The Plymouth Paradox
A welcoming port to mariners since 1620, Plymouth Harbor manages to strike a balance between its past and present.
By Rob Duca • Photography by Benjamin Boynton & Tom Richardson
There are few places in the country with more history than Plymouth Harbor. Indeed, when boaters enter this storied port, they are literally navigating the same waters traveled by our Pilgrim forbears, who landed here in 1620 aboard the Mayflower. Talk about a harbor with history!
Today, Plymouth Harbor serves as both a convenient launching spot and a cool place to visit, given the numerous dining and shopping options along its bustling waterfront. The harbor is home to one of the biggest and best public boat launches in Massachusetts. The facility was renovated this past summer, and features plenty of parking, including overnight parking for those who wish to leave their rigs for weekend trips to other ports.
Boaters who launch from Plymouth or keep their boats there for the season have a world of opportunities at their doorstep. The harbor is within easy reach of beautiful Duxbury and Kingston Bays, as well as the open waters of Cape Cod Bay. Further, Stellwagen Bank is approximately 20 miles away, while Provincetown, Boston and other destinations are within daytrip distance.
Of course, many boaters simply choose to hang out inside the protected harbor and nearby bays and explore the maze of sand flats and channels (follow the markers closely, as it’s easy to run aground). A popular spot in Plymouth Bay is Brown’s Bank, just east of Long Beach Point and south of the main entrance channel. While a hazard for those who fail to watch their chart plotter and the tide, this expansive sandbar becomes party central at low water for boaters and their families who come to fish, clam, barbeque or simply relax. On one day a year that’s chosen for the duration, depth and timing of the tide, the bar becomes something like a Woodstock for boaters, as a blue fabric pavilion is erected to serve as a main stage and live music plays until the tide rolls in.
For those who wish to visit the town by water, the harbormaster’s office maintains ten transient moorings, available on a first-come, first-served basis that can accommodate boats up to 50 feet at a reasonable cost of $35 per night. There are also two nearby anchorages, including the Cowyard, just north of Plymouth Channel, where even large vessels can find good holding ground in a basin with depths of 7 to 10 feet. Unfortunately, Plymouth Harbor lacks short-term tie-up for daytrippers, but the harbormaster will attempt to place visitors on a mooring, if available, and provide launch service to and from shore.
Another option is Brewer Plymouth Marine, a full-service, transient-friendly marina and boatyard within walking distance of the harbor’s attractions. The marina hosts more than 1,200 transient vessels each season, and its on-site amenities include a restaurant, laundry, a canvas shop, showers and a fuel dock. Lastly, the Plymouth Yacht Club offers moorings at a cost of $50 per night, and also has a fuel dock, showers, laundry and launch service.
The first stop for many folks once ashore is iconic Plymouth Rock, the purported site of disembarkation for the Pilgrims. Berthed just a few steps from the famous monolith is the wooden replica ship Mayflower II, which has been undergoing a $12 million restoration in anticipation of her 400th anniversary celebration in 2020. Since her arrival 1957, the ship has drawn 25 million visitors.
Another well-known historical stop and tourist attraction can be found three miles away at Plimoth Plantation. The Plantation is a living museum dedicated to telling the history of Plymouth Colony from the perspective of both the Pilgrims and the native Wampanoag people. It comprises a working village populated by “re-enactors” who take time to tell curious visitors about daily life on the harsh frontier of the New World. Also close by is the 1677 Harlow Old Fort House, one of the few remaining 17th century buildings in town.
Plymouth Harbor’s proximity to a variety of fishing grounds, including those off Cape Cod and on Stellwagen Bank, has long made it a popular launching spot among anglers. The action begins in April—just in time for the spring haddock season in Massachusetts Bay and on the southern edge of Stellwagen Bank, some 20 miles east of the harbor. The action has been relatively decent in recent years, although you need to be able to pick your days and fish when the weather allows. Tackle for these bottom species typically includes a stout 6 ½-foot boat rod and a reel filled with 50-pound-test braid. All you need to score is a heavy cod jig or a high-low rig baited with clams.
