Even before William Bradford, who was the first person to step off the Mayflower and onto Plymouth Rock in 1620, the area now known as New England was a thriving ship building and sailing area of the New World. Incidentally, the real Plymouth Rock is about 15 feet long and three feet wide, and it formed a convenient pier to tie up a small boat during high tide.
Colonial shipbuilding began in Massachusetts where there was the need, the resources and a growing merchant community. Throughout the colonial period, Massachusetts remained the center of shipbuilding activity. Over the years, shipbuilding led to a huge fishing industry, which led to a huge tourist industry. It still exists today and is growing.
It would take volumes to cover all the maritime towns and cities in New England. We've picked four that are historic, interesting and fun. You can get to them by driving Route 95 and turning east onto 195 in Providence, Rhode Island, or you can book passage on a small cruise ship like American Cruise Lines that will take you there in style.
First stop is Nantucket. You could call it America's favorite island. You can get there by high speed ferry from Hyannis, air or ship. Nantucket is a tiny island just 30 miles south of Cape Cod and about 15 miles southeast of Martha's Vineyard. Its 49 square miles of land measure 15 miles long and just three miles wide. Believe it or not, Nantucket is surrounded by 82 miles of beautiful beaches. Most of them are privately owned, but thanks to generous property owners, most of the beachfront is available to the public.
Nantucket was founded in 1641 and invites visitors to its beautifully preserved whaling village where you visit the past on every corner. The last whaling ship sailed in 1869 and never returned. For the better part of a century, the whaling industry defined the lives of those who sailed as well as those who were left behind. The influence of that era is evident everywhere you look today. They no longer hunt those gentle giants, but the town and harbor look much the same architecturally as they did 200 years ago.
The historic district boasts more than 800 pre-Civil War era houses and several historic churches. Factories and warehouses have been converted into art galleries and museums, and old-fashioned lamps still line the cobblestone streets.
In 1846, as a result of depopulation, the island was left under-developed and isolated until the mid-20th century. The isolation kept many of the pre-Civil War buildings intact, and by the mid 50s, enterprising developers began buying up large sections of the island and restoring them to create an upmarket destination for wealthy people. You certainly don't have to be wealthy to visit Nantucket today. It's a great destination for everyone.
Next we go island hopping to Martha's Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts. You can't get there by car. You can either fly, take a ferry or arrive by luxury cruise ship. Anyway you get there, the trip is worth it. Within a few steps of arriving you'll find taxis, public transportation, rental cars, scooters and bicycles to help you get around.
Martha's Vineyard, called Noepe by the Indians, which means "in the mist of the sea," is the largest island on the southeastern coast of Massachusetts. It's twenty miles long and nine miles wide.
Historically, the first Europeans that visited Martha's Vineyard were the Northmen, who landed about the year 1000, naming it Vineland. In some of their writings have been found descriptions that can be of no other place than Martha's Vineyard. Native American camps that carbon-date to 2270 B.C. have been uncovered on the Island. The Wampanoag people have lived there for thousands of years. In 1642 the first white settlement was established at Great Harbour, now Edgartown. The law was that no land be taken from the Indians without consent and fair payment. This led to peaceful coexistence for everyone, unlike the bloodshed that marked other areas in American history.
The colonial period was marked by prosperity as well as peace. The sea provided fish for export and local use. The Wampanoags taught the settlers to capture whales and tow them ashore to boil out the oil. The American Revolution, however, brought hardships to the Vineyard, despite the island's declared neutrality. The Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 nearly ruined the whaling and fishing industry. However, as soon as the war was over, a new fleet of whale ships was built.
Today, as you walk the streets of Martha's Vineyard, you can sense the history. You can almost see and smell the bustle of the whaling ships unloading their catch and getting ready for the next sailing. Martha's Vineyard is definitely worth the trip.
Continuing our island hopping, we come to Block Island. It is located on the Atlantic Ocean about 13 miles south of the coast of Rhode Island and 14 miles east of Montauk Point on Long Island. Known for its Revolutionary War heroes, legendary shipwrecks and its emergence in the late 1800s as one of New England's premiere summer destinations. Block Island was incorporated by the Rhode Island general assembly in 1672, and the island government adopted the name "New Shoreham."
The island is connected year-round by ferry to Point Judith, and in the summer, to New London, Connecticut; Montauk, New York; and Newport, Rhode Island. Or you can get there by cruise ship. If you wish to bring your car in the summer you have to make reservations months in advance.
If you're a fisherman, you'll love Block Island. It's a mecca for fly and light tackle fishing. If you can't catch fish off Block Island, you should take up golf instead!
No history of Block Island would be complete without mentioning shipwrecks. While some remain the stuff of legend, others are accessible to sport divers.
Block Island's permanent population, as of 2010, was only 1,051. With its variety of shopping, fishing, beaches and a "yesterday" way of life, Block Island rates 10 out of 10.
Continuing our maritime travels, we find ourselves back on the mainland and about to experience the pleasures of Newport, Rhode Island, once known as the playground for the rich and famous. To a degree, it still is. You'll find opulent mansions to tour, countless historical buildings and sites and a beautiful coastline that ranges from white sandy beaches to rocky surf. Shopping and fine dining is endless.
Newport is known as the "Sailing Capital of the World" with a longstanding history that is visible everywhere—from the many colonial sea captains' homes that line the streets of Newport's downtown, to the busy Newport Harbor that is a destination and home port to some of the most renowned sailing and motor yachts in the world. Since its founding in 1639, Newportians have taken advantage of their city's seaside location by using sailing for trade, pleasure, sport and business.
In the 18th century, Newport became a worldwide maritime trading center. It, along with Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston, emerged as one of the five leading ports in colonial North America. Economic growth created by maritime trade generated an expansion of Newport's harbor and downtown. Over 150 wharves were built. Sailing and cargo ships crowded Newport's harbor.
In the 19th century, the United Sates Naval Academy temporarily moved to Newport. After the Civil War the Academy moved back to Annapolis, but the Navy was in Rhode Island to stay. During that time, the first naval laboratory for torpedo testing was built in Newport Harbor. The Naval training station and Naval War College were also established in Newport.
Later in the 19th century, Newport Harbor went from being a maritime trading center to a sailing playground for the rich and famous. During that time influential people like Vanderbilt, Astor, J.P. Morgan and many others all brought their luxurious sailing yachts to the town. To this day there are still major sail boat races that bring yachtsmen from all over the world to Newport.
Going back in time, the first English settlers arrived in 1636, and what they found was hardly an empty wilderness. Native people had been in the area for at least 5,000 years and had established sophisticated land management and fishing practices. Evidence points to the existence of a large settlement in what is now downtown Newport.
With the success of the preservation movement, Newport developed "Heritage Tourism." Visitors now come to learn about the area's remarkable history as well as enjoy the beauty and hospitality of the "City by the Sea." There is, of course, more than mansions to see. There are beautifully restored colonial landmarks to explore, fine small museums, the Newport Art Museum, the Tennis Hall of Fame, Fort Adams, Touro Synagogue, Trinity Church and much, much more. Music festivals, such as the Jazz and Folk Festivals and Newport Music Festival, are major attractions every summer.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of Newport is the fact that so much of its history is still visible on the landscape in an unparalleled concentration of preserved architecture. Simply put, Newport has it all.
There you have it. A short tour of four of New England’s many interesting towns rich in maritime history and lore. Take a drive. Take a ferry. Take an airplane. Take a small cruise ship's luxury cruise. No matter how you get there...enjoy.