With its quaint name, working harbor, seafaring history, and exceptional architecture, Fairhaven was, for a lifelong Massachusetts resident like me, a revelation. I had no idea it existed.
Although just an hour’s ride from my home near Boston, I had never been to Fairhaven or thought of visiting either this village or the neighboring city of New Bedford as a tourist.
Then one rainy day a few summers ago, while staying at a beach house in the area, my husband and I, on the recommendation of a friend, drove to Elisabeth’s Restaurant in Fairhaven for lunch. There we happened on a surprisingly picturesque, historic village and a delicious, reasonably-priced meal of freshly caught seafood and chorizo stew. A local restaurant patronized by fishermen, Elisabeth’s is located next door to Margaret’s, which is adjacent to a huge working harbor the village shares on one side with New Bedford, connected to Fairhaven by a bridge, and on the other side with Mattapoisett, another quaint, historic seaside village connected to Fairhaven by a 7-mile-long paved bike path.
We became improbable fans of New Bedford, Mattapoisett, and especially of sleepy Fairhaven - of its harbor and beaches, its rich history - from the American Revolution to the Civil War, abolition, and whaling days - and of its extraordinary 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century architecture.
The town has what surely must be some of the most outstanding Romanesque civic architecture in the country, all within a few walkable blocks: a library, Unitarian church, Town Hall, and several schools built in the late 19th century by Fairhaven resident and philanthropist Henry Huddleston Rogers. One of the richest men in the world, Rogers worked for John D. Rockefeller at Standard Oil.
Other famous Fairhaven residents included Joshua Slocum, the first man to sail alone around the world, who built his sloop in Fairhaven and whose classic 1900 book about his adventure (“Sailing Alone Around the World’’) is still in print after 100 years, and Sara Delano, whose grandson Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited her in Fairhaven every summer of his boyhood and later when he became president.
Other visitors have included Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Booker T. Washington, and Frederick Douglass, one of an estimated 700 escaped slaves said to be living in Fairhaven and New Bedford before the Civil War.
Like its neighbors New Bedford and Mattapoisett, Fairhaven was a whaling port. In 1838, it was the second largest in the country after New Bedford. Herman Melville, who made New Bedford famous with “Moby-Dick,’’ departed from Fairhaven aboard the whaling ship Acushnet before coming home to write the novel.
For Bostonians who like the sea, history, food, antiques, and architecture and who like things gritty and real, Fairhaven and New Bedford are great choices for a day or weekend getaway.
A good start in Fairhaven is to drive out to West Island, where there is a beautiful mile-long beach for walking, sailboats in season, and a glorious sea view. Then drive over to the outskirts of the village to Fort Phoenix Park, a beautiful and historic area overlooking the shared harbor with New Bedford. There is a small beach there and the old cannons of Fort Phoenix, within sight of which - on May 14, 1775 - the first naval battles of the American Revolution took place.
New Bedford is clearly visible across the water and is about 10 minutes away by car.
The joint harbor of New Bedford and Fairhaven, which can be closed off in hurricanes now by massive steel doors, brings in the largest monetary catch of fish in the United States, including Alaska. With 485 working fishing boats, it is a real place and visitors can watch real people doing real work there - on trawlers and lobster boats, and on vessels that fish for scallops and cod. On the New Bedford side, there is a ferry to Martha’s Vineyard and, in summer, a ferry to Cuttyhunk Island and a harbor cruise. Many harbors in New England have been gentrified, but not this one.
Nevertheless, New Bedford is in the midst of an urban renaissance with a Big Dig-like construction project to rejoin the harbor to the city’s 34-acre downtown, which is a National Historical Park maintained by the National Park Service. The beautifully restored area is eminently walkable and sights include the New Bedford Whaling Museum, the Seamen’s Bethel, the New Bedford Art Museum, and the Schooner Ernestina, the only surviving 19th-century schooner used both for fishing and for trans-Atlantic crossings to carry immigrants to the United States. There are many beautifully restored private mansions and for the public, the Rotch-Jones Duff House and Garden Museum.
Once called “The City that Lit the World’’ because of the whale oil that lighted every lantern in the country before the days of electricity, New Bedford was probably the richest city in America in the 19th century because of both the China trade and whaling, which came later. It was also a leader in global trade with ships going everywhere in the world and with seamen coming from the world over to work. Later it became a manufacturing capital, with thousands of immigrants working in the long, red-brick mills now being restored along the banks of the Achushnet River. Much of downtown New Bedford’s architecture reflects this rich and diverse history of wealth and global commerce.
