A seasonal getaway to this seaside town offers history and the holidays, all wrapped up together.
By Annie Graves
Oct 24 2018
Abbot Hall, Marblehead’s c. 1877 Romanesque showstopper of a town hall, anchors an aerial view of this coastal village.Photo Credit : Eyal Oren
Up the street, down the street, we wait for snow. To sift like sugar onto these narrow streets that burrow deep into Marblehead. To add a last, quiet layer of decoration to this harbor town that sits so comfortably in deep drifts of history.
Candles flicker behind wavy glass, and colorful houses—like candy sprinkles—grow mellow in the dusk. Streetlamps turn on, minus only their Dickensian lamplighters. Greenery decks the halls of seafarers’ homes, and shoppers crowd the sidewalks, occasionally ducking into Haley’s Wines and Market Café to sample a bit of wine; eyeing thick Barbour jackets at F.L. Woods; checking out the giant giraffe at Mud Puddle Toys. A few blocks beyond the section known as Old Town, restaurant stovetops are fired up and diners settle in. Warm on warm.
The old houses look on, their historic markers nudging us, reminding us that they’re here, too: Ambrose Gale, Fisherman, 1663; Mrs. Ruth Morse, Widow, 1750; Richard Oakes, Quaker Shopkeeper, 1718. Seafarers, shoremen, chandlers, and bakers, they’re all here. Perhaps no other New England town has so many historic houses—300 or so—packed together so tightly that we glimpse a cross-section of centuries at every turn. They pinwheel out from Washington Street, at the heart of Old Town, and meander down State, Mugford, and Hooper streets. Pilgrims from another time. Splendid in their finery, adorned for the season.
An errant flake falls from the sky, the cheeky advance scout, and then another. A sprinkling begins to punctuate the holiday greens, to cap the hundreds of little house plaques, to settle into nooks and crannies and blow against clapboards. A breeze wanders off the harbor, sailing in from across the world, and a handful of boats rock in the silence.
It’s beginning to look a lot like history.
Sooner or later you’ll stumble across a yacht club here—there are at least six—but maybe that’s mandatory when you’ve got a North Shore location on a beautiful harbor, just 17 miles from Boston. A quick scramble up the hill at Crocker Park, with its broad water views (and a guy jumping rocks on his fat-tire bike), confirms why this must be the yachting capital of America and the birthplace of the American Navy. Sure enough, overlooking the harbor there’s a plaque naming the schooners pulled into Revolutionary War service by George Washington. (It was Marblehead men who rowed the general across the Delaware, too.) From here, you can spot the causeway to Marblehead Neck, with its oddly minimalist lighthouse. Waves crash on craggy rocks below us; a rabbit warren of old homes, strung out behind Front Street, has our back.
Cooking “simply, with fresh food, from scratch” is chef Barry Edelman’s credo at 5 Corners Kitchen, and it works. The French/Italian-influenced menu tempted us with oyster and charcuterie appetizers, but the addictively spicy green beans kept us busy until cod with roasted cauliflower and an order of skate floated our way. Baked-while-you-eat apple crisp with homemade cinnamon gelato wordlessly affirmed Edelman’s approach.
At Turtle Cove Bar & Grille, an upscale oasis with a tasty seared tuna, chef-owner Stephane Colinet has pulled off the seemingly impossible: a bustling hot spot where diners can relax, too (the party next to us sipped cocktails in peace for an hour before ordering). Other perfect out-and-about meals: falafel and kibbe rollups at Le Bistro, a cozy Mediterranean boite, and anything from the deli counter at the cavernous marketplace Shubie’s. For a town of 20,000, they dine well.
“Yes,” answers a smiling Nancy Mantilla, when I ask if everyone tells her how beautiful her flower shop is. A one-time pastry chef at the Ritz-Carlton, she now owns Flores Mantilla, purveyor of flowers and garden ornaments (and fine chocolates). It’s a captivating place where Buddhas and angels and frog birdbaths disappear into drifts of greenery.
At French + Italian, owner Aimee Lombardi’s crisp one-of-a-kind shirts hang like artwork, inspiring dreams of passport travels. Across the street, we stepped into Shipshape and were overtaken by a turquoise world strewn with sea urchin salt-and-pepper sets. At F.L. Woods, true sailors and wannabes can pick up a mariner’s jacket or the latest Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book. And we’ll leave the final word on Marblehead shopping to writer Neil Gaiman, whose quote appears on the wall at the excellent Spirit of ’76 Bookstore: “What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore it knows it’s not fooling a soul.”
For almost 50 years, Marblehead’s Christmas Walk—slated this year for November 29 to December 2—has helped families fully immerse themselves in the season. Homes and shops are alive with festive decor, and the many merry activities include caroling, a parade, the town tree lighting, candlelight walks, and, of course, Santa arriving by lobster boat. The gingerbread festival is icing on the cake.
Headquartered in a charming Washington Street cottage, the Marblehead Museum is far more sprawling than it looks, as it encompasses the nearby Jeremiah Lee Mansion and a Civil War museum, too. Upstairs, the new year-round J.O.J. Frost exhibit trains a spyglass on Marblehead’s past via the talents of a local folk artist who began painting in 1922, at the age of 70. Frost depicted his boyhood (at 47 Front Street) and life as a fisherman in colorful, primitive paintings of the harbor and town, and created dramatic seascapes such as The Great Gale of 1846.
Why has no one made a color wheel based on Marblehead’s historic house colors? The palette is unimpeachable—but wait, that is peach (Capt. Thomas Gerry, Mariner, 1735). And the scope appears to be limitless, from pink (Isaac Turner, Joiner, 1719) to buttery yellow (John Kelly, Fisherman, 1699) to blue-gray (Thomas Roads, Mariner, 1700) to deep plum (Joseph Morse, Baker, 1715), and every shade (and trade) in between.
Where to Stay
When Walter Cronkite hitched up his yacht to come ashore, he stayed at the Harbor Light Inn, the elegant former home of Samuel Goodwin (Joiner, 1729) in the middle of Old Town. More recently, Carole King rested her pipes in one of its 20 rooms, many outfitted with Jacuzzis and fireplaces to kill the chill. The vibe is warm, the bar is cool, there are endless nooks to curl up in—and if a storm’s brewing, there’s a chessboard waiting to be fired up. Breakfast is a leisurely delight.
If You Could Live Here
We saw prices ranging from about $250,000 to almost $4 million, but these are the properties that caught our eye: in the historic district, an airy three-bedroom antique with a granite kitchen and exposed beams for $625,000; a bright two-story condo built in 1920 for $279,000; and a pretty Old Town condo with a rooftop deck for $324,900.
To see more photographs from our visit to Marblehead, go to newengland.com/marblehead-2018.