36 Hours in New Bedford, Mass.
New York Times, May 26, 2006.
Written By Paul Schneider
A LOT of time and tide has come and gone since the days when New Bedford was, as Melville wrote in “Moby-Dick,” “the dearest place to live in, in all New England.” The whaling business that cobbled the historic district’s streets and built its fine Greek Revival buildings collapsed in the second half of the 19th century. The textile and glass factories that took whaling’s place followed suit in the 20th. Now, while sea scallops continue to make New Bedford the top dollar-generating fishing port in the nation, commercial fishing in the Atlantic is on the decline. Tough times and a rough reputation is how the city is generally perceived regionally. “Thirty-six hours is about 24 more than you need in New Beige,” said a year-round Vineyarder at the prospect of spending a weekend there. Truth is, though, New Bedford has plenty of history, architecture and small museums to fill a weekend, particularly when you throw in its proximity to some of the prettiest little towns on the coast and a couple of Massachusetts’s best and least famous beaches. PAUL SCHNEIDER
1) Bringing Home the Oil
When the skeletons won’t fit in the closet, you might as well hang them from the ceiling. The fully assembled bones of a 65-foot-long blue whale (immature, no less) and the slightly smaller sperm and humpback skeletons are reasons enough to begin in the historic district at the New Bedford Whaling Museum (18 Johnny Cake Hill; 508-997-0046; www.whalingmuseum.org.). At the top of Johnny Cake Hill, the museum isn’t a recent tourist attraction concocted by the Chamber of Commerce to lure tourists off the freeway as they hurtle past on their way to Cape Cod. Founded 99 years ago, it’s the pre-eminent museum devoted to the global business that was Big Oil before the Big Oil we know today. It’s a fascinating picture of an industry everyone thought the world could not do without — and then, quite suddenly, did without. Houston, take note.
2) A Whaleman’s Chapel
As comprehensive as the whaling museum is, it doesn’t quite capture the pathos of the age as well as the Seamen’s Bethel across the street (13 Johnny Cake Hill; 508-992-3295; www.newbedfordseamensbethel.org), the 175-year-old sailors’ chapel where Melville’s Ishmael heard a memorable sermon on Jonah. The memorials on the walls offer none of the usual pious rhyming couplets but rather one-sentence tragedies like, “This worthy man, after fastning to a whale, was carried overboard and drown May 19, 1844, in the 49th year of his age.” Or, “His death occurred in nine hours after being bitten by a shark, while bathing near the ship.”
3) Pickin’ and Singin’
On many Friday nights in the summer there is high-quality, low-key live music (Patty Larkin, Kate Taylor, Jennifer Roland) at either the Whaling Museum or, even better, in the lovely gardens of the Rotch-Jones-Duff House & Garden Museum (396 County Street, 508-997-1401; www.rjdmuseum.org). It’s also worth a tour if you have the time.
4) For Chowderheads
Before, after or instead of the live music, wander over to Freestone’s City Grill (41 William Street, 508-993-7477) in a restored 19th-century bank just across the street from the stately United States Custom House designed by Robert Mills, of Washington Monument fame. Under the gaze of an enormous brass monkey, patrons select from a drink list as long as some Chinese restaurant menus. The food is not overly ambitious, which is to say simple and tasty. Syrian nachos ($8.99) are a favorite with locals, the seared scallops ($16.99) are locals themselves and the fish chowder ($3.50, $4.50) is a perennial winner of something called the Newport Chowder Cook-Off.
5) To the Sea With Cookies
You could wander the New Bedford docks, a rare fishermen’s wharf that actually still belongs primarily to commercial fishermen. But if the day is clear, and this being New Bedford, you’ll heed the call of the sea — at least as far as the beach, anyway. Take Dartmouth Street out of town toward the village of Padanaram, below, a legendary crossroads of old money, older money and really good chocolate-chip cookies. The lattermost are at Cecily’s (6 Bridge Street, South Dartmouth; 508-994-1162). There’s also a Cecily’s on the waterfront in New Bedford proper, but this is the mother ship, and you should consider picking up sandwiches for later.
