Leftovers: The accidental tourist

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Only in real life do we experience truly humbling moments. 

We can read a moving vignette or watch films with empathy, but seeing and doing things up close and personal hits home the hardest. Such a series of seeing, doing, and getting clobbered occurred last weekend when BFF and I went to Rockport, Massachusetts. 

Our trip had originally been planned for July 2020, but like so many others it fell victim to the pandemic’s cancel culture. It was supposed to be part of a weekend-long escape culminating with a Matchbox 20 and Wallflowers concert. When the bands rescheduled to last Sunday, we fangirled and followed suit, hoping not only to make the concert but to enjoy the entire lost weekend. 

As a bit of background, BFF works, has four children, a husband, a slew of friends, a deservedly entitled dog named Bentley, and large extended families on both sides. There’s always a bat mitzvah, a graduation, an anniversary, and so on. While she loves the dog and most of the people, getting blocks of time to herself is tricky. As a testament to our friendship, I’m in her iPhone scheduled for Thursday night happy hour. It’s a recurring event with no end date and Siri never needs to remind either of us. 

Rockport is a beautiful little seaside artist’s colony that isn’t easy to get to (think Down East only Down North). Known as the country’s oldest seaport, there are a fair amount of swag and tchotchke shops, but those are outnumbered by galleries, booksellers in nooks and crannies, and interesting stores with quality clothing and hand-crafted items. Certainly, Maine has many such coastal towns and although Rockport probably isn’t very different, it felt unlike anywhere I’ve been in the 207.

One of the things that struck me was how few restaurants, casual or otherwise, there are in Rockport. Four miles away, neighboring Gloucester has many, but we resolved to park the car and not move until we left. Research, reviews, and local live inquiries told me a few fine Rockport eateries had fallen victim to COVID-19, and those that remained were primarily “tourist traps.”

The view from the third floor of Captain’s Bounty on the Beach in Rockport, Massachusetts. (Portland Phoenix/Natalie Ladd)

And it was in those words, “tourist traps,” that I had the first taste of humble pie. 

I actually wanted to go to the tourist traps and BFF agreed. We wanted the whole, unabridged Rockport experience from the relatively warm, swimmable ocean water, to the oil painting demonstration by a world-renowned artist, to the Portuguese-influenced lunch specials.

Boasting the latter, My Place by the Sea is a restaurant where we ended up dining al fresco with a spectacular view. The Phantom Gourmet recently praised their $58 lobster tacos and although we passed on them, I was thrilled to see the dish being served to a nearby table. Looking nothing like tacos and more like one of the award-winning paintings, I literally had to sit on my hands to keep from taking a picture of someone else’s food. We ate there twice.

Looking back, I can’t remember how many times I’ve told people wandering the Old Port not to eat “here,” or wait in line “there,” because those places were “tourist traps.” Go to this fancy small place, or that amazing ethnic-fusion restaurant, I suggested. Most people thanked me politely, but now I understand how fun it is and how simple it can be to have dining decisions predetermined by restaurants with a word-of-mouth fan club. Being featured on the glossy paper maps tourists carry about is a bonus, too.

Being a tourist, I didn’t sense any of the disdain many of us feel toward our own out-of-town visitors. Not to say it isn’t there, but literally everyone – from the lifeguard to servers who resilvered after every course, to Joe, the owner of our small hotel who gave us a “just-in-case” orange cone for our primo parking spot – was genuinely happy we were there. Each artist and shopkeeper made eye contact and thanked us for coming in. 

So, with real humility, I now feel terrible for being so intolerant of our own tourists.

I’m never going to judge anyone who wants to stand in line for a $35 lobster roll again. Or who wants to wave from the packed fire truck tour or do anything blatantly touristy. I’m even going to remind myself that the guy who cut me off on Fore Street has no idea where he’s going.

What I’ve failed to mention is Matchbox 20 and the Wallflowers canceled this year too. Apparently, they’ve rescheduled for July 2022, and BFF and I are sure the third time will be a charm. I’ve already been in communication with Joe for a third-floor balcony room just feet from the ocean, and we can’t wait to hit up the same two restaurants we did this time. 

Everyone who has visited Rockport says not to miss them. We may even try the lobster tacos.

Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at [email protected].

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