Hidden Gems

Matthew Gilsom

These hidden coastal gems might be lesser-known but they are equally alluring.

Fairhope, Alabama
Here's a sentence you don't read every day: Alabama (home to the editorial offices of Coastal Living) shelters one of the country's best-kept surprises. Trust us on this one. Just veer off U.S. 98 onto Alternate 98, parallel to Mobile Bay, and follow the leafy, gently curving two-lane road into a dictionary-perfect "Smalltown, USA"―Fairhope.

Turn right onto Fairhope Avenue, pass the two-story storefronts with rockers out front, and take in this panorama: Protected green parkland saddles the waterfront bluffs to the left and right. Below their slopes, the Mobile Bay shoreline appears like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. Fishermen deftly cast their lines from the public pier, families picnic on the sand or beneath the shade of mossy live oaks, and, some days, the local schoolteacher takes her first-graders to the shallows to learn about the sea creatures. North and south from the beach, you'll see the parade of privately owned dock pavilions. These piers with gazebo-like structures are enduring icons, signaling a way of life on Alabama's Eastern Shore.

Founded in 1894, the town claims a long history and unusual beginnings that have given it cultural cachet. It has attracted writers ranging from Upton Sinclair and Sherwood Anderson to Winston Groom and Fannie Flagg, and its legendary Page and Palette bookstore holds a lively schedule of author appearances and readings. Like Mobile across the bay, Fairhope hosts its own Mardi Gras, along with an annual arts and crafts festival.

The town's nearby attraction, Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, comprises almost 6,000 acres of land and water in and around Weeks and Mobile bays. The reserve offers spectacular birding―more than 350 species have been spotted―along with good salt- and freshwater fishing; hummingbird and butterfly gardens; and nature trails, including a boardwalk through a swamp forest where rare pitcher plants thrive.

what the locals know
Anil Vira, owner of Fairhope's Barons Inn, tells us that sometimes, when the wind blows from the east―usually when the weather is hot―thousands of fish, including flounder, eel, crab, and shrimp, head for shallow waters. "This phenomenon is known locally as 'Jubilee,'" says Anil. "In the early days, people would run through the streets, banging on pots and pans, yelling, 'jubilee!' when it happened. Now they watch the sky for hovering seagulls, then run down to the waterfront with pails to scoop up the bounty. Some restaurants will even cook up your catch."

Population: 14,106
Median Home Price: $187,288
For More Info: cofairhope.com

Pacifica, California
According to the laws of suburbanization, Pacifica should have been inundated with tract houses years ago. After all, it's just 15 minutes south of downtown San Francisco, perched on the shoulder of a peninsula that's experienced phenomenal growth in recent decades. But the lion's share of that growth (along with interstate highways and an international airport) has been over on the bay side. Pacifica stands serenely on the ocean side, where the south-of-the-Golden-Gate portion of California Route 1 begins its coast-hugging lope to L.A.

The city lies in a protected area, surrounded on its landward side by part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and enjoys the largest ratio of open space to population on the San Francisco peninsula. Not surprisingly, this is prime outdoor recreation country. Anglers fly-fish for salmon and striped bass; birders head for the brown sands of Sharp Park Beach to watch pelicans, loons, phalaropes, cormorants, and terns; surfers catch big waves at Linda Mar and Pacifica State beaches; and mountain bikers and paragliders enjoy the hillsides embracing the city. There's also the Sharp Park Golf Course, designed in 1931 by renowned links architect Alister MacKenzie.

If you're a fisherman (or even if you're not), you shouldn't miss the Pacifica Pier. Often called the best fishing pier in California, this 1,140-foot-long wharf offers the only dry place on the Bay Area where you can catch salmon without stepping foot on a boat. Anglers regularly hook the coveted fish, as well as various types of surfperch, and even sharks off the pier.

This town also hosts one of the West Coast's stranger annual events: Pacifica's Fog Fest. Residents have jokingly proclaimed their city, with an average 270 days of sunshine per year, the fog capital of the state. Arts and crafts exhibits, festival foods, and a parade draw some 50,000 people each year. The big party is held on the last weekend of September, when the local weather is nearly always lovely.

what the locals know
Pacifica resident Chris Hunter advises that "you have to look closely to get into our part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Watch for a sign along the northbound lane of Highway 1 that reads, 'Shelldance Nursery and Orchids.' If you take this winding road, you'll end up not only at one of my favorite nurseries, but also at a trailhead for Sweeney Ridge. Hike up to the Discovery Site for views of San Francisco Bay."

Population: 40,000
Median Home Price: $749,000
For More Info: ci.pacifica.ca.us

St. Michaels, Maryland
During the War of 1812, St. Michaels earned the nickname "The Town That Fooled the British." The ruse was simple: When locals got word that a nighttime bombardment was coming their way, they hung lