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What's special about Cape Ann? Is it the ever-present consciousness that it sits right at the edge of the great Atlantic Ocean? Is it an island mentality, or is it simply the inverse ratio of stress to distance from the city that infuses this special, refreshed, relaxed feeling? The first thing to know is that it only has two things in common with Cape Cod: the Atlantic Ocean, and the feeling you get as you drive away from all things urban. The next thing to know is that, strictly speaking, Cape Ann is an island, separated from the mainland by the Annisquam River, reached by two bridges and a trestle. Gloucester and Rockport are the principal towns occupying Cape Ann, with towns such as Ipswich and Essex, Beverly, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Newbury and Newburyport, and others of Massachusetts's "North Shore" sometimes tucked in for good measure. And all this is at a visitor's feet within 45 minutes, driving at legal speed "down" (as long-time Cape Ann residents say) from Boston.
Cape Ann has a romance, beauty and inspiration all its own. Of course, water has always, since before the Pilgrims, played a large part in life here. Water has carved the beautiful, complex, dramatic granite shoreline. Water has supplied the resources for Gloucester's fishing industry, and Gloucester's and Rockport's historic and lively art colonies. And water provides the vistas and freshness and drama that can't be had in any but a limited number of places on Cape Cod. Often, in winter, it is the site of nature's greatest fury when a storm kicks up offshore on the Stellwagen Bank, George's Bank, or the Grand Banks beyond. Often, in summer, it is the only place - short of a longer trip up to Maine - where respite from the "hot town, summer in the city" hazy, hot, humid weather can be found. And, its coast gives scores of new meanings to the term "just around the next bend" with its dramatic vistas, myriad rocky coves and the play of light on the water. Then there are the lobster bouys, thousands of them in myriad color combinations, each unique to a single lobsterman, dancing on the indigo and white waves.
For its compact size, Cape Ann is surprisingly diverse, and Gloucester's many "towns within a town" express the many local personalities: Downtown, with its bustle of fishing boats, piers, Main Street stores, restaurants and pubs, historic district, and that famous fishermen's statue memorial "To They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships" (some 38,000 at last count...). Rocky Neck, the oldest thriving art colony in America, home over the years to American Impressionists and their present-day successors of National Academy stature. Eastern Point's mansions, with lawns and oceanside pools reminiscent of the "cottages" of Newport, RI. Annisquam, perched alongside the river of its name on Gloucester's "backside". Wheeler Point and Lane's Cove, once havens of summer "camps" (the simplest of two- or three-room summer cottages), also on Gloucester's northwest side. Bass Rocks, hard-by the open, crashing Atlantic. Mt. Pleasant, the hilliest part of Gloucester, covered by trees, a golf course, and quiet neighborhoods of bungalows.
Rockport is set-off from Gloucester in more ways than one. Perhaps a reaction to the nature of Gloucester as a working port - right over the hill - perhaps not, Rockport has always been since Prohibition, and is still, a "dry town". There is a colorful story about the night of the anti-alcohol rampage through town. No alcohol is sold here, in stores or in restaurants. Wine or beer may be brought into restaurants by patrons. All that said, there is an experiment now underway. One establishment, the Emerson Inn, recently obtained authorization to sell alcohol. So..... Who knows? Note: earlier this year some restaurants were given permission to sell wine and beer with food. A visit in July 2006 confirms that you can get a drink in The Greenery on Dock Square (cocktails and beer mainly).
All this beauty, drama and history begs to be preserved, and preserved it is. Parks, both coastal and neighborhood, abound. It also begs to be memorialized, and memorialized it is. In addition to the Fisherman, there is a new memorial to fishermen's wives and families (multiply that 38,000 by...?). Gloucester and Rockport have museums and art galleries, civic buildings and churches that capture these attributes. And these towns have cemeteries that rival Boston's in age if not in fame.
History is preserved - for the taking, so to speak - in another way. Hwy. 133 from Gloucester to Ipswich, Essex, Newbury and Newburyport is a wonderful antiquing route, the vendors' fun, funny and funky "diamonds in the rough" out on their front lawns, luring passersby to stop and browse.
Did we say the ocean is important? If you want beaches, there's Good Harbor Beach. Long Beach. Wingershaek Beach. Singing Beach (the special sound that the sand makes under your feet here). Crane's Beach. Plum Island. The little beach in the heart of Rockport. You want rocks and beach? There's historic Stage Fort Park. Rocks and a view? There's Halibut Point -- granite rocks just right for easy climbing and hopping over, and panoramic views from a promontory that include Mt. Agamenticus in Maine! And there are the reddish Bass Rocks, perfectly cast for the crashing surf drama of those ocean storms and breathtaking sunrises. ("Red in the morning, sailors take warning...")
You STILL haven't gotten far enough "away from it all"? Gloucester is a wonderful place to embark on a whale watch. Rights, Minkes, Blues and others use the nearby warm and bountiful Stellwagen Bank as their summer playground. They frequently breach, or just lie around and slap the surface of the water. Departures out of Gloucester are at least an hour closer than those leaving from Boston.
Last, but not least, the bounty from the sea is readily available at restaurants, pubs, and "lobster in the rough" stands all around Cape Ann. And where could it be fresher than where you can watch it unloaded from the "Draggers" that have caught it before you awakened that morning?
NOTE: The Perfect Storm, in all important respects, was true. The culture, life and places that it depicted existed, and exist still to this day. There was an Andrea Gayle, moored and "on the ways" (The Gloucester Marine Railways) at the tip of Rocky Neck, for many years. Her sisters are there now. Walk into any of the pubs in Gloucester, and you'll see how those characters, and many of the other 38,000, lived the land-side of their lives... And similar lives are being lived there today - as the Gloucester church dedicated to good voyages proclaims - there but for the grace of God.