In the winter, you can live like a local on the Massachusetts shore

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.

free beer!

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.
— J.K.D.

top museums
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.
— J.K.D

nantucket solitude
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).
    — M.M.

By David Knowles

On a crisp late-winter afternoon, I sit in pilot Jim Thompson's office at tiny, noncommercial Plymouth Airport. It has been an especially cold, bleak season, and I've driven 40 minutes south of Boston to this terminal— more like a suburban house— in search of a thrill.

"We can start with a simple barrel roll," Jim suggests. He picks up a matchbox-size airplane— it looks like the one the Red Baron flew— and makes it take off from his desk.

"We fly up, to the left, and then circle over the top."

This barrel roll looks like a roller coaster's corkscrew loop. Piece of cake, I tell myself.

"After that, we can try a hammerhead," he says.

I stare in disbelief as Jim steers the poor little plane into a perpendicular trajectory from the ground. "We pull back on the throttle, hang for a second, and fall back around." The plane dives toward the fast-approaching desk and pulls out of the free fall with inches to spare. "Of course, we can do as much or as little as you like."

At 41 years of age, Jim Thompson bears no trace of Top Gun bravado. He's about six feet tall, with a slouching gait, thinning brown hair, and a mustache. He started flying planes at 15, and 25 years later took second place in the International Aerobatic Club Championships, one of the premier events of the stunt-flying world.

"Has anything bad ever happened while you were flying a stunt plane?" I ask half-jokingly.

"I crashed once," he admits.

Not exactly the answer I'm fishing for. "My engine went out," he explains, "and I tried to land in a field. When I touched down, the wheels dug in and I flipped right over." He pauses and takes note of the look on my face. "Don't worry. There won't be a problem today," he says, then pulls out an album with pictures of the upside-down plane, a tiny stunt model called a Pitts.

After the briefing we step out onto the tarmac, and I get my first glimpse of the aircraft we'll fly: a two-seat version of the plane Jim flipped, with red and white stripes. Only 22 feet long, the Pitts S-2B looks like a French sports car with wings. "Let's put your parachute on," he says.

"Parachute. Right."

He runs through the safety procedures: how to fasten and release the buckles, how to jump, when to pull the rip cord. I listen as I have never listened before. Next, I climb into the forward seat. Jim fastens me in— belts across the thighs and around the waist, and shoulder straps. "Don't want you coming out of your seat when we fly upside down."

The instrument panel in front of me doesn't look much different from that of a Volkswagen Bug. Jim gets in and hands me headphones with a microphone so that we'll be able to communicate over the sound of the engine. The propeller springs to life.

"You're going to feel a little G-force on takeoff," he warns.

Picture James Bond in Moonraker, whirling around in that space-age centrifuge, his face mutating as if he were in a Claymation movie, and you'll begin to understand the sensation of G-force. We increase our speed to 70 mph, the nose lifts off the ground smoothly, and then bang, we dart up at an incredible angle. The G-force tugs my body back down to earth, but the plane's engine wins out, and we rise.

The sun shines over dormant cranberry bogs and countless lakes. Still rising, we angle toward the coast, toward Plymouth Rock and the Mayflower replica docked in the harbor.

In the distance I can see Provincetown; to the north, the murky shapes of Boston's skyscrapers. The feeling is unbeatable, more like floating than like the sense deprivation induced by a 747. At 3,000 feet we level off, and Jim asks the much-anticipated question: "Ready for a barrel roll?"

"Why not?"

"Okay, I'll give a three count, and then you'll see the nose going up and to the left. One . . . two . . . three . . ."

It is indeed like being on a roller coaster. I scream and laugh and don't know what to do with my hands. The horizon disappears, reappears upside down, then rights itself once more.

"How was that?" Jim asks.

"Smooth. Great. Fantastic!"

"Have a go at a hammerhead?"

"Let's do it."

We climb to 5,000 feet, then Jim pushes us into a wicked ascent that plasters me to the back of my seat. The plane slows and then hangs in the air, and gravity starts to win out. Jim steers the nose back around, and we reverse direction. As I stare down at the onrushing earth, excitement crosses over into genuine fear, but then we gracefully pull out of the kamikaze dive.

Confidence running high, I tell Jim to hit me with everything he's got. We execute an inside loop, an outside loop, a few snap rolls, a vertical roll. We conclude the stunt portion of the flight with a reverse Cuban eight, a figure eight turned on its side. Suffice it to say that a heavy dose of G-force pummels me at four different points. By now my stomach is more than ready to cruise for a few minutes without spins or loops or drops. I'm content— no, scratch that— I'm overjoyed to relax and enjoy the winter landscape.

If you see a 747 pulling a hammerhead, odds are Jim Thompson is at the controls. Looking for a change of pace, he's switched to commercial aviation. Fortunately, thrill seekers can call upon Michael Goulian, the current national stunt-flying champion, who also has a Pitts S-2B (Executive Flyers Aviation, Hanscom Field, Bedford; 617/274-7227; $185 per hour). For the less daring, Cape Cod Flying Service offers biplane tours of the cape and its environs (Marstons Mills; 508/428-8732; for 20 minutes, $60 for one person, $80 for two).

You're bundled up, standing on the deck of a ferry as it steams toward the open Atlantic. The wind across the tip of Monomoy Island is so fierce this time of year, and the currents so rough, that only a few boats are moored back in Saquatucket Harbor. You look around for sympathy, but the common male eider duck doesn't care. He is brash and better-looking than you, with his pronounced Roman nose, his striking white back and black wings, his head with its subtle green sheen. The loons, on temporary leave from their northern lakes, are, of course, laughing at you. The binocular lenses chill your eyes as you behold, collected on the sandy beaches of eight-mile-long Monomoy, thousands of seals.

Welcome to the Freedom, a 60-foot ferry that in summer ships the masses from Harwich Port's Saquatucket Harbor to Nantucket. On Saturdays from December to mid-April, it offers a different type of escape: the chance to see winter seabirds and more seals than you can imagine. (Don't fear: the cabin is heated.)

The boat motors along the east coast of Monomoy, where most of the 200-pound harbor seals and 800-pound gray seals (known as "horse heads" for their Clydesdale-like noggins) are huddled. The boat passes an abandoned lighthouse perched on stark land scattered with bayberry and shrubs that flourish in sandy soil. On board, a naturalist answers passengers' questions and talks about the science and culture of the area.

Once you're back at the wharf, take a 15-minute drive to the Chatham Squire in Chatham, where you can warm up with a bowl of rich clam chowder.

Seal and Seabird Cruise, Massachusetts Audubon Society's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, Rte. 6, South Wellfleet; 508/349-2615; $25.
— J.K.D.

By David KnowlesJ.K. Dineen and Maxine Moore