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Whale of a rebirth

Old fishing community rides a wave of youthful, arts-driven energy

Email|Print| Text size + By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / October 18, 2006

New Bedford is a down-to-earth city that has always gone down to the sea. Herman Melville memorialized its whalers in ``Moby-Dick," and Ahab , Starbuck , and Queequeg still cast long shadows on those Quaker streets of uneven granite paving stones. But today's stars of the waterfront are mostly Portuguese fishermen whose trawls and dredges haul the most valuable fish catch (mostly groundfish and scallops) in the country. The golden age of whaling, roughly 1820-85, has been captured in amber (or ambergris) by a national park, but New Bedford has a future, too. Preservationists have been quietly saving the handsome old downtown buildings for decades, and the Star Store campus of UMass-Dartmouth's College of Visual & Performing Arts has injected a critical mass of youthful energy, artistic intensity, and cockeyed optimism into the city. Ishmael's drizzly ``November of my soul" has been exorcised at last, as surely as the fog lifts ahead of the sweet breezes of a westerly.

Play

Some kids like boats -- big boats. When most of the fishing fleet is ashore on weekends, the waterfront becomes a fascinating forest of masts and cables. Along the wharves where vessels are berthed three abreast, crew members hop from boat to boat while other trawlers steam past with their birds up (the wing-like extensions used for stability in rough seas).

Other kids prefer pony rides, available on weekends for $3 (or $5 with a photo) at the Buttonwood Park Zoo (425 Hawthorn St., 508-991-6178, bpzoo.org , adults $6, seniors and teenagers $4.50, ages 3-12 $3). This gentle, low-key zoo focuses primarily on regional wildlife, including creatures that inhabit the zoo property, such as muskrats, mink, and songbirds. Even such old-fashioned exhibits as the elephant enclosure and the WPA-era bear pit emphasize understanding the captive animals rather than merely gawking at them.

Rest

Predictable roadside convenience is the strong suit of Days Inn (500 Hathaway Road, 508-997-1231, daysinn.com , $69-$129). It's near the intersection of Interstate 195 and Route 140, but more than 2 miles from the downtown and waterfront. Within strolling distance of downtown, lodgings in two former mid-19th-century whaling captains' manses offer more local color. The Orchard Street Manor Bed & Breakfast (139 Orchard St., 508-984-3475, the-orchard-street-manor.com , $125-$250) has just one single- room and two two-bedroom suites but elegant common areas, including a formal billiard room. The animal-loving innkeepers at Captain Haskell's Octagon House Bed & Breakfast (347 Union St., 508-999-3933, theoctagonhouse.com , $125-$145) welcome pets in the two guest rooms and one suite of two single rooms. And you might catch the blossoming of the night-blooming cereus in the Victorian conservatory.

Fuel

New Bedford's dining scene reflects the city's newfound energy. Practically next door to the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Cafe Balena (24 North Water St., 508-990-0061, $15-$28) opened in April with a Sardinian menu that includes a cioppino (fish stew) of the day's best catch. It's BYOB, with a corking fee of $5.

Portuguese food gets serious respect here. For traditional fare like Alentejo-style pork (marinated loin with clams), it's hard to beat Mimo (1526-30 Acushnet Ave., 508-997-8779 , $9-$14) . But the biggest recent splash on the dining scene is chic Adega Restaurant and Wine Bar (418 Rivet St., 508-992-1313, adegafinedining.com , $13-$25). Start with mussels in champagne sauce, followed by one of six cataplana preparations.

Spend

Martha's Vineyard has the Black Dog, but New Bedford has the Black Whale, a modern avatar of Moby-Dick in his negative image.

For a T-shirt, ball cap, or tote bag emblazoned with said leviathan (or an outrageous getup for Halloween or Mardi Gras), stop at Elaine's T-Shirts & Costumes (772 Purchase St., 508-999-2166, theblackwhale.com).

More serious whale hunters might harpoon an authentic relic of the trade at the Whalemen's Shipping List (17 Johnny Cake Hill, 508-990-3786). Look for such artifacts as seamen's chests, crew manifests from whaling vessels, and containers that once held sperm whale oil. The shop is open through December before owner Frederick Mitchell, like the whales, migrates south for a few months.

Do

New Bedford's heyday as the Houston of the whale oil industry left its mark in the 13-block district set aside as New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park (visitors center at 33 William St., 508-996-4095, nps.gov/nebe ). Temple-like banks, converted chandleries, and even a candleworks-turned-restaurant recall flush times. Walk across granite pavers where ancient mariners swaggered and pause in the Seamen's Bethel (15 Johnny Cake Hill, 508-992-3295 , donation), where tombstone-like cenotaphs relate terrible demises in the far corners of the world: yellow fever, a fall from a mast, being pulled overboard by a line attached to a whale. The New Bedford Whaling Museum (18 Johnny Cake Hill, 508-997-0046, whalingmuseum.org , adults $10, seniors and students $9, ages 6-14 $6) captures the gore and glory of whaling, with a strong bent toward conservation.

The work was on the docks, but the wealth stood high on the crest of County Street. Built in 1834 , the Rotch-Jones-Duff House & Garden Museum (396 County St., 508-997-1401, rjdmuseum.org , adults $5, seniors and students $4, 12 and under $2) surveys nearly two centuries of life among the elite.

Party

New Bedford's streets turn into an art and culture festival on the second Thursday of each month with gallery openings, live music, special museum programs, and theatrical performances (AHA!, 508-264-8859, ahanewbedford.org ). Open Mike Night at 50-seat Cafe Arpeggio is part of the action, but the confab continues every Thursday. The stage also hosts concerts by professional touring musicians, usually on the third Friday of the month ($15).

Live bands hold forth every Thursday and Saturday at the Catwalk (34 Union St., 508-994-3355, catwalkbars.com ), a bar and restaurant where the weather, alas, is starting to get a little nippy for the rooftop terrace overlooking the harbor.

For the last 25 years, the Zeiterion Theatre (684 Purchase St., 508-994-2900, zeiterion.org ) has been New Bedford's performing arts center. The Z has such luminaries on tap as McCoy Tyner, Bo Diddley, Garrison Keillor, and the Bulgarian State Opera . On Nov. 11, it presents two showings of John Huston's ``Moby Dick" in honor of the 50th anniversary of the premiere, when Huston and Gregory Peck (Captain Ahab) came to town.

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