When you’ve moved away from a place, coming home again feels strange. You mentally prepare yourself for things to be different, old haunts vanished, nail salons and Himalayan salt spas replacing the old Blockbusters and Radio Shack.
Then there’s Marblehead. No, you haven’t just stepped out of a DeLorean with Marty McFly: The Landing, The Barnacle, the Driftwood, Maddie’s Sail Loft, Me and Thee Coffee House, and Stowaway Sweets are still humming along — our favorite haunts back when MC Hammer (those pants!) ruled the airwaves. Even Shubie’s and MHOP (Marblehead House of Pizza), where they made the best Italian sub long before we felt guilty about noshing deli meats and carbs, are still going strong, although Shubie’s has morphed from a tiny grocery store into a foodie mecca that offers wine tastings.
Nobody seems to think this is strange. Apparently, things don’t change much in this fetching North Shore town, 17 miles north of Boston. If merchant prince/ship owner “King” Robert Hooper, who lived in town in the mid-1700s, landed here today, he’d probably feel right at home. Marblehead’s historic downtown is lined with some 200 homes built before the American Revolution, among the most in any town in the United States. Some of these are open for touring. And it’s practically against the law to visit here without taking a look at “The Spirit of ’76” painting by Archibald Willard at Abbot Hall, the seat of Marblehead’s town government. But the most memorable image of Marblehead is likely the first one you see: of Marblehead Harbor as you cross over the causeway to Marblehead Neck, or the view of same from Crocker Park. It’s timeless, even if standup paddleboards now mingle with the sailboats, and impossibly gorgeous. “So many people come to town for yachting and sailing events,” says Teresa Mosher, general manager of The Hotel Marblehead, “but it’s really a perfect place for just noodling around.”
Do: If historic houses ring your travel chimes, pick up the self-guided walking tour guide of Historic Marblehead (a.k.a. Old Town) at the Marblehead Chamber of Commerce at 62 Pleasant St., or the information booth (open May through October) at the intersection of Spring, Pleasant, and Essex streets. One not to miss: the Jeremiah Lee Mansion, circa 1769, considered one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in the country. The wood façade was sand-painted to look and feel like stone; inside, hand-painted English wallpapers and elaborate interior woodwork carvings add to the upscale feel. We mentioned King Hooper; his former home now houses the Marblehead Arts Association (www.marbleheadarts.org.) Pop inside to see the art galleries filled with members’ artwork representing a variety of styles. There are several boutiques sprinkled around downtown, but a local, Cindy Sisco, turned us on to Magic Hat Thrift Shop (www.magichatthriftshop.com), behind the middle school on Pleasant Street. All sales benefit Marblehead Public Schools.
Given that Marblehead is the “Yachting Capital of America” (although the folks in Newport, R.I., might disagree), you’ll want to get out on the water. It can be hard to finagle a sail on a yacht, but it’s super-easy to arrange a kayak or standup paddleboard excursion; Little Harbor Boathouse (littleharborboathouse.com) offers hourly rentals, including tandem and pedal kayaks. They also offer a paddle and picnic option with a lobster roll lunch from Little Harbor Lobster Company and two-hour kayak rental, but at $72 per person, that’s rather pricey, especially if it gets wet. We’d say, pick up your own lunch (a lobster roll, or something delicious from Shubie’s Marketplace; www.shubies.com) and head over to Crocker Park to eat lunch on a bench with views of Marblehead Harbor, or wander down to circa 1644 Fort Sewall, a park-like setting at the mouth of the harbor, originally built to protect Marblehead from sea attacks by the French. You can still see some of the underground chambers. Yet another pretty overlook is Chandler Hovey Park (Ocean Avenue, on Marblehead Neck), home to skeleton-like Marblehead Light — and a much-appreciated feature, a parking lot.
Stay: A circa 1872 Victorian home has been recently done up with a spiffy mid-century modern interior, and opened as The Hotel Marblehead (www.thehotelmarblehead.com; from $245 in summer). Nice touches abound, including complimentary use of bicycles, badminton in the backyard, and cookies at check-in, plus they offer a complimentary breakfast (charcuterie, bread and pastries, fruit) in the common room. The 14 guest rooms and suites are nicely turned out, with nautical accents and Etsy finds. The house is in the Clifton section of Marblehead, but Old Town is within walking distance. Set in the heart of the historic district, the 20-room Harbor Light Inn (www.harborlightinn.com; from $209 in summer) oozes old school charm. Each of the guest rooms in this 18th-century building is unique (here a canopy bed, there a fireplace); amenities include a buffet breakfast and a heated outdoor pool surrounded by greenery.
Eat: We mentioned the lobster roll at Little Harbor Lobster Company (www.littleharborlobster.com), available for takeout at a seafood market on Little Harbor. Yep, this award-winner is tasty, with
pound of lobster meat on a griddled brioche roll from AJ King Artisan Bakery in Salem. At $26, it’s a splurge-y sandwich (splurge-wich?), but definitely good. Chef Barry Edelman’s resume includes Lumiere and Aquitaine in Boston; now he’s got his own place in Marblehead, 5 Corners Kitchen (www.5cornerskitchen
.com; entrees from $24). Its first incarnation burned in an electrical fire; fans of Edelman’s French-Mediterranean cookery were happy to see him back in business, whipping up dishes like squid ink taglierini (ribbon pasta) with lobster and mussels ($28) and good old steak frites ($28.) Of the two waterfront seafood joints on Front Street, we favor The Landing (www.thelandingrestaurant.com; from $16), open for lunch and dinner. Order something fishy (or a chowder), eat on the deck, and enjoy the good life, M’head-style. There’s no water view, but you can’t fault the food at Three Cod Tavern (www.threecodtavern.com; from $12; lunch and dinner). The crab cakes are exceptional. If you roll into town for breakfast, you’ll likely land at the Driftwood (781-631-1145). The one-time fishermen’s fave — a hole in the wall — now draws townies and tourists. It covers the basics, nothing fancy — and the less said about the coffee, the better. Lots of options for dessert in town, but for nostalgia’s sake, you can’t beat Stowaway Sweets (www.stowawaysweets.com). They’ve been making chocolates in this mansion since 1929, so they’re very good at it. Don’t leave town without a box of meltaways, their signature confection.
After dark: “The best nightlife in Marblehead is in Salem,” a local told us, with a straight face. Yep, we’re looking at you, Opus, and Deacon Giles Distillery. But there are plenty of places to settle in for an adult beverage, including Three Cod Tavern and The Landing. For a real dive bar experience (in Marblehead!), consider the Rip Tide (116 Pleasant St., cash only). Planning a fall visit? Make it to town by 8 p.m. so you can catch a concert at Me and Thee Coffee House (www.meandthee.org), now in its 50th year. Sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Church of Marblehead, this intimate space hosts live acoustic music by folks like Rani Arbo and Bill Staines in fall, winter, and spring. The Landing hosts live music acts as well (mostly on weekends and some Thursdays), and we’ve seen some excellent talent here.
For information: www.marbleheadchamber.org.