Next stop, summer
Forget the car keys and explore Ipswich and Essex, from beach to barn to boatyard, by bus
Beachgoers head for the strand at Crane Beach in Ipswich. (Patricia Harris for The Boston Globe)
IPSWICH - Don't try to say it three times fast, but the Ipswich Essex Explorer is perfectly named. On weekends and holidays through Labor Day, the buses roll past meadows and marshes, mosey down tree-lined country roads, and swing by the sandy shores of the two North Shore towns to hit some of their big attractions.
On the first day of summer - conveniently enough, a Saturday - we decided to give it a try. And we were hardly alone: Julie and Jeff Talbot, who hopped aboard just ahead of us, were the first riders of the Explorer's fourth season. The recent transplants from Atlanta had driven up from Boston and were riding the bus to Crane Beach, easily the busiest stop.
"We've never been to the beach in Massachusetts," said Julie.
"But we were told that this was the way to go to Crane," Jeff explained. By riding the Explorer, they could avoid the $22 parking fee for nonmembers of the Trustees of Reservations and the long lines to get into the parking lot at the popular beach.
When the Newburyport Line of the commuter rail from North Station pulled in at 10:19 a.m., another dozen piled onto the bus.
"We don't have a car," said Tricia O'Loughlin of Cambridge, who had her daughter Fiona in tow. "We're looking for ways to get to the beach."
Victoria Bonney from Somerville had seen an ad for the Explorer at a T station and had come up on the train. "There's supposed to be full sun today," she said. "My friend and I wanted to get out of the city."
As excited as the passengers were, no one seemed more psyched for the season than Tom Hines, who has been a driver since the buses began running in 2005. On the 20-minute route to Crane Beach, he kept up a steady patter, pointing out sights and restaurants along the way. At $5 per person (which includes the $2 beach walk-on fee), the Explorer is a good deal for a day at the beach.
But it doesn't stop there. That one-time fee lets passengers get on and off all day along the Explorer's two routes. One circles between the Ipswich commuter rail station and Crane Beach with several interim stops, while a second route goes from the Ipswich station to Main Street in Essex. In the afternoon, several buses shuttle between Crane Beach and Essex, making it possible to soak in the sun all morning, have a late lunch of fried clams, and still catch the 6 p.m. train back to North Station.
On a Saturday as beautiful and sunny as Bonney had hoped, it was tempting to stake out a blanket-sized patch of 5-mile-long Crane Beach and spend the day alternately sunning and splashing. But duty called - and we roused ourselves to see what else the bus route offered and how feasible it was to combine activities. Hines eagerly offered suggestions and advice on scheduling.
With his guidance, we decided to save the hiking trails at Appleton Farms and the presentations at Wolf Hollow for another visit. But we did stop at Russell Orchards in Ipswich to sample several of their fruit wines. Hines had raved about the farm store's cider donuts, and Russell Orchards promotes them as not only tasty, but good for the environment. (The farm converts the used fat into biodiesel for its tractors, hence the bumper sticker motto, "Save the planet - eat cider donuts.") After a sunny stretch at the beach, though, we found frozen cider pops more refreshing.
Our visit coincided with strawberry season and ambitious pickers were carrying overflowing trays of deep red berries from the fields. As the summer wears on, pick-your-own fruit moves through the New England succession of raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, and, finally, apples. The farm animals know no season; children are especially enamored of the very chummy (and very fluffy) free-wandering sheep and the goats that stretch their necks eagerly above the barn stalls in hopes of being fed.
For all the taste temptations at Russell Orchards (including, on that day, strawberry shortcake), we decided to save our appetites for Essex. The Explorer picked us up at the orchard, swung through the beach parking lot to drop off and pick up passengers, and deposited us in front of Woodman's of Essex 20 minutes later.
As perhaps every New Englander knows, this is the spot where Lawrence "Chubby" Woodman is purported to have "invented" the fried clam in 1916. The family has also perfected the self-service ordering and pick-up system in which certain laissez-faire efficiencies seem to operate. Someone's always finishing up as the next family laden with trays of food is searching for a table - certainly faster than hostess seating.
With careful timing, it's possible to reach Essex in time for the 1:30 cruise aboard the Essex River Queen I or II as it snakes along through the green mat of tidal marsh grasses on the river. Instead, we opted to soak up a little history at the Essex Shipbuilding Museum, located at the site where in 1668 the first land was set aside for an Essex shipyard. Boatbuilders have been constructing craft here ever since. Although Essex vessels largely supplied the fishing trade, the town is known for a series of fast hull designs that inspired yacht building of the later 19th century.
We had the good fortune of Justin Demetri showing us around. The first generation in his Gloucester family not to make his living fishing, Demetri knows the Essex boats well: His father and grandfather fished an Essex-built dragger. His enthusiasm for the Essex shipbuilding industry was infectious, and his knowledge detailed. (He explained, for example, how Essex perfected a technique of launching ships by flopping them sideways into the water to avoid cracking the rudder when sliding them in.)
Many of Essex's shingled wooden buildings that once served the boatbuilding trade now house restaurants and shops, most notably antiques shops, the town's stock in trade for the last few decades. Feeling immune to the accumulating impulse, we indulged by looking over antique furniture and heirloom jewelry before the Explorer picked us up for the return trip to the Ipswich station.
While the Explorer doesn't quite run with the split-second efficiency of, say, the Swiss post buses, we had covered a lot of ground, met some interesting fellow riders, and hadn't worried about parking. When we stepped aboard our bus back to the station, Hines was again behind the wheel. His assessment of day one in season four was much like ours. He was pleased by the number of passengers, happy to have seen riders from previous years, and delighted that he had met a lot of people who vowed they would be back.
As we stepped off, he had a buoyant prediction: "We're going to have a great summer."
It certainly got off to a fine start.
Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.