Plymouth, MA: America's 'Hometown'
Where History, Nature Combine in Delightful Family Getaway
By Karen Rubin
Plymouth is marvelous in summer but really comes into its own in fall, the cranberry harvest time that culminates with what has become our traditional Thanksgiving. But America's "Hometown" has so much to offer, it has become a destination for all seasons, and is one of my favorite places to explore.
Plymouth's authenticity makes possible serendipitous experiences: from a whale-watching adventure into the middle of a pod of 30 whales on a gloriously perfect sunny afternoon (these are wild animals, after all, so you never can predict what you will see), to a Colonial Lantern Tour to explore Plymouth's ghostly past, to the characters and chance encounters during a visit to Plimoth Plantation.
For families, coming during fall is that much more pleasant since the John Carver Inn built its $1.5 million indoor waterpark, with a 30-foot waterslide that flows out of a 40-foot replica of the Mayflower II (there is even a "1620 Plymouth Rock", a lap pool, sauna and fitness center (open until 9 p.m.).
Affording the amenities of a resort but the charm of an inn, the John Carver is owned by the Catania family which also owns the renowned 46-room Daniel Webster Inn (originally built in 1692) in Sandwich on Cape Cod, the totally renovated Cape Codder Resort in Hyannis (which also has an amazing indoor waterpark) and a chain of nine Hearth and Kettle restaurants.
Recently renovated, the John Carver Inn, which is open year round, offers 79 spacious rooms plus six suites (these have working fireplaces and Jacuzzis, plush terry robes, iron and ironing board, even the water into the shower was specially filtered). It has elegant features yet is very family friendly, and the closest to a true "resort"-style accommodation in Plymouth.
The Inn also features one of the extremely popular Hearth & Kettle restaurants (for which the Catania family is famous), providing an amazing selection of New England fare including some distinctive specialties, at moderate prices: baked stuffed swordfish, $13.99; a delectable lobster & corn chowder with all the flavor of a Cape Cod Summer, $4.99; a lobster stew, $10.99 (sauted lobster with sherry and cream); and a clam chowder was chock full of clams and potatoes. There was also plenty to delight children's picky palates, like marvelous mozzarella sticks and burgers. Our entrees came with butternut squash which was delectable-seasoned with maple syrup and a hint of ginger (makes you think of Thanksgiving, even in summer).
The John Carver also affords excellent value, with room rates as low as $89 to $119 from Thanksgiving through early April, and $129 to $179 in peak season (children 19 and under stay free). It also offers its guests a Passport to History plan, which includes admissions to the most popular attractions including Plimoth Plantation, the Mayflower II, and a choice of Colonial Lantern Tour, Plymouth National Wax Museum or Trolley Tour ($330-$510 in peak season for two, based on double occupancy; $290 to $470 in the shoulder season). On some evenings, there is also a dinner theater and cabaret show.
The John Carver Inn is ideally situated in the historic district, a stone's throw from the first Courthouse, the first Church, Pilgrim Park and the historic Burial Hill; it is across the street from 1640 Sparrow House and the Jenny Grist Mill and walking distance to Main Street and Plymouth Harbour. The Plymouth Rock Trolley stops at the lobby door and the Colonial Lantern Tours regularly start their 9 p.m. "Ghost & Legends" evening tours from the lobby. The hotel can also arrange to play golf on two courses in the area.
Plymouth is a delightful walking village with much to discover. But it is particularly enchanting at night, with the glow of street lamps and quiet of the streets.
Walking down Main Street on one moonlit night, we happened on one of Plymouth's newest attraction, Coffin's Ghost Theatre. These are true ghost stories "with a scary plot" researched and presented by Madame Theresa Coffin (her real name), who is dressed in 1800s funeral attire. The shows, presented at 9 p.m. (two shows on Saturday), are held in a candlelit Victorian parlor setting. It is spooky, but G-rated; "We've had a five year old fall asleep but a 14-year old screaming," says the proprietor. Reservations are strongly suggested (1 hr 15 min, $15/adult, $10/child 6-12; during October, the rate is $20 pp). Coffin's Ghost Theatre, 47 Main St., Plymouth, MA 508-830-1885, www.mtcoffin.com.
A particularly delightful way to become immersed in Plymouth's history is through Colonial Lantern Tours, nightly walking tours. We chose the 9 p.m. "Ghosts and Legends" tour offered nightly from April through November which focuses on Plymouth's macabre past and the legends of ghostly haunts, as many other families with young children did (actually, parents should use discretion because it is a long time walking for younger kids; families may be wiser to choose the 7:30 p.m. history tour). We were each given a tin lantern, known as Revere Lanterns, each with its special design which in colonial days, would have identified the family carrying it. The tour started appropriately enough at the cemetery and went on about a mile-long loop back to the John Carver Inn, covering the major sites, including Plymouth Rock.
