Village of big science, big water, small pleasures
WOODS HOLE - To understand this village in Falmouth, you have to think beyond the parking lots overflowing with ferry passengers bound for Martha's Vineyard. Park at the Falmouth Mall, hop the WHOOSH trolley, and you can spend a day on beaches laced with salt ponds and pink rosa rugosa.
From its main drag Water Street to the channel between Penzance Point and Nonamesset Island for which it was named, Woods Hole is synonymous with ocean. You can smell it in the air, see it from almost every restaurant, appreciate it in the seascapes at Edie Bruce's art gallery on School Street, and learn about it from some of the world's premier marine research institutions, starting with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) and the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL).
You might start by admiring the new drawbridge on Water Street as it opens and closes on a pageant of boat traffic in and out of Eel Pond. Then, follow Woods Hole Road to Church Street where Nobska Point Light overlooks one of the best views on Cape Cod.
See white sails tacking toward the purple outline of Martha's Vineyard on the Vineyard Sound chop, and the mostly Forbes family-owned Elizabeth Islands tapering to a southwest vanishing point facing Buzzards Bay. A day could start and end on this spot, as it often has for artist Doug Rugh, whose career began as an illustrator at the MBL, where his grandparents did research. Rugh and his wife, artist Hillary Osborne, have created an oeuvre of Woods Hole scenes. To locate these in physical reality, link to the Google map on their website, osbornandrughgallery.com.
Spread your blanket on Nobska Beach below the lighthouse on Church Street, or on Stoney Beach beside Gosnold Road, where "you can hear children calling the shells by their [scientific] names," Rugh says. That's because scientists by the hundreds flock to the Buzzards Bay-side beach during the season.
"I love the summer. It's great to be around so many new and different people," says Cliff Pontbriand, a junior engineer working on oceanographic instrumentation at WHOI. For a peek at the marine scientists' inner sanctums, he suggests one of the WHOI or MBL tours. The WHOI tour includes a view of the institution's dock where recently sub-sea robot Nereus was being tested before shipping out to the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of Earth's oceans.
Along with a library of scientific journals dating from the 17th century, the MBL tour visits the Marine Resources Center on MBL Street, where Ed Enos presides over tanks filled with sea creatures used in research.
"What does this remind you of?" says Enos, handing around a mass of gelatinous, fingerlike squid eggs to some shy youngsters. "Gummy bears!" He likens a sea urchin to "mom's pin cushion" and presses a finger to a toad fish's soft abdomen so that it grunts "like a frog."
Pontbriand suggests that if you want to experience what scientists do, get out on the water with OceanQuest. Located next to the WHOI docks on Great Harbor, OceanQuest's 63-foot, three-station research vessel is the brainchild of Kathy Mullin, a math and science teacher who moved to Cape Cod with her husband but couldn't find a teaching job. The 90-minute cruise starts on the bow, introducing the atmospheric and ocean dynamics that make our planet viable. There you'll take a water sample, and in the cabin, analyze it under a scope. On the stern, you might trawl and handle crabs, lightning fish, or any of 200 species found in just a 10-mile radius.
"In the fall we even see trigger fish, usually found in the tropics. The confluence of currents gives Cape Cod waters incredible diversity," Mullin says.
Science is present even in the spiritual quiet of the Garden of Our Lady, located on Millfield Street across from St. Joseph Church. Created by Frances Lillie, who came in 1894 to study at the MBL, the garden offers a bench where you can contemplate the messages inscribed on the bell tower (Lillie named the two bells for Roman Catholic scientists Gregor Mendel and Louis Pasteur) and the prolific flowers with names like Lady's Slipper, Lady's Mantle, and Madonna Lily invoking the Virgin Mary.
The 700,000 daffodils may have passed, but the rhododendrons will be blooming in Spohr Gardens, an out-of-the-way landscape off Oyster Pond Road that's worth a painting or picnic in early June. Begun in the 1950s, the six-acre plot set on a still green pond was the passion of Margaret and Charles Spohr, who also collected the ships' anchors, bells, and millstones on display.
You could wind down the day with a brew and burger at "the Kidd" (Captain Kidd Restaurant on Water Street) where wisps of theoretical discourse can be heard among the tourists' din.
But if you like to bike, follow the Shining Sea Bikeway out Quissett Road to Quissett Harbor. New this year, the shore-hugging route, which many consider the sweetest on Cape Cod, has been extended from the Woods Hole Steamship Authority to County Road in North Falmouth, about 10 miles. Slightly north of Woods Hole proper, inner Quissett Harbor looks like a page from a children's book: deep and glade-like, dotted with classic sloops. Around the shoreline, the buildings of the former Quissett Harbor Hotel and James Marshall estate, now a conference facility of the National Academy of Sciences, recall Quissett's days as a 19th-century vacation spot.
A leafy trail shoots off to small beaches, and a narrow neck of land, the Knob, wraps its protective arm around the harbor. Here you can watch the sun set with a wide-open view to Buzzards Bay and the Elizabeth Islands.
While I was here, a boy splashed in the shallows with his parents. "Mom," he said, "isn't this the perfect place?"
Patricia Borns can be reached at email@example.com.