A Whale of a Time in New Bedford
Updated: Aug 28, 2021
Travel-wise, it's been a long winter. I've scarcely ventured across state lines since last fall, with a whopping total of one post since September (the very first entry about a day on Martha's Vineyard) being about live, out-of-state travel. I am infinitely grateful to those readers who are still with me, listening patiently to my wistful, grandpa-esque ramblings on past travel rather than anything in the present.
Well on May 15, 2021, that changed. It was still a very minor trip, about two hours from my Manchester, NH, home base. But at this point, any change of scenery is extremely welcome. It's like someone recovering from a major injury learning to walk again. You don't lament that you're only on hospital grounds, you're delightedly grateful for the fresh air, companionship, and opportunity.
I recruited Dad for the day away. Our destination was a gritty industrial seaport that neither of us had ever visited in our combined 100+ years of life: New Bedford, Massachusetts.
To those who were forced to read...ahem...enjoyed reading Moby-Dick in high school, the city might sound familiar. It was the book's setting before the crew hit the open seas. I won't give you a full rundown of the historical importance of whaling to this area, but I will highly recommend a visit to the Whaling Museum and Whaling National Historical Park, a compact grid of cobblestoned streets, handsome brick and wooden structures, and a vibe that could have felt eye-rollingly touristy but somehow did not.
Perhaps it was the lack of crowds. Upon arrival we were greeted with perfect weather, 75 degrees and sunny with a breeze. We perambulated the historic district, feeling like we'd stepped back into the mid-19th century but for the contemporary murals, blasts of hip-hop music from slow rolling vehicles, and passersby staring at their iPhones.
We stepped inside the whaling museum, a truly overwhelming and marvelous collection of everything from a life-size whale heart model and modern whale tracking equipment to a remarkable array of paraphernalia from around the world. An Alaskan kayak, Polynesian weaponry, and the awe-inducing intricacies of scrimshaw - art carved into whale bone - were some of the highlights. Every time I thought we had seen the whole museum, there was always another room.
One of my favorite parts was the observation area, a deck with a panoramic view of the working harbor. A humble three stories high, it was perched on just enough of a hill to see over the nearby dwellings.
It was here that we ran into a recent graduate of Xavier University, not exactly a common occurrence in New England. I tipped Dad off that I saw a young man wearing an XU mask, and then he approached and they discussed Cincinnati campus experiences 40+ years apart. I had almost chosen to attend this Jesuit university as well, in 2001, but ultimately decided to stay closer to home. Anyway, I digress.
By 11:00 lunch was on my mind (when is it not?!), so we emerged from the museum around 11:30 and found a quaint-looking European-style café across the street. There was a buzz of activity (the first we'd seen in hours), and I nearly collided with a meal-carrying waitress as I attempted to enter the narrow doorway. Caffeine had been injected into the day, both literally and metaphorically. After a 10-minute wait, we were given a table on some temporary outdoor seating. The sky had suddenly clouded over and breezes threatened to send our napkins skyward, but the atmosphere remained exceedingly agreeable.
Choosing from many Portuguese specialties, I settled on "Chicken Mozambique", intrigued by the name of this mildly spicy, saffron-tinged dish. I'd read about the significant Lusitanian population here, many of whom emigrated from the Azores and Cabo Verde Islands to participate in the whaling industry in the 1800s. This snippet of culture was most welcome, and was enhanced further with the arrival of two chic-looking ladies, 40ish years old, brown-eyed, and sweetly perfumed. They started conversing in bursts of dulcet Portuguese. I couldn't understand a word, but their tone was bright and cheerful.
A brief post-lunch stroll brought us past the Seamen's Bethel, a chapel built specifically for sailors in 1832 and mentioned in Moby-Dick, published in 1851. While we weren't able to go inside, the historical gravitas of the streetscape (on the wonderfully-named Johnny Cake Hill) was affecting.
A few blocks more of scrambling over the cobblestones found us back at the car. The day wasn't yet complete, however. On our way back to New Hampshire we first cut west and crossed over the Rhode Island border, making another stop at the Herreshoff Marine Museum in Bristol. The Herreshoffs were a famous shipbuilding family, known for their design of some of the world's fastest, sleekest sailboats.
While this museum was fascinating in its own way, it seemed somewhat haphazardly laid out and underwhelming after the magnificent Whaling Museum. It was still worth the stop, but coming here second was a bit like encountering a amateur trumpeter tooting away on the sidewalk as you return from the symphony. Pleasant, but infinitely less grandiose. He would have sounded more impressive if we'd heard him first.
In any case, its setting facing west across Bristol Harbor was an added bonus, and we spent a few moments admiring the waterfront and smattering of international flags. We didn't perambulate downtown Bristol, but driving through was highlighted by handsome homes left and right.
Our final stop was at Colt State Park, a collection of expansive grassy areas and crisply-paved walking paths overlooking Narragansett Bay. The atmosphere was one of contented leisure, scents of charcoal escaping from family barbecues and small children "flying" kites that drooped to the ground 5-10 feet away from them. A for effort. The song 'Saturday in the Park' by Chicago came to mind.
Really, that song (which we actually heard on the radio an hour later) not only summed up our time at the park, but also the entire day. There was nothing particularly earth-shaking about anything we did, but it was a chance to get back out into the world after so many months of Covid-induced detention. It was far enough away to glimpse unique places of historical and cultural significance, but close enough that I was back home for dinner.
Am I antsy to expand my travels further afield? Of course. It's now been 16 months since I've been on a plane, and over two years since I've visited a new state. However, patience has rewarded me with a refreshed appreciation for the blessings of New Hampshire, and of New England. Like anything, it's about balance. Aim for the sky, but if you're stuck on the ground for a while, just embrace it and recognize that meaningful experiences can be found no matter where you are.