Forget Cape Cod, says James Dean – visit serene Cape Ann, the New England setting where Manchester By The Sea was shot
Salt hits the back of my throat. As I step out of my car, I suck deeper on the icy sea air. Freezing waves crash below me as I gaze out towards the Atlantic from Gloucester, an old fishing settlement on the New England coast, while the sun slowly drops below the horizon.
In the distance is the glimmer of the Eastern Point lighthouse, the last sight of home for many Gloucester fishermen before they sailed into the vastness of the ocean. Dotted around the harbour are small wooden houses from which fishermen’s wives would look anxiously into the bay.
Fishing has run thick in the blood of Gloucester since English settlers arrived in 1623. The city – the oldest seaport in America – is on Cape Ann, which juts into the Atlantic just north of Boston. Across the Cape, stretched over some of the most beautiful coastline in America, are working fishing towns, beaches of white sand, marshes, old colonial buildings and, of course, bucketloads of fresh seafood.
In the winter, with the fishermen at rest, the pace of life slows to match the region’s calm, understated beauty. This is perhaps the reason that Manchester By The Sea, the brooding drama and recent Oscar-winner starring Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, was filmed here in the winter months. Although the movie (most of which was filmed in Gloucester) follows the lives of a working-class family,
Manchester-by-the-Sea itself, which lies to the west of Gloucester, is unabashedly wealthy. Just off the main road are $14-million mansions with great sea views
When outsiders think of the Massachusetts coastline, we think of the dreamy panoramas of Cape Cod. Indeed, most Bostonites head south to the sand dunes and salty air whenever they take a break from the city. If Cape Cod and its quaint little villages possess a special kind of serene beauty, so does the lesser-known Cape Ann. And with fewer tourists, Cape Ann – unlike Cape Cod – stays in character.
To get a daytime view of Gloucester’s handsome harbour, I ventured round the coast to Rocky Neck, an old artists’ colony. Here, white picket fences line the façades of rickety wood-slatted houses, daubed in bright shades of pink, blue and orange. Sailor Stan’s café, perched on an island in the middle of the road, mixes every shade into a vibrant melange of colour and fish murals. Many of the homes, some of which date back to the 1700s, are now ice-cream parlours, cafés and art galleries.
Good Harbor Beach, to the east of Gloucester, is one of the best in New England, a stunning expanse of white sand bordered by dunes and marshes. In the summer the beach is home to surfers, bodyboarders and divers. In winter it is deserted save for a few dog walkers dressed in big coats and wrapped in scarves.
The sea views are spectacular too from the Beauport Hotel where I stayed, built on the spot where Clarence Birdseye founded his frozen-fish empire in 1923. It’s at the base of Gloucester Harbor, not far from the charming Harborview Inn, whose six cosy rooms offer views of Rocky Neck.
It would have been a disservice to Captain Birdseye to eat anything other than Cape Ann seafood, so that’s what I did. The sushi chefs at Latitude 43, on Rogers Street, carved me a huge platter of tender sashimi and spicy California rolls. At Tonno, on Main Street, I followed a fresh tuna tartare with a grilled tuna steak, pink in the middle.
In Essex, which is a short drive up the road, Village Restaurant served a hearty cup of clam chowder. Its baked haddock was stuffed with lightly sweetened cornbread, which soaked up the buttery juices. At Woodman’s on Main Street, I had fried clams, the local speciality, with lobster tails and fries. Lawrence “Chubby” Woodman, the restaurant’s founder, is said to have invented the fried clam here in the summer of 1916, and it has since become a Cape Ann institution.
From Niles Beach, just below Gloucester, I could see Boston’s skyscrapers shimmering in the distance. The city is so close, it makes a great twin break with this little-known part of the coast. It’s just an hour’s drive to explore the historic city centre: the gold-domed Massachusetts State House, the red-bricked Old South Meeting House and the Old State House. From a balcony window here in July 1776 the Declaration of Independence was first read to Bostonians gathered below.
Back in Cape Ann, midway through an evening drive along the coast, a few red rays of sun broke through the trees to my right. It was too good an opportunity to miss. I snuck past rows of upturned canoes onto a private beach to meet a deep red sunset that stretched wide across the bay. Under the bright specks of the evening’s first stars a small fishing boat chugged into view, lights ablaze. And then, for the last time, I sucked deeply on the cold, salty air, bottling it up inside me before taking the long road home.
James Dean/The Sunday Times Travel Magazine/News Licensing