This old stone building on Water Street once housed a candleworks. Photo Tom Croke

 

For the majority of folks, Woods Hole is a mere way station, a place to kill an hour or two while waiting for the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard. That’s too bad, as this charming village—part of the town of Falmouth—is worth getting to know more intimately. And boaters are well positioned to do just that.

 

Settled by Europeans in 1659, Woods Hole’s maritime past dates back to the early 1800s, when the village served as a whaling station. Between 1815 and 1860, at least 9 whalers tied up at Bar Neck Wharf, now the U.S. Navy building of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Back then, Water Street was lined with businesses—cooperages, bakeries, candleworks—dedicated to the whaling industry and the fitting out of ships.

This old stone building on Water Street once housed a candleworks. Photo Tom Croke

While whaling ports were certainly no perfumeries, Woods Hole entered an even more malodorous era in 1859, when a group of businessmen formed the Pacific Guano Company and built a huge factory that processed guano-based fertilizer on what is now Penzance Point. It was said that the noxious vapors carried by a westerly wind were so powerful they would cause the tide to run in the opposite direction.

Modern Times

The Captain Kidd restaurant offers dockage on Eel Pond. Photo Tom Richardson

Today, Woods Hole is decidedly better smelling, especially if you happen to stand downwind of its many restaurants, most of which specialize in seafood. Among them is the venerable Captain Kidd’s on Eel Pond. The adjoining marina offers dockage to boating patrons, along with great water and sunset views. Another waterfront institution is the Landfall, which offers live entertainment and a festive bar scene overlooking the busy harbor.

Two other highly rated kids on the block are the Quicks Hole Tavern and Quicks Hole Tacqueria, which serve lunch, dinner and brunch, including creative tacos and sandwiches. They also offer a wide selection of wines, beers and cocktails. Looking to cool off with some ice cream and other frozen treats? Head for Jimmy’s, right around the corner from the ferry terminal.

Science Center

Visitors can observe marine life at the intimate Woods Hole Science Aquarium at the end of Water Street. Photo Tom Richardson

Of course, there’s more to explore in Woods Hole than its eateries. There are plenty of shops in and around the village center, but the main attraction is the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. WHOI was founded in 1930 in what was already an established scientific research community, thanks in large part to Spencer Baird, the first commissioner of the U.S. Commission of Fish & Fisheries, who created a government headquarters in Woods Hole in 1871. WHOI researchers have long been at the forefront of ocean studies and exploration, and the world-renowned institution maintains a fleet of research vessels at its docks on Woods Hole Harbor.

Just down the street from WHOI is the small but no less interesting Woods Hole Science Aquarium. This kid-friendly spot has over 140 species of local marine critters on display, including some in touch tanks. You can even get a “behind the scenes” look at how the tanks are maintained.

Yet another local waypoint worth visiting is the Woods Hole Historical Museum, home to all kinds of interesting exhibits and artifacts relating to the village’s past. The intimate museum also maintains a collection of well-preserved small wooden boats and other nautical items from the past.

Getting Ashore

Ah, but how does a boater gain access this eclectic enclave of shops, restaurants and institutions? Admittedly, Woods Hole can be a tricky and intimidating place to visit by boat, given its swift currents, gauntlet of reefs and amount of boat traffic, which includes the New Bedford fast ferry and the frequent comings and goings of the hulking Vineyard ferries, not to mention the mosquito fleet of local skiff fishermen.

If you’ve never navigated Woods Hole before, it can be quite an experience. Indeed, one is often left to marvel at the courage of early mariners who did it under sail power alone. Good advice, particularly for sailors, is to make sure you have adequate auxiliary power and to travel at slack tide or with the tide. The current can run so fast here that some boats can’t make headway. Many get in trouble on the incoming tide, as they make the turn between “Broadway” and the “Strait”. If you don’t have enough power, you’ll get pushed onto Red Ledge.

Eel Pond Secrets

The Eel Pond drawbridge opens on the half-hour in summer. Photo Tom Richardson

Once safely inside protected Great Harbor, small boats can be tied up for short periods at the public pier adjacent to the launch ramp at the end of Albatross Street. The other option is to head for Eel Pond. The narrow entrance to the pond (depth 7’) can be tricky to spot, but you’ll find it adjacent to the Landfall restaurant. The drawbridge over the inlet opens every half-hour during the summer, and you can tie up alongside the bulkhead while you wait.

Inside Eel Pond, you can try to arrange for a slip at Woods Hole Marine or Pinky’s Marina. Skiffs and dinghies can also be left at the town docks on the western side of the pond while you go ashore for a few hours. Anchoring is not allowed in Eel Pond.

If you have a larger vessel, check in with the folks at Woods Hole Marine to see if they have a mooring available inside Eel Pond or in Great Harbor. You can also anchor in Great Harbor, as long as you do not impede traffic in the fairway channel. Contact the harbormaster to be on the safe side.

No matter how you find your way into Woods Hole, it’s worth the effort. From science to seafood, there’s much to discover about this overlooked village brimming with Cape Cod charm.