Since I was a little boy, I’ve been going to Salem Willows Park and Arcade, although it’s been in existence for much longer, since 1858! Located just 10 minutes from downtown Salem, the Willows, as locals call it, offers a plethora of activities for both young and old alike. Our first stop is always the arcade, which features both modern and classic games, including our favorite, skee-ball! Collect tickets to cash in for fun trophies . . . err . . . prizes, as mementos of your day.
Getting hungry? While there are plenty of food options, including pizza, Chinese, and American, the best that the Willows has to offer is seafood. And there’s no better place to get it than at the Clam Shack. You wouldn’t know by just walking by, that this tiny shack has some of the best seafood on the North Shore of Massachusetts. Here, it’s take out only, but once you have your food, you can settle into the adjacent picnic tables, find a seat in one of the historic gazebos, grab a bench with an ocean view, or bring a blanket to have a picnic. The seafood is, obviously, the best thing on the menu, and they’re known for the fried clams, their namesake. A meal at the Clam Shack alone is worth a trip to the Willows!
Next stop, take a ride on the historic carousel. The Salem Willows Carousel dates back to 1905 and features a menagerie of animals including horses, buffalo, camels, sea monsters, lions, greyhounds, and even a St. Bernard! It’s a must for both adults and children. C’mon grown ups; you know you want to ride it! In the adjacent kiddie-land, here are other old fashioned rides and even a small miniature golf course.
Our final destination is a treat that is, to the best of my knowledge, unique to Salem Willows. Head all the way down the row of arcade buildings until you reach the end that’s closest to the water. E.W. Hobbes has been located in this historic building since 1897. They sell ice cream and popcorn, but the treats to get are the popcorn bars. I’ve been eating them since I was a kid! The bars come in a variety of flavors, but my personal favorites are the chocolate and the molasses and coconut. Unwrap the wax paper, break off a piece, and crunch away. I can taste them right now! While you’re savoring every bite, meander around the park for fantastic views of the ocean and Salem Sound. You might also catch some live music from the band shell. The Willows hosts a variety of events throughout the summer and fall. Check the schedule at their website.
If you’re in the Witch City, stop by Salem Willows Park and Arcade for an afternoon or evening of good, old-fashioned entertainment that the entire family will enjoy.
Salem Willows Park and Arcade are located at 165 Fort Ave in Salem, Massachusetts. There’s plenty of parking. If you don’t have a car and are visiting April through October, the Willows is stop #9 on the Salem Trolley. You can get more information about the trolley on their website. Click on the map for directions.
Taking a day trip to the Isle of Shoals or Star Island is easy via ferry from Portsmouth. Star Island is the largest of a group of islands, called the Isle of Shoals, seven miles off the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. There, visitors can enjoy “island life” for a day, a night, or even (if you really want to get away from it all) a week.
Getting to Star Island, or the Isle of Shoals, by ferry is part of the experience. Trips include spectacular views of local harbors, the Atlantic Ocean, several islands in the Isle of Shoals, and a lighthouse. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a whale! You can take a ferry from Portsmouth or Rye, both in New Hampshire. We choose the one in Rye because it’s a smaller boat, and therefore, a more intimate experience. For more about how to get to Star Island or the Isle of Shoals, see “locations” below.
Once on the island, it’s all about slowing down the pace and enjoying the natural beauty. To see all of the sites, take the perimeter loop that circles the island. It’s well marked and the island is small that there’s no chance that you’ll get lost! Be sure to wander off the loop onto the side trails to discover the many amazing views of surrounding islands, to marvel at the gorgeous oceanscapes, to check out the monuments scattered throughout the island, and to see Gosport Village from above. In the Oceanic Hotel, there’s a small gift shop, bookstore, restaurant, and restrooms. Cap your visit off by unwinding in a rocking chair on the hotel’s fine front porch, which has lovely views. Imagine what life was like on the island many years ago with fine Victorian ladies and gentlemen taking in the ocean breezes.
John Smith, of Jamestown and Pocahontas fame, mapped the Isle of Shoals way back in 1614, and for all you history buffs, there’s even a monument to commemorate his visit. Star Island was sparsely inhabited, except for fishermen, until the building of the Oceanic Hotel in 1873, when city dwellers began journeying to the island to take advantage of its cooling ocean airs, before the invention of air conditioning. Star Island was, and still is, also a popular spot for religious conferences, many of which are sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Church. However, even those of lesser or no faith are most welcome on island.
Star Island is a beautiful location to visit, but honestly, there aren’t a lot of activities. I would, therefore, recommend a short, half-day trip. We were on the island for one hour and twenty minutes, and I thought that was enough time. To lengthen your visit, dine in the hotel’s restaurant, or even better, bring a picnic lunch that you can enjoy in the gazebo, at the picnic tables, or spread out on the lawn. Whatever your plans might be, a visit to Star Island is about slowing down the pace of life, being present, and enjoying the wonders of nature.
Want to Make a Day out of It?
Check out my blog post on seeing a submarine and abandoned forts in Portsmouth and neighboring New Castle
Go shopping in Portsmouth; be sure to check out my favorite stores: Off Piste (quirky and fun), Pickwick’s Mercantile (gifts in a unique setting), , Diversions (games), Bull Moose (used & new music & videos), and Macro Polo (gag items)
Head to Rye Beach, located right near one of the ferry points (see below)
Star Island is accessibly only by boat, and two ferry companies provide service to visitors. Of the two, the Isle of Shoals Steamship Company, located in Portsmouth, offers larger boats and more options in terms of the type and length of cruise. If you choose this company, you’re going to get the typical ferry experience with multiple decks, more detailed commentary, and many fellow tourists on board. On the other hand, if you want a more intimate and less touristy experience, go with Island Cruises, located in Rye, New Hampshire. In general, if you’re looking for a cruise that focuses on comfort and variety, go with the Isle of Shoals Steamship Company, but if you’re looking to travel on an authentic New England fishing ship, check out Island Cruises, in Rye.
