Ever since Oliver Wendell Holmes declared its gold-domed State House Building “the hub of the solar system”, Boston, Massachusetts, has had a sky-high opinion of itself. There’s no argument that this is a historic, cultured, human-scale city, but even Bostonians like to take a breather from their urban environment.
Given that Massachusetts has fine highways and a decent public transportation system, escaping is a cinch. That’s good news for visiting business people who have a few days to spare and want to get a wider taste of the delights of New England.
Salem, which lies just 26 kilometres north of Boston, is a good one-night escape. Witches that’s what many people first associate with Salem. The hysteria that gripped the port in 1692, which led to the execution of 14 women and six men for witchcraft, was the basis for Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. This dark episode is also a modern-day obsession, and recalled at a handful of historical (and many non-historical) sites around town and in the month-long Haunted Happenings festival held in October.
But there is a lot more to this compact, walkable town than dabblings with the occult. Once a great New England port that produced some of the first US millionaires, Salem is blessed with a splendid architectural and cultural heritage. Visitors can start by taking a stroll around the McIntire Historic District, which is named after Samuel McIntire (1757-1811), one of the foremost US architects of his day. Here you can view four centuries of architectural styles from the McIntire-designed Peirce-Nichols House to the red-brick Federalist gem Hamilton Hall.
Salem is blessed with a splendid architectural and cultural heritage.
Both of these homes and others are open for public viewing. Peirce-Nichols House is managed by Salem’s outstanding Peabody Essex Museum. Dating back to 1799, the museum has a collection of close on a million objects amassed by merchants on their global travels.
Objects as diverse as model ships, full-sized figureheads and exquisite antiques from China, Japan and India are displayed in the galleries, which are housed in a striking contemporary building by Moshe Safdie fronting the pedestrian-only Essex Street. Touristy Pickering Wharf is five minutes’ walk east of the Peabody via the Witch Trails Memorial, which was dedicated by Holocaust survivor and writer Elie Wiesel in 1992.
Tasty seafood dishes can be enjoyed at Finz, which has a view of Salem Harbour. Afterwards visitors can explore the neighbouring Salem Maritime National Historic Site and its impressive full-sized replica of the Friendship, a three-masted East India merchant ship dating from 1797 docked at Derby Wharf.
Literary buffs will also want to drop by the Custom House opposite the wharf. It’s where Nathaniel Hawthorne lived for three years while working on his novel The Scarlet Letter. And a short stroll further east down Derby Street is The House of the Seven Gables (www.7gables.org), a building dating from 1668 that’s the oldest surviving wooden mansion in the US and the inspiration for Hawthorne’s novel of the same name. The house’s delightful colonial revival gardens are perfect for contemplating Salem’s illustrious past.
Literary buffs will also want to drop by the Custom House opposite the wharf. It’s where Nathaniel Hawthorne lived for three years while working on his novel The Scarlet Letter.
Clinging to the hooked tip of Cape Cod, picturesque Provincetown (nicknamed P’town by locals) has long been considered way “out there”. Enveloped by a spectacular natural environment, much of it protected within a national park, P’town has beguiled artists and writers down through the ages including Norman Mailer, Eugene O’Neill and Henry David Thoreau, who visited in the 1850s and said “a man may stand there and put all America behind him”.
It’s possible to drive the 185 kilometres from Boston in about 2½ hours (there are direct buses), but the most pleasant way of accessing what has become one of the biggest gay and lesbian friendly resort towns in the US is by the summertime ferries that cover the distance in an hour and a half. Visitors may spot passing whales and dolphins along the way.
No one approaching the town by land or sea could miss the Pilgrim Monument. This medieval Italianate tower commemorates a little-known piece of history: P’town was where the Mayflower pilgrims first set foot on the American continent in November 1620. After five weeks, the puritanical bunch of British immigrants moved on from the unpromising sandbar to a permanent base at Plymouth.
Many of those who followed down the years chose to stick around, including Portuguese fishermen, whalers and arctic explorers. At the foot of the tall granite tower, which celebrated its centenary in 2010, there’s a small museum providing a fascinating insight into P’town’s colourful history. It’s well worth taking on the tower’s 116 steps and 60 ramps to reach the lookout offering sweeping 360-degree views of the town.
Back down on the ground, it’s fun to amble along Commercial Street, P’town’s busy main artery lined with a multitude of art galleries, antique emporiums, gift shops, cafes, restaurants and bars. Thanks to strict town ordinances, the distinctive low-rise Cape Cod streetscape of quirky, shingle-sided cottages and buildings has been retained without a single chain store or fast-food outlet in sight. Visitors are also likely to encounter local characters such as the Hat Sisters, a cross-dressing couple whose fabulous matching outfits would make Australian comedian Dame Edna envious.