Plymouth more than just home to a famous rock

Destination New England

November 26, 2006|By Mark Pothier | Mark Pothier,[The Boston Globe]

PLYMOUTH, MASS. / / I usually travel on Thanksgiving. About a mile. Out the front door, down a hill, sharp left, then a right. And there it is, one of the world's best known -- and some say most disappointing -- historical landmarks: Plymouth Rock.

A quick peek at the weathered hunk of Dedham granite is part of my traditional holiday-morning constitutional. It's about symbolism, not size. I might even hum a couple bars of Brian Wilson's "Roll Plymouth Rock."

Add to the itinerary the nearby Mayflower II, Plimoth Plantation and turkey dinner "with all the fixin's" and you have assembled the basic Thanksgiving in Plymouth package. Throughout the year, thousands of visitors take that well-worn Pilgrim path. Every year, a large percentage of them stand under the portico housing the Rock, lean over the wrought iron railing, and ask, "That's it?"

No, it's not. There is more to Plymouth than the Rock, even in November when the wind can blow brutally and pleasure boats are plucked from the bay to be dressed in shrink-wrap.

Don't tell the Mayflower descendants, but some of us who live here occasionally ditch the Pilgrims altogether.

"I'm getting a bit sick of them," says Unity MacLean, owner of the British Imports shop downtown and a longtime resident. "I think it's all just so played out, don't you?"

Her store is a recommended Pilgrim-free zone, not just for its eclectic selection of food products from across the Atlantic (Autumn Blend tea and sour-apple pies are in stock), but also because of MacLean's raucous Led Zeppelin tales, rendered in an Oxford accent. From 1975 to 1980 she worked in London as a publicist for the band.

"If they buy something they get the 10-minute talk," she says of those who inquire about the wild ride. "If they don't, it's the three-minute version."

While other residents may be more appreciative of the town's history, most prefer the comforts of 21st-century Plymouth. For years, residents cultivated the love-hate relationship with outsiders that is endemic to tourist destinations. A popular bumper sticker read: "Native Plymouthean: An Endangered Species." But the hard-line mentality has softened -- tourism dollars pay bills. Good news for those not born within a stone's throw of the Rock: You and your wallets are welcome year-round.

Plymouth is "America's Hometown" because it says so on the police cruisers, proof akin to the post office defense of Santa in Miracle on 34th Street. The town is expanding at a startling rate, with a population closing in on 60,000. But there is room to grow. At about 103 square miles, Plymouth consumes more territory than any other Massachusetts community.

With the summer crowds vanished and more parking available, this time of year can be particularly pleasant for day-trippers, especially if they come equipped with some insider information.

"It's a small window, but the color of the sky and water is unique," says Ric Cone, a downtown resident and owner of Old North Street Tea and Curiosity Shop. "Early in the morning and late in the evening the air smells so good. It's almost like taking a relaxation pill."

He doesn't sell any of those, but Cone's funky-quaint store brims with soothing autumnal teas -- such as Colonial spice -- locally made honey and the antique curiosities promised by the name.

Unlike tourists, Cone and MacLean don't have to hop back on a charter bus before the slim light of late autumn is extinguished. They can easily ignore the well-meaning guides with their well-rehearsed scripts. Or hire an offbeat one such as Janice Williams, who operates Dead of Night Ghost Tours. Look for her hearse. "It's more or less my office on the waterfront," Williams says. Ninety-minute walks by lantern light follow "the haunted, narrow paths of Plymouth."

Ghosts often manifest themselves as "circular lights," according to Williams, and participants are encouraged to capture spooky images with digital cameras.

An increasing influx of year-round visitors helps support a robust restaurant scene, something unimaginable only a decade ago, when finding a piece of fish that wasn't fried required a deep-sea expedition. The dining-out landscape is crowded with quality options, and new restaurants seem to open monthly. Favorites far from the lobster-bib set include Namaste's Indian cuisine, North Plymouth's cozy (meaning tiny) Tuscany Tavern and the related-by-ownership Cafe Strega.

Daniela's Cafe on Court Street exemplifies the town's culinary evolution. What began as a pastry shop has been transformed into an elegantly understated destination restaurant. On a recent Saturday, we enjoyed crispy Statler chicken breast and polenta with grilled vegetables. Dinner was preceded by a complimentary amuse-bouche, a guacamole and corn tortilla chip appetizer meant to be "a thank you from the kitchen," says Daniela's owner, Vinicio Cordon.

Downtown is also home to a mix of niche retail shops, welcome relief from the incursion of malls and cinderblock shopping complexes.

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