It was a beautiful early spring day here on the North Shore of Massachusetts and we wanted to get out and about. So we hopped in the car and headed north. The nice thing about the North Shore, constituting the coastal towns of Essex County north of Boston to the New Hampshire border, are all the ways to get around without getting on a highway. Many times we’ll drive up Route 127 through Beverly and Manchester-by-the-sea , past “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” Magnolia into famed Gloucester and Rockport. But this time we decided to head up Route 1A. Melanie had mentioned a farm she’d been to called Russell Orchards and I was curious where it was. As usual for these trips we had no itinerary and would go wherever the urge led. So we headed up Route 1A, which would take us to Cape Ann. As we got to North Beverly, crawling through weekend traffic the whole way, we stopped at our favorite bread bakery, Great Harvest. Everything is made on the premises and they even mill their own wheat for the freshest possible flour, which means their bread lasts forever even without preservatives. By early afternoon the selection was meager, but we did get a loaf of honey whole wheat along with a couple of cookies and a turtle bar. Isabella, who’d been cranky so far, immediately brightened up at the prospect of some very fresh bread. We continued on our way through the very tony towns of Wenham and Hamilton, past early American and colonial-era homes worth a small fortune plus a lot of horse and vegetable farms.
I said to Melanie that the fields still fallow and trees still without buds and lawns still brown nevertheless gave a sense of “incipient spring”. Really, for anyone truly familiar with New England, they realize that we have more than the standard four seasons, including a time between winter and spring and between summer and fall. Once you notice the subtleties, you can recognize a kind of “pre-spring”, usually at the end of March, when the stark and skeletal cold of winter has passed and the green vivaciousness of spring is not yet here. It is a time when you hold your breath waiting for the first signs of new life to appear: leaves on the trees, flowers in the gardens, green grass, and planted fields. If you look closely you can see the first shoots of crocuses peeking through the dirt and you begin to notice how homeowners have begun cleaning out the last detritus from their gardens and hedges that didn’t get pulled before the snow flew last fall. It’s like the white canvas and fresh brushes and clean palette laid out by a painter as he prepares to create another masterpiece.
In fact, if you want a climate zone whose moods and movements give a daily reminder of the severity of Good Friday and promise of Easter, you could do a lot worse than New England. Whenever Easter falls, it seems that it marks the shift from the end of winter to the beginning of spring, when the whole world reminds you that the darkness of the tomb is a followed by the warm light of new life.
Crane Beach and Castle Hill
Once we arrived in Ipswich, I turned down Route 133, which the signs said would take us to Crane Beach and the Castle Hill estate, both managed as a public trust and both requiring admission. Once the weather turns hot, we’ll return, but I wasn’t interested in spending $7 to walk on a wind-blown beach. Besides, Isabella was by now fast asleep in her car seat and I wasn’t going to wake her up now. So we continued north.
Passing through Rowley, which has a classic New England town green complete with gazebo, through tiny Newbury, and into Newburyport.
Red brick and an active town center
I think Newburyport has accomplished a feat by becoming what most Massachusetts seaside cities and towns should do. It has an active downtown that also looks good, all red brick and cobblestone, with plenty of places to walk—in addition to sidewalks—streets to drive and lots to park in. There are a lot of and varied restaurants, bars, and shops. It’s the type of place that not only brings the tourists but is also where locals can continue to do their daily business. There’s a playhouse, plenty of live music venues, and its clean and well kept. And it’s not at all cheesy (hint, hint, Salem).
To give you an idea of the liveliness, there were dozens of people out and about, shopping and whatnot, and while Salem’s center would be full of traffic today, you wouldn’t see nearly as many people out strolling and shopping.
With the local temperature hovering around 50 degrees, we got out to walk about too, while pushing Bella in her stroller. In the sun, it was nice, but the shadows were icy, especially when the breeze blew off the water. We first stopped in a kitchen store (of course), where I perused the overpriced gewgaws and gadgets and bought a decent cup of coffee. (I could have gone to the Starbucks next door, but why buy overpriced coffee?)
The local library was having a $2 per bag book sale, which lit up Melanie’s eyes, so I sat outside with Bella and the drinks. Unfortunately, they were just closing up. Poor Melanie. It was like offering to take the kids for ice cream and arriving only to find the place burned down. Nothing disappoints her like the promise of new books being taken away.
We continued our walk, stopping in an antique and reproduction shop where I fantasized about ship models and ships’ timepieces and whatnot for a very manly nautical study and office that I hope to have some day. Isabella kept her hands in the stroller, thankfully. No expensive “you broke it, you bought it” purchases, thank you.
A little open plaza had park benches where we sat for a moment while Melanie fed Isabella a banana. (I don’t know about other kids, but Isabella is a fanatic for bananas. Just the sight of one gets her jumping and she’ll shove massive bites in her mouth until she has to use a finger to plug the dike and keep it all in.)
A local guy started chatting with us. From what he said, I guess he’s a successful businessman who lives nearby. His wife and teenage daughter were in New York this weekend for a baby shower and so he was heading out for a solitary dinner. (Can you guess he was chatty.) He remarked on the difficulty of raising a daughter and how she has him wrapped around her finger and how he spoils her and she spends all his money and since she’s a varsity cheerleader looking good is so important to her and … Far be it from me to tell a complete stranger how to raise his kids, but, well, I wanted to tell him that from what he said, he only had himself to blame. But instead, I nodded and made some noncommittal remarks and we went on our way.
A swing by Acapulco
On our way home, I remembered a friend recommended Acapulco’s Restaurant in Beverly’s Cummings Center office park as a place that Melanie, as a Texan, would enjoy so we decided to stop in. Apparently, 4:30 is “going out to dinner” time for people with toddlers because four booths in a row in our section all had kids in high chairs. Unfortunately, the food didn’t live up to its billing. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t bad, but it was far too bland. It was so bland that Melanie could give some of the chicken from her enchiladas to Isabella. Oh well. Our search for good Tex-Mex on the North Shore continues.
Finally, it was home again, about 5 or so hours after we left and now Melanie is bathing Isabella and getting her dressed for bed. I have to wrap this up so I can so say prayers with her.
On reflection, it was a good spontaneous day. Sure, it will be nice to plan to go certain places and have a destination in mind: museums, beaches, the like. But it’s also nice just to hop in the car and see where the road leads and enjoy whatever serendipity brings our way.