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Sampling the Beauty and Bounty of Buzzards Bay
By Lloyd S. Wagner
The Southcoast region of Massachusetts extends from Fall River, near the Rhode Island border, along the coast to Buzzards Bay, at the base of the Cape Cod Peninsula. Add to that the 13-mile canal, running north to Cape Cod Bay, and the land-locked portions of Bristol County, and you have defined an ideal vacation area for the RV adventurer—miles of terrain as varied as the local menus and encompassing a host of attractions.
The area is also an excellent starting point for day trips. There is no shortage of things to do in 45 minutes or less driving time, many of them low-, or no-cost destinations.
New England Flavor
Buzzards Bay and the small towns along its western shores lie in the center of this broad swath of land. Settled by European immigrants in the 1620s, the bay was named for Osprey mistakenly thought to be buzzards. Starting at Winsegansett Heights overlooking Naskatucket Bay and going north to Onset Beach is a series of lesser bays, beaches and coves. With names such as Antassawamock, Mattapoisett Harbor and Pinehurst Beach most are unspoiled, and all are quintessential New England.
Naturally, the bay and its waters provide the area’s primary recreational opportunities. Outdoor sports enthusiasts will be pleased to find plenty of opportunities for sailing, fishing, swimming and exploring. Leisure-lovers can enjoy dinner cruises, whale-watching and day trips out to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.
The town of Buzzards Bay is located at the north end of the bay, where it nearly cleaves the cape from the rest of the state. Little more than a bridge and a bend in the road, this hospitable hamlet is typical of the area, with two notable exceptions. The first is the highly visible railroad bridge. Looking like London Bridge, with two distinct towers rising 271 feet in the air, it is one of the largest vertical-lift bridges in the world. The bridge lifts a section of railroad track 544 feet long straight up, 136 feet into the air, allowing shipping to pass via the canal beneath.
The canal itself is the second big attraction. Though manmade, this canal is said to be the widest sea-level canal in the world and is a scenic wonder. Opened in 1914 to save the trip around the Cape, the canal is 500 feet wide. Its currents, which reverse direction four times a day, are home to bonito, black sea bass, bluefish, mackerel, flounder and lobster, making it a favorite for fishermen. The rocky shores are worth exploring, and doing so is a pleasure. A paved bike path and well-maintained hiking trails cover the seven miles from Buzzards Bay to Scusset Beach on Cape Cod Bay.
Amateur naturalists will enjoy exploring the Trustees of Reservations regional lands, such as Lyman Reserve at Buttermilk Bay, Eastover Farm at Rochester or Copicut Woods at Fall River. The Trustees landholdings feature marked trails, and maps are available. However, the sites are not staffed.
Buzzards Bay is also home to the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, the nation’s oldest merchant marine training facility in continuous operation. Its wind turbine, which can be monitored online, and the training ship Enterprise make this unique campus hard to miss. Woods Hole, on the southern tip of the bay’s eastern shore, is home to the famous Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Leaders in research, education and environmental studies, both facilities are open to the public, with tours available with reservations.
Massachusetts is saturated with history, and the Southcoast/Buzzards Bay region is no exception. A perfect example is the city of New Bedford. It has led the way, and since the 1970s, a focused restoration has produced a resurgent historical district that is on par with any to be found in the nation.
Whaling Past, Artful Future
Anchored by its Whaling and Arts Museums, the city of New Bedford features a cobblestone historic district offering a beguiling array of shops, galleries and smaller museums. What had been banks are now restaurants; what were once warehouses serving the whaling fleet are now galleries featuring local artisans and the bold works of art students. Parking is free.
For a pleasant respite, visit Buttonwood Park, New Bedford’s premier green space and home to one of the nation’s finest small zoos. If that’s not your style, then stroll the grounds of the Rotch-Jones-Duff Museum. Reminiscent of the days when Herman Melville walked these streets, this converted 1834 Greek Revival-style mansion and its formal gardens occupy a full city block.
Heading north on Cape Cod Bay, Plimouth Plantation is another must-see attraction. This living museum is as rural as New Bedford is urbane. Beyond the modern visitor’s center, trails lead to a Wampanoag village where descendants of the area’s Native American population answer questions and demonstrate their way of life. Farther north is the 1627 English Village. Here re-enactors play the roles of English settlers and interact with visitors. Amazingly, these dedicated performers play year-round, even during the harsh New England winter.
The region’s attractions offer something to fascinate everyone. Long Acre Farm, in the farming and fishing community of Westport, is a unique destination. This idyllic 140-acre farm is home to Westport Wineries and Buzzards Bay Brewing—both award winners in their fields.
For military buffs, there are two wonders. Fort Taber has a well outfitted Military Museum. Fall River’s Battleship Cove is home to the Battleship Massachusetts, the destroyer Joseph P. Kennedy and other vessels, including a Soviet missile cruiser.
If mystery is more your style, visit the Lizzie Borden Bed, Breakfast and Museum in Fall River. In Attleboro, The Jewelry City, and Taunton (The Silver City), are both quiet little gems well worth a visit.
Children’s events and attractions abound, as do countless other local festivals and fairs. Many celebrate the local cuisine, such as Buzzards Bay’s Scallop Fest in September and New Bedford’s Taste Our Southcoast event in May. Others highlight the area’s diverse cultures and interests such as the nation’s largest Portuguese festival, the New Bedford’s Annual Feast of the Blessed Sacrament, and the Moby Dick Marathon, a nonstop reading of Melville’s classic held every year in January.
As with any great destination, food is part of the picture. Here seafood abounds. Whether one buys it fresh off the boat, sits down in a restaurant or stops at a roadside shack, seafood is everywhere, and in every variety.
Be sure to sample both the native scallops and lobster. For a unique cultural twist, sample one of the region’s many Portuguese restaurants. New Bedford boasted 27 at last count, many of them on Acushnet Avenue, in the heart of the city’s Portuguese section. These friendly cafés and restaurants serve up lively dishes featuring hearty servings of local seafood, as well as more traditional staples, such as linguisia, a mildly spiced sausage.
The sea’s culinary bounty is just one of the seemingly unlimited activities, sights and attractions tucked away in Buzzards Bay and the Southcoast area. The best part about visiting this region of Massachusetts, though, is that the delicious food is just the first of many rewards you’ll experience when you slow down and discover the charms of the state’s Southcoast.