July 30, 2019
Rolling on the River: Newburyport, MA
Perched on the shores of the mighty Merrimack River, the city of Newburyport has seen a lot of changes in the past 250 years, but it’s looking pretty good these days, especially from the water. By Holly Parker; Photography by Scott Goodwin
Newburyport’s past is defined by the river, which pours down from the New Hampshire mountains and empties into the Atlantic at Plum Island. Initially a trading powerhouse that saw its first commercial wharf built in 1655, Newburyport was once a homeport for privateers who plundered enemy ships in the early 1800’s; a mill town dotted with tanneries and steam-powered mills in the mid-1800’s, and a center of shipbuilding made famous by its schooners and clipper ships. After falling on hard times, things became dire as the mills and shops were shuttered, making Newburyport a dingy and disreputable place for much of the 20th century.
Like Portsmouth and Portland to the north, Newburyport wisely invested in the revitalization and preservation of its historic downtown in the late 1970’s, pulling itself from economic slumber by promoting its best asset—its waterfront. Today, regal Victorian homes, brick Federalist mansions, and colonial houses painted in creams, blues, and browns line the streets just outside the bustling downtown on High Street, and are well worth the walk for architectural aficionados. History buffs will want to check out the Custom House Maritime Museum on Water Street.
Dining Options Galore
Newburyport is now appreciated by boaters and terrestrial travelers alike. In early spring, visitors and residents eager to take advantage of long-waited sunshine pack the brick sidewalks. Outdoor seating at the many restaurants and cafes is prime real estate. Fortunately, there is no shortage of dining options.
The Black Cow and Michael’s both offer riverside dining, while dozens of other restaurants and bars throughout downtown serve everything from Chinese and Indian to Mexican and Italian cuisine. If you want a real taste of local flavor, be sure to check out The Grog on Middle Street, a favorite watering hole that usually features some fine musical entertainment. The Firehouse Center for the Arts in Market Square offers a great lineup of music, theater, and visual art exhibits as well.
As you stroll along the riverside boardwalk, check out Oldie’s big red barn, a decades-old mecca for flea-market fanciers. At the entrance, a life-sized black cow sporting an Asian rice hat beckons shoppers to explore the cool, dimly lit stalls packed with colored glassware, movie posters, vintage clothes and records, furniture and endless knick-knacks.
For those with more refined shopping tastes, a quick walk to Market Square, as well as State and Pleasant Streets, will lead you to everything from gourmet provisions to luxury pajamas. Local boutiques offer the finest fashions for the whole family—including pets. Just like the Merrimack, the streets flow with a strong current of people enjoying the beautiful New England summer and fall afternoons.
Ironically, many boaters cruise past Newburyport due to the very river that has sustained it for over two and a half centuries. The Merrimack’s narrow mouth is notoriously challenging as 177 miles of water rushes into the Atlantic between Plum Island to the south and Salisbury to the north. The inlet conditions get particularly hairy when the ebb tide meets an easterly wind. It’s one reason the Coast Guard has been stationed at Plum Island for more than 100 years. However, the wise mariner who pays attention to his chart and monitors the inlet conditions will be just fine.
Few people know the inlet as well as Captain Chris Charos of Newburyport Whale Watch, who navigates the river every day from May to October. He is a third-generation captain, following in the footsteps of this father, George, and grandfather, Christos. As such, he has spent most of his life on these waters. His best advice is simple: respect the water.
“This area of the Merrimack River has a very strong current and a narrow entrance,” says Charos. “Anything can happen very quickly with weather changes and tide flow. Like me, lots of local commercial operators travel in and out two to three times a day. Most would say they have been caught off guard at some point.”
Be sure to take advantage of local resources by planning ahead and checking on conditions. “Make a call [to the Coast Guard], get some local knowledge and advice if in doubt,” advises Charos. “The river can be tricky at times with sandbars and rocks upriver, but it’s also an amazing place to visit, with great fishing and some amazing scenery.”
