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Cool, pretty, and irresistible, a movie star among towns

Robin Falzone, left, chats with Dana Dorfman outside his Union Street antiques shop while Robin's husband, Joe, takes a call.
By Victoria Abbott Riccardi
Globe Correspondent / May 24, 2009
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MANCHESTER-BY-THE-SEA - Hollywood has a soft spot for this quaint, seaside town 20 miles north of Boston. It has served as a backdrop for myriad feature films, including "The Love Letter" (1999) starring Kate Capshaw and Tom Selleck, "State and Main" (2000) with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Sarah Jessica Parker, and "What's the Worst That Could Happen?" (2001) with Danny DeVito.

But Manchester has another starring role as a charming place to visit. Although I am biased, having grown up here, the town has all the requirements for a getaway, along with a rich history, which includes three name changes and hosting past presidents and dignitaries.

Settled in 1636 and originally named Jeffrey's Creek, "Manchester started as a small fishing village, mainly for lobster and cod," said John Huss, curator and former president of the Manchester Historical Society. The town changed its name to Manchester in 1645, and eventually was home to 45 merchant sea captains who traded with Europe and the Far East. From the 1820s to the Civil War, the town became famous for furniture making, Huss said. However, when the Union Navy blocked Confederate ports, the cabinetmakers went out of business.

Manchester's cool breezes and ocean views have always proved irresistible to visitors, so in the mid to late 1800s - before air conditioning - wealthy Bostonians began to buy land and build lavish "cottages" along the water, turning the town into a mini Newport. In 1879 actor Junius Brutus Booth, the older brother of John Wilkes Booth, built Masconomo House, an opulent 3 1/2-story hotel overlooking Singing Beach. With 106 rooms, tennis courts, bowling alleys, billiard rooms, and a dining hall big enough for 300 guests, the hotel helped usher in Manchester's gilded age.

By the early 1900s the town had become a haven for President Taft (and later Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson), inventor Alexander Graham Bell, and 11 foreign ambassadors, who moved their embassies to Manchester in the summer of 1904. The defunct cabinetmakers now entered the service sector, becoming the gardeners, chauffeurs, butlers, cooks, and builders for this new moneyed set.

Despite its glamorous history, Manchester never lost its small town feel. This is, in part, what prompted the town to legally change its name in 1990 to Manchester-by-the-Sea. With a total area of only 7.84 square miles, the town is easily navigable by foot, a convenient option for visitors arriving by train (a 45-minute ride from Boston). Or you can rent a bicycle at Seaside Cycle.

Perhaps the most popular tourist destination is Singing Beach, named for the squeaking sound the sand makes beneath your feet (produced by the grains' elongated shape and make-up of feldspar, quartz, and zircon). From the train station, it's about a 15-minute walk. You can pick up sunscreen and other sundries at Allen's Pharmacy by the station. For early morning sustenance, the Beach Street Café has full breakfasts, along with over a dozen varieties of fresh-baked muffins. If lunch is on the docket, The Kitchen Witch across the street from Crosby's Marketplace has salads, sandwiches, and wraps to go.

As you head to the beach, you'll see Manchester Harbor, once called Jeffery's Creek, on your right, followed by Masconomo Park, where a life-size statue of a soldier serves as a memorial to those lost in World War I. For the past 60-plus years, the park has hosted a summer carnival, this year scheduled for July 9-12.

The west end of Singing Beach has lots of tide pools (tiny toes beware of hermit crabs), while the east end leads to Rocky Beach and Eagle Head, a rocky promontory that resembles an eagle from a bird's-eye view. Not to be missed after a day in the sun is Captain Dusty's, a banana-yellow former lobster shack across from the harbor. "We always have about 30 flavors of ice cream to choose from, along with frozen yogurt, sherbet, sorbet, frappes, shakes, and sundaes," says John Bartlett, who owns the shop with his wife, Lisa.

For great shopping, The Stock Exchange in the center of town has offered a fabulous array of gently used clothing, jewelry, home goods, antiques, and furniture since 1975. Another favorite is Jewelry by Mahri, filled with hand-crafted jewelry, funky clothes, and elegant home goods. Manchester By the Book has an impressive selection of used and rare books, while The Green Egg has adorable eco-friendly children's T-shirts decorated with felt cupcakes, trucks, and peace signs. Across the street, children will delight in two antique fire engines in the former fire station turned police headquarters, now called Seaside No. 1. In addition to Torrent, a hand pumper built in 1832, the museum houses Seaside 2, a horse-drawn steam pumper acquired in 1902.

To learn more about the town's history, visit the Manchester Historical Society, also named the Trask House Museum. Built in 1823, the white clapboard former home of merchant sea captain Richard Trask and his wife, Abigail, features period furniture, fine art, antique toys, a Victorian dollhouse, and a lovely collection of beaded evening bags and hair combs. Next month the society is planning to offer visitors a map with a self-guided walking tour.

One of the town's most striking buildings, along with the cut-stone library and white First Parish Church Congregational, is the

Rotunda at Tuck's Point. Located on the outskirts of town, the "red sunhat" sits at the end of a pier in a small park next to a small beach.

Salt air has a way of provoking appetites, and you can grab a bite at the town's many restaurants, including Christo's Coffee Cup, serving the best chowder in town, along with full breakfasts, lunch, and dinner. The Landing at 7 Central offers formal dining with such options as native sea scallops and grilled swordfish. It also has a patio out back, a welcome oasis on a warm night. For hipper fare, try Cala's, a sunset-colored restaurant serving funky pizzas, hearty salads, pastas, and entrees like pumpkin-fennel-seed-crusted tuna.

The Old Corner Inn, an elegant manor built in 1865 that once served as the Danish summer embassy, is the lone lodging option. All nine rooms have tasteful, simple furnishings, many with four-poster beds, bird's-eye maple floors, and ball-and-claw-footed bath tubs. Gloucester and Rockport provide the closest overnight alternatives.

Manchester-by-the-Sea has earned a reputation for hosting celebrities, housing millionaires, and lighting up the silver screen. In fact, it stars next month with Sandra Bullock in the romantic comedy "The Proposal." But it has always looked best in close-ups.

Victoria Riccardi can be reached at www.victoriariccardi.com.

If You Go

Where to eat

Christo's Coffee Cup

25 Union St.

978-526-4558

Chowder, sandwiches, $3.50-$6.75.

The Beach Street Café

35 Beach St.

978-526-8049

Muffins, egg dishes, inexpensive breakfast items, $1.25-$10.95.

Cala's

7 Beach St.

978-525-3304

www.calasrestaurant.com

Meats, seafood, pastas, and salads; entrees $12-$26.

The Landing at 7 Central

7 Central St.

978-526-7494

www.thelandingat7central.com

Seafood, chicken, meat dishes; entrees $19-$25.

Where to stay

The Old Corner Inn

2 Harbor St.

978-526-4996, 800-830-4996

www.theoldcornerinn.com

Rooms $90-$175.