ROCKPORT -- Mention Cape Ann and many people think ''summer." They envision tanning on beaches, going whale watching or river cruising, or perhaps taking in a play at the Gloucester Stage Company. Maybe you can't do any of those in the off-season, but so what?
As March and April arrive and spring stirs, blinks, and finally awakens, the four towns that make up Cape Ann -- Manchester-by-the-Sea, Essex, Gloucester, and Rockport -- offer enough attractions and activities to fill a weekend easily. And without the summer crowds, there is no long hunt for a parking space, no jostling for dinner or inn reservations, no going elbow to elbow with fellow shoppers.
In the off-season, the scenery is still stunning, most shops and restaurants are open, and the discovery of a hidden cove or the serenity of a stroll may give you a peace that is hard to come by when the sunlight is streaming and children's voices screaming for treats echo in your ears. Who knows, you may even encounter a couple of pleasant surprises, as I did.
Manchester-by-the-Sea. This classy community changed its name from simply ''Manchester" in 1990 to avoid confusion with other New England towns of the same name, although a few cynics contended the switch was for snob appeal. In any event, the town's central district is quintessential New England, with a white wooden church, stone library, handsome homes, a building displaying 19th-century horse-drawn fire wagons, and a happy smattering of antiques shops, restaurants, galleries, and other stores (some with ''sale" signs in the off-season).
In summer, the main attraction is Singing Beach, and parking spots are a costly challenge for nonresidents. At this time of year, though, parking is no problem, and in addition to strolling the beach, you can witness a phenomenon: dozens of dogs being walked on the squeaking sands. Canines are banned from May to October, so owners take advantage of the rest of the year.
In Manchester-by-the-Sea, my wife and I bumbled into the first pleasant surprise of our trip. The Manchester Historical Society's Trask House Museum is usually not open to walk-in visitors in winter, but by chance we were given a fascinating personalized tour, during which we learned that a Captain Richard Tink changed his name to Trask, because, among other reasons, he wished to please his future bride, who just did not want to be called a Tink.
Essex. Route 133 is the big draw in this community for two primary reasons: antiques and clams. If you are a dedicated antiques shopper or browser, you have arrived in paradise. The town justifiably calls itself America's Antiques Capital, with more than 35 stores and restoration centers. Where else can you find such a plethora of furniture, knickknacks, clothing, the kind of toys and games children played with before the age of the iPod, and must-have items such as nautical weather vanes, drinking glasses festooned with cartoons, or a sign proclaiming, ''Cats Are Just Tiny Women in Fur Coats." At this time of year, not every shop may be open every day; in fact, one store sign noted that in addition to regular hours on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, the proprietor would be ''in and out" the rest of the week. But enough shops should be open to keep you looking for hours. Toy fans (i.e., parents and grandparents) shouldn't neglect the Silly Goose toy shop.
Then there are Essex clams, as tender and sweet as at any other time of year and just the dish to provide fuel for more antiques prowling. Most famously, there is Woodman's, which lays claim to inventing the fried clam in 1916 and provides a unique dining experience with its decidedly informal setting. But there are other restaurants and clam shacks as well, and if you're looking for a little more ambience, at this time of year you have a much better chance of getting a table with a window view of the Essex River at Tom Shea's, across from Woodman's.
In olden days, Essex had another claim to fame: shipbuilding. Today the Essex Shipbuilding Museum in the heart of town, open Saturdays and Sundays from October to June, recalls those glory days with exhibits and a working shipyard.
Gloucester. No matter how many times you visit this historic city, there always seems to be something intriguing. For me, it was a first up-close look at the Gloucester Fishermen's Wives Memorial, a companion statue to the world-famous Fishermen's Memorial for ''they that go down to the sea in ships." The bronze Wives Memorial, dedicated in 2001, depicts a woman and her two children looking out to sea for the return of a husband who daily faces danger just to make a living. The statue resonates a kind of strength quite different from that needed to haul in nets.
The waterfront area and surrounding streets also have restaurants ranging from well-known ones such as Cameron's and Pilot House to ethnic eateries like Thai Choice Restaurant. It's enough to make you wish you could dine out several times a day. But then you wouldn't have time to shop, and the Main Street area is notable for its lack of the same old chain stores (Walgreens,
Gloucester has many facets -- Stage Fort Park for lovers of the outdoors; the Rocky Neck Art Colony, a haven for artists and art lovers. There is also a Maritime Trail, well worth following. The Cape Ann Historical Museum on Pleasant Street, in addition to being a showplace for local art, particularly that of the 19th-century master Fitz Hugh Lane, was the scene of my second pleasant surprise of the weekend. The museum happened to be presenting one of its free Saturday Showcase events, and we were treated to a rousing performance of sea shanties, ballads, and children's songs by a costumed group called the Jolly Rogues. The museum will emerge from its annual monthlong hibernation on March 1, and the next Saturday Showcase, on March 11, will feature Michael Glaser, an author, illustrator, and marine educator, who will bring his collection of live marine animals. On many weekend evenings, the West End Theater on Washington Street presents theater, dance, and music in an informal setting.
Rockport. One of the nice things about visiting this community on the tip of Cape Ann in the off-season is the breathing space. You can actually park near the abundance of shops and galleries and stroll unhurriedly, admiring the paintings in the windows of the galleries, even though some may be closed. You can pop into and out of the multitude of clever little shops along Bearskin Neck and environs, checking out such items as the colorful sailor's valentines at Capt. Steve's Shell Shop, chuckling at an updated miniature painting of a clean-shaven Johnny Damon in a Yankees uniform at Kaihlanen Family Gallery, or making a major or minor purchase. (Mine, decidedly minor, was a tiny, vibrantly decorated dinosaur at Artesano's.) The possibilities are so endless that you might want to take a break and tuck into a piece of fudge from Tuck's Candies or just stop by the sea to watch the gulls or take in Motif No. 1, the little red fishing shack that has been called America's most painted building.
There is one other thing you can do in Rockport that until recently no one had done for decades -- not legally anyway: be served an alcoholic drink with a restaurant dinner. The formerly ''dry" town voted last year to allow cocktails at restaurants. So along with my grilled shrimp at the Grand Café at Emerson by the Sea, I ordered a dry Beefeater martini, straight up with a twist. Just because I could.
For more information and a list of upcoming events, visit www.capeannvacations.com. For West End Theater information, visit www.thewestendtheater.com. Cape Ann is some 30 miles northeast of Boston. While Route 128 may be the quickest way, an alternative is Route 127, which adds enjoyable sights in Prides Crossing and Beverly Farms.
Contact Richard P. Carpenter at firstname.lastname@example.org.