Salem is famous for its witch trials of 1692 but there’s more to this Massachusetts town than witchcraft, writes Kaye Holland
The seaside port city is only five stops and 30 minutes away from bustling Boston by train (www.mbta.com), but Salem – with its cobblestone streets chock full of old clapboard homes and quaint shops such as Ye Old Pepper Companie (America’s oldest candy store) – feels like another world.
Salem is the site where the colony of Massachusetts was first established in 1629 but it is the outrageous witch trials of 1692 that catapulted Salem (and Colonial New England) onto the world stage.
Nineteen Salem men and women were hanged as witches, all because a group of teenage girls reported, as truth, a mix of tales told by Tituba (a west Indian slave) while Cotton Mather – a pillar of the Puritan community – published a slew of scare stories.
If you want to learn a little more about Salem’s witch history, there’s a myriad of museums, presentations, dungeons and dramatic reenactments and reflections – all within easy walking distance – devoted to this grim chapter of early American history. The majority are unabashedly touristy and silly (although rather fun) but two of the more serious testaments to the trials include the Salem Witch Museum and Cry Innocent: The People versus Bridget Bishop. At the former, the untold stories of 1692 are told in a darkened auditorium using special effects and 15 life sized figures who recount the experience with moving eloquence. The latter is a critically acclaimed live reenactment of the witchcraft examination of Bridget Bishop (the first woman put on trial during the Salem witch hunt of 1692) that has been featured on The Travel Channel and TLC.
The witch trials might have taken place more than 300 years ago but witchcraft continues in Salem today: Wicca (modern day witchcraft) stores selling potions and crystal balls abound and almost every shop has a resident warlock or witch onsite inviting you to “discover your destiny”. I stayed strong – even when confronted by Laurie Cabot (dubbed the city’s ‘official witch’ in 1977 by then-governor Michael Dukakis) – until my final hour in Salem when I bizarrely found myself bewitched into handing over US$30 for a 15 minute physic reading. And yes, Doug – who read my tarot – was eerily accurate.
That Salem has built a thriving tourist industry around broomsticks, black hats and a bronze statue of Samantha Stevens – the character played by Elizabeth Montgomery in hit sitcom Bewitched – is best evidenced throughout October; a month long celebration of Halloween (www. hauntedhappenings.org) which sees some 200,000 tourists flock to Salem in search of a spooky experience. Activities include ‘Make a wand’ and ‘Ask a witch’ whereby visitors get to quiz Salem’s 2,000 self described witches about their religion.
Yet while October is the New England port’s busiest month by far, Spring is the best time to go if you want to see Salem without the people and prices – and beyond witches. For, while this small seaport of 41,000 citizens is powerfully (and profitably) linked with its witch history there’s more – much more – to Salem (whose name derives from the Hebrew word for peace, ‘shalom’) than witches.
A leisurely stroll offers intimate glimpses into the city’s lively seafaring past. From the 17th century until the early 19th century, Salem was one of the most important ports in North America and its waterfront was lined with wharves owned and managed by wealthy merchant families like the Derbys, Crowninshields and Turners. The Salem Maritime National Historic Site (978 740 1650; nps.gov/sama) is gem of a place that gives visitors an insider view into Salem’s rich maritime heritage.
As a self confessed book worm, I enjoyed immersing myself in novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stories at the House of Seven Gables (www.7gables.org). America’s oldest wooden mansion was made famous by the American author – arguably Salem’s most famous son – in his 1851 novel of the same name, in which he described the home as “a rusty wooden house, with seven acutely peaked gables [that has] always affected me like a human countenance.”
However the jewel in Salem’s crown is perhaps the Peabody Essex Museum (978 745 9500; www.pem.org). The museum – which recently benefitted from a $200 million reinvention – is home to a captivating collection of art and culture not only from New England, but from around the globe. The big headline grabber is Yin Yu Tang – a two storey Chinese house detailing family life in the east, over eight generations. Don’t miss the bright red speaker – installed by Chairman Mao’s government during the Cultural Revolution so that all residents could hear official announcements.
But enough of the history lesson, you’re on holiday and one of the pleasures of any break is great grub. Here Salem excels: food is exquisite and as good as anything you’ll eat in Boston. I was well fed and watered at both the Green Land Cafe (978 744 7766;www.greenlandcafe.com), an achingly hip haunt offering fresh twists on traditional dishes, and at Finz (978 744 0000). This Pickering Wharf restaurant specialises in seafood and is the perfect place for a not so light bite before retiring to your room at the neighbouring Salem Waterfront Hotel & Marina (www.salemwaterfronthotel.com). It is possible to ‘do’ Salem in a day (Boston Parents Paper named Salem as a ‘Best Day Trip’) but if you favour long lie ins and late breakfasts (you are on your hols after all), the Salem Waterfront Hotel & Marina is one of the most polished places to stay. The 86 rooms and suites are an exercise in elegance, the service is personal and relaxed, the decor inviting and, the deal clincher in these tough economic times, a night here is much more affordable than back in Boston.
All told while nobody visits New England simply to go to Salem, this seaport is a nostalgic charmer – the kind of laid back time warp that’s worth stopping in. For such a small place, Salem has an incredible variety of things to see and do but it’s also the hospitality of locals like Kate Fox – who saw me studying my guidebook and offered me a lift from the station to Salem’s centre, and then arranged to meet me the next day for lunch – that help make Salem special.
For more information on Salem, check out www.salem.org
This article was first published on CD-Traveller on 21 March 2012