his watch. Back to the reality of the waiting plane, and the mainland.
— Maxine Moore
what to do . . .
- Have a coffee "cabinet"— a New England term for a milk shake— at the old-fashioned soda fountain in the Nantucket Pharmacy (45 Main St.; 508/228-0180).
- Ice-skate at Lily Pond, near the Old North Cemetery; Sesachacha Pond, off Polpis Road; or Maxcy Pond, off Cliff Road.
- Buy a newspaper or paperback and mingle with locals at The Hub (31 Main St.; 508/228-3868).
- Join a seal tour narrated by Captain Bruce Cowan (508/228-1444).
- Browse the scrimshaw collection at the Atheneum Library (1 India St.; 508/228-1110).
- Go shopping at Tonkin of Nantucket (33 Main St.; 508/228-9697). It specializes in pond yachts, and English and French antique furniture.
- Stop by Mark Enik Auctioneer (5 Miacomet Ave.; 508/325-5852), where you can find some real treasures in the eclectic mix of estate furniture and objets.
- Pick up exquisite antique earrings, pins, necklaces, and the like at Jewelers' Gallery (21 Centre St.; 508/228-0229).
- Try on the classic styles— inspired by both Katharine and Audrey— at Hepburn (3 Salem St.; 508/228-1458: Call first, since the owners have been known to migrate south).