Most people are disappointed when they first see Plymouth Rock, imagining it to be more like the Rock of Gibraltar (an image cultivated by a famous painting of the Pilgrims landing, actually on Clark's Island in the Bay) than the wee stone it now is, albeit enshrined. But the Rock, which literally became split in half when it was moved from its original place, in 1774, became a major symbol of America's religious freedom and independence from England, literally serving to rally the people behind the Revolutionaries. During the rallies, people would get "a piece of the rock" as a souvenir.
Special Halloween Ghostly Haunts tours are offered Oct. 19-30, which depart from Colonial Lantern's offices at 5 North Street, and head into Burial Hill, where they feature tales of Mother Crewe (a Plymouth woman who was known to be a witch in the 1700s). Two tours are offered nightly at 7 p.m. & 8:45 p.m.; reservation only; $14/adults, $11/children (parents should use discretion).
The Colonial Lantern Tours are offered nightly through Thanksgiving weekend, plus for the four days of Thanksgiving (Wed.-Sat.), instead of the 7:30 history tour, they do a tour each hour from 4 to 8 p.m., departing from the Governor Bradford Hotel (reservations recommended, $10/adult, $8/children, $7 pp for family of four or more. However, special tours can be arranged in the "off-season". (800-698-5636, www.lanterntours.com or www.plimouth.com, or www.ghost.net).
There are several different ways to sightsee around Plymouth-you can take the Plymouth Rock Trolley (now owned by the Colonial Lantern Tours company) which makes stops at 40 historical sites; you pay a single fare but can get on and off throughout the day, to visit the various attractions (pick ups are every 20 minutes), or you can just stay on for the narrated tour, which takes about 1 ½ hours. Altogether, the sites are fairly spread out (particularly Plimoth Plantation).
You can also take Splashdown Tours' army amphibious vehicle, now pressed into service as sightseeing "bus" (licensed by US Coast Guard, have lifejackets under seat). Half the time is spent on land, and then, amazingly and much to everyone's amusement, the vehicle drives right into the water for a tour of the harbor and close-up of the Mayflower II and Plymouth Rock (April through November, 508-747-7658).
There is so much to do: The Pilgrim Hall Museum which exhibits the actual possessions of these brave souls; the Plymouth National Wax Museum (actually quite well done and engaging); the 1749 Court House & Museum, where artifacts and exhibits dating from early Pilgrim days to the turn of the century are presented (a free exhibit); and historic homes like the 1640 Sparrow House and Jabez Howland House.
Plimoth Plantation Provides Path to Past
The premier attraction in Plymouth (and deservedly so) is Plimoth Plantation, a re-creation of the first true settlement in the New World in 1627. Walking through Plimoth Plantation, you encounter people who have assumed the identities of those actual residents, going about their daily routine during that year. We are visitors who naturally are curious about their day-to-day existence, just as native Americans would have come by to visit and wonder at these newcomers. Each day corresponds to a day in the year 1627; the colonists perform activities appropriate to the season and their station in life and utilize the tools and methods of the time.
1627 is a critical year. It has been seven years since the Mayflower landed at Plymouth in 1620, and the Mayflower Compact, obligating them to work together for seven years together to repay their sponsors in England, was due to expire. The settlers were expecting to be given land outside the settlement. There was concern, we learn from our conversations with the colonists, because they learned of attacks by Indians in Virginia and were fearful, though in Plymouth, they still enjoyed good relations with the Wampanoag tribe.
The conversations are so engaging-even adults will soon come under the spell and begin to forget that the person they are engaged in animated discussion with is not truly of that time. They speak in 17th-century dialects (not at all what modern Englishmen speak) and will only respond to a question in context of what they would already know.
A short walk beyond the settlement, alongside the Eel River, you come upon the Hobbamock Homesite, a native settlement. Hobbamock was counselor to the sachem (king) Massasoit of Pokanoket, and moved to Plymouth with his family as an ambassador from his people. They were the only Wampanoag family known to have lived with the colonists in the 1620s. But here, the interpreters, though dressed as Wampanoag and doing the tasks appropriate to the time (like building a canoe, preparing food, sewing hides), speak from a 20th century perspective because not enough is known to assume the identity of the indigenous people of the region.
What makes Plimoth Plantation truly unique is not only its attempt to present history as objectively and accurately as possible, but that it describes the "irreconcilable differences" of the two cultures that fatefully came together on these shores. Most historic sites describe the point of view of colonists/pioneers or native peoples; here there is an unapologetic depiction of change over decades of time that lead to the Europeans overwhelming the native people and their culture.
