Rockport, MA: Worth the Visit

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I’ve always found that the best cure for the end of summer blues is to plan a fall getaway. Living on the East Coast provides ample options in every direction, but year after year, my mind wanders toward New England where ever-changing seascapes, vibrant foliage, and soothing eats deliver unrivaled comfort. (Hudson Valley’s Mohonk Mountain House also fills my fall-getaway fantasies, however it’s a bit less budget friendly than cozying up in an off-season, off the beaten path bed and breakfast.) And now that I’ve discovered Rockport, Massachusetts, I have a new destination to add to my great escape daydreaming.

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Those familiar with Rockport, Maine, might attest to this renown spot as being more noteworthy than its southern counterpart, but take away Andre the Seal, and Rockport, MA stands tall as an equally charming harbor town. (It’s also closer to Philly; just an hour north of Boston.)

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Along with numerous art galleries, there’s a vibrant music and arts scene. Motif No. 1, pictured above, is apparently the most-painted and photographed building in the world, and the Shalin Liu Performance Center delivers a diverse soundtrack of jazz, folk, chamber, pop and world music to locals and tourists all summer long. The image below a hard image to capture, but hopefully you can get a feel for how pretty this seaside music venue is. 2013’s lineup included Judy Collins, Suzanne Vega, Branford Marsalis, Paula Cole (born and bred) and several other contemporary and legendary artists.

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On a trivia note, Rockport is the site of several feature films, including Mermaids (1990) and The Proposal (2009). One of the town’s kitschy shops, R3 Sons Fun Emporium, proudly sports an autographed photo of Sandra Bullock among its eclectic inventory (including this life-size Gumby).

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Visiting this picturesque coastal town with my 14-year-old son made for a different experience than I might have had with my husband or girlfriends, but we still managed to cover the most important details: seafood, candy, coffee, hot cocoa and a sweatshirt. The weather was perfect for indulging in comfort food (65 degrees and rainy), and because it was a weekday, parking near, and strolling along, the main drag was stress-free. Had we not been staying nearby at my niece’s seaside cottage—and her daughter not shown up with a bagful of candy from the Bearskin Neck Country Store—we might not have made the trek. This legendary tourist attraction gives new meaning to the expression, “Like a kid in the candy store.” Side note: The store also sells just about every kind of cookie cutter imaginable.

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A progressive aroma of handmade chocolate, strudel, and fresh, steamed and fried fish, trailed down Bearskin Neck (the main shopping area), setting our appetites on fire. My son wanted Italian, but the only acceptable meal to me was going to come from a fryer or a steamer. Luckily, the place he’d read about was no longer in business, so swaying him to my side of New England eats was only a half-battle.

Hitting the candy store beforehand also helped. If you’re traveling with kids and not against a little candy consumption, you’ll realize there’s no getting out of this place empty-handed.

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We’d luxuriously dined on local lobster (at a paltry $5.99/pound) the night before, so despite the display of crustaceans and other fish at The Roy Moore Lobster Company—the house special is just-plucked lobster cooked in seawater—I kept walking.

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As soon as we stepped inside Top Dog, recommended to us by one of the shopkeepers, my heart skipped a beat. The tiny eatery pleasantly reeked of taboo foods—French fries, onion rings, mac & cheese, chili, hot dogs and fried fish—a devilish fragrance only made possible by good quality frying oil, a light coating of corn meal or seasoned flour, and a perfectly calibrated temperature somewhere between 350 and 375.

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I didn’t waste any time ordering the most expensive item on the menu—the day’s catch of whole-belly longneck clams. Plumper and full of ocean flavor, these decadent morsels had a juicy pop that when mingled with the crunchy coating and creamy tartar sauce, sent my taste buds into sensory overload.

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Leaving any of these tasty tidbits in the cardboard container was out of the question (especially at $16.99), but my belly was no match for these bellies. If you do one thing in Rockport, stuffing yourself with full-belly clams at Top Dog is it.

Had I done more research about the town’s sightseeing offerings, I would have detoured into The Paper House (a house and furnishings made completely out of paper), but there’s enough to see without doing (or spending) too much. In our rainy day laze, we were happy as clams meandering up and down Bearskin Neck and Main Street, ducking down random stairways, sneaking peeks at hidden gardens, winding up and down the spiral staircase at Toad Hall Book Store, and ogling over the gourmet food items and cooking/entertaining gear at Lulu’s Pantry. (Don’t be fooled; my son only cared about the dried pasta selection.)

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Though we were just biding time till the clouds broke and we could get out onto the beach, our ill-researched, touristy adventure proved to be very satisfying. Now that I know more about Rockport, I have a hankering to go back for a few days and explore not just more of the main town, but also Halibut State Park, Thatcher’s Island and the many other attractions. More than anything, though, I’d love to take in a concert at Shalin Liu. What could be better than a live music performance set against the sea? (Well, maybe an opera at San Galgano, but that’s a whole other blog…)

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