It happens often as you drive around Cape Ann, the rocky headland jutting into the Atlantic 30 miles north of Boston. You round a corner or crest a hill and wham! — suddenly you’ve driven into a painting. It’s something about the way the light refracts off the ocean on all sides, making ship masts and fish shacks seem to glow from within. It’s something about the natural beauty of the water crashing onto the granite. But most of all, it’s about the power of suggestion — since artists have painted Cape Ann so often, there’s barely an inch of it that hasn’t been memorialized in oil or watercolor, making a visit seem a kind of perpetual scenic déjà vu.
Artists “discovered” the cape’s natural beauty in the early 19th century, when they founded the country’s first artists’ colony on Rocky Neck in Gloucester as well as a smaller colony in the seaside village of Rockport. Setting up their canvases in the open air, they painted the brawny backs of fishermen unloading cod from their catch on the nearby rich fishing grounds of Stellwagen Bank, or weathered schooners that had been setting out for generations to hunt for swordfish.
What makes Cape Ann unique is that both artists and fishermen are still here. Unlike some Cape Cod enclaves that see legions of cocoa butter-toting tourists descend every Memorial Day only to seemingly close shutters in October, Cape Ann’s towns are year-round communities, with trawlers steaming out of the harbor before dawn and artisans painting and sculpting in the coves. Along the streets of Gloucester today, the briny smell of fish mingles with the smell of fried seafood, and shrieking gulls wheel over a harbor crowded with fishing boats.
In a whitewashed brick building a block off Main Street, the Cape Ann Historical Museum shows off 40 of the luminous canvases of native son Fitz H. Lane, who captured the unique glow of Cape Ann light perhaps better than anyone. After perusing three floors of Cape Ann artwork by the likes of cape artists Winslow Homer, William Morris Hunt, and Stuart Davis, take a trip down to Rocky Neck, which has survived as a place where artists make art amid boatyards and dock pilings. “Somehow it has been able to remain a viable art colony,” says former museum associate curator Jim Craig. “It hasn’t gone to schlockville or become haunted by tourists.” Among the galleries perched on the waterfront is the Goetemann Gallery, where Gordon Goetemann produces dark, brooding canvases abstracted from the forms of the rocky coastline, and his wife, Judith, works with batik on cotton to produce translucent images of herons in flight and seagulls perched on the dock. Cape Ann Artisans produces a guide to other back-road artists’ studios, such as that of Judith Wright, perched above the crashing waves of Ipswich Bay, the perfect inspiration for her delicate inlaid-mosaic tables of fish and birds.
To find inspiration yourself, head to Rockport’s Halibut Point State Park, at the north tip of the cape, where hiking trails wend among sheets of granite plunging down to the ocean below. From the top of an old fire tower, visitors can gaze out over the ocean, past the Isles of Shoals in New Hampshire all the way to the southern coast of Maine.
In contrast to working-class Gloucester, the village of Rockport has always been home to the well-to-do, with a riot of Colonial homes tumbling down hilly streets and scattered plaques paying homage to former inhabitants with names such as “Ephraim” and “Caleb.” Many of the old homes have been reinvented as bed-and-breakfasts, including The Inn on Cove Hill, a spotless Georgian captain’s home with original pumpkin-pine floorboards in the entryway and rooms filled with lace-covered canopy beds. “The house has been standing here so long, and I think of all the storms it has weathered,” innkeeper Betsy Eck says.
Rockport once had its own art colony on Bearskin Neck, which has since been overrun with high-priced galleries and T-shirt shops. It’s worth taking a walk out to the end, however, for cinematic crashes of waves on the breakwater and a glimpse of what might be the world’s most famous fish shack. A vermilion structure festooned with nets and lobster buoys, the building was dubbed “Motif No. 1” for the frequency with which it was painted by early art students. It’s since become a virtual symbol of Rockport — so much so that after it washed out to sea during a blizzard 29 years ago, town fathers quietly built an exact replica in its place on Bradley Wharf. (Perhaps it should be called “Motif No. 2”?)
West of Gloucester, you’ll find the little town of Essex, a former shipbuilding center on the Essex River that supplied all of those schooners that made the cape’s fishing industry famous. At its height in the mid-1800s, the village launched a ship a week from its yards, with whole families scrambling from vessel to vessel to lay keels, steam planks, and caulk seams in what might be considered one of the first assembly lines. “It’s a story of Yankee ingenuity and cooperation,” says Tom Ellis, president of the Essex Shipbuilding Museum, which now occupies one of the former shipyards. One of the last historic Essex schooners sits picturesquely on stocks in the yard, while up the hill, a dusty schoolhouse displays a collection of tools, ship models, and photographs. Not that shipbuilding here is a thing of the past. A decade ago, Ellis sold his antiques business to build a two-masted schooner, the Thomas E. Lannon, right in the museum yard and now gives schooner tours out of Gloucester Harbor.
Essex’s modern claim to fame is as the birthplace of the fried clam, invented in 1916 when Lawrence “Chubby” Woodman spontaneously dropped a bivalve into a kettle of potato chip oil. Salt-covered beachgoers still stop by Woodman’s of Essex to squeeze into wooden booths and dip breaded-to-order clam bellies into homemade tartar sauce. Another local favorite is the Portside Chowder House on Rockport’s Bearskin Neck, which dishes out steaming cups of clam chowder and local swordfish steaks grilled with Cajun seasoning from a vantage overlooking the water.
Not all of the food on Cape Ann comes with a view, however. Despite its location perched above Rocky Neck, the intimate Duckworth’s Bistrot has no windows facing the harbor. That’s a clue to the emphasis here, which is all on the food. The menu runs to classic bistro fare such as fresh salade Niçoise with seared yellowfin tuna and savory roasted-garlic red wine dressing, and Black Angus rib eye topped with a flavorful wild-mushroom sauce. The restaurant is the child of chef Ken Duckworth, formerly of Boston’s acclaimed Maison Robert. In keeping with his love of experimentation, all of the entrées are available as half portions so diners can mix and match according to their own creative desires.
After all, inspiration comes in many forms.