Fishing kicks into high gear starting in late May, when the first schools of striped bass arrive. Topwater action with flies, plugs and soft-plastics can be sensational from late May through June, and you can often find bass up to 30 pounds feeding under huge flocks of gulls and terns as the fish push bait onto the shallow flats of Duxbury and Kingston Bays.
From mid-June on, anglers in search of trophy bass typically focus on the ocean waters outside the harbor. The rocks off Gurnet Light and High Pines are prime spots for casting plugs and jigs, trolling tube lures on wire line or live-lining mackerel, which can often be jigged up over structure just outside the harbor. Trolling the 30-foot contour line south of the harbor, especially along the Three Cliffs area, with tube-and-worm combos also accounts for big bass, as well as some monster bluefish, during midsummer days.
It must be noted that the “backside” of Cape Cod, some 20 to 25 miles east of Plymouth, has produced some of the best striper fishing on the East Coast in recent years. Indeed, the area from Race Point south along the beaches of the Outer Cape is probably the best place to catch a striper over 30 pounds on topwater and fly gear, and Plymouth-based anglers can make the run there on calm days. It’s a lot faster and less stressful than hauling a boat on and off busy Cape Cod during the summer.
Once July rolls around, many anglers set a course for Stellwagen Bank to hunt bluefin tuna. The southwest and southeast corners of the bank are perennial hot spots, but if the tuna action is slow, it’s a short run southeast to other productive areas like The Race, Peaked Hill Bar and the Golf Balls. Tuna can also be found inside the protective bowl of Cape Cod Bay, so keep an eye out for busting fish if traversing these waters.
Effective techniques include casting plugs or deep-jigging with super-heavy spinning gear; live-lining mackerel, pogies and bluefish; trolling splash bars, and chunking.
Mako, thresher and blue sharks are popular summer targets in the deeper waters east of Stellwagen. Blues are especially numerous, and often top the 200-pound mark. The usual drill is to set up a chum slick over prominent bottom structure or temperature breaks and drift live baits under balloons or kites.
Note that you must have a Massachusetts saltwater fishing permit or one from a reciprocating state (NH, RI, CT) to fish in state waters. Cost is $10 for both residents and non-residents, and permits can be ordered online. No license is needed if fishing from one of the many charter or party boats based in the harbor.
— Tom Richardson
On the Waterfront
The harbor’s main drag is always bustling with activity. There are all sorts of options to fill your time, from whale-watching and sunset cruises to ghost tours and wine-tastings. Dozens of restaurants dot the landscape, offering water views and a wide variety of menu selections.
For casual dining and a spectacular water view, Cabbyshack is an affordable, family-friendly option. If you’re looking for more upscale waterfront dining, try the East Bay Grille, which has both an elegant interior along with an outdoor bar that features seating in Adirondack chairs. The lively Waterfront Bar & Grill and the Tavern on the Wharf also offer waterfront dining.
Of course, the harbor also features the requisite clam shacks, burger joints and pizza parlors, along with many sports pubs and breakfast spots along Water Street and nearby Court Street. For shoppers, Plymouth’s downtown offers a plethora of boutique clothing, jewelry and novelty shops, all close to the water. You could spend hours perusing Main Street Antiques alone.
If you’re interested in the arts, the Spire Center for the Performing Arts hosts top-flight musical acts and theatrical productions in a three-story, 225-seat hall close to the harbor. Plimoth Plantation also shows nightly movies under the stars throughout the summer.
One of Plymouth Harbor’s biggest events of the year is the Waterfront Festival, held each August. The all-day extravaganza features two stages of live entertainment, 50 craft and vendor booths, 30 food trucks, a classic car show and many family activities.
There’s a reason why Plymouth is labeled “America’s Hometown.” Like the Pilgrims, you’ll know you’ve arrived in a special place the moment you step ashore. And hopefully you’ll stay a while too.