Newburyport is an old seafaring town. The ocean is in Newburyport’s blood, so to speak. The city claims, along with several other towns, to be the birthplace of the U.S. Coast Guard. Donald McKay, designer of the great clipper ships of the 1800s (including the magnificent Flying Cloud), got his start here before moving on to nearby Boston. The magnificent Federalist-style houses on High Road, that look so beautiful yet still understated at Christmas time, were once the palaces of sea captains, and their widow’s watches are a testament to a time when the Atlantic Ocean was the source of the city’s greatness.
Today, Newburyport is a sleepy, upscale suburb, the last stop on a commuter-rail line that until a decade or so ago stopped a couple of towns closer to Boston. An uneasy detente exists between the old-school, blue-collar locals and the yuppies who’ve invaded in the decades since the reclamation that began in the ’70s. The battle for Newburyport’s soul continues to this day, and to be honest, there’s no telling what the outcome of this drawn-out war will be.
It is, however, still a very pretty little city. There’s much to recommend it to families and even single people find sufficient joie de vivre in Newburyport’s downtown district.
The town still hugs the southern shoreline of the Merrimack River and the Atlantic Ocean is still just a few short miles away beyond the sandy ramparts of Plum Island and Salisbury Beach. And the powers that be (along with their marketing compatriots) never miss a chance to trumpet Newburyport’s sea-going bona fides whenever possible. And that’s why the HMS Bounty is tied up to the city wharf this weekend.
Of course it’s not the original Bounty. That ship was torched by Fletcher Christian and his gang at Pitcairn Island way back when. This Bounty was built for the 1962 movie “Mutiny on the Bounty” starring Marlon Brando (no, not the 1984 version with Anthony Hopkins and everyone’s favorite modern-day Nazi, Mel Gibson). Brando reportedly saved this replica from destruction and she has since gone on to appear in a couple of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” flicks and, according to Wikipedia, this Bounty reached its apex in the 2005 porn flick, “Pirates.”
I had read about but forgotten the Bounty’s visit until today at lunchtime when I noticed its masts towering above the buildings at the bottom of State Street. And this evening, after dinner, I ventured down to have a look.
Of course, I stopped at Gram’s Ice Cream along the way. After paying for tonight’s cone, which completed yet another set of ten entitling me to a freebie the next time I go in (bet on that happening tomorrow), I wandered downhill toward the Merrimack River. As I reached Market Square at the junction of State, Merrimac (no K; don’t ask why) and Water streets, I saw that the empty shell of what had been a women’s shop, The Monkey’s Fist, was no longer so empty. In its place was the Orange Leaf, a national chain of frozen yogurt shops that had been long rumored to be taking over the space. And it was busy.
I crossed the street and wandered the docks of Newburyport’s waterfront, quickly licking clean the chocolate ice cream that had been created just a day before right there in the basement at Gram’s. I notiched that each waste basket on the waterfront was filled to the rim with Orange Leaf buckets. The damned things were everywhere, with their generic, market-researched graphics and containing remnants of whatever God-knows-what mass-produced ingredients made up the yogurt itself (never mind the +/- $7 cost for each bowl).
What really broke my heart was that Orange Leaf occupied what had been Bergson’s when I was a kid. Bergson’s was a classic American lunch counter and ice cream parlor. I remember having burgers and chocolate shakes at Bergson’s with my mom during Yankee Homecoming, and I can remember getting Bergson’s ice cream as a family in the frigid dead of winter after some of Newburyport’s other ice-cream stands (Webster’s Dairy paramount among them) had disappeared. But Bergson’s followed the other stands and it was a long time before Gram’s appeared to bring homemade ice cream back to downtown Newburyport.
And now in Bergson’s place was the Starbuck’s of American dessert. The lines in and out of the place were staggering, and most of the crowds that wandered out with their cookie-cutter orange bowls and plastic spoons were headed toward the river. There, tons of people milled around in front of the Hollywood replica, snapping photos on their mobile phones in between spoonfuls of their frozen chemicals. Meanwhile, just a few hundred feet from the pseudo-Bounty, sailboats that had actually been places and carried everyday people as they sailed and lived aboard were tied to the city moorings.
Surrounded by all the people eating their frozen yogurt, I watched those sailboats as they moved with the incoming tide, and I enjoyed the midsummer twilight as it darkened upstream. Meanwhile, the last drips of all-natural, homemade chocolate ice cream dripped onto my fingers.