Historic and Heritage Travel in New England

  • Leave a Comment
  • Max 5 stars
    My Rating
    (0 Ratings)
Historic and Heritage Travel in New England. Join author Christopher Kenneally in exploring his home territory of New England from a historic and literary perspective.

New England Travel, Walden PondNEW ENGLAND, USA -- In 1636, the Massachusetts General Court -- a gathering of stern Puritan oligarchs led by John Winthrop -- voted to "give £400 toward a schoale or college." That same day, the legislature also forbade the sale of lace for garments, except for "binding or small edging laces."

Whatever we think today of the Puritans' severe taste in fashion, their commitment to education was hardly trifling --  £400 represented one-quarter of the entire Massachusetts Bay Colony's tax levy for 1636. Two years later, New England's first college opened in Cambridge on the north bank of the Charles River. It was named for John Harvard, a recently deceased Boston minister, who on his deathbed had bequeathed the school half his estate (at  £1,700, a princely sum for those days) and all of his books.

New England Travel, Walden Pond, MassachusettsNearly four centuries may have passed, but many New Englanders would recognize in John Harvard's generous gesture a love of learning that makes the region thoroughly distinctive. This scholarly spirit has given America and the world revolutionary advancements in technology, as well as profound insights on human nature. New Englanders can claim as their own inventions everything from the telephone and the Internet to the "educational" games of Milton Bradley. And native talent like Ralph Emerson, David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller forged from the Yankee principles of personal liberty and free inquiry the fundamentals of new religions and new philosophies that we call today "civil disobedience" and "feminism."

Literature and Learning For Tourists
Apart from parents who accompany their children to dozens, if not hundreds, of schools and universities scattered across the six-state area, literature and learning attracts a special sort of visitor to New England. They seek mostly simple pleasures here, and they find them easily enough -- not only in libraries and museums, but also at the seashore, along mountain trails, and in carefully-tended gardens.

Even as the nearly 50-year-old Freedom Trail undergoes renovations and improvements, the Boston History Collaborative has inaugurated a new "literary trail" for visitors that ventures 20 miles from the palatial confines of the Boston Athenaeum, a privately-own "independent library" whose collection includes volumes from George Washington's own library, to the serenity of Walden Pond. About a dozen other trail sites include Orchard House, in Concord, where Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women, and the Longfellow National Historic Site, located in Cambridge a short walk from Harvard Square.

Walden Pond
In summer, the outdoor museum that is Walden Pond can become rather overwhelmed with bathers, making it difficult to share the solitude Thoreau found there. Living for two years on property Emerson owned at Walden, Thoreau sought "to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

Few writers have ever made more of their own idiosyncratic behavior than Henry David Thoreau, an eccentric Harvard graduate who began living at Walden Pond in a log cabin in 1845. Thoreau could shape a point of principle from his smallest quirk. In this way, he achieved a kind of offbeat heroism that owes nothing to achievement or victory and everything to strength of inner character. "The greater part of what my neighbors call good, I believe in my soul to be bad" wrote Thoreau, "and if I repent of anything, it is likely to be my good behavior."

Shortly after his college graduation, Thoreau met Ralph Waldo Emerson, a fellow citizen of Concord and leader of the Transcendentalists. At Emerson's suggestion, Thoreau began to write, mostly essays on his experiences in nature that were first published in The Dial by editor Margaret Fuller. While still living at Walden, he made the first of three important excursions to northern Maine, recounted in the posthumous collection The Maine Woods.

Even a century and half ago, when it might have seemed that the primeval forest was eternal, Thoreau recognized that it was vulnerable, and that in its destruction far more was lost than the trees. "The Anglo-American can indeed cut down, and grub up all this waving forest, and make a stump speech, and vote for Buchanan [i.e., President James Buchanan, a Democrat who opposed abolition and was, therefore, a pariah to the anti-slavery Thoreau] on its ruins," he keened, "but he cannot converse with the spirit of the tree he fell, he cannot read the poetry and mythology which retires as he advances. He ignorantly erases mythological tablets in order to print his handbills and town-meeting warrants on them."

In Maine, Thoreau paddled in an Indian-made birch canoe across Moosehead Lake, New England's largest inland body of water. The region is still remote today and undeveloped enough to have spawned an ecotourism industry (plan for a seven hours' drive from Boston to Greenville; three hours from Portland).

