ROCKPORT — Put on your woolies and mittens for an off-season walk around this historic seaside spot at the tip of Cape Ann. The town of 7,000, with charming Victorian homes, juts forward like the figurehead at the prow of a ship facing the sea. Rockport, which has a small fishing industry, is home to artists and the beautiful Shalin Liu Performance Center, open year-round. These days there are few tourists and plenty of parking.
Wander up Bearskin Neck, past the gift shops and galleries, to a surround of stone boulders and a long breakwater that invite you to sit, inhale, and take in the view. Walk back toward Bradley Wharf and one of the most photographed scenes in Massachusetts: fishing boats and lobster buoys bobbing against the backdrop of a red wooden building known as Motif No. 1.
Christmas in Rockport (www.rockportusa.com) offers plenty of activities. The town is easy to reach from North Station; a commuter rail takes you to Rockport Station, which is a 10-minute walk to town. Wander among the shops, which are all decked out for the holidays.
The French doors of Lula’s Pantry, a chic light-filled shop that stocks kitchenware, pottery, and food, open to a view of the harbor year-round. Joan Jackson matte-glazed stoneware, made in the green and blue colors of the ocean, comes in soup bowls to serving pieces ($9-$175). Intricate sea creatures adorn melamine plates. A lobster platter ($32) could do dual duty for serving and hanging on a wall. Scourtins, locally made olive shortbread wafers ($5.95 for 6 ounces) are deliciously buttery. Use the nautical Cape Ann map napkins ($6.50 for 50) to catch crumbs. 5 Dock Square,
“Everyone forgets we are here year-round,” says Dawn Noble, owner of La Provence, a French tableware shop. Seven years ago the former waitress bought the store and “took all of my money and sent it to France.” She stocks Provencal table linens (from $68), striking jacquard cloths (from $98) and dish towels ($14.95) in vibrant colors. There is a variety of La Rochere glassware with its bee motif from a butter dish ($18) to a carafe ($32). Noble carries stunning giclee prints of fruit and vegetables on 10-inch square canvasses (starting at $70) by Somerville artist Bill Chisholm. Not French, but they make a smashing compliment to the other accessories. 4 Main St., Rockport, 978-546-5868, www.laprov.com
Situated on the harbor, Rockport Fudgery is the kind of old-fashioned spot where double handled copper pots are used for making the fudge along one wall. Milk, cream, butter, sugar, and flavorings are heated, cooled, and mixed with wooden paddles. High school student Jack Fritz works part time as a fudge-whipper and has the muscles to prove it. Manager Leonard Desilets explains that fudge is an American invention, an accident that happened on the way to making caramel. There are 20 varieties, including New England-style penuche with brown sugar, seasonal specialties like cranberry, and perennial favorites peanut butter and rocky road. A little fudge goes a long way. 4 Tuna Wharf, Rockport, 978-546-2030, www.rockport
This shop, in a quaint shingled cottage, has been in business for 30 years. Baker Heike Boettcher says in peak season, the shop produces Austrian strudel about three times a day. The rectangles of flaky puff pastry are vented and filled with apple, cherry, or sweet cheese ($2 for a slice, $8.50 for a log to serve four). A big brown pastry-loving dog plants himself in front of the Helmut’s Strudel shop and has to be taken away by his owner. “No, we are not going for strudel,” says the man. Apparently everyone loves Helmut’s.
69 Bearskin Neck, Rockport, 978-546-2824.
Brothers’ Brew Coffee Shop
Warm up with a satisfying cup of Joe, ground from the beans of a New Hampshire
micro roaster, or choose from a list of loose leaf teas. Brothers Ross and Marc Brackett are hometown boys with a passion for detail. The contemporary interior has a counter with several tables. A white board has a handwritten menu of sandwiches and wraps. Pastries are legendary. Rockport once had a large Finnish population who came to work in the stone quarries in the 19th and 20th centuries. Try the Norwegian coffee bread ($2) or the Finnish nisu bread, two toasted and buttered slices sprinkled with cinnamon sugar ($1.50) or doughnuts (94 cents). Yes, all those prices are right. 27 Main St., Rockport, 978-546-3775