It’s smack-dab middle of winter here in New England, a time when it can seem easier to just hibernate at home rather than venture out into the cold, bleak world. Let me encourage you to join the resistance to such inactivity with a road trip to the New Bedford Whaling Museum, a nearby lunch at the family-friendly Whalers Tavern, followed by a constitutional on a little-known New England beach frequented all winter long by locals and their dogs.
New Bedford in the early 19th century was the world’s busiest whaling port in the world’s richest city. Whaling was at the center of everything in the busy port town, a place that was populated by the Wampanoag Indian nation before Europeans landed onshore. In the early 1600s English settlers took a look around the coastal area, took note of its favorable position, and came back fifty years later to settle the area. That didn’t go well for the thousands of Wampanoag residents who soon found themselves at war with the European colonists. Significantly reduced in number by disease and ruthless war tactics, the Wampanoags were quickly pushed off land they had occupied for perhaps thousands of years.
It’s a dramatic story, and the museum’s exhibits showcase the area’s history, the whaling industry, and its impact not only on New Bedford but globally. Not to be missed (and impossible to do so): five massive whale skeletons, the world’s largest ship model (the Lagoda), and America’s longest painting. Every room in the museum, opened in 1903, is devoted to all things whaling — paintings, costumes, ship models, maps, an astonishing number of scrimshaw arts and crafts, and more.
The whaling vessel Lagoda takes center stage in one of the galleries as the world’s largest ship model. To call it a model ship, although accurate, almost fails to give it its due. The 1/2 scale replica looks ready to set sail at a moment’s notice, and visitors are welcome to climb right aboard and imagine what it must have been like to make Lagoda both home and office for anywhere from six months to four years, just as 19th-century sailors did.
Whale hunting was deadly to whales, of course, and it also was risky business for the hunters. A small boat of about six or eight men would row within hurling distance of a 150-ton whale and let fly at least seven harpoons into whichever part of the mammal they could hit. The whales often didn’t welcome the attention, and there are several paintings in the museum that depict seriously angry whales getting their revenge on hapless sailors, most of whom were non-swimmers.
Which brings us to author Herman Melville, who in 1841 shipped out from New Bedford on the Acushnet. His experiences on that whaling ship helped form his great American novel Moby Dick. In chapter 20 of the 585-page tome, Melville describes The Seamen’s Bethel, a small wooden structure just across the street from the museum and included in the admission fee. Built in 1832 as a non denominational church, Melville’s narrator, call-me Ishmael himself, described how sailors bound for their dangerous work on the sea would stop in to offer up prayers before they set sail: “In the same New Bedford there stands a whaleman’s chapel and few are the moody fishermen shortly bound for the Indian or Pacific Oceans who failed to make a Sunday visit to this spot.”
Also in the museum is the 3,000 square foot Casa dos Botes Discovery Center for kids. Don’t miss the observation deck on the top floor of the museum for a great view of the New Bedford harbor. The door out to the deck doesn’t lock behind you, even in the dead of winter. I nervously checked that out for you.
The New Bedford Whaling Museum
18 Johnny Cake Hill, New Bedford, MA 02740
Hours, January through March:
Tuesday – Saturday 9 am – 4 pm
Sunday 11 am – 4 pm
Admission: Adult $17; seniors (65+) $15; students (19+) $10; Child/youth $7; under 3 free
Tickets include admission to the Mariners’ Home.
Lunch at Whaler’s Tavern, 24 North Water Street
About three-tenths of a cobblestone-street mile from the museum is a great family friendly lunch spot that likely becomes a different sort of lively with a more adult crowd come evening. The staff told us to sit anywhere, so we took a high table in the bar area and perused the menu. I started out with the excellent Quahog Chowder made with applewood smoked bacon, onions, celery, red bliss potatoes, and plenty of chopped quahogs. Next up for me was the arugula salad with sun-dried tomatoes and generously portioned sushi-grade ahi tuna, very fresh and a nice light counterpoint to the richness of the chowder. My companion ordered the BLT on a buttered toasted bun, downed it, and left full and happy.
Other menu items that looked tempting: Shark Bites, locally caught, breaded, and deep fried and served with Cajun remoulade; lobster quesadilla; burgers; grilled chicken sandwich; Korean BBQ pulled pork sandwich; chourico melt; soba noodle bowl; and more. Show up Monday – Friday, 3pm – 6pm for raw bar buy one, get one free littlnecks and oysters. They have a full bar, so plenty of chaser options.
Walk it off at West Island Town Beach
About eight miles away via cottage-lined Sconticut Neck Rd. (plug in West Island Town Beach, Fairhaven, MA into GPS) you can find a little-known beach overlooking Buzzards Bay. During the off season you can just pull into the lot, a casual and muddy affair when we stopped by, and join the locals and their dogs as they enjoy the general solitude.
I probably wouldn’t plunk my family down there for a summer day. The sand was covered with seaweed, and the swimming area was quite rocky. But for beach walking a couple miles in either direction on firm footing you can’t beat it, and the sunsets must be amazing. Avoiding the Cape Cod bridge traffic is also another plus that locals swear by.
More pictures from our New Bedford adventure: