The awkward airport hug dispensed with, my husband and I wave goodbye to our son, watch his first steps toward what promises to be a grand adventure across The Pond. There may or may not have been a few sniffles. Funny how things always seem to get in my eye at times like this.
I remind myself that this will be for real next year when The Kid leaves for college.
Damn. Wouldn’t you know, there’s something in my other eye now.
But Jeff and I come to this parting prepared! Armed with a full itinerary and myriad confirmation numbers, we have our own grand adventure planned. Let’s just say all the lobsters in New England await our arrival with quivering claws!
BOUNCING IN AND OUT OF BEANTOWN:
Boston greets us with crisp, cool air and a bright, shiny morning. A good omen. Piling our bags into our rental Jeep, we dash from the city – for now. We’ll spend some quality time in Beantown on the return trip.
A note about driving in Boston: Everyone seems to have a cautionary tale about Boston drivers. We call jabberwocky! Ain’t nothing we haven’t seen or honked at in Atlanta!
I have a confession. Cape Cod is the foremost reason I planned this entire trip. For I am an unabashed Henry Beston groupie.
Yes, he’s dead. Yes, he was married. As am I. (Married, that is.) But how can you not crush a little on a man who writes, “To see the night sky in all its divinity of beauty, the world beneath it should be lovely, too, else the great picture is split in halves which no mind can ever really weld into a unity of reverence.”
Henry Beston was thirty-seven when he bought fifty acres of duneland on what is currently Nauset Beach, near Eastham, Massachusetts. He had a small two-room cottage built there, which he intended as a vacation home. That was 1925. The following September, he came for a two-week retreat at the cottage. He stayed a year. By himself. An aficionado of nature and artist of words, his book, The Outermost House, is the product of that year, and a classic in American nature writing.
My husband politely ignores my gasp as we roll up to the Inn at the Oaks. A charming B&B built in 1870 (back then it was called the Overlook Inn), it also happens to be where Henry Beston stayed (and wrote!) while his Fo’ Castle was under construction on the beach below.
It hits me: I will be sleeping under the same roof Henry Beston slept under! And writing, too, no doubt.
After checking in, it’s time to explore! We head to Coast Guard Beach where the old Coast Guard station still stands. Henry (I think I’ve earned the right to call him by his first name by now) was good friends with the surfmen stationed there in 1926-27. They invited him to meals, delivered his mail, and stopped in at the Fo’ Castle from time to time to check on him. An admirable lot these men were! Given the 1,000+ shipwrecks along this stretch of coast over the years, their amazing rescue efforts were nothing short of heroic. Henry tells some of their tales in his book.
As we top the hill next to the station, we see Harbor seals bobbing in the shallows ahead. Even at a distance, they’re playful – dodging Jeff’s camera lens just as he snaps the pic!
The sand is course and loose and quite beautiful. A little challenging to tred, though, as we walk the mile north to Nauset Light (another of Henry’s haunts).
Lucky us! Today, and today only, the Lighthouse Preservation Society is offering free tours inside Nauset Light. Does it look familiar? The lighthouse is featured on Cape Cod brand potato chip bags!
Our stomachs growling, we walk back to the car and head for the Friendly Fisherman, a local favorite for seafood, as recommended by the friendly folks at the B&B. They also recommended pairing our food with some local cider made in Provincetown on the northern tip of the Cape.
My head is a little fuzzy from said local cider when we realize we need to hurry over to the bay side of the Cape to catch the sunset at First Encounter Beach. Jeff, being an efficient drinker of beer, is finished with his bottle. Not wanting to hold us up, I make for the car with the remainder of mine. Jeff stares at me aghast.
“At least hold the bottle next to your leg while you walk.”
“You are familiar with open container laws, right?”
“Oh. Yeah. Okay. But it’s not like I’m driving”
Jeff looks doubtful. “Sheesh.”
“I’m not very good at trying to get away with things,” I add.
Minutes later, we pass two cops questioning a motorist they’d stopped. I point at the scene, oblivious to the bottle still clutched in my hand.
“Oh my God! Put that down!”
We look at each other. Then laugh til our sides hurt.
Less than a mile later we stand on the shore of the bay, awestruck by the spectacular visage taking command of the evening sky. Oranges, purples, blues, and reds stretch overhead with a great, colorful sigh. All is still, enveloped in a hush, save for the lazily lapping waves. Breathing, blinking, we do not speak, lest we interrupt the Divine.
