By: Juan Abelardo Carles
Photos: Carlos E. Gómez
A glance at a map of Massachusetts might make it seem like the enormous bay is merely the space enclosed by a stretch of land resembling a crab claw from one those meaty specimens that sidle across the sea floor under the cold, nutrient-rich waters. The Boston metropolitan area is located at the joint in the claw, while Cape Ann sits at the northernmost point.
The peculiar demands of our job send Carlos, my photographer colleague, and me, to Boston after a memorable blizzard. Since we both hail from tropical latitudes, ordinary winter irritants strike us as part of a novel adventure. When we have exhausted the options available in sophisticated Boston during a snowy winter, we depart for Cape Ann, in the northern part of the state, in search of more idyllic landscapes.
It turns out to be a good idea: after driving out of the Boston metropolitan area via legendary Highway 1, which runs nearly the entire length of the eastern seaboard, we turn northeast on Route 128. The landscape gradually transitions to lovely scenery characterized by bare branches and soft white hills. This area seems less populated, but it is far from desolate, because the route ends at the old town of Gloucester, one of the first sites colonized in New England.
In 1498, following the passion for exploration unleashed by Christopher Columbus, who launched a swarm of expeditions westward from Europe, John Cabot arrived on these rocky shores and claimed them for the British Crown. The area’s wealth is not derived from the land —compressed granite bedrock that supported the weight of glaciers for millennia— but rather from its waters. It took several decades for the first permanent settlement to develop, so the fishing fleets rode anchor to exploit the abundant shoals of fish. In 1623, King James of England authorized the first permanent settlements, including Gloucester, then known by a more tongue-twisting name.
Today the town is a pleasant enclave of houses and brightly-colored bell towers. We skirt the town and head down the shopping street to the port, where we meet Peter Webber from the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce. As we stroll along on a cold, sunny day, he points out that “Some of the oldest houses date back to 1700 and are still standing.” The temperature has risen slightly and although roofs, sidewalks, and various nooks and crannies still sport their burdens of snow, a light fresh vapor rises from the ground. A mist also hangs over the ocean that laps at the sea front along Boulevard Stacy in the port of Gloucester. Webber takes us to the Fishermen’s Memorial, built in 1923, which shows a captain at the helm of his ship, scanning the horizon and defying the unknown and dangerous waters. The pedestal dedicates the memorial to: “They that go down to the sea in ships,” taken from Bible psalm 107:23-31. The statue is surrounded by several markers engraved with the names of those lost at sea over the last three hundred years, representing the high price of the treasures given up by the sea to ensure the prosperity of Gloucester and other Cape Ann towns.
Fishing was the main industry in the town and the region for several centuries, and although it is being replaced by other activities (tourism, among others), even new industries depend on the romantic aura cast over the region by fishing. For example, the movie The Perfect Storm (2000) was filmed in the town and the surrounding areas, making good use of the idyllic scenery. The director of the film was not the first to appreciate the lovely landscapes of Cape Ann; the region boasts several towns with some of the highest concentrations of artists found in New England. Rocky Neck, across the cove from Gloucester, is home to more than forty establishments related to art, including galleries, shops, and workshops.
The spectacular winter scenery, the cold, and the exercise have whetted our appetites. Peter walks us back to the docks near his office; we thread our way through piles of crab, lobster, and crustacean pots until we come to the Gloucester House restaurant. Gloucester is known throughout Massachusetts for its cuisine, and while the city abounds in restaurants, this one also gives me the chance to have lunch with the owner, who doubles as an amateur local historian.
Lenny Linquata represents the third generation of the family that owns Gloucester House (founded in 1958 by his grandfather). Since he knows everyone, he stops to greet other diners as he makes his way to our table. Three bowls of thick clam chowder steam in front of us. “Each region of New England has its own version of the dish, but they all look more or less alike, except for the one prepared in Rhode Island, which gets its red color from tomatoes.” Between spoonfuls, he relates the history of his native town.
“This is a special area. The cold waters cause the marine animals to develop more fat and grow larger, making the flesh more flavorful,” continues Linquata as we attack plates of mussels. “The colonies along Massachusetts Bay had easy access to a lot of fish, and once the fish was salted, it could be exported or exchanged for textiles from Europe or rum from the Caribbean, for example. The colonies became self-sufficient and prosperous, and when the British Crown began to impose more and more taxes on them, self-determination turned into a desire for independence.” In fact, the Battle of Gloucester took place outside this port in August of 1775, and it was one of the few engagements the patriots won at the beginning of the revolutionary war.
Over the centuries, local inhabitants learned to value self-sufficiency, intelligence, and creativity. In addition to salted fish, Cape Ann also exported ice —gouged from ponds created by the uneven, rocky terrain— during an age when the product was considered a luxury item. Many people used an artisan method to preserve food, freezing it deep beneath the ice. Clarence Birdseye’s study of the process contributed to his novel method for preserving food, and effectively launched the frozen-food industry. This area was also home to John Hays Hammond, the inventor of radio control; his device guided an unmanned boat on a round-trip between Gloucester and Boston in 1910.
This beautiful but sometimes harsh land nurtured more than scientific ingenuity. Painters such as Fitz Henry Lane, John Singer Sargent, and Edward Hopper, who were instrumental in developing plastic arts in the United States, were inspired by the iridescent waters, the starkly beautiful forests, and the colorful hamlets of Cape Ann. The muses also blessed many great writers, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, T. S. Eliot, Joseph Rudyard Kipling, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who penned some of their works here.
On a curious side note, we spend the night at the same hotel where Emerson enjoyed several summers with his family. The inn has operated under various names and managements. The current name, Emerson by the Sea, pays tribute to the 19th century author. The hotel is located not far from Gloucester in the town of Rockport, which feels the effects of the ocean even more intensely due to its location in the northeast part of Cape Ann. The coast of Rockport, as the name suggests, is littered with granite boulders torn from the bluffs and crags by wind and water.
The hotel’s charming reception desk echoes the warm Victorian ambience that welcomed Emerson and other guests, and as I stroll through the hallways, I imagine I hear the steps made by Emerson during his quest for the tranquility needed to unleash his imagination. As a journalist, I feel at home in a place where one of the greats of American literature wrote, and I seek out the objects and views that might have provided a spur to the author’s genius. My search ends on the terrace overlooking the sea, just as dusk Spreads its mantle of peace, cold, and lilac over the northern Atlantic. My spirit feels soothed and I understand the magic of northern winter, which somehow seems more potent here in the woods and hills of Cape Ann.
Note: This article was written with the support of the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce (www.capeannchamber.com) and the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism
How to Get There
Copa Airlines offers a daily flight to Boston, Massachusetts from North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean through its Hub of the Americas in Panama City. The flight leaves Panama City at 11:46 a.m. and arrives in Boston at 6:16 p.m. The return flight from Boston departs at 9:54 a.m. and arrives in Panama City at 2:28 p.m. For further information, visit www.copa.com