PLYMOUTH, MASS. / / I usually travel on Thanksgiving. About a mile. Out the front door, down a hill, sharp left, then a right. And there it is, one of the world's best known -- and some say most disappointing -- historical landmarks: Plymouth Rock.
A quick peek at the weathered hunk of Dedham granite is part of my traditional holiday-morning constitutional. It's about symbolism, not size. I might even hum a couple bars of Brian Wilson's "Roll Plymouth Rock."
Add to the itinerary the nearby Mayflower II, Plimoth Plantation and turkey dinner "with all the fixin's" and you have assembled the basic Thanksgiving in Plymouth package. Throughout the year, thousands of visitors take that well-worn Pilgrim path. Every year, a large percentage of them stand under the portico housing the Rock, lean over the wrought iron railing, and ask, "That's it?"
No, it's not. There is more to Plymouth than the Rock, even in November when the wind can blow brutally and pleasure boats are plucked from the bay to be dressed in shrink-wrap.
Don't tell the Mayflower descendants, but some of us who live here occasionally ditch the Pilgrims altogether.
"I'm getting a bit sick of them," says Unity MacLean, owner of the British Imports shop downtown and a longtime resident. "I think it's all just so played out, don't you?"
Her store is a recommended Pilgrim-free zone, not just for its eclectic selection of food products from across the Atlantic (Autumn Blend tea and sour-apple pies are in stock), but also because of MacLean's raucous Led Zeppelin tales, rendered in an Oxford accent. From 1975 to 1980 she worked in London as a publicist for the band.
"If they buy something they get the 10-minute talk," she says of those who inquire about the wild ride. "If they don't, it's the three-minute version."
While other residents may be more appreciative of the town's history, most prefer the comforts of 21st-century Plymouth. For years, residents cultivated the love-hate relationship with outsiders that is endemic to tourist destinations. A popular bumper sticker read: "Native Plymouthean: An Endangered Species." But the hard-line mentality has softened -- tourism dollars pay bills. Good news for those not born within a stone's throw of the Rock: You and your wallets are welcome year-round.
Plymouth is "America's Hometown" because it says so on the police cruisers, proof akin to the post office defense of Santa in Miracle on 34th Street. The town is expanding at a startling rate, with a population closing in on 60,000. But there is room to grow. At about 103 square miles, Plymouth consumes more territory than any other Massachusetts community.
With the summer crowds vanished and more parking available, this time of year can be particularly pleasant for day-trippers, especially if they come equipped with some insider information.
"It's a small window, but the color of the sky and water is unique," says Ric Cone, a downtown resident and owner of Old North Street Tea and Curiosity Shop. "Early in the morning and late in the evening the air smells so good. It's almost like taking a relaxation pill."
He doesn't sell any of those, but Cone's funky-quaint store brims with soothing autumnal teas -- such as Colonial spice -- locally made honey and the antique curiosities promised by the name.
Unlike tourists, Cone and MacLean don't have to hop back on a charter bus before the slim light of late autumn is extinguished. They can easily ignore the well-meaning guides with their well-rehearsed scripts. Or hire an offbeat one such as Janice Williams, who operates Dead of Night Ghost Tours. Look for her hearse. "It's more or less my office on the waterfront," Williams says. Ninety-minute walks by lantern light follow "the haunted, narrow paths of Plymouth."
Ghosts often manifest themselves as "circular lights," according to Williams, and participants are encouraged to capture spooky images with digital cameras.
An increasing influx of year-round visitors helps support a robust restaurant scene, something unimaginable only a decade ago, when finding a piece of fish that wasn't fried required a deep-sea expedition. The dining-out landscape is crowded with quality options, and new restaurants seem to open monthly. Favorites far from the lobster-bib set include Namaste's Indian cuisine, North Plymouth's cozy (meaning tiny) Tuscany Tavern and the related-by-ownership Cafe Strega.