Waterborne "Moose Safaris," for example, offer the opportunity to sight the grandest game of the Pleistocene -- a mature bull moose can weigh more than 1,500 pounds and stand well over six feet at the shoulders. In May and June this year, the Moosehead Lake Region Chamber of Commerce will celebrate "MooseMainea" with educational program as well as mountain bike and canoe races.

The State of Maine's other signature creature, of course, is homarus americanus, the lobster. Few meals are as simple in the preparation (if occasionally somewhat difficult in the consumption) as boiled lobster. Traps stacked high at the edge of a pier in Cape Porpoise testified last summer to the continuing importance of the traditional fishing industry throughout Maine.

Only a short ride from busy Kennebunkport, Cape Porpoise has remained relatively uncommercialized, probably owing to its position at the end of a peninsula. A lighthouse and seaside chowder house set the scene, but the ocean clearly continues there as a source of sustenance, and has not become merely a backdrop. Hanging at the bottom of the bell tower in the town's white clapboard Methodist church were an array of colorful buoys, each one painted with the identifying markings of families who make up the congregation.

{pagebreak} In Search of a Literary Chowder
In Melville's Moby Dick, Ishmael ventures with Queequeg to the island of Nantucket to find work aboard a whaler. Before shipping out on the Pequod, the pair grow fond of the local specialty, clam chowder: "Oh, sweet friends! Hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with salt and pepper."

Queequeg carried his harpoon whenever he went fishing, but guests of The Wauwinet, the island's most exclusive resort, can get along with just wading boots and gloves. On a morning-long "Taste of Nantucket" cruise aboard the Wauwinet Lady, the captain will make stops between bird-watching and nature viewing for passengers to dig for scallops and clams, or even haul up lobster traps. Later the same night, Wauwinet chef Christopher Freeman will serve your "catch of the day" prepared from his own recipes.

The 30-room Wauwinet lies on the northeast end of the island, near the Great Point Wildlife Preserve. Innkeeper Russ Cleveland is co-founder and president of the Nantucket Green Fund, and has proudly styled himself an environmental innovator. The Wauwinet's sprawling grass lawns were recently converted to white clover, eliminating need for any fertilizer and herbicide; in addition, the inn has also closed its on-premise laundry for water savings. Several times a week, Cleveland even leads tours of the nature reserve via four-wheel drive jeep.

History Comes Alive at Cape Ann
Of all areas in New England settled by English colonists, only Plymouth has a longer history than Cape Ann, on the North Shore of Boston. In 1623, the Dorchester Company under Roger Conant established a fishing post at what is now Gloucester. The first hardy English fishermen have long since been supplanted by equally hardy Italians and Portuguese. Sadly, overfishing of once plentiful stock of cod and flounder has endangered their livelihood. Its commercial link with the sea may be loosening, but Cape Ann has not lost hold on those seeking contact with the water to be found at the end of a pier lined with galleries and restaurants.

In Essex, travelers can step off the pier for a 90-minute ride on a peaceful river barge that meanders through salt marshes and briefly, into the open sea. Egrets and cranes soar low across the water -- not to mention an occasional Coast Guard sea plane -- and watchful eyes may even glimpse a deer stag browsing by the shore.

How Cape Ann looked when the sea was its immediate source of wealth is captured forever in Gloucester at the Cape Ann Historical Museum, home to the nation's largest collection of paintings by Fitz Hugh Lane (1804-1865). A Gloucester native, Lane found lasting inspiration in shores and sails. The schooners that crowd his canvases were Cape Ann originals, too: incredibly, some 4,000 vessels were built in Essex over the course of the 19th century. Mt. Washington's WeatherNew England is famous for its unreliable weather. "The weather is always doing something there, always attending strictly to business, always getting up new designs, and trying them on people to see how they will go," Mark Twain noted. "It can get through more business in spring than in any other seasons. In the spring, I have counted 136 different kinds of weather inside four and twenty hours."

That place in New England with more weather than any must surely be Mt. Washington, the region's tallest peak (at 6288 feet, the tallest in the Northeast, actually). The temperature at the summit ranges more than 100 degrees, from a high in August in the low-70s, to -40°F or lower in January. On April 12, 1934, a world record for wind velocity was measured at Mt. Washington's scientific observatory -- 231 m.p.h.

