In an art-filled coastal town north of Boston we found sea views, fine dining and an historic hotel named for a famous former guest.
Emerson Inn began with a tavern in Pigeon Cove, but in 1856 Hannah Jumper and 200 or so Rockport women smashed the bottles and closed it, along with the rest of the town’s drinking places. Not to be put out of business, the owner turned the Pigeon Cove Tavern into a lodging house for travelers. It was then that Ralph Waldo Emerson vacationed here with his family.
In 1912 later owners moved the inn to its present location, overlooking the sea from a commanding viewpoint. Almost immediately they added a new section, creating the spacious inn we chose for a summer weekend getaway.
The historic seaside hotel has been nicely modernized and updated, respectful of its past but with attention to 21st-century sensibilities. The light, unfussy look says retro instead of old-fashioned.
Rooms are clean, fresh and bright, with large double-glazed windows and crisp linen blinds. In their recent refurbishments, the new owners have not tried to cutesie up rooms with lacey Cape Cod curtains, white wicker and ruffled pillows. Instead they have done it just right, with clean lines and cool whites against oyster-gray walls. Feather-light comforters on the supremely comfortable beds feel cozy when the sea breeze wafts in at night.
In the rooms are two luggage racks, cotton robes, irons and boards, good reading lights and heat/air-conditioning controls easily accessed from bed. In the bathrooms, large tubs feature air massage. Rooms overlooking the ocean – as most do – get stunning sunrise views; they are perfect vantages for storm-watching during a Nor’easter.
The dining room, which still keeps the name of Pigeon Cove Tavern, is inviting, with well-spaced tables. In good weather, prime tables are outside on the wide verandah, where guests can linger over dinner in the evening and watch the lights of fishing boats just offshore. Over breakfast they can watch lobstermen hauling traps.
The menu is fresh and innovative, with plenty of local seafood and ingredients sourced almost entirely from nearby farms and fishermen. We began our dinner there with huge plump mussels steamed in white wine sparked with red chili flakes and roasted tomatoes, and with salmon tartare accompanied by ginger and wonton chips. Pan-seared scallops in citrus-thyme butter were served with baby vegetables and quinoa, one of the ancient grains favored by Chef Ameer Wahid.
I was tempted by Swordfish Cassoulet made with white beans and served with spinach and a basil tomato sauce, but settled on char-grilled beef Coulotte. It was cooked exactly as I requested, and served with caramelized onions, mashed potatoes, broccoli rabe and peppercorn-thyme demi-glace. Other meat dishes are as interesting: crispy local duck in a cherry gastrique served with sweet potato hash, charred green onions and maitake mushrooms.
While it was hard to tear ourselves away from the chairs that line the inn’s long porch overlooking the sea, we found plenty to do in Rockport. An opening in the stone wall in front of the inn led us onto the Atlantic Path, a sometimes rough walking trail along the rocky shoreline to Halibut Point State Park. The park incorporates a 19th-century granite quarry, with exhibits and signage describing how the rock was removed and cut into building and paving stones. The only remaining World War II coastal tower in New England that’s open to visitors is now part of the park’s information center. From its top, we could see as far as the coast of Maine.
Rockport itself is fun to explore, with its active community of artists and craftspeople, whose works are displayed in the Rockport Art Association and Museum and in galleries and boutiques along the main street and the lane that leads out onto Bearskin Neck. Several beaches are a short drive away, and boat trips explore the coast. Emerson Inn was a perfect base for our explorations of Rockport, Cape Ann and the North Shore of Massachusetts.