Plum of an Island
Indeed, no trip to Newburyport is complete without at least a day spent at Plum Island, only four miles from downtown. This fragile barrier beach is under constant threat from Atlantic storms. The northern end is home to a community of tightly packed cottages, while the southern end is part of the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, which hosts more than 800 species of birds, plants, and animals during the year. The beach is pristine, but beware of riptides.
Perhaps the best way to enjoy the serenity of the southern end of the island and the Parker River is to take a guided tour with Plum Island Kayak. And be sure to stop by Mass Audubon’s Joppa Flats Education Center on the way to the island so you can learn which bird species to be looking for as you paddle through the marshes.
Don’t be deterred by the Merrimack’s somewhat fearsome reputation. With a bit of skill and local info, you can enjoy all Newburyport and Plum Island have to offer.
Newburyport At a Glance
(978) 462-3746; VHF 12
Dockage, Moorings & Service
Transients can tie up at along Waterfront Park on a first-come, first-served basis from Memorial Day through Columbus Day. There is a three-hour limit and the rate is $2 to $6 an hour (water and electric included), depending on vessel size. The harbormaster’s staff collects fees on site. The town also has four moorings available for overnight stays at $25 per night. Call the harbormaster on VHF Channel 12 for dockage availability and assistance.
This “transient boater’s hub” features 70 slips for boats up to 125 feet. It’s a short walk to downtown shopping, and dining, and features a ship’s store that sells bait, tackle, soda, ice, apparel, marine supplies, and more.
Accommodates boats up to 60 feet with 225 slips. The onsite Summer Club offers a private ramp, allowing members to keep their boat on land and launch anytime. Also features a ship’s store offering bait, tackle, soda, ice, apparel, marine supplies and more.
(978) 462-3990; newburyportmarinas.com
Just three miles from the mouth of the Merrimack with 65 slips. Hilton’s can accommodate boats up to 100 feet and is a short walk to downtown shopping, dining, and activities. Marina offers service, repair, laundry, pump out and more. Home to the Black Cow restaurant and Plum Island Coffee Roasters.
Windward Yacht Yard
Offers slips and moorings conveniently located downtown and adjacent to Michael’s Harborside restaurant. Also offers showers, laundry, service, and repair.
Family-owned full-service marina offering transient moorings and transient dockage, free parking, free WiFi and showers. Also has a ship’s store and parts department.
Offers moorings, dockage for boats up to 80 feet, dock space, 50-ton Travelift, ramp with parking and handicapped accessible bathrooms.
Transient dockage available; reservations required. Amenities include ample parking, pool, and restrooms with showers.
An excellent launch facility with ample parking, pump out and restrooms is located just west of the Gillis/Rte. 1 Bridge at Cashman Park. $10 daily fee. Attendant on duty.
Where to Eat
Waterfront dining overlooking the Merrimack.
A favorite among boaters, Michael’s is close to many local marinas and offers outdoor waterfront dining.
Housed in a converted Baptist church, this restaurant offers some serious ambiance.
Local watering hole with good food and great music.
Great food, even better margaritas.
This restaurant alone is worth the trip to Plum Island.
Great boutique filled with funky outfits both new and gently used.
You can easily get lost in this massive indoor flea market on the water.
Best of British
From textiles to tea, this shop will please any Anglophile.
While there’s no shortage of restaurants in town, you’ll want to check out this market for delicious provisions for the next leg of your cruise.
Plum Island shop full of locally made gifts and products.
Things to See & Do
Unique collection of maritime art, model clipper ships, displays of famous shipwrecks, a history of the Coast Guard and more.
Fun, educational programs for all ages. Explore salt marshes, mudflats, rivers, bays, and coastal waters through guided tours, marine touch tanks, art exhibits, drop-in programs and interpretive displays.
Films, plays, shows and other artful events at Market Square.
Amazing natural marsh system on and behind Plum Island.
Kayak and stand-up paddleboard rental. Guided tours of the Parker River.
Whale-watch tours launching from Plum Island.