I LOOK up from my cup of coffee. The view from the porch where I’m sitting on the North Shore on a misty July morning stretches across a green lawn and hedges to a freshly mowed hayfield, then beyond to a broad salt marsh threaded with a sinuous tidal creek and finally to dunes, sea and sky.
I’m at the Inn at Castle Hill in Ipswich, on the early-20th-century seaside summer estate created by Richard T. Crane Jr., the Chicago plumbing magnate, and transformed into a 2,100-acre nature preserve that includes pristine Crane Beach.
If the North Shore, with its meadows, marshes and vistas of the North Atlantic is prime real estate for porch sitting, then the Inn at Castle Hill might just have the supreme porch. I could sit here happily all morning admiring the view and listening to the birds.
Oh yes, the birds. Along with its other delights the Crane property, on the Atlantic flyway, is a wildlife refuge and birders’ paradise.
All this open space, serenity and nature — just 30 miles north of Boston and our apartment. I drove up after work, leaving it all behind the moment I headed down Argilla Road toward the inn and caught my first look at that marsh flowing into sea and sky. I fell asleep to the sound of the waves.
Now it’s 7:30. Should I want historic diversion, I can stroll up the hill behind the inn and tour the 59-room, Stuart-style Great House, a National Historic Landmark, where the Cranes spent their summers. Designed by the Chicago architect David Adler, the house overlooks a half-mile-long lawn, the Grand Allée, that rolls down to Ipswich Bay and the Atlantic.
All of it — the house, the estate, the seven miles of barrier beaches, the farmhouse that is now the 10-room Inn at Castle Hill — was donated decades ago by the Crane family to the Trustees of Reservations, a nonprofit land conservation and historic preservation group in Massachusetts. There are dunes threaded with boardwalks and hiking paths, a beachfront bathhouse and snack bar (as with the inn, proceeds support the trustees’ preservation work) and Thursday night picnic concerts on the Grand Allée.
The North Shore extends, roughly, from just north of Boston to the New Hampshire border and includes the Cape Ann peninsula towns of Gloucester, Essex and Rockport. My attachment to summer here reaches back to my grandfather’s house in Salem, a green-and-white clapboard duplex near his small dry-cleaning store. We would visit for two weeks every August, driving up from Levittown, Pa.
All year I looked forward to the same rituals. Waking up with my two older sisters in my father’s old bedroom, the smell of the harbor drifting through the windows. Riding in the waves with my father at Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester while my mother waited on shore with lunch. Browsing through the souvenir shops in Rockport. Fried clams at Woodman’s in Essex.
I’ve carried that North Shore with me for decades. But this summer, thanks to the arrival of a close childhood friend, Donna Wapner, who was visiting from California and wanted to get a feel for the place, I’ve been finding a different North Shore. Our explorations began in Manchester-by-the Sea, where Donna was staying. We discovered Singing Beach — the sand squeaks when you walk on it, hence the name — and sampled the fabulous homemade ice cream at Captain Dusty’s, across from the picturesque harbor.
And Manchester-by-the-Book, a treasure chest of used books whose patrons included John Updike, who lived in Beverly Farms and Ipswich. For $10 I picked up a page-turner, “Howard Blackburn’s Fearful Experience of a Gloucester Halibut Fisherman, Astray in a Dory in a Gale Off the Newfoundland Coast in Midwinter.” It is a facsimile (Ten Pound Island Book Company, 1987) of a pamphlet Blackburn published in 1884, recounting how he rowed his dory for five days through a North Atlantic blizzard, his mittenless fingers frozen around the oars. Observing my interest in the pamphlet, the store’s owner, Mark Stolle, encouraged me to read “Lone Voyager,” Joseph E. Garland’s book about Blackburn, which he regretted not having in stock.
Gloucester, and the water, beckoned.
“Want to go kayaking?” asked Donna, who learned to kayak in Alaska.
Definitely. I’d enjoyed my one kayaking expedition, on the Jersey Shore some years ago.
Donna’s friend in Manchester, AnneMarie Martins, who joined us, rounded up the kayaks. We started out in Lobster Cove in Annisquam, paddling across the Annisquam River and going ashore at Wingaersheek Beach. We took a long walk along the sand.
It was after 5 p.m. when we thought about paddling back. Howard Blackburn, the halibut fisherman, rowed for five days through a blizzard with no food or water. Howard Blackburn was heroic.
“Is anyone else hungry?” I asked. “Too bad we didn’t think to bring some food.”
AnneMarie said, “How about a hot dog?,” pointing to a floating platform in the middle of the river. That, she said, was Dirt’s Dogs, a hot-dog stand.
Full speed ahead.
The cheerful woman in the Red Sox cap handling the grill offered waterside service. We passed our single hot dog and Diet Coke — we had $5 among us, having left our wallets in the car — from kayak to kayak.
Back on shore we found our way to the deck at Diva’s Land & Sea Restaurant, overlooking Lobster Cove.
The food — fried tilapia, salads, an “international cheese board” — was just what we wanted. So was the laid-back atmosphere. The chef and owner, Chris Mabe, came by to chat. Our $12 plate of assorted cheeses was so enormous we prevailed upon our waiter, Bobby Silva, and his girlfriend, Nellica Rodolosi, to share it with us. Families with children in tow drifted onto the deck from their boats. Bobby and Nellica, who grew up in Gloucester, knew everyone. The sun glowed red. As North Shore evenings go, this one was pretty close to perfect.
