Business isn't nearly what it once was, but fishing remains Gloucester's leading industry. Tourism is a very close second, and the city is an exceptionally welcoming destination -- residents seem genuinely happy to see out-of-towners and to offer directions and insider info.
Stage Fort Park, off Route 127 at Route 133, offers a superb view of the harbor and has a busy snack bar (summer only) and a playground. It's a good spot for picnicking, barbecuing, swimming, or playing on the cannons in the Revolutionary War fort.
To reach East Gloucester, follow signs as you leave downtown or go directly from Route 128, exit 9. On East Main Street, you'll see signs for the world-famous Rocky Neck Art Colony, headquartered in the Rocky Neck Gallery, 53 Rocky Neck Ave. (tel. 978/282-0917; www.rockyneckartcolony.org), the oldest continuously operating art colony in the country. Park in the lot on the tiny causeway and head west along Rocky Neck Avenue, which abounds with studios, galleries, restaurants, and people. The draw is the presence of working artists, not just shops that happen to sell art. Most galleries are open daily in the summer 10am to 10pm.
The prestigious North Shore Arts Association, 11 Pirates Lane, off East Main Street (tel. 978/283-1857; www.northshoreartsassoc.org), was founded in 1922 and now numbers more than 300 painters, sculptors, and other artists among its members. The exhibits are worth a visit before or after your excursion across the causeway; check ahead for the schedule of workshops, concerts, and other events. The building is open May through October, Monday through Saturday from 10am to 5pm, Sunday noon to 5pm. Admission is free.
Also in East Gloucester, the Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E. Main St. (tel. 978/281-4099; www.gloucesterstage.org), is one of the best repertory troupes in New England. It schedules six plays a season (late May-early Sept); tickets cost $37.
Down by the Sea -- On Stacy Boulevard west of downtown Gloucester is a reminder of the sea's danger. Leonard Craske's bronze statue of the Gloucester Fisherman, known as "the Man at the Wheel," bears the inscription "They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships, 1623-1923" (the phrase is from the 107th Psalm). A few hundred feet west is a memorial to the women and children who waited at home. As you take in the glorious view, consider this: More than 10,000 fishermen lost their lives during the city's first 300 years.
The Perfect Storm -- Long after the release of the blockbuster movie, Sebastian Junger's bestselling book The Perfect Storm remains a popular reason to visit Gloucester. The thrilling but tragic true account of the "no-name" hurricane of 1991 centers on the ocean and a neighborhood tavern. The Crow's Nest, 334 Main St. (tel. 978/281-2965; www.crowsnestgloucester.com), a bit east of downtown, is a no-frills place with a horseshoe-shaped bar and a crowd of regulars who seem amused that their hangout is a tourist attraction. The Crow's Nest plays a major role in Junger's story, but its ceilings weren't high enough to accommodate a movie set, so the film crew built an exact replica nearby. If you admired the movie's wardrobe design, check out the shirts and caps at Cape Pond Ice, 104 Commercial St., near the chamber of commerce (tel. 978/283-0174; www.capepondice.com). "The Coolest Guys Around" have provisioned Gloucester's fishing fleet since 1848. The company offers 40-minute tours of its industrial facility, which is famous for its ice sculptures; bring (or buy) a sweatshirt. The price is $10 for adults, $6 for seniors and children 7 to 11; reservations are recommended.
The schooner Thomas E. Lannon (tel. 978/281-6634; www.schooner.org) is a gorgeous reproduction of a Gloucester fishing vessel. The 65-foot tall ship sails from Seven Seas Wharf downtown, off Rogers Street; 2-hour excursions ($40 for adults, $35 for seniors, $28 for children 16 and under) leave about four times daily from mid-June to mid-September, less often on weekends from mid-May to mid-June and mid-September to mid-October. On Saturday morning in July and August, kids (one per parent) sail free. The company also offers music and dining cruises, including sunset lobster bakes. Reservations are recommended for all excursions.
The two-masted schooner Adventure (tel. 978/281-8079; www.schooner-adventure.org) is a 122-foot fishing vessel built in Essex in 1926. It's being restored -- a fascinating process -- at Gloucester Marine Railways at Rocky Neck, on the tip of the peninsula that's home to the artists' colony. Adventure will eventually resume regularly scheduled public sailing; meanwhile, the staff of the "living museum," a National Historic Landmark, offers dockside educational programs. Check ahead for details and schedules, open days and hours, and prices.
A Whale of an Adventure
The depletion of New England's fishing grounds has led to the rise of another important seagoing industry, whale-watching. The waters off the coast of Massachusetts are prime territory, and Gloucester is a center of whale-watching cruises. Stellwagen Bank, which runs from Gloucester to Provincetown about 27 miles east of Boston, is a rich feeding ground for the magnificent mammals. Species spotted in the area are mainly humpback, finback, and minke whales, which dine on sand eels and other fish that gather along the ridge. The whales often perform for their audience by jumping out of the water, and dolphins occasionally join the show. Naturalists onboard narrate the trip for the companies listed here, pointing out the whales -- many of which they recognize and call by name -- and describing birds and fish that cross your path.
Whale-watching is not particularly time- or cost-effective, especially if restless children are along, but it's so popular for a reason: The payoff is, literally and figuratively, huge. This is an "only in New England" experience that kids (and adults) will remember for a long time.
The season runs from April or May through October. Bundle up, even in the middle of summer -- it's much cooler at sea than on land. Wear a hat and rubber-soled shoes, and take sunglasses, sunscreen, and a camera. If you're prone to motion sickness, take precautions, because you'll be at sea for 3 to 5 hours. If you plan to take Dramamine, allow some time for it to kick in.
The North Shore whale-watch operators are for-profit businesses, and they're extremely competitive -- they'd probably deny it, but the companies are virtually indistinguishable. Most guarantee sightings, offer a morning and an afternoon cruise as well as deep-sea fishing excursions and charters, honor other firms' coupons, and offer AAA and AARP discounts. Check ahead for sailing times, prices (at least $45 for adults, slightly less for seniors and children), and reservations, which are strongly recommended. If you're on a tight budget, ask whether the company imposes a fuel surcharge, and double-check the cut-off ages for kids and seniors.
If your schedule allows, plan to visit the Whale Center of New England, in the Gloucester Maritime Heritage Center, 24 Harbor Loop (tel. 978/271-6351; www.whalecenter.org), before or after your trip, to see the humpback whale skeleton and explore the informative displays. It's open Monday through Saturday 9am to 5pm (call for winter hours), and admission is free.
In downtown Gloucester, Cape Ann Whale Watch (tel. 800/877-5110 or 978/283-5110; www.seethewhales.com) is the best-known operation. Also downtown are Capt. Bill & Sons Whale Watch (tel. 800/339-4253 or 978/283-6995; www.captbillandsons.com) and Seven Seas Whale Watch (tel. 888/283-1776 or 978/283-1776; www.7seas-whalewatch.com). At the Cape Ann Marina, off Route 133, is Yankee Whale Watch (tel. 800/942-5464 or 978/283-0313; www.yankeefleet.com).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.