In 1900, railroad magnate Joseph Stickney ordered construction of "a hotel in which nothing will be lacking that experience can suggest, or the liberal use of money can provide." The isolated site he chose, at the base of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire's Ammonoosuc Valey, required that virtually all building materials, as well as the craftsmen to work with them, be brought in by horse and rail.

Completed in 1902, the Mt. Washington Hotel cost $1 million -- in 1999 dollars, about $100 million -- and resembles nothing so much as an Edwardian-era ocean liner a la Titanic: the Spanish Renaissance structure is long and narrow, wrapped by a 900-foot, white-railed veranda like a ship's deck. In the grand lobby, crystal chandeliers and Tiffany stained glass shimmer and sparkle. From the hotel's veranda, the White Mountains make a formidable wall across the horizon. In summer, the gentle valley below is ideal for golf, hiking and horseback riding; in winter, the area is laced with cross-country trails and downhill slopes (for 1999-2000, the Mt. Washington Hotel will open for its first ever winter season).

{pagebreak} Marsh-Billings National Park
As mountains go, neither the White Mountains of New Hampshire, nor the Green Mountains of Vermont, come close to the Rockies or the Alps. All the same, New Englanders make the most of them; we stretch our mountains well beyond their literal heights, much the way an old-time Yankee will stretch a dollar. Leave it to the Rockefeller Family, though, to know how to really make a dollar go really far. In 1982, Laurance and Mary Rockefeller, who lived outside Woodstock, Vermont, for nearly 30 years, donated their mansion, a working farm, and surrounding property in Mt. Tom Forest to create the Marsh-Billings National Park.

Called the first national park to focus on conservation history and land stewardship, the nation's newest national park is named for Woodstock's own George Perkins Marsh, author of Man and Nature (1864) and the founder of the American environmental movement in the 19th century, and Frederick Billings, Mary Rockefeller's grandfather, who established a farm there in 1860 using progressive methods that Marsh first outlined.

"If man could ruin nature, he might also mend it," was how his biographer summed up Marsh's philosophy. In the 1860s, he led a reforestation drive that slowly returned a vast area of northern Vermont to its natural state. By the end of the last century, Billings had constructed a 20-mile network of footpaths and carriage paths to showcase this "managed" forest. Those trails remain in use, and allow walkers and hikers to feel today, as Marsh did more than a century and half ago, to feel that "the whole earth [is] spread out before me."

Perennnial Pleasures
Simple pleasures -- at least those experienced in New England -- are almost by definition perennial pleasures. Appropriately, that's the name of Rachel Kane's unique garden of antique flowers on over three acres in East Hardwick, Vermont. The Perennial Pleasures Nursery contains more than 1,000 varieties of plants, many of them collected by Kane from derelict cemeteries and along abandoned railroad tracks.

A graduate of the University of Vermont with seemingly unrelated degrees in art history and plant and soil science, Kane started her gardens with ten varieties in two beds just ten years ago. She and her English-born mother also operate a bed & breakfast/teahouse on their property, which lies in the rural and densely-forested Northeast Kingdom region of Vermont, about 15 miles west of St. Johnsbury.

As a rule of thumb, notes Kane, the older a plant variety, the more fragrant its flower. Because they supposedly smelled like nutmeg ice cream, for example, carnation blossoms were once used to flavor cookies and punches. Seeds and plants bought at "Perennnial Pleasures" as living souvenirs would seem the entirely the right kind of reminder of an old-fashioned New England holiday.

Getting There

  • For Literary Trail information and tickets for guided tours, call 617-574-5950 or visit www.lit-trail.org
  • Concord/Walden Pond tourist information is available from the town's Chamber of Commerce, tel. 978-369-3120
  • Waterborne "Moose Safaris - call 207-695-2702 or visit www.moosehead.net.
  • Nantucket's Wauwinet Resort call 508-228-0145 or on the web at www.wauwinet.com.
  • Essex River Cruises in Cape Ann - 800-748-3706
  • Cape Ann Historical Museum - 978-283-0455
  • Marsh-Billings National Park - 802-457-3368
  • The Perennial Pleasures Nursery - 802-472-5512

Where To Stay/Eat
When the Pilgrims first landed at Plymouth in 1620, William Bradford lamented in his journal that, "they had now no friends to welcome them, nors inn to entertain or refresh their weatherbeaten bodies."

