There's a Bewitching Air About Old Salem

Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers

The year 1692 wasn't a particularly good one around here, what with 19 women being hanged for witchcraft and the Rev. Cotton Mather throwing fear into much of New England with his rampant Puritanism.

Cooler heads finally prevailed when Mather's father, a president of Harvard, condemned the practice in a religious tract of 1693. Even the fiery Cotton eventually recanted, and things slowly got back to normal.

All of which hasn't kept the Salem police of today from wearing witch shoulder patches, a newspaper from displaying a witch on its masthead, taxis from emblazoning them on their doors and the high school from making covens of its teams by using the old sorceress as a nickname.

From its colorful past, Salem has grown into a lovely and very cultured town, give or take a few witch museums. It is the home of native son Nathaniel Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables and the spectacular Peabody Museum of maritime artifacts and Asian art.

Just a couple of miles down the road is oh-so-affluent Marblehead, one of the prettiest of New England's port towns and the self-described "yachting capital of the world."

Getting here: Fly United, American, USAir, TWA, Northwest or Continental to Boston. From there, it's 30 minutes by commuter rail to Salem.

How long/how much? Allow two or three days for Salem and Marblehead, perhaps another couple for visiting fetching towns along the North Shore. Accommodation costs are moderate, fine dining the same.

A few fast facts: June through October are the best and busiest months here, a short spring rather bleak, winters only for the hardy. Halloween brings the witches back, along with an 11-day "Haunted Happenings" festival that's scary and fun. Getting around town is easy with The Hawthorne, a turn-of-the-century trolley (complete with history narrators) that stops at all the important places. We highly recommend this ride.

Getting settled in: Hawthorne Hotel (on the Common; $75 to $125 double) is a Federalist-style place with 18th-Century furnishings that was built by public subscription in the 1920s. Bedrooms are large, serene and have wonderful reproductions of period furniture. Choose between the elegant Nathaniel's dining room or the Tavern on the Green for your meals, the latter with lighter fare.

One of the most enchanting inns we've seen lately is Marblehead's The Harbor Light Inn (58 Washington St.; $75-$95 B&B; double), an 18th-Century home meticulously restored, with four-posters, fireplaces, old brasswork, historical paintings, etchings and prints. Some rooms have a large private deck and Jacuzzi in the bath. There is also a rooftop walk where you may view boats coming and going in the harbor and the famed Marblehead Light.

The Stepping Stone Inn (19 Washington Square North; $95-$125 B&B; double, May through October, $75-$105 March-April and November-December) is next door to Salem's Witch Museum and convenient to most of the town's attractions. It's an 1846 naval officer's home with eight bedrooms brought up to snuff with queen-size beds, original art and homemade quilts on the walls. Full breakfasts include such items as eggs Benedict, fine breads and your own silver pot of coffee.

Regional food and drink: You're close to the Atlantic here, and that means seafood that locals are almost snobs about, claiming never to have touched anything frozen. Cherrystone clams, lobster, halibut, scallops, sole and scrod are staples, with clam and fish chowders to get things rolling.

A traditional New England clambake may be difficult to find, so watch the papers for church suppers and the like. There is also plenty of good Italian food in these parts.

Good dining: Cherrystones (80 Newberry St. off U.S. 1) has every seafood imaginable. This is a large and rambling place, with wood floors and old Oriental carpets. Many locals have their big night out here. Try the super-rich lobster bisque and follow with swordfish grilled, blackened or broiled. There are also such dishes as smoked salmon ravioli, lobster and scallops Alfredo.

Chase House (Pickering Wharf) is a great place for lunch right on the river leading to the Atlantic. Sit on a deck and feast on scallops and lobster hauled right off the boat to the back door. The original Chase House opened in Salem in 1872, and the new version is trying to bring back the magic of yesteryear.

Two Italian restaurants in Marblehead that caught our fancy are Rosalie's (18 Sewall St.) and Capucino's (40 Atlantic Ave.). Rosalie's features angel hair pasta with calamari, tomato, basil and garlic, then broiled swordfish with pesto butter. The fettucine melanzane and vitello Milanese also draw raves. The decor here is eclectic, with such items as old church pews, a wooden bar, an antique hutch and a marble table for serving.

Capucino's recently was voted best Italian restaurant on the North Shore, and it should get another accolade for the mounds of food set before you. Choose from 11 kinds of veal, 16 pastas and eight seafood dishes, all with a distinct Italian accent.

On your own: If you don't know anything about witches when you arrive in Salem, you will when you leave. Figuring out which witch house (there are three) to start with is your first problem. Try the Witch Museum for starters, then mount your broom and go from there.

The Peabody is America's oldest continuously operated museum, housing a fascinating collection of ship figureheads, Polynesian masks, carvings, pottery, jewelry and textiles from India, Japan, Africa, China and the rest of Asia. Don't miss it.

The Essex Institute, a museum housed in six old Salem homes dating to 1684, also has a main building with five galleries of furniture, dolls, toys, silver, glass, ceramics and military gear tracing the town's 18th and 19th Century history.

Don't miss Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables, built in 1668 and set in a complex of early homes and gardens. If you still have energy in the evening, take in a show at the North Shore Music Theater, where Ray Charles, Chita Rivera, Harry Belafonte, Jay Leno, Roy Clark and Tammy Wynette perform in Broadway musicals and concerts from April through December. It's a first-class and very professional operation from curtain to curtain.

For more information: Call the North of Boston Visitors Bureau at (508) 532-1449, or write (Box 3031, Peabody, Mass. 01960) for a 56-page guide to the North Shore, including sights, accommodations and dining. Call New England USA toll-free at (800) 847-4863 for additional information on Massachusetts and other New England states.

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