April 25, 2017
Discover what artists and fishermen alike have long appreciated about this rockbound harbor on the North Shore of Massachusetts.By Rob Duca | Photography by Benjamin Boynton
Seen from the air, Rockport Harbor resembles a lobster hiding among the surf-pounded ledges of Cape Ann. It’s appropriate, then, that this small North Shore village has long sheltered a fleet of commercial fishing vessels, many of them lobster boats. But while the Rockport of today is primarily associated with seafood and art, its foundation is made of much sturdier stuff.
Rockport draws its name from the thriving granite industry that once served as its chief source of income. Granite quarried from Cape Ann began being shipped across the United States in the early 19th century as railways spread across the nation. As cement construction supplanted the need for stone in the 1920s, Rockport’s quarries shut down. However, the town soon found a new life as a popular tourist destination due to its rugged yet beautiful landscape and charming harbor, both of which have attracted droves of artists over the last century. An enduring subject has been “Motif No. 1”—the red, buoy-festooned fishing shack at the tip of Bradley Wharf that has appeared in countless paintings and photos.
While Rockport welcomes recreational boaters, the surroundings waters demand respect. Those approaching from the east and south should exercise caution, especially in fog or when navigating the narrow cut between Avery Ledge and Straitsmouth Island. The harbor itself is protected by a pair of breakwaters, the first extending east from Bearskin Neck, the second jutting from the Headlands. The entrance channel is 26 yards wide, with a depth of 8 to 10 feet, so there’s plenty of depth for most vessels.
Rockport Harbor consists of a large outer basin and two inner basins separated by the T-Wharf. Depth inside the inner basins is around six feet. It’s a compact harbor, lacking private marinas or boatyards, and for that reason cruising boaters have often given it a pass. However, Rockport’s friendly harbormasters have been trying to change that by installing a pair of transient floats, along with docks for smaller vessels. Overnight stays can be arranged for a dollar per foot, but it’s best to make reservations.
Once docked, a world of brightly painted shops, galleries and restaurants is just steps from the water. Forming the western shore of the harbor, Bearskin Neck is jammed with stores featuring items made by local artists and craftspeople— paintings, sculpture, photographs, jewelry, pottery, leather goods and everything in between. You’ll also find numerous dining options ranging from casual clam shacks to tea rooms to gourmet restaurants.
At the base of the T-Wharf is Ellen’s Harborside, which specializes in hickory-smoked barbecue and local seafood. If you’re in the mood for romance, head to My Place by the Sea at the end of Bearskin Neck, where you can grab a table on the ocean’s edge while dining on Scottish salmon, grilled garlic-rubbed sirloin or a lobster club sandwich. Meanwhile, ice cream shops, a confectioner and even an Austrian-style strudel shop stand ready to satisfy your sweet tooth.
If you happen to visit on a Saturday, you can restock your galley at the local Farmers’ Market, held at Harvey Park at the corner of Broadway and Mt. Pleasant streets from 9:00 to 1:00. Here you’ll find locally produced foods such as organically grown vegetables, grass-fed beef, smoked fish, fresh pesto, handmade pasta, jams and jellies, fresh-baked bread, homemade doughnuts and other baked goods.
Beyond the Harbor
Of course, there’s more to Rockport than its harbor. Consider, for example, a visit to the intriguing Paper House. Built in 1922 by a mechanical engineer who designed a machine that made paper clips, the house is constructed entirely of newspaper, as is the furniture.
If you’re interested in exploring Cape Ann’s rocky coast by kayak, stop by North Shore Kayak Outdoor Center, which offers sea kayaking tours, as well as kayak and bike rentals. Guided tours depart from Bearskin Neck daily from Memorial Day to mid-September.
Speaking of bikes, hop on one and pedal out to Halibut Point State Park, where a lot of that famous Rockport granite was quarried. In addition to the remains of the former quarry, the park features stunning ocean views and is a great spot for a picnic lunch. Other scenic destinations include nearby Pigeon Cove and Gull Cove. The Dogtown Woods and South Woods are relatively close by, too, and feature miles of hiking trails that wind through what was once a thriving farming community. After all that hiking and biking, you can cool off with a chilly ocean dip at Front Beach.
Of course, you can also simply hang out on your boat and watch the harbor activities swirl around you. And that’s the great thing about Rockport: It appeals to many tastes and styles, but there’s always something for everyone.