Planning some fun outings for the next school break? Look no farther than our own backyard. Yes, mom and dad, grandparents and guardians, the Commonwealth is a treasure trove of all things weird — and wonderful. Add a bite to eat — maybe some interesting foodstuff you’ve never tried before — and a trip to your local library for books and DVDs, and you’ve had yourselves a day.
Dogtown and the Babson Word Rocks
Need a jolt of inspiration to keep those New Year’s resolutions on track? Maybe this hike will do the trick. During the Great Depression, eccentric millionaire investor (and Babson College founder) Roger Babson hired stonemasons to etch motivational slogans in a series of boulders in Dogtown, a ghost town located between Gloucester and Rockport. Sayings like “Help Mother,” “Kindness,” and “Never Try Never Win” grace the 24 boulders that still exist; now a popular 1.8-mile loop hiking trail winds through them. Not everyone liked them at the time — some felt that the etchings defaced the rocks — but Babson found the project satisfying, according to his autobiography.
Looking for the boulders makes for an intriguing walk, and Babson himself was an interesting guy: He wrote nearly 50 books, predicted the 1929 stock market crash, and ran unsuccessfully for president in 1940. “The trail can be a bit overgrown, so hikers may not be able to see all of the boulders,” notes Elizabeth Carey of Discover Gloucester (www.discovergloucester.com). “That said, it’s an interesting walk that reflects local history.” To access trail, follow Cherry Street, Gloucester, to Dogtown Commons (look for the sign). Drive up the hill to the parking area. www.gloucester-ma.gov; for a map, visit www.thedacrons.com/eric/dogtown/visiting_dogtown_gloucester.php.
Meet the beetles
“So beautiful!” That’s what everyone says when they check out the Rockefeller Beetles at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Over the course of 90 years, starting when he was a lad of only 7, banker and philanthropist David Rockefeller built a collection of 150,000 specimens of beetles, representing 10,000 species. They’ve landed (so to speak) at the museum’s Anthropods Gallery. The colors are spectacular, and those horns! They’re the Billy Porter of bugs, design-wise. The kids will love them, even if they provoke some chills — as will a temporary exhibit on orb-weavers. Adults, $15; 3-18, $10; 26 Oxford St., Cambridge; 617-495-3045; www.hmnh.harvard.edu.
What’s beyond Ether Dome
Got an aspiring medical practitioner in your bunch? Take ‘em to the Ether Dome at Massachusetts General Hospital. We stumbled upon this place while waiting for someone at Mass General and were dome-founded, heh-heh, at how wonderfully odd it is. The Ether Dome operating theater was used by the Massachusetts General Hospital between 1821 and 1868. On Oct. 16, 1846, William T.G. Morton was the first surgeon to successfully use ether (anesthesia) on a patient, a man with a tumor in his neck. The patient reported feeling no pain during his surgical procedure. Weirdly (as you will learn here), we still don’t really understand exactly how or why anesthesia works. There’s also an oil painting of the famous first surgery hanging here, along with a collection of antique surgical instruments and (weirdly) an Egyptian mummy. Free; open weekdays from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. except while meetings are taking place (call to confirm). Located in the Bulfinch building at Mass General, 55 Fruit St., Boston; 617-724-8009; www.massgeneral.org.
Peek inside your favorite playthings
We’ve all done it — taken a toy apart to see how it works. (Magic 8-Ball, we’re looking at you!) A new exhibit at the Discovery Museum in Acton is based on that cool concept. Called “TOYS: The Inside Story,” the exhibit holds 12 hands-on stations that reveal the inner mechanisms of some classic toys. Kids can also create their own combinations of things that make toys go, like gears, pulleys, cams, linkages, and circuits. Kids discover what makes a Jack-in-the-Box pop (hint: a cam combination), and get a look at the crazy collection of switches, cams, and motors that make Elmo dance and Mr. Machine run. Play on a giant Etch A Sketch (adults get a major kick out of this), and learn the secret to winning Operation. Yep, it’s science, and it sure is fun. $15.50; first Friday of the month, free admission from 4:30-8 p.m. 177 Main St. (Route 27), Acton, 978-264-4200; www.discoveryacton.org. Through May 10.
A cemetery with a view
The 175-acre Mount Auburn Cemetery is a surprisingly engaging destination for a family outing. There’s plenty to see beyond its sculptural headstones. (Kids take note: Among the folks interred here is the inventor of jelly beans, William Schrafft.) Opened in 1831, the first garden cemetery in America (c.1831) is beautifully forested and hilly, and its creation helped launch a movement to build city parks. Winding paths lead to panoramic views of Boston from Washington Tower. Plus, this site is a great place to look for signs of spring, thanks to hundreds of varieties of trees, plants, and shrubs, and it’s a favorite spot of local birders. Pick up Seasonal Bingo guides (for ages 2 to 6) and Nature Guides (ages 6 and up) at the front gate to make the visit livelier for little ones. 580 Mount Auburn St., Cambridge; 617-547-7105; www.mountauburn.org.
Here’s the skinny on Boston’s narrowest house
Speaking of cemeteries, Copp’s Hill Burying Ground in the North End is full of stories. Look for the tomb of Captain Daniel Malcolm, a North End resident and member of the Sons of Liberty. Malcolm’s claim to fame: smuggling 60 casks of wine without paying the duty on it. The captain’s tombstone — he died in 1769 — is riddled with the marks of vengeful British bullets. But one of the odder Boston landmarks sits just outside the cemetery, at 44 Hull St. Look closely — this is the city’s skinniest house. The Skinny House, a.k.a. the Spite House, is a mere 10.6 feet wide by 30 feet deep. So slim is this house inside (6.2 feet across at its narrowest point) that an adult can touch both opposing walls at the same time. Now a private residence, the home is entered via a small alley. Why so skinny? Legend has it, the house was built out of spite, to block sunlight from reaching the home behind it. At the end of the street is another famous building, Old North Church. 44 Hull St., Boston.
Commanded by a pirate named Sam Bellamy, a ship called the Whydah was wrecked off Wellfleet in 1717. According to legend, Bellamy was sailing to meet his beloved, the “Witch of Wellfleet.” when a storm struck. The Whydah sunk, taking with her the treasure of 50 plundered ships. Only two men of the 146 pirates aboard survived, making the Whydah the worst shipwreck ever off the coast of Cape Cod.
Underwater explorer Barry Clifford discovered the shipwreck in 1984, and created the Whydah Pirate Museum as part of an ongoing archeological project. Visitors can watch an archeologist scrape away at encrusted objects culled from the wreck; there’s even a calcified human skeleton that will undergo DNA testing. On display is “the world’s only authenticated pirate treasure,” they say, including an actual chest of gold and silver coins, along with a replica of the ship, and personal effects of the pirates aboard the Whydah. $18.95; 5-17, $14.95; 674 MA Route 28, W. Yarmouth; 508-534-9571; www.discoverpirates.com.
You’d love to show them the world. For now, how about going inside it? Well, sort of. At The Mary Baker Eddy Library, you can enter a three-story, inside-out stained glass globe, the Mapparium, built in 1935. Older kids will be quick to point out that it’s not up-to-date, with locales like French Indochina labeled. Special effects lighting and audio elements add a modern touch. Stand at one end and whisper something to someone at the other end of the 30-foot bridge, and you’ll see why this has been called the “whispering gallery.” As tempting as it is to pose, resist; they don’t allow photos. Adults, $6; 6-17, $4; 200 Massachusetts Ave. Boston; 617-450-7000; www.marybakereddylibrary.org.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com