Day 2 on Cape Cod finds us strapping on helmets at Little Capistrano Bike Shop. A few minutes and a few turns later, we’re sailing down the Cape Cod Rail Trail toward Nickerson State Park. I use the word sailing because the terrain is quite flat, as you can imagine. Not so much in Nickerson.
While Jeff continues sailing over both hill and dell, I am huffing along in granny-gear, trying not to topple over. (Guess which of us rides more often.) I persevere, red faced and sweaty. A stroller-mom brigade shouts out words of encouragement. I must look downright pathetic. But then…the downhill!
On one particularly thrilling descent, I belt out a high-pitched “wheee!” Unfamiliar with the noise, Jeff calls over his shoulder, “Guess that bird wasn’t too happy with us!” “That wasn’t a bird! It was me!” I call back. He shakes his head, laughing as he pedals away.
After a quick lunch stop in Orleans at the Sparrow Café (If you ever find yourself at the Sparrow, treat yourself to a caramallow. You’ll thank me later.), we ride back to Eastham, turn in our bikes, and drive twenty minutes south to Harwich to see the Cape Cod Lavender Farm.
A total bust.
Not the farm. Our timing. Turns out the lavender doesn’t bloom for another two weeks. Still, it’s a lovely place. We had originally planned to bike here. I’m glad we didn’t; then I’d be both disappointed and in pain!
Returning to Eastham, we stop at the Visitor Center for the National Seashore. Another little Henry Beston tidbit: it was Beston’s The Outermost House that inspired the establishment of the National Seashore. JFK happily signed the bill in 1961. Thanks, Jack!
From the Visitor Center, we hike six miles through woods and marsh, and finally, across the sand to the end of Nauset Spit. A spit, in this context (noun), is simply a finger of land just off the coast, as opposed to something you generally shouldn’t do into the wind (verb).
We watch the hilarious antics of the gulls and terns on the spit. Tis nesting season! Like ventriloquists, we add our own commentary to the unfolding dramas around us until we’re laughing too hard to carry on. I’d say we’re easily amused, but it takes stalwart practice and talent to add voices to erratic animal behavior!
What’s the difference between a gull and a tern, you might ask? In general, gulls have slightly curved, or hooked, beaks, whereas terns tend to have sharp, pointed beaks. Gulls’ legs tend to look longer, too. Terns dive for their dinner, whereas gulls tend to scoop theirs from just below the surface, sometimes hanging out on the water afterward like a duck. Also, a gull is more likely to check out your picnic leftovers, while a tern’s taste tends to be more discerning.
We’re almost back to the old Coast Guard Station when we see it: a Piping Plover! As in, the plover currently on the Endangered Species List! I like to think that was a little gift from Henry.
Back in the car, we drive to Provincetown, which is the northern most point of Cape Cod. We snap a few pics of the Old Harbor Life-Saving Station, take a turn through charming little Provincetown, then return to Henry’s old stomping ground (the B&B) for a hot shower and a well-deserved night’s sleep. Our time in Cape Cod is nearly done, but there’s plenty of adventure ahead!
The next morning, I sit on the porch with a blueberry scone and coffee, studying the colors in the garden before me and doing value sketches in my head. Cadmium yellow – Phthalocyanine blue –Burnt Sienna –a touch of Titanium white for the spent iris stems below the rock wall.
But I don’t stay in my own head for long. A couple from New Jersey with a black lab pup named Hazel return from their morning walk. Hazel is a seeing-eye dog in training they tell me, as Hazel gnaws contentedly on my arm.
Not long after they disappear up the stairs, a young man – a meat cutter from New Bedford, he says proudly − stops by. He is waiting on his wife, for they too are leaving the Cape today. They are expecting their first child, a son, in August. The young man would like to buy a house, but doesn’t want to put down roots where they currently live because of the drugs and crime. He tells me about losing several friends to opioids, how his own cousin died of an overdose the week before the young man’s wedding, and how he wants more for his son. Our conversation turns to Asheville, North Carolina, where he and his wife went for their honeymoon. He seems quite enamored with the south. I smile and nod. I don’t have the heart to tell him there are just as many problems in my part of the country. I guess we all have to do our fair share of running before we realize it’s just best to bloom where you’re planted sometimes.
