- 15 September 2010
- Filed under
Mara VorheesLonely Planet author
From the moment the Pilgrims stepped ashore at Plymouth Rock, this area was on the map – both geographically and historically. Today, the towns surrounding Boston include destinations that represent some of the most poignant pieces of the nation’s history.
The new nation was a seafaring one, amassing great wealth from ship-building, whaling, fishing and maritime trade. These industries were based in towns including Salem and Gloucester, which remember their heydays with national historic parks.
Not that the region around Boston is living in the past. Today these satellites of the Hub have lively art scenes, including the world famous Peabody Essex Museum in Salem and the Rocky Neck artist colony in Gloucester. Miles of pristine coastline draw beachcombers and sunbathers (not to mention piping plovers). Hikers and bikers, canoeists and kayakers, bird-watchers and whale-watchers will have myriad opportunities to engage in the active lifestyle.
So get on the bus, catch a train, rent a car or saddle up your bike. But by all means, get out of town.
A day will allow you to explore Salem, located 20 miles northeast of Boston, at a leisurely pace. Salem burned itself an infamous place in history with the 1692 hysteria that put innocent people to death for witchcraft.
Indeed, Salem goes out of its way to celebrate its rather grim history at Halloween. However, throughout the rest of the year, witchy memorabilia likes to seep from the cracks onto the tourist trail and from old Salem abodes.
There’s a coven of witch museums around town, including the Peabody Essex Museum, which houses 552 original documents on the Salem witch trial. Witch House itself is also an excellent example of 17th-century architecture in America. The House of the Seven Gables was made famous in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 novel, which brings to life the gloomy Puritan atmosphere of early New England.
The witch phenomena obscure Salem’s true claim to fame: its glory days as a centre for the clipper-ship trade with China; its preeminent trader, Elias Derby, became America’s first millionaire. The Salem Maritime National Historic Site comprises the custom house, the wharves and the other buildings along Derby St that are remnants of this thriving shipping industry. Many Salem vessels followed the route around the Cape of Good Hope, and the East India Marine Society was founded here. The company’s charter required the establishment of a museum ‘to house the natural and artificial curiosities’ brought back by member ships.
The collection was the basis for the Peabody Essex Museum that subsequently also reflects Salem’s rich maritime history. The museum was founded upon the art, artefacts and curios collected by Salem traders during their early expeditions to the Far East. As the exhibits attest, they had deep pockets and refined taste. In addition to world-class Chinese and Pacific Island displays, the museum boasts a fine Native American collection.
Salem and many of the western townships beyond are characterised by pretty church steeples and ancient oak trees that give them a stateliness that belies the drama that occurred centuries ago. Located north-west of Boston and suitable for another day trip are the townships of Lexington and Concord. A short distance apart, the towns have historic greens where the revolution’s first battles took place, a momentous event that is reenacted every year on Patriots’ Day (19 April). This history is celebrated and preserved, but it is a stark contrast to the peaceful, even staid, community of Lexington today.
To trace the events leading to the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775, travellers can follow patriot and cult historical figure Paul Revere’s famous ride to Lexington, where the revolution’s first battle broke out. Continue another six miles along the Battle Rd to Concord, where the feisty colonists were able to beat back the Redcoats.
There are a string of museums along Lexington Rd, southeast of Concord centre, including the homes of local authors Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louisa May Alcott. The Concord Museum contains an enormous collection of Henry David Thoreau artefacts. All of these literary figures rest in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. End the day by following in Thoreau’s footsteps to Walden Pond, a serene spot surrounded by acres of forest.
See more of New England with Lonely Planet’s Trips guide.