6) Do the Strand
The back roads from Padanaram wander through some of the more unspoiled stretches of New England coastline south of Maine, places where farm animals still have a view of the sea. There are lovely loop trails at the Lloyd Center for the Environment (430 Potomska Road, South Dartmouth; 508-990-0505; www.lloydcenter.org) if you’re so inclined, and they can also put you in a sea kayak and teach you how to paddle it in the protected waters of Buzzards Bay. If you want to sit on the sand, however, your ultimate destination is a little farther down the road. The exquisite, curving Horseneck Beach and the even lovelier and child-friendly Demarest Lloyd State Park have long been overshadowed in the public eye by the wunderstrands of Cape Cod and Nantucket, for reasons having nothing to do with the quality of the beaches.
7) The Big Picture
Get back to town before the New Bedford Free Public Library (613 Pleasant Street, 508-991-6275) closes at 5 p.m. and ask the friendly curator, Paul Cyr, to unlock the art room, where there are a handful of luminous works by a local boy named Albert Bierstadt and a massive George Washington portrait that may or may not have been painted by Gilbert Stuart. To help you get in a historical mood, crane your neck up in the rotunda at the collection of whaling images by Clifford Warren Ashley. (Be sure to call ahead to make sure Mr. Cyr is available.)
8 ) Candlelight and Catwalks
Take an early evening stroll to see the Nathan and Mary Johnson House at 21 Seventh Street, where in 1838 a certain fugitive changed his name to Frederick Douglass (“Here in New Bedford,” he wrote, “it was my good fortune to see a pretty near approach to freedom on the part of the colored people”). Then proceed to the Candleworks, above, (72 North Water Street, 508-997-1294) and take your table. The restaurant is in what used to be a factory for whale-oil candles, and it has long had a reputation as the best dining New Bedford has to offer. Could be: both the atmosphere and the menu are fine and reliable examples of old-school elegance. May we suggest the scallops Mediterranean, served with artichoke hearts and roasted bell peppers ($19.95). Afterward, the rooftop of the Catwalk Bar and Grille (34 Union Street, 508-994-3355) might lure you with its promise of a nightcap under the night sky while a southwest breeze wafts in off the bay. The band, like the scallops at dinner, will be local.
9) Fair Thee Well
Fairhaven, just across the Acushnet River from New Bedford and settled around 1660, much earlier than New Bedford, is well worth a visit before leaving the area. The streets of the Poverty Point neighborhood, above, are lined with houses dating back to the 18th and early 19th centuries. In 1843, the first Japanese person known to have lived in North America arrived in Poverty Point on a whaling ship that was partly owned by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s maternal grandfather, who lived in town. In the 1890’s in the Point, Joshua Slocumb built the Spray, a 36-foot sloop in which he became the first to sail around the world solo. Now that’s the kind of history you can sink your teeth into. For lunch, sink into the pan-seared scallops for $10.99 at Margaret’s (16 Main Street, 508-992-9942), a cheerful place that yachties from all over know is worth a voyage to Fairhaven all on its own.
New Bedford’s airport is locally famous for having graveyards at both ends of a runway, but it serves only Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Otherwise, the closest commercial airports are in Providence, about 25 minutes away, or Boston, about an hour away. Starting July 1, you can take a ferry from Montauk, N.Y., via Block Island, R.I. (631-668-5700, www.vikingfleet.com).
For accommodations, consider one of the many bed-and-breakfasts in grand old homes. The Davenport House Bed & Breakfast is in a 1912 Jacobethan Revival-style home with a generous porch and deck (124 Cottage Street; 508-999-1177; www.davenporthouseb2b.com); rooms are $75 to $125.
Captain Haskell’s Octagon House (347 Union Street,508-999-3933; www.theoctagonhouse.com) is Victorian through and through, and welcomes pets; $80 to $165.
Across the river in Fairhaven, the elegant Edgewater Bed & Breakfast (2 Oxford Street; 508-997-5512; www.rixsan.com/edgewater) dates back to 1760. It has water views and four-poster beds; $90 to $145.
For the B & B-averse, the New Bedford Days Inn (500 Hathaway Road 508-997-1231; www.daysinn.com) is as charming as Days Inns everywhere; $89.
Rick Friedman for The New York Times
Published: May 26, 2006 By PAUL SCHNEIDER