A great place for antiquing and dining, and with many ethnic - particularly Portuguese - restaurants like Antonio’s, New Bedford also offers visitors a zoo at Buttonwood Park with elephants, lions, and bears. There is a theater, the Zeiterion, and many new art galleries, coffee shops, bars, restaurants, and festivals depending on the seasons.
These range from fishing festivals to Portuguese and other ethnic celebrations to art and food festivals. Foodies will also treasure a visit to Sid Wainer & Sons, an importer and exporter of local and artisanal foods located in a converted blanket factory. Fort Taber is a beautiful park for biking or walking, with lookouts over Buzzards Bay and a military museum. Directly across the harbor from Fairhaven, the park sticks out on a large promontory with the sea on three sides. There is also a long, walkable beach.
More urban restoration in New Bedford is in the works, especially along the Achushnet, an area once filled with immigrants working in the mills, but now becoming a hipper place to live and work with some mills being restored and a boathouse for public rowing planned for next year. The city is also rich in the history of abolition and the Underground Railroad, part of its trove of American history. Visitors can look back at a gritty past and ahead into a gentrifying future in New Bedford and Fairhaven.
If you go...
What to do
New Bedford Whaling Museum
18 Johnny Cake Hill
A world-class museum with revolving and permanent exhibits about the history of whaling. See schedule for “Moby!’’ a series with New Bedford’s Zeiterion Theater including lectures, concerts, and films related to whaling and to Herman Melville’s classic. Adults $14, age 65 and older and students 19 and older $12, ages 6-18 $6.
15 Johnny Cake Hill
Immortalized as the “Whaleman’s Chapel’’ in “Moby-Dick,’’ it was built between 1831-32 and continues to this day as a house of prayer and memorial to those New Bedford whalemen, and now fishermen, lost at sea. No charge.
Buttonwood Park Zoo
425 Hawthorn St.
A 10-acre zoo featuring over 30 exhibits and more than 200 animals, including elephants, bison, cougars, bears, river otters, lynx, and farm animals. Adults $6.50, seniors and teenagers $4.50, 3-12 $3, under 3 free. Free parking.
The Schooner Ernestina
10 State Pier
The only surviving 19th-century, Essex-built Grand Banks fishing schooner and only surviving sailing trans-Atlantic packet schooner used to carry immigrants to the United States. Can be viewed from the State Pier; cannot be boarded.
Fort Taber Park & Military Museum
1000 Rodney French Blvd.
Located on Clark’s Point at the city’s southernmost tip, this 47-acre park features important historical landmarks. The military reservation dates to the American Revolution. Free.
Where to stay
Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott
185 MacArthur Drive
A new hotel built on the pier with an indoor pool and fitness center. Rooms $159-$189.
Melville House Bed & Breakfast
100 Madison St.
A green B&B located in a beautifully restored 19th-century house in the historic district. Rooms $165-$185, with breakfast.
Delano Homestead Bed-and-Breakfast
39 Walnut St., Fairhaven
A beautifully restored Greek Revival house where FDR used to visit his grandmother Sara Delano as a boy on summer vacation. Rooms $100-$150, fruit, yogurt, cereal, coffee included.
23 Water St., Mattapoisett
Located a 7-mile bike ride from Fairhaven along a paved path, this is a well-run operation with a stunning view of the waterfront. Rooms $155-$225, $120-$165 after Nov. 1, breakfast included.
Where to eat
267 Coggeshall St.
Authentic Portuguese cuisine in an attractive setting. Voted one of the best in New England by Bon Appetit magazine. $1.50-$16.99.
Sid Wainer & Son
2301 Purchase St.
Located in a gritty mill district, this importer and exporter of organic produce, artisanal cheeses, oils and vinegars from around the world, fresh pasta, and other gourmet items is an off-the-beaten track must for foodies. On a Saturday around lunchtime, you can get what amounts to a free meal in the retail store, wandering around various food stations where chefs demonstrate their skills.
One Middle St., Fairhaven
Delicious and reasonably-priced seafood. Very popular. Prices range from $3 or $4 for a soup or salad to the most expensive items on the menu including swordfish with lobster aioli with mashed potato and asparagus or fresh caught scallops.
(next door to Elisabeth’s)
16 Main St.
Serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and you can bring your own beer or wine. Similar to her sister Elisabeth’s restaurant next door, but more informal. Breakfast $2.50-$6. Dinner $5-$12.95.Maria Karagianis can be reached at maria.e.karagianis@gmail .com.