Part of a series of occasional articles highlighting summer destinations and activities along Massachusetts highways.
IPSWICH — As they headed down Route 133, past the wildflower fields and split-rail fences on this North Shore byway, Ray and Maria Gilfus had a taste for adventure.
Like always, they craved fried clams, the mouth-watering treat that draws seafood lovers far and near to this winding stretch of road. This time they were going to try a new place, see how another famed clam shack stacked up.
But when the Newburyport couple came upon their regular spot, caught the whiff of fried batter on the breeze, their car seemed to will itself to the Clam Box. Adventure would have to wait.
“They just melt in your mouth,” said Ray Gilfus, showing no hint of regret for sticking with the familiar choice. “So good.”
“We always say we’re going to keep going” and stop at another local clam shack, Maria said with a reconciled, can-you-blame-us shrug. “But we like it here.”
From the Clam Box in Ipswich to J.T. Farnham’s in Essex, this 9-mile ribbon of Route 133 is a clam lovers paradise, boasting an unrivaled array of the delicious morsels. The fried clam was invented here almost a century ago, as legend has it, and remains its claim to fame, a quintessential New England tradition framed by sleepy inlets and perfect summer days.
“People come from all over, just to experience it,” Maria said.
There are four main shacks on the road, with Woodman’s and Essex Seafood completing the famed quartet. Opinions on which is best are strongly held, but vary widely, with no apparent consensus.
Woodman’s, which says it invented the fried clam in 1916, is the most famous and draws the most tourists, followed closely by the Clam Box. But many locals say Farnham’s and Essex Seafood are every bit as good, if not superior.
What everyone agrees on, with a good measure of pride, is that this scenic road to the ocean is the undisputed mecca of fresh fried clams. And that as specialties go, clams are a pretty fine one.
“You come to Ipswich for Ipswich clams,” said Lisa Stanbury of Ipswich as she looked over the marsh from a picnic table at Farnham’s on Thursday. The mix of batter and clam was just right, sweet, and salty all at once. It tasted like summer, she said, and like home.
“It’s New England,” she said.
At lunchtime Thursday, the shacks were bustling with a mix of locals, day-trippers, and out-of-towners. Under cloudy skies, lines were a bit shorter than usual, and picnic tables were there for the taking. When their number came up, people hustled to the counter. Some tartar sauce and plenty of napkins, and then that precious first bite.
“They do it right,” said Alicia Pettis, 20, visiting from Virginia.
Alicia’s mother, Maureen, grew up in Beverly, and misses North Shore fried clams something fierce. When she woke up Thursday morning, she knew it would not be long. As soon as they landed at Logan, they barreled up Route 1 to the Clam Box, arriving without a moment to spare.
“I always have to have a mess of clams to feel human,” Maureen said between bites.
They marveled at how lightly the clams are fried, giving them a light, crunchy coating. Maybe that meant they aren’t all that bad for you, they quipped. “Makes you feel better about it,” Alicia said with a knowing smile.
Down the road at Woodman’s, past yellow farm houses and stone walls and antique shops, the Stoller family was enjoying a summer day off. The Peabody residents had bought homemade pies at a roadside stand, where they ate peaches and raw corn, went to some antique shops, then made their way here for a seafood combo platter. “A little bit of everything,” said Gina Stoller, 34.
They had eaten the clams here before, but they were still a revelation. The batter is thin, so you can taste the seafood in every bite, she said. And it never crumbles away.
Olivia, 3, had saved room for ice cream, so the family happily lingered.
“This is like the North Shore Cape,” Stoller said.
Like the Cape, the serene setting makes the food taste that much better. Stanbury, having lunch with her college roommate, said she loves looking over the marsh behind Farnham’s. The colors are always changing, and the tide rises and falls.
“I never tire of it,” she said.
For many who grew up on the fried clams here, the taste takes them back. Stanbury recalled digging for clams as a girl on visits to her grandparents, and how good they tasted back at the house.
Larry Bethoney, 65, also felt a nostalgic tug. In his younger days, the South Shore resident came to Woodman’s all the time, and after visiting friends in New Hampshire this week, decided it had been too long.
“We grew up on them,” he said. “You’ve got to get them fresh. When it comes to seafood, fresh is the best spice.”
On Thursday, he had his box of clams at a picnic table by himself, looking out over the long grass and the water running through.
He found himself thinking back to long-ago summer days, when he would come here with his girlfriend, a sweet, young woman from Newburyport. He had his chance, he recalled, but she eventually moved to California. He had not seen her in years. But today he almost could.
“When you get to certain places, certain people come to mind,” he said with a wistful smile. “That was a long time ago.”
Peter Schworm can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.