In our own time, of course, visitors can expect a warm welcome, particularly at historic properties where the atmosphere and the antiques set the stage for a relaxing Yankee holiday. Several prominent Boston hotels are offering special packages for the newly-inaugurated Literary Trail. In Back Bay, consider a night at the Author's Suite in the Collonade Hotel (800-962-3030); the custom-designed accommodations there feature a collection of signed first editions.

At the Lenox (800-225-7676), you'll stay directly beside the historic Boston Public Library, whose 19th-century readings rooms were recently restored. In The Proper Bostonians, a wry account of Brahmin Boston feats and foibles, Cleveland Amory dubbed the Lenox area as "the Switzerland of America."

Among the many great estates built there in the late 1890s was Blantyre (tel. 413-637-3556), which opened in 1980 as a hotel and 85-acre resort (complete with croquet grounds). Modeled after a Tudor mansion in Scotland, Blantyre has enough turrets, towers and gargoyles for a small university.

In Stockbridge, the century-old Red Lion Inn (413-298-5545) may be one of the few hotels featured in any artist's catalog -- under a light blanket of snow, it's a notable part of Norman Rockwell's Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas. Remarkably, fairly little has changed in town since Rockwell lived there in the 1950s.

In 1820, the "Missouri Compromise" split Maine from Massachusetts to preserve the delicate balance of "free" and "slave" states in the Union. That same year, a clapboard boardinghouse opened in coastal Kennebunkport; in 1973, it was reincarnated as the White Barn Inn (207-967-2321) and today, is ranked as one of New England's finest. In the 1999 Zagat Restaurant Survey, the inn's restaurant was singled out as one of only three dining spots "worth making a special trip." London-born chef Jonathan Cartwright keeps busy in the kitchen -- he rewrites the menu weekly.

Overlooking secluded Goose Rocks Beach, but only a short drive from town, the Tides Inn By-the-Sea (207-967-3757) may be one of Kennebunkport's best-kept secrets. Mother-and-daughter Marie and Kristin Henriksen maintain a gentle hand on the century-old Victorian resort, and have purposefully not installed telephones or TVs in the rooms. Chef Pam White is a southwest spa veteran who adds new notes to New England classics -- grilled salmon is served with Asian noodle and bok choy, and there's also lobster burrito as an appetizer.

After a century as prominent landowners in northern Vermont's Upper Valley, the Rockefeller family's only remaining resort property is the Woodstock Inn (802-457-1100). Following a work-out and massage in the inn's health and fitness center, or a round of golf at the local country club, don't be surprised if you start to feel like millionaire.

The two-year-old restaurant at the historic Jackson House Inn (800-448-1890) features cuisine by Brendan Nolan, formerly of "Aujourd'Hui" at Boston's exclusive Four Seasons Hotel. Dining room appointments includes floor-to-ceiling granite fireplace, and furniture by local carpenter Charles Shackleton. Each of the Jackson House's nine guest rooms are furnished with antiques in a different period -- from the plain style of New England Country to the opulence of French Empire.

Nearby on the banks of the Connecticut River, the Queeche Inn at Marshland Farm (800-235-3133) was built in 1793 by Lt. Gov. Joseph Marsh, when Vermont was an independent republic. A short walk from the Inn is a converted mill where Irish-born Simon Pearce and his team of artisans turn out elegant pottery and glassware. A self-guided tour in late morning might lead to lunch of Irish stew made with Guinness; the dining room has a picturesque river view.

Also in the Upper Valley, but across the state line in New Hampshire, is Plainfield's Home Hill Inn (603-675-6165). Co-owner Victoria du Roure is a Ritz-Escoffier trained chef; her four-course meals run from potage de potiron (butternut squash soup with ginger and thyme) to the French national dish, cassoulet.

Christopher Kenneally is the author of The Massachusetts Legacy and the Compact Boston Insight Guide. He has written articles for The New York Times, Boston Globe, and The Independent in London. As a contributing editor for Escape Magazine, he and Derek Szabo have reported from Northern Ireland, Egypt, South Africa and Uzbekistan.