By Mary Greendale, Michelle Carr Photography
Call Me Ishmael. You remember the book that opens with that line, don’t you?
It’s from the classic story of Moby-Dick, the harrowing and yet romantic voyage of man battling nature, in this case a whale. The book was penned by Herman Melville, presumably based on his own trip aboard a whaler bound for the Pacific Ocean from New Bedford MA, in 1841. Today in the well-preserved Historic District of the “Whaling City,” you will find many references to the man and the book. (Melville himself wrote a charming account of one of the neighborhoods that you can read at the Web site noted below).
I really like New Bedford.
The city gained its prominence as a leader in whaling during the 19th century and is today the nation’s number one fishing port. If your family enjoys history, period architecture, the ocean, oh, or whales, head to South Coast i.e. the seacoast that runs from Wareham (this side of the Cape Cod Canal) to Rhode Island. You’ll find the world’s biggest model ship in New Bedford, and you can even climb on it.
The Historic District is on the side of a hill that stretches to the waterfront. I accessed it from Purchase Street. The narrow streets are cobbled; the period buildings are close together because people used every inch of real estate available here in the 1800s. The gas-styled street lighting has no overhead wires to interfere with views of the harbor. Visitors are thrust back into the days when whaling created prosperity for some and extraordinary risks for others, and I could almost feel those days as I stood alone in this well-preserved neighborhood on a quiet weekday.
In the midst of the neighborhood, on Johnny Cake Hill, stands the Whaling Museum, which is where the ship model is housed. All around are shops that offer antiques, nautical gear and decorative items, clothing and some of the usual souvenir opportunities. And of course, food. I stopped at the Celtic Coffee House located on North Water Street in a great Greek Revival building and found Portuguese Kale Soup, a personal favorite.
Rising from the harbor, the styles of homes become more lavish the higher up you go. Some of them are staggering in their size and beautiful detailing. At the bottom of the hill, it is different. This was the working area, the places where the crews of whalers crammed into apartments between voyages. The building designs transported me; I was uninterrupted by other people and could allow my imagination to flow.
Scott Street runs along the bottom of the hill. It has a few painted brick and stucco buildings housing small pubs that looked like Charles Dickens’ England, and I could almost hope to see a whaleman stumble out. Unfortunately, modern civilization has separated the street and the Historic District from the harbor by Route 18. But it’s worth crossing Rt. 18 (at the safely lighted intersection) to access the working state fish pier, the Waterfront Visitors’ Center, Harbor Tours and a ferry to Martha’s Vineyard.
There are many other treasures inside the Historic and Waterfront Districts that you can read about on the Tourism website. The sights are densely-packed. If you head out of the District and go Downtown (which is really Up-town since it is up the hill), you’ll find many more restaurants, official government buildings, a fire museum, art museum, stores and the Zeiterion Theater, which is fully restored from the Vaudeville Era and is home to the New Bedford Symphony and many other performances from around the world. zeiterion.org (Weird Al Yankovic was scheduled in June so you know the offerings are eclectic.)
At the west side of the city is Buttonwood Park Zoo where the city has created a “Berkshires to the Sea” park that provides a natural history of the wildlife and habitat of Massachusetts, including brown bears, bald eagles and harbor seals. There are also creatures not from here, like Bison and Asian elephants, and they have a farm area with an array of Old MacDonald’s animals. They created an American Livestock Breeds Conservancy in 1977 to preserve the older, less specialized breeds of animals to make sure that they do not become extinct. bpzoo.org
This city is the site of the world’s largest celebration of the Portuguese, the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament, July 29-August 1 (portuguesefeast.com). If you have never been to an ethnic event like this, you are missing a slice of culture (and slices of desserts!) that are really delightful. The music, the food, the party atmosphere, the spirit and pride for their native land all blend to provide charming fun for a family. I have enjoyed many such events in my life. New Bedford’s offers a one-of-a-kind celebration in a city that offers much to see and savor.
Depending on your travel route into the city, you will perhaps pass through the area that is more impoverished. Like all urban areas (population of the city is 100,000), this one has its social challenges, but their worst are a far cry better than many of the cities I have visited. Even along the streets with less affluent homes, you find charming architecture typical of the 20th century, and some have been well-maintained.
New Bedford is a real working city. It offers diverse cultures, fabulous history, arts and entertainment and sights, and it is all arranged in a comfortably-sized city that feels safe and pleasant. South Coast is a delightful region that is less traveled, but offers seashore, the beautiful Horseneck Beach in Dartmouth, an active farming community, cranberry bogs, history and architecture that span the many eras from the Pilgrims to today, ethnic foods, museums and sights all along the way. It’s a good daytrip or weekend with something for every age group.
Mary Greendale is a Holliston-based freelance writer. (Michelle Carr Photography is based in New Bedford.)
Start your quest for information about activities and sights at the tourism page at newbedford-ma.gov/Tourism/Welcomes/Welcome.htm.
July 1, 2010