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Tradition of Seafaring Runs Deep in Rockport

October 29, 1989|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers

ROCKPORT, Mass. — Hannah Jumper, a resident of some girth who wore green-glass spectacles and harbored a horror of rum and all its evils, went on an ax-and-hatchet rampage here in the 1870s and trashed every grog shop, keg and bottle in town, causing Rockport to go dry and remain so to this day.

While that forerunner of Carry Nation was wreaking havoc in the watering holes, Rockport, Gloucester, Essex, Manchester and other villages of Cape Ann just went about doing what they'd always done best: build ships and catch fish.

A story is told of the Gloucester minister who welcomed his congregation with a reminder that "We have come here to praise God." To which a vocal parishioner shouted, ". . . and catch fish."

While some claim that Norsemen landed here in the 11th Century, it's certain that the hardy folks of Cape Ann have been up to their sou'westers in the seafaring life since Capt. John Smith arrived in 1614, followed shortly thereafter by fishing expeditions from England that settled the first communities.

Cape Ann combines all the best of coastal New England: schooners and lapstraked dinghies in colorful harbors, historic homes, lots of beaches, antique shops galore, glorious seafood and friendly natives.

To here: Fly American, United, USAir, Northwest, Continental or TWA to Boston. Hourly commuter trains make the run up the North Shore to Cape Ann, or you can drive it in about an hour.

How long/how much? You could easily spend a week hacking around the cape, fishing, shopping, sunning or just watching the boats sail by. Food and lodging costs are moderate. Late spring is wonderful, with the lilacs in bloom; summers are kept pleasant with ocean breezes, while autumn is a masterpiece of foliage and crisp air. There's good bus service between towns.

Getting settled in: Peg Leg Inn (2 King St., Rockport; $65 to $90 double B&B) is made up of five Early American clapboard homes in sparkling white with green shutters. Many of the rooms look out on the coastline and sandy beach just across the road, all of them cool and cheerful with crisp white curtains and Vermont maple furniture.

Breakfast is served in a lovely room with exquisite rugs, spinning wheel and flowering plants. You may carry it to your own room or to a spacious deck. Ask for a front room in the main house if possible; the views and ocean breezes are marvelous.

Seaward Inn (Marmion Way, Rockport; $126-$164 double, half-pension), built as a private home, is now the main inn with separate cottages added, most of the latter with fireplaces and simple kitchen gear. The inn has large and homey living rooms with fireplaces, handsome mantle clocks, old Orientals on polished-wood floors and lots of greenery.

The small dining room has fresh flowers on each table, and the evening meals offer a main-course choice of meat or seafood. The day we were there they had lobster and lamb chops, not bad for pension meals. There's a natural-water swimming pool (Lake Kostalotta) on the grounds, also a putting green and bird sanctuary.

Seacrest Manor (131 Marmion Way, Rockport; $84-$90 B&B double, April through November, $62-$80 balance of the year) is a luxurious old manor house high on a hill with a 360-degree view of the sea and countryside. Everything about Seacrest is absolutely first-rate: gorgeous bedrooms, free morning paper under the door, shoes polished, fine library, afternoon tea and breakfasts that have been acclaimed far and wide as New England's best.

You'll probably agree after a fresh fruit cup, original Irish oatmeal, bacon, eggs, a variety of breads and oceans of coffee. Kudos to owner-managers Leighton Saville and Dwight MacCormack, who know how to do things in style.

Regional food and drink: Gloucester's fleet hauls in a lot of "humble" fish: cod, flounder, pollock and scrod. The last, from an old English word meaning "small" or "wee," is just that and, like most really fresh fish, can be excellent. Plenty of more expensive seafood is available, including sea bass, swordfish, halibut and lobster, which is cheapest in late July when they're shedding their shells.

Talk local food on the cape and everyone asks if you've had Virgilio's bread. Virgilio's is an Italian bakery that also turns out Portuguese bread. It figures, because you'll find plenty of other good Italian and Portuguese food hereabouts.

And forget Hannah Jumper's anti-booze crusade, as you can take your own wine or hard stuff to most restaurants and expect a civilized welcome and set-ups.

Good dining: You can smell the fried clams before you get out of the car at Woodman's (Massachusetts 133, Essex). Folks are still lined up for lunch at 2 o'clock. Lawrence and Betsie Woodman opened this very casual (and that's putting it mildly) place in 1914 and fried their first clam two years later, claiming it was the first to hit a pan anywhere on earth.

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