A note about art. I recently started painting. Acrylics, mainly. Landscapes. I don’t know that it will ever amount to anything, but it restores my sense of wellbeing when I need it most. Naturally, I appreciate art more than ever now, so I was delighted to find works from the Eastham Painters Guild hanging in the common areas of the B&B. I was even more delighted to learn they were for sale. And so…I do a thing. I purchase some art.
Nothing big. Nothing crazy-expensive. But something that, to me, captures the simple beauty of Cape Cod. Mark, one of the innkeepers, wraps the painting in a box that at one time contained a case of yogurt. My husband is concerned about how to get it home safely. I assure him it will share my seat on the plane ride home. He doesn’t roll his eyes. Not while I’m looking, anyway. And from that moment on, the piece is known as My Precious. (If you don’t get the Tolkien reference, well, bless your heart.)
My Precious safely secured in the car, we head to Plymouth, Massachusetts − home of Plymouth Rock. I should probably mention here that I am seldom impressed with things I am supposed to find impressive. Plymouth Rock is no exception. Sorry folks, but it is essentially an underwhelming slab of granite currently residing beneath a Roman-esque enclosure…with trash floating in the water around it.
Identified as “the spot” 121 years AFTER the Mayflower landed, a large shadow of doubt looms over whether or not this particular slab is worthy of its fame. But hey, everyone loves a good myth, right? (I invite you to do your own research on it. You won’t have to go far to find it.)
Also of note – and slightly morbid – in Plymouth is the Pilgrim Sarcophagus, containing the remains of Mayflower Pilgrims who died the first year after their arrival.
And the statue of William Bradford, the English Puritan and Mayflower Pilgrim who became leader of the colony when the original leader, John Carver, died.
Oh, and the memorial to the brave Pilgrim Women! Well-deserved, no doubt!
We scoot on up the coast to Salem to see the Salem Witch Trial Memorial. A little backstory is in order: Back in 1692, two young girls (the daughter and niece of Reverend Samuel Parris) began having strange, mysterious fits. The doctor concluded the girls were the victims of witchcraft. (One wonders how much of this was to cover up his own ineptitude. I don’t know what’s wrong with them, so it must be witchcraft!) The girls played along, of course, and when pressed by the doctor and their parents, named those supposedly responsible: the so-called witches.
It snowballed from there. Other residents began claiming they too were afflicted. Accusations flew back and forth faster than broomsticks until over 150 people – mostly middle-aged women – stood accused of participating in satanic practices. In the end, fourteen women and five men, all innocent, were executed by order of Chief Justice William Stoughton.
Bridget Bishop was the first to be executed. Apparently, by Puritan standards, she was a little on the loose side with her fashion choices, plus, she’d been married a few times. Low-hanging fruit for anyone wishing to be rid of “her kind.”
If you’ve read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, let this sink in for a moment:
We don’t stay long in Salem. Frankly, I am appalled by the commercialization of such a national disgrace. Get your tee-shirt, have your pic taken in the stocks, walk through a witches’ haunted house, visit the “witch sites.” They even have green “Witch City” taxis. Think it would be disgusting if people starting doing “haunted” tours around any of the 9/11 sites? Give ‘em a few hundred years.
Bye, Salem. Can’t say I’m sad to see you in our rearview mirror.
Much, MUCH better! Love this town! Charming, clean, picturesque, and all-around stunning. I can see why the Bush family chose this as their home away from home.
We stop at Walker’s Point and take a pic of their compound and wouldn’t you know, but George H.W. Bush is there! No, I don’t actually see him, but I do know if the Maine, Texas, and American flags are up, the former first family is in residence. (The Secret Service is also somewhat of a giveaway.)
Our stop for the night! Before we run out of sunlight, we drive to Fort Williams Park to see the famous Portland Head Lighthouse – the most photographed lighthouse in the country. It did not disappoint.
Running my hands over the rough surface of the core, I think back to my childhood, to a time when I thought lighthouses were just somewhere else, somewhere I’d never get to go. Life is full of surprises, isn’t it?
The rocks below the lighthouse almost look like petrified wood, but they are alternating layers of quartzite and dark gray phyllite.
From here, we can see three other lighthouses:
Of course I take a turn sitting on the rock where Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is said to have sat for inspiration. I’m always up for a dose of inspiration, after all!
After a long day of driving, pizza is in order! We pull in to an adorable little service station-turned-pizzeria called Otto’s, order a couple of locally brewed beers, and toast to a day worth remembering.
