Required to read “Moby-Dick’’ over a school holiday break, a memory that still haunts us, we weren’t keen to visit New Bedford. Herman Melville, of course, shipped out from here in 1841, and his experience inspired the classic. Seafaring life is still a major part of New Bedford’s identity, but this Southeastern Massachusetts city, with the strong influence of its Portuguese and Cape Verdean communities, has other tales to tell. It was an important stop on the Underground Railroad and home to abolitionist Frederick Douglass for five years. Artists such as Albert Bierstadt and William Bradford helped forge its commitment to the visual arts. New Bedford has a texture and vibrancy that might surprise. Young families are especially smitten, thanks to attractions like the Ocean Explorium and Buttonwood Zoo.
If you’re traveling with a small fry, the Marriott Fairfield Inn & Suites (185 MacArthur Blvd., 774-634-2000; www.
marriott.com; rates from $109) is a good bet, thanks to the free hot breakfast, indoor pool, and the cookies they put out in the afternoon. The newish (2010) hotel sits close to the waterfront, with nice views. The Marriott is on the city shuttle route (you can ride all day for $1), but you can walk to most attractions. New Bedford also has a clutch of bed-and-breakfast places. The five-room Orchard Street Manor (139 Orchard St., 508-984-3475; www.the-orchard-street-manor.com; from $125) wins rave reviews, thanks to personable innkeepers Al and Suzanne Saulniers. This circa 1845 sea captain’s home is filled with treasures gleaned from the innkeepers’ overseas travels. Davenport House B&B (124 Cottage St., 508-999-1177; www.bbonline
.com; rooms from $75) is another favorite; you can walk to downtown and the historic sites from this handsome 1912 three-bedroom Victorian inn.
If you’re looking to sample authentic Portuguese cuisine, you’ve come to the right place. Just ask Bon Appetit and Martha Stewart — both gave major props to family-owned Antonio’s (267 Coggeshall St., 508-990-3636; www.antonios
newbedford.com; entrees from $9.99, no credit cards). This local favorite isn’t fancy, but it’s always packed, thanks to excellent Portuguese and American food, served in huge portions. Bill of fare includes seafood, stews, and meat dishes, but be sure to check out the specials boards where some interesting options (rabbit, sardines) line up. For a romantic dinner, try Cotali Mar (1178 Acushnet Ave., 508-990-0066; www.cotalimar
restaurante.com; entrees from $13.95). The menu of this upscale (white tablecloths, marble floors) establishment leans toward Portuguese dishes, but its signature entrée is steak on a slab: a cut of sirloin cooked and served on a slab of granite ($27). Urban Grille (774 Purchase St., 508-990-9900; www.urbangrillenb.com; entrees from $15) would probably survive if it served just one dish, its wildly popular arancini di risa (panko-crusted, deep-fried risotto balls with cheese sauce). This lively spot is BYOB, and there’s a wine shop nearby. Other worthy choices include pan-seared sea scallops, truffle mashed potatoes, mussels fra diavolo, and flourless chocolate cake. If you’re looking for a great lunch spot near the whaling museum, try Freestones City Grill (41 William St., 508-993-7477; www
.freestonescitygrill.com; from $7.99). A barbecue chicken pizza ($9.99; comes with a small Caesar salad) and a salted caramel martini is a perfect pairing on a drizzly November day.
One of the Bair kids, Charlotte, was so enamored of the climb-aboard whale ship Lagoda at the New Bedford Whaling Museum (18 Johnny Cake Hill, 508-997-0046; www.whalingmuseum.org; $14) that we had to tempt her with a plush whale from the gift shop to get her to disembark. This wonderful museum houses the world’s largest collection of whaling artifacts, including the 89-foot, half-model bark that Charlotte loved, plus rare whale skeletons that hang from the ceilings, figureheads, scrimshaw, sailor’s valentines, and whaling gear. The museum, and the Seamen’s Bethel (whaling chapel) across the street are part of the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park (33 William St., 508-996-4095; www.nps.gov/nebe), a 13-block area of downtown adjacent to the waterfront. The park presents and interprets the city’s role as “Whaling Capital of the World” in the 19th century. On the artsy side of things, there are 10 galleries located near the national park, including Gallery 65 on William (65 William St., 508-994-1595; www.gallery65onwilliam.com), a cooperative of artists from the region. And be sure to pop into the University Art Gallery (715 Purchase St., 508-999-8555; www.umassd.edu/cvpa/galleries), located on the first floor of UMass Dartmouth College of Visual and Performing Arts. Among local gift shops, the family-owned Bedford Merchant (28 William St., 508-997-9194; www.bedfordmerchant.com) combines style with whimsy. Bring the kiddies to Buttonwood Park Zoo (425 Hawthorn St., 508-991-6178; www.bp
zoo.org; $6, ages 3-13 $3). Set in a 97-acre park, the zoo showcases the natural history of Massachusetts from the Berkshires to Buzzards Bay, featuring beavers and bears and Asian elephants (huh?). Discover touchable creatures, including rays and sharks at Ocean Explorium (174 Union St., 508-994-5400; www.ocean
explorium.org; $8.50, ages 3-17 $6.50.) Don’t expect something on the scale of the New England Aquarium, but this small marine science center offers lots of hands-on activity for children.
The granddaddy of New Bedford’s night-life scene, the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center (684 Purchase St., 508-994-2900; www.zeiterion.org) is a vaudeville-era venue for performances, and home to two resident companies, the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra and the New Bedford Festival Theatre. Plan your visit to coincide with AHA! if you can. The free, downtown-wide Art, History, Architecture Project (508-996-8253; www.ahanewbedford.org) takes place the second Thursday of every month, featuring art exhibits, performance art, live music, and free entrance into the whaling museum. Among the city’s bars and taverns, Rose Alley Ale House (94 Front St., 508-858-5123; www.drinkrosealley.com) is a lively option, with live music (mostly local acts) most nights of the week, and a beer menu that includes 40 on tap.