A day-trip to Essex MA, 37 miles northeast of Boston (map), includes a pleasant ride through pretty country, an hour or two browsing in the town's dozens of shops selling antiques and collectibles, a boat cruise, and a lunch or dinner of traditional seafood: clams and lobsters.
Settled by Europeans in 1634, Essex was first known by its Agawam Indian name of Chebacco.
Long before it was (finally) incorporated as a town in 1819, Essex was famous for its shipbuilding, as you will learn in detail if you visit the Essex Shipbuilding Museum, right next to a shipyard that still builds wooden boats.
That settles what to do for lunch when you come to Essex to browse in its 35 antique shops in the town center.
Antique shops are one of Essex's claims to fame...
About those clams.... The tidal waters of the Essex River are perfect for the proliferation of succulent soft-shell clams, as the Agawam knew, and as the Europeans soon discovered. The traditional preparation—steaming the clams in seawater as part of a clambake—is what gave soft-shell clams their nickname: steamers.
In the early 20th century, a local restaurateur named Chubby Woodman tried shucking clams (removing them from their shells), dipping them in evaporated milk, then corn or pastry flour, and deep-frying them in hot oil. The recipe caught on and soon fried clams were being made and served all over New England.
Woodman's Restaurant still exists, and is jammed on any night in warm weather, and many off-season as well. Other restaurants have opened to take advantage of the town's fried-clam fame as well.
(Traditional fried clams are bellies, whole soft-shell clams simply removed from their shells, but some fried clam places sell clam strips, which are slices of large ocean-caught hard-shell clams called quahogs ("KO-hogs").
If clams are not your kettle of fish, you can order a lobster. Here's how to eat one.
Essex River Cruise
To really see Essex close-up and natural, though, take a 90-minute cruise on the river with Essex River Cruises, launched three times daily from May through October. They'll even lay on a clambake if you have a group.
Essex is not on the MBTA Commuter Rail train line though nearby Ipswich, 5.6 miles (9 km) to the northwest, is on the Commuter Rail's Newburyport line. On summer weekends from mid-June through early September (Labor Day weekend), the Cape Ann Transportation Authority (CATA) operates the Ipswich-Essex Explorer, two local bus routes connecting the Ipswich Commuter Rail train station with the Wolf Hollow, Russel Orchards Farm & Winery, Crane Beach, Essex's Main Street Antique Shops, the Essex Shipbuilding Museum, and Woodman's Seafood Restaurant, famous for its lobsters and clams. More...
The West Gloucester train station on the Rockport Commuter Rail line is 4.9 miles (7.9 km) southeast of Essex. There is no public transportation between the station and Essex, but if you have your bicycle with you, it makes a nice ride. More...