BAR HARBOR/ACADIA NATIONAL PARK:
Between the lush swaths of lupine and an apparent billboard ban, I-95 offers up a beautiful drive all the way to Acadia National Park.
Parking under a quaking aspen, we start down the Jordan Pond Trail. A perfect day. Not a cloud in the sky as a firm breeze bunches up the surface of the clear water.
We stop to watch frogs, writhing groups of tadpoles, a garter snake, and to admire the handiwork of the local beavers.
Jeff scales up South Bubble Mountain while I scope out the wildflower offerings.
By the time we reach the end of the trail, it’s time to drive in to Bar Harbor and check in at the Holbrook House, a gorgeous B&B run by innkeepers Eric and Michelle. We’re staying in the newly renovated Seafarer’s Room and it’s lovely!
Heading to the center of town to scout out a proper lobster dinner, we stop at the sand bar leading from Bar Harbor to Bar Island. During low tide, which it just happens to be, it is possible to walk between the two. Among the periwinkle clam shells and assorted rocks, we spot a tiny starfish.
Bar Harbor is lovely. Sadly, it’s starting to get overrun with tourists, thanks in part to the cruise ships that have started docking here. But still…
Dinner is at West Street Café: Sautéed lobster, baked potato, and cole slaw. The food was heavenly! The service, not so much.
On our way home, we score some dessert to go (blueberry pie for me, thanks!) and spend a little quality time in the rocking chairs on the front porch of the Holbrook House.
We sleep through the rain the next morning, but make it downstairs in time for Michelle’s extraordinary blueberry pancakes. It’s twenty degrees cooler today, but good enough for a hike!
Checking the tides, we determine we’d better get to the Thunder Hole on Ocean Path sooner rather than later. If all the conditions are met and the stars in the cosmos in perfect alignment, air will get trapped in a cavern beneath one of the boulders as the tide comes in, bursting forth with a sound very much like thunder. On this particular day, the stars are clearly not aligned. No matter. The view is gorgeous with or without sound effects.
We climb the Beehive next. I should clarify for those not familiar with it, that it is most definitely not a beehive, only shaped like one. And for those who are familiar with it, we chose the trail up the back, not the straight-up-the-cliff route. Give me a break. I climbed Half Dome in Yosemite last year. I don’t have to prove my bad-assedness anymore. Besides, my knees asked me not to.
From there, we hiked to The Bowl, which was basically a pond surrounded by mountains and boasting a rather impressive beaver hut in the center. The song of a Black-throated Green Warbler accompanies us, just as it has pretty much everywhere we’ve been on this trip!
Back up we go to more breathtaking views, this time via the Gorham Trail.
We finish the hike, but we’re not finished exploring this astounding national park! Winding our way around Somes Sound and past Southwest Harbor, we come to the end of the land – marked by Bass Harbor Lighthouse. I’m loving all these lighthouses! Like people, they come in all shapes and sizes, some more weathered than others.
We stumble into a delightful Irish pub back in Bar Harbor for dinner. In honor of our son’s travels, of course. And the Guinness. Afterward it’s time to hit the proverbial hay. Our alarm is set for 3:40 a.m. (Yes, you read that right.)
At 4:06 the next morning we creep out of the B&B to catch sunrise atop Cadillac Mountain. At certain times of the year, it is the first point in the continental U.S. to be touched by the sun’s rays. This is particularly special to us because we have an agreement with our son: we’ll wave at him from New England the moment those first rays hit (4:46 a.m. our time) and he’ll wave back from “Olde” England (surreptitiously, no doubt) at 9:46 a.m. his time. We’re silly and sentimental like that.
The very top of Cadillac Mountain is covered with fog, so we, along with a hundred of our “closest friends” park along the side of the road where we all perch, cameras in gloved hands. A lone White-throated Sparrow coaxes the sleepy eye of the sun open. A glorious daybreak, albeit marrow-chilling cold.
By 5:30, we’re pretty much the only people on Cadillac. With a dismissive shrug, we set off exploring the summit, quite pleased with ourselves when we find the elusive summit marker. (Incidentally, Cadillac Mountain is not named for the car, but for the French explorer, Antoine Laumet de la Mothe, Sieur de Cadillac. Might come in handy next time you play Trivial Pursuit.)
