A sunny July day just begs for a trip to the ocean. The North Shore offers many fine seaside communities, but Gloucester — “America’s Oldest Seaport” — was my choice because of its easy access and the interesting array of food and cultural options.
Less than an hour from Boston by car, downtown Gloucester also is accessible by train and water shuttle. My husband and I drove because our first stop was Historic New England’s Beauport located out on Eastern Point.
Beauport, officially the Sleeper-McCann House, is a whimsical 40-room mansion perched high on a rocky cliff overlooking Gloucester Harbor. It was worth the trip just to see the playful gardens and views.
Built in the early 1900s as the summer home of one of America’s first interior decorators, Beauport is filled with curiosities, treasures, and unique furnishing that tell the colorful story of Henry Davis Sleeper and his friends, including Isabella Stewart Gardner.
Beauport and the Gardner Museum in Boston share the same eclectic feel and both are full off surprises. The one-hour Beauport tour is fun and captures the mischievous nature of Sleeper, who loved to entertain, built a secret stairway to surprise his guests, and threw many extravagant costume parties. After Sleeper’s death in 1934, the home was purchased by European art collector Helena Woolworth McCann, who kept most of the design intact.
While at Beauport, I asked for recommendations for lunch downtown. I was given a map and received several suggestions. We opted to try Halibut Point, a restaurant “popular with locals.” A casual pub with reasonable prices, it reminded me of British pubs I have visited over the years. The daily special was of course grilled halibut — how could we resist?
The food was good, the service was efficient, and we were ready to walk off our meal in about an hour.
Downtown Gloucester is somewhat divided. There are restaurants, shops, and galleries along the waterfront, but Main Street (with metered on-street parking) one block up is an excellent place to stroll and browse.
Like many seaside communities, Gloucester is home to artists. Galleries brimming with paintings, sculpture, handmade furniture, pottery, jewelry, and stained glass were plentiful. I made a mental note several times to return this fall when I begin thinking about holiday shopping.
Beyond galleries, there were cafes, gourmet food shops, a toy store with a sidewalk Teddy bear tea party, antique shops, and my favorite find: Bananas, a vintage shop with clothing, jewelry, and kitsch. From the large plastic Pinocchio head topping the display of belts to the leopard-covered walls of the dressing room, Bananas is a trip! It is tacky taken to the level of an art form.
After shopping and walking, we were ready for dessert. Enticed by the Italian music coming from outdoor speakers, we followed the crowd to Virgilio’s Bakery & Deli on Main Street. Suddenly, I was transported back in time to the Boston North End I knew as a college student. The pastries were out of this world. Much of the conversation around me was in Italian and the customers were a mix of regulars and tourists, all savoring the food and unpretentious atmosphere.
Another walk was needed and I was shopped out. We walked back to the car and drove past the famous Fisherman’s Memorial to Stage Fort Park. The harbor-front park off Hough Avenue was an unexpected pleasure. The welcome center offers information on everything about Gloucester and Cape Ann, and the knowledgeable staff was happy to provide ideas for future trips. There were very clean public restrooms and free 20-minute parking. A charming gazebo, overlooking the ocean, hosts weekly concerts. A playground was full of happy kids, while the sunny Half Moon Beach was a patchwork of brightly colored towels, but not overcrowded. Parking is $15 all day — a bargain considering you could bring the family, a picnic, and spend a whole day.
The only downside to my trip was that one day was not enough. I never got to the Rocky Neck Art Colony and did not go out on the water. Next time, I would plan a boat tour of Cape Ann or maybe take in the harbor on a schooner. Gloucester was a refreshing day trip.
It was nice to get know a place in my own backyard a little better.