Daniela's Cafe on Court Street exemplifies the town's culinary evolution. What began as a pastry shop has been transformed into an elegantly understated destination restaurant. On a recent Saturday, we enjoyed crispy Statler chicken breast and polenta with grilled vegetables. Dinner was preceded by a complimentary amuse-bouche, a guacamole and corn tortilla chip appetizer meant to be "a thank you from the kitchen," says Daniela's owner, Vinicio Cordon.
Downtown is also home to a mix of niche retail shops, welcome relief from the incursion of malls and cinderblock shopping complexes.
Baker, Lyons & Grace sells a stylish selection of home goods, including colorful, reasonably priced dishware. Thanksgiving place settings and linens are big right now, says owner Martha Malloy. Simple Pleasures Lifestyle Gifts on Leyden Street (said to be the oldest street in America) emphasizes products for pampering, including creams, lotions, and plush bathrobes. North Street's Dillon & Company has a superb collection of English antique and reproduction furniture.
The spirit of Jerry Garcia hovers like a puff of incense over the Laughing Moon Boutique, and the 25-cent bag of fresh-popped organic popcorn at Common Sense Wholesome Food Market may be the best deal in town. For those who crave decadent snacking, head straight for the hand-dipped treats at The Chocolate Bar.
Additional fortification may be required before facing the elements. Depending on your pleasure, try Kiskadee Coffee Co. or the British Beer Co. (downtown and in the Cedarville section, off exit 2, Route 3).
In just over two years, Kiskadee's owners, Derek and Mark Anderson, have established a distinct coffee shop scene in a town saturated with Dunkin' Donuts outposts. Live music can be heard Tuesday and Thursday evenings and weekend days. Black tea with tree-ripened apples and mint hot chocolate are popular seasonal beverages.
The Vine, a European-style wine bar, also offers live music performed at a volume that doesn't drown conversation. It boasts a postcard view of Brewster Gardens from the terrace, which remains open even when temperatures plunge. "We have heaters going," says owner Pat Gill.
The gardens, once neglected and soggy public stomping grounds, have been stunningly restored. The park is bisected by Town Brook, which was used as a source of fresh water in the 1600s. A path alongside it winds beneath bridges to the gristmill near Jenney Pond, where Bill Murray filmed a scene for Osmosis Jones, the 2001 Farrelly brothers movie.
Most visitors confine themselves to the downtown-waterfront zone. That's a mistake. Get off the town's main arteries, Route 3 and U.S. 44, and explore the hinterlands. Plymouth is broken into six village centers, including a recent addition, The Pinehills. The tranquil, self-contained, upscale community off exit 3 on Route 3 stretches across five square miles.
Farther south is Ellisville Harbor State Park off Route 3A, where a wooded trail leads to a spectacular patch of protected coastline. To the southwest, Myles Standish State Forest is crisscrossed by 15 miles of bike paths, 13 miles of hiking trails and 25 miles of equestrian trails. Bundle up and get moving.
IF YOU GO
Plymouth, Mass., is about 40 miles south of Boston. Several airlines offer round-trip tickets to Boston from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. Round-trip fares start at $98. The town is about a seven-hour drive from Baltimore. Route 3 and U.S. 44 are the main roads into town. It's also accessible from Boston by bus and commuter rail.
Tuscany Tavern -- 294 Court St. 508-747-9291. North End-style restaurant in North Plymouth. Cuisine evokes the owner's Italian hometown near the Amalfi Coast. Dinner $11-$24. Namaste -- 56 Main St. 508-747-2353. Indian cuisine. Friendly staff, impressive menu. Ask for a window seat, and start with a basket of freshly baked nan. Lunch $5.50-$6.25, dinner $9-$12. Cafe Strega -- 16 Main St. Extension. 508-732-9996 or cafestrega.com. Glass-enclosed dining room, cozy bar accented with mahogany and marble. Dinner $11-$28.
Dead of Night Ghost Tours -- 508-866-5111 or deadofnightghosttours.com. Explore Burial Hill and other shadowy places in search of restless spirits. Nightly tours are about 90 minutes long. Adults $12, children 12 and younger $10. Call for times.
Ellisville Harbor State Park -- off Route 3A. A gorgeous strip of undeveloped coastline perfect for a brisk autumn walk.