We chose to leave from Rye and were surprised at how small the boat was and how few other passengers were aboard. We left on the 11:15 boat, were on island at 12:00, departed from Star Island at 1:20, and arrived back in Rye at 2:15, after a short tour of the islands by boat.
Please be advised to check times and cruise availability on the websites below, as they change based on the season.
Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is probably best known for its quaint, downtown shops and boutiques and the historic Strawberry Banke museum, but I would like to show you a few of the lesser-known, yet incredibly enjoyable, attractions of this New England city.
If you’re driving along Route 95 approaching Portsmouth, you might be surprised to see a historic submarine permanently moored to, not a dock, but a park right next to the highway. Our first stop is the U.S.S. Albacore, a former research submarine, that was designed by the U.S. Navy to test experimental features that are used in similar vessels today. The Albacore may have never seen combat, but it was in commission from 1953 to 1972. It’s a fascinating place to visit that will bring out the kid in anyone.
After purchasing tickets from the small visitor’s center (where you can get U.S.S. Albacore paraphernalia, including hats and captain’s whistles – beware parents of having to listen to them all day if you purchase one!), you follow a self-guided tour through the submarine. You can choose to get as much or as little information as you want by reading the pamphlet and/or pressing the red buttons in each part of the submarine to hear the pre-recorded audio tour.
I was amazed to see how cramped the living space truly is on a submarine. Imagine sleeping in these quarters or having to shower in such a narrow cubicle. How can anyone live for months at a time, deep under the ocean, like this?! Bravo to our brave sailors!
Kids will love to sit in the driver’s seat, look into the periscope, pass through the hatches, and play chess in the mess hall. They can even pop a squat on a sub’s toilet! Visiting the sub is fun for the whole family. I even enjoyed it myself on a solo visit.
The U.S.S. Albacore is located at 600 Market St, Portsmouth, NH, right off of Interstate 95 (see locations below).
The Misty Remains of a Former Fort
Just outside of Portsmouth, in New Castle, New Hampshire, are the remains of Fort Constitution, which protected the harbor from 1631 to 1961. Originally designed to guard against French-Canadian attack, the Americans captured the fort from the British during the Revolutionary War and renamed it after the famous national document. It was later rebuilt during World War II to defend Portsmouth Harbor from German submarines through the use of underwater mines. How cool!
On the day that I visited, fog was still present from the morning, which added an extra eerie effect to the remnants of the fort. There’s no visitors center or attendants on duty, so you’ll likely have the place almost all to yourself to wander and explore. Located next door are an active U.S. Coast Guard Station and a lighthouse, that, unfortunately, aren’t open to the public, but are nice to look at!
Fort Constitution is located at 25 Wentworth Rd. in New Castle, NH. See “locations” below for the route, parking, and other tips.
An Eerie Military Remnant
Do you enjoy creepy, abandoned locations? Then I have a place for you! If you don’t enjoy the spook factor, can I at least lure you in by saying there’s a small, free beach and park at the same location?
Located near Fort Constitution, which is described above, Fort Stark is the most fun to explore of the two former military installations. Much of it is fenced off and covered by the graffiti of vandals, but that actually adds to the otherworldly atmosphere.
Both kids and adults will love exploring Fort Stark, which saw service from 1905 to 1948. While I was visiting, a family of four was ahead of me, and their two children were clearly having an awesome time wandering around and climbing up onto the gun batteries. Don’t worry parents– there are no more guns on site! From the fort, the views of the ocean and harbor are also amazing; so bring your camera.
The grounds are open to the public 24 hours a day, seven days a week, hence the graffiti, but there is a small visitor’s center on site which is open on Saturday (from Memorial Day to Labor Day) from noon to 4:30. I was there on a weekday, so I explored on my own. Most people were there to use the small, free, public beach and park that are adjacent to the fort. The beach is quite rocky, but there’s enough sand and green space (with picnic tables) to make it an enjoyable afternoon outing.
Fort Stark is located at 211 Wild Rose Ln. in New Castle, NH (see location below).
600 Market St, Portsmouth, NH, right off of Interstate 95 – Click on the map for directions.
Fort Constitution & Fort Stark
Getting There: The drive out to Fort Constitution and Fort Stark is absolutely beautiful. If you don’t believe me, the route has been designed as a New Hampshire Scenic Byway! From Portsmouth, take Route 1B (click here for directions) which forms a loop across several small and larger islands, affording stunning views of the harbor and ocean, and which winds through picturesque New England colonial towns. Click on the maps below to get driving directions to each specific fort.
Parking: When going to Fort Constitution, follow the signs and then park in the “Fort Constitution Parking” which is immediately in front of the fort remains, just beyond the larger public parking lot.
Bring Water & Snacks: I would recommend bringing water and maybe some snacks, because as I found out the hard way, once you leave Portsmouth, there are few stores in the immediate area.
Want to make a day out of it? I suggest adding a trip to Strawberry Banke, which is an excellent museum composed of dozens of historic buildings from the 1600’s to the 1900’s. Also, check out my eating recommendations below.
Looking for a place to eat? I highly recommend the Friendly Toast at 113 Congress St. in Portsmouth for breakfast all day or yummy sandwiches and plates. They bake their own bread in-house and are open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Want dessert or coffee? Check out Kaffee Vonsolln at 79 Daniel St. in Portsmouth for German pastries and creative coffee creations.
Fort Stark- Click on the map for directions.
Fort Constitution – Click on the map for directions.