2005-03-17 / Travel

Salem Mass. Has Lots More Than Witches

By Gina Carbone

It was where Alexander Graham Bell gave the first public demonstration of his telephone. It was the home of Na-thaniel Hawthorne, who conceived The Scarlet Letter while working at the Custom House and made famous the House of the Seven Gables, New Eng-land’s oldest surviving mansion. It was one of the first communities in America, and for a time one of the wealthiest. It was called Naumkeag when Roger Co-nant and his followers arrived there in 1626, then renamed Salem, adapted from “shalom,” meaning peace. And, yes, it was the home of the most famous trials in American history.

Sure, when you’re there you can hit the expected spots like Salem Witch Village, Witch Dungeon Museum, the Witch House, Witch History Museum, the Spellbound Museum, and so on. But you can also walk down the brick and cobblestone streets of a classic New England village; wander through quaint antique stores and galleries on Pickering Wharf; linger in a hip coffee bar like Fuel; check out the New Eng-land Pirate Museum; go for a whale watch; tour Salem Beer Works, New England’s oldest and largest restaurant brewery; and spend at least a few hours at the newly transformed and genuinely gorgeous Peabody Essex Museum. With everything there is to do and see in Salem, Mass.—just 15 miles up the coast from Boston—you may plum forget all about the “W” word (unless you happen to pick up a copy of The Salem News, whose logo is a witch on a broomstick).

One of the best things about New England is its sense of history. Massa-chusetts in particular is steeped in reminders of the events of America’s inception, such as tea parties, massacres, famous rides and the aforementioned witch trials. Another great thing about New England is how pleasantly quirky it is: the criss-crossed roads, the one-way streets, the colorful architecture, the squeaky floors, the absolute conviction that, yes, there is a ghost in the attic. The place has character.

As such, you shouldn’t leave Salem without a good story. One could be how you got lost trying to navigate the three separate 19th-century homes that make up the Salem Inn, and how it was all worth it when you saw your room.

There are 42 guest rooms at the inn — 23 of them in the West House, which has four pet-friendly floors and various books to borrow. Next door is the smaller Curwen House, an Italianate Revival building. The Peabody House—where I lounged on a four-poster bed and toyed with the idea of lighting up either the fireplace or the whirlpool bath—has a honeymoon suite as well as family suites with kitchenettes. But to get to the complimentary continental breakfasts, you have to take a small trek and go outside, past the West House and under a black awning to what ap-pears to be a refinished basement.

It’s all about the discovery. Which is why Salem is so ideal for wandering. Pick a base camp—your hotel, most likely—and everything else you might want to see is probably 10 minutes in any direction. From the Salem Inn, walk toward the downtown area and your feet will trod through the brick passages of the Essex Street pedestrian mall to the bold, modern Peabody Essex Museum (PEM). The nation’s oldest continually operating museum (pictured at left), PEM’s collections exceed 2.4 million works in 24 historic buildings, including four National His-toric Landmarks, five National Register buildings, and—the most recent architecture acquisition—Yin Yu Tang, the only complete house dating from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) that is lo-cated outside China.

PEM recently reopened after a $150 million expansion, aiming to create an

experience that celebrates artistic and cultural achievements from around the world. As a result, Korean art, photos of Havana, an African wine cup, contemporary Indian oil paintings, Japanese export art and a portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne sit within steps of each other. You might get a little lost in PEM, too. It takes a while to find everything, but it’s all connected.

Speaking of getting connected: Before “Can you hear me now?” became a catch-phrase, it was probably on Alexander Graham Bell’s mind when he gave the first public demonstration of his telephone at the Lyceum Hall in 1877. Now you can enter the Lyceum Bar & Grill, nibble an arugula salad and think about how exciting that first call must have been. Before telemarketers!

The Lyceum prides itself on offering local ingredients and global flavors, which is also a handy way of summing up the area: a place firmly rooted in Yankee history and tradition but cosmopolitan enough to attract people from around the world, including the House of the Seven Gables, the Salem Witch Museum, Peabody Essex Museum and the Salem Trolley, as well as a 30 percent discount on lunch or dinner at select restaurants. The pass is not valid during holidays or the wild month of October, but that’s fine. View it as an opportunity to see the Salem that those Halloween-crazed visitors overlook.

So as you rest your wharf-walk-weary feet on a bench in Salem Common, watching the lovely Victorian lamps light paths on the green, take a deep breath of seaport air and pat yourself on the back for finding the other side of Salem. After all, it takes a lot more than witches to make a city magical. ©2005 Car&Travel Monthly

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