Visiting Plimoth Plantation is only half the experience. Just 2 ½ miles away, anchored at the Plymouth wharf is Mayflower II, a full-scale replica of the ship which carried 102 passengers and 25 crew to the New World on a harrowing 66-day voyage. Walking through the 90-foot vessel, you get an appreciation of the hardship these people experienced. There are costumed interpreters here, as well, who recreate the period in 1620 just before the Mayflower sailed away again.
Plimoth Plantation is open April through November, 9 a.m to 5 p.m.; a combination ticket (Plimoth Plantation & Mayflower II) is $22/adult, $14/child (6-12, under 5 free); seniors and AAA members get $2 discount. The combination ticket allows you two-days of admissions. Visiting Plimoth Plantation-only is $20/adult, $18/senior, $12 child 6-12; Mayflower II-only is $8/adult, and $6/child. For information about family activities, special events and programs, call 508-746-1622; www.plimoth.org.
The richness of Plymouth's historic attractions can overshadow its "nature" side, but there is much to do in this respect as well, from whale-watching and deep-sea fishing, to kayaking, biking, and beachcombing.
Plymouth used to be a center for whaling, now it is very much a center for whale-watching tours. Capt. John Boats has one of the biggest fleets and does an outstanding job in providing a very comfortable, enjoyable, scenic cruise-not to mention the thrill of actually seeing whales close up. Visitors are taken 16 miles out across the Cape Cod Bay to Stellwagen Bank, a marine sanctuary which is the major feeding ground for these majestic creatures, including humpback, finback, minke, right and pilot whale.
(Bring sunscreen, sunglasses, hat, sweatshirt/pants or windbreaker, and camera with long lens and plenty of film; if you are susceptible to seasickness, take Dramamine or Bonine about one-half hour before departure, though this is also sold on board; the boat offers a nice concession with reasonably priced snacks and drinks.). Whale-watching is offered beginning in April through the end of October, 800-242-AHOY.
Capt. John Boats also offers deep-sea fishing, harbor tours on a Mississippi-style paddlewheeler, Pilgrim Belle, and a ferry to Provincetown on Cape Cod (departs 10 a.m. and returns 6 p.m., it makes a lovely day trip).
Sailing out into the harbor and the Cape Cod Bay, you can't help but notice the colorful bobbing markers left by lobstermen. Well, families with young children may enjoy a hands-on lobstering excursion on Lobster Tales (did you know lobsters walk forward but swim backwards? They "hear" with their legs and "taste" with their feet?), particularly enjoyable for families with young children 508-746-5342).
Watching all that lobstering makes you crave one. Just steps away from where Capt. John boats dock, there are several places which feature lobsters including Lobster Hut, overlooking the wharf, offers the freshest lobster at a modest price in a rustic atmosphere.
Try to make time for biking at the Cape Cod Canal. On the Plymouth side of the Canal (you get off Highway 3 at Rte 6 going west and there is parking at the National Recreation Center), the paved, flat trail goes for 7.2 miles, wonderfully scenic with the fresh seabreezes and the constant procession of boats. At the very end of the trail, in the town of Buzzards' Bay, there is the new Marine Animal Visitor Center, where there are exhibits now and ultimately, will be a rehabilitation hospital for whales, dolphins, seals and sea turtles.
Also in the area, the Myles Standish State Forest affords more than 16,000 acres for hiking, biking, swimming, fishing and canoeing, including 15 miles of bicycle trails, 20 miles of equestrian trails; in summer, there are interpretive programs such as cranberry bog explorations (508-866-2526).
Another tradition in Plymouth is cranberry cultivation (Ocean Spray offers a free exhibit, Cranberry World at the harbor). The Edaville Railroad, in Carver, offers a Cranberry Harvest Festival in October, and a Christmas Light Festival in November and December. This is a 5 ½-mile ride on an authentic narrow-gauge railway around a cranberry plantation where there is also a museum and children's rides (877-EDAVILLE, www.edaville.org).
Destination Plymouth Packages
There is so much to do in the Plymouth area, it makes a superb hub for a family vacation. Destination Plymouth packages, which combine lodgings with admissions to attractions, are available to help make planning simpler and provide savings.
Indeed, considering the excellent value of staying in Plymouth (as compared to Cape Cod or Boston) and its central location, it makes a superb a hub for longer vacations, from which it is easy to take day trips on to Cape Cod (by car or ferry) and its glorious beaches, or by train in less than an hour (only $4 fare) up into Boston.
To obtain information or help with booking attractions, lodgings and Destination Plymouth packages, call 800-USA-1620, www.visit-plymouth.com.