Back at the B&B, we’re met by the Holbrook House dog, a little cotton ball with legs named Pookah. Eric tells me it’s an old Gaelic word for mischievous. I don’t know about mischievous, but Pookah is pretty down with the belly rubs.
After a hearty breakfast of Monte Christo sandwiches, we’re back on the road. This time to the Acadia National Park Visitors Center so that Jeff can add more stamps to his National Park passport book. By lunchtime, we’re bumming around Bar Harbor again, killing time before our 1:15 nature cruise, which turns out to be a big ole bucket of awesome!
Well, perhaps I should qualify that statement.
The truth is, the ocean is choppy. Angry might be a better adjective. Okay, downright diabolical, if it pleases the pedants reading this. Because within the first ten minutes of our three and a half hour cruise, everyone seated on the starboard side of the boat is baptized by full immersion. Or looks like they have been, anyway. We laugh it off as a rogue wave. Such is the wisdom of landlubbers.
BUT…the big ole bucket of awesome comes later in the form of PUFFINS and Razorbills and Eiders – OH MY!! All firsts on my birding life list! Add in the gray seals, harbor seals, and a lighthouse, and voila! A HUGE bucket of awesome!
By the return trip, the winds have picked up, sending sheets of water across both bow and stern of the tiny vessel. Everyone crowds into the hull, about twenty-five us in a space made for fifteen. The man to my left suddenly runs for the door – water be damned – his face growing greener with each step. Next up with her offering to the sea is the woman seated to my right. (I am starting to get a complex.) Across the way, a woman stands, then folds like she’s been kicked in the stomach. She’s trying to make for the door in that position when another “rogue” wave crashes against the boat, slamming the poor woman’s head against the wall. Somehow she makes it outside. Jeff is seated near the center. He looks questioningly over his shoulder at me. I nod. I’m fine. For now.
So, yeah. A big ole bucket of awesome! For which the courageous crew earned a big ole tip!
Getting our land legs back, we venture back into town for our final Bar Harbor dinner. Translation: Gotta get a lobster roll!! Stewman’s Lobster Pound it is!
Boston bound, baby! We’re up at the crack of dawn, which, for the record, isn’t so painful when the sun is already up.
By 11:30, we’re standing in front of Cheers (as in, the classic sitcom from the 1980s and early 90s) having our picture taken by a British couple. We’re all there for the same thing: a beer and a burning desire to see if everyone knows our name. They don’t, of course, but it’s still a fun place to eat. The inside is nothing like the set used for the show, but there’s still a bar, ample seating, and no one judges if you suddenly blurt out, “Norm!”
After consuming beer before noon on a Saturday, we march across Boston Common, past the swan cruises, the ducks, the street musicians, and the laughing children, to the start of the Freedom Trail. Marked with a narrow brick path, the Freedom Trail is two and a half miles long, with sixteen historically significant points along the way. Pretty cool in theory. In reality, it’s…well…kind of a letdown.
Here’s the rub: I’m not a big fan of the whole “nickle-and-dime” routine. (Funny, that’s exactly how the patriots felt about all those taxes England tried to cram down their throats.) Of the sixteen historical stops along the Freedom Trail, three charge admission, two expect a donation (and watch for it like they’re taking names), one isn’t even a site anymore (Chipotle, anyone?), one has a 20-minute wait to go through security, and at one a man thrusts a worn yellow folder into my hands containing information he’s printed from some Google searches, as well as a pocket in which one is expected to leave a donation when returning the folder (same exit as entrance, and the dude parks himself in the middle of it like a seedy bar bouncer – quite the racket, as I see numerous yellow folders floating through the crowd). The other stops are interesting, but fairly unremarkable. In short, Washington, D.C. this is not.
As far as cities go, I can take or leave Boston. I’m not particularly impressed, nor am I particularly disgusted. It was just kind of…I don’t know…meh. That said, here are some of the sights from the Freedom Trail:
And that’s all I really have to share about my time in Boston.
Tonight, in the quiet of our hotel room, we reflect on our New England adventure. Cape Cod and Acadia National Park (and by extension, Bar Harbor) tie for our favorite stops. We’d also like to spend more time exploring both Kennebunkport and Kennebunk. Come to think of it, Portland was pretty, too. As for Boston, we can at least say we’ve been here, and that we walked the Freedom Trail.
But our biggest takeaway from this New England adventure?
This empty nest thing might not be so bad after all.