And now two mornings later I’m on the porch at the Inn at Castle Hill. I’m meditating on the view — the teeming mysteries of the marsh — and my time with Donna. For the past several days we’ve been blending our friendship history, which began more than 40 years ago in Levittown, with the centuries of New England history embedded in the North Shore. We still have some exploring and a lot of catching up to do. I’ve been hearing about the nature kayaking tours at nearby Essex River Basin Adventures. I’ve discovered, thanks to Donna, that kayaking is a great way to see the North Shore.
It’s time to get up from the porch.
By noon we’re gliding through the Essex River estuary, toward the shoreline of the Crane estate. Our guide, Ozzie Osborn, who grew up in Essex, points out snowy egrets, ospreys, a great blue heron.
We paddle and talk, and take our time looking around. Our kayaks are like floating porches.
“All the shorebirds come through here,” Ozzie said. “By September you’ll start to see ducks and other waterfowl.”
Donna will be returning to California soon. She says she’ll be back next July. We’re hoping to start our own tradition on the North Shore.
IF YOU GO
WHERE TO STAY
The Inn at Castle Hill on the Crane estate (280 Argilla Road, Ipswich; 978-412-2555, theinnatcastlehill.com) is open April through December.
The inn has 10 rooms, all with king- or queen-sized beds and private baths, and views of the marsh and ocean or woodlands. There are no telephones, televisions or radios in the rooms, but there is free wireless internet. Cellphone use in the living and breakfast rooms is strongly discouraged.
The following rates are single or double occupancy and vary according to the season. May 1 to Oct. 31, $175 to $385 a night; Nov. 1 to April 30, $115 to $350 a night.
Members of the Trustees of Reservations receive a 10 percent discount on the room rate for all consecutive night stays. Individual memberships start at $45 ($65 per family) and include free or reduced admissions to 100 Trustee reservation and Trustee houses and gardens.
Rates include a sit-down breakfast with home-baked muffins or scones; seasonal fresh fruit, homemade granola, yogurt; one hot entree, which varies by day, and includes French toast with mixed berries, omelets with asparagus and Boursin cheese, blueberry pancakes; and orange juice, coffee, tea.
Rates also include admission to Crane Beach and most Castle Hill events, including tours of the Great House. Bicycles are available on request. With prior arrangements, guests who bring kayaks can launch from the inn’s pier on the property, about a half-mile from the inn.
Accommodations of Rocky Neck (43 Rocky Neck Avenue, Gloucester; 978-283-1625 or 978-804-0562, rockyneckaccommodations.com) has basic efficiency rooms and suites, all with kitchen facilities and private bathrooms. Available by the night, week, month or for the entire season. Weekly rates: June 13 to Sept. 13, $700; Sept. 14 to Oct. 31, $550. Nightly rates are $85 to $128.
Katherine Faherty, whose family owns the inn, will guide visitors to the nearby “Hopper house,” which Edward Hopper painted in 1923 (the painting is titled “The Mansard Roof”) and which is one of the stops along the self-guided Rocky Neck Historic Art Trail. The walk also includes the studios of Marsden Hartley and Emile Gruppe, and the view from shore of nearby Ten Pound Island, where Winslow Homer lived with the lighthouse keeper in the summer of 1880.
The Hawthorne Hotel (18 Washington Square West, Salem; 978-744-4080, hawthornehotel.com) features old New England charm with all the amenities. It overlooks the town green and is within walking distance of historic sites. Rates are $114 to $315 a night (call for specific rates in October), and there is a tavern and restaurant.
WHERE TO EAT
Diva’s Land & Sea Restaurant (Lobster Cove Marina, 33 River Road, Annisquam; 937-718-5938) serves breakfast, lunch, early dinner and snacks. No credit cards, cash or check only. Lunch and dinner offerings include a lobster roll ($15) and fried haddock on a grilled baguette ($10). Breakfast includes made-to-order omelets with a side of fresh fruit and bread ($7), and scrambled or fried eggs with bacon, ham or sausage and toast ($8).
Sailor Stan’s (1 Wonson Street, Gloucester; 978-281-4470) serves breakfast and lunch, Tuesdays through Sundays (breakfast all day on Sunday) in a Key West-meets-Gloucester atmosphere, where fishermen, artists, families with children and summer people all meet.
The owner, Karen Roberts (her father is Sailor Stan, who was the original owner) is an artist of breakfast, whipping up whatever she feels like when she wakes up in the morning, including a $7 Popeye sandwich with chopped spinach, cheese and scrambled eggs in olive oil. The fish chowder, swimming with big chunks of local fish, is $6.50 for a large bowl.
For fried clams, lobster in the rough and local atmosphere: Woodman’s of Essex (121 Main Street, Essex; 800-649-1773, woodmans.com), J. T. Farnham’s (88 Eastern Avenue, Essex; 978-768-6643) and Clam Box of Ipswich (246
WHAT TO DO
Crane Beach (thetrustees.org) encompasses 5.5 miles of barrier beach, a piping plover refuge, elevated boardwalks and hiking trails through the protected dunes. There is a public bathhouse with restrooms and outdoor showers as well as a snack bar and lifeguard stands. The following poem is stenciled on steps leading to the beach: thetrustees.org/places-to-visit/northeast-ma/crane-beach-poetry-in-action.html.
One-hour tours of the Great House on Castle Hill (craneestate.org; 978-921-1944, Ext. 8815)are from May 27 to Oct. 10. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Members are free. Nonmembers: Adults $10, children $5 (suggested age, 8 years). Group tours by appointment.
<i>This is a more complete version of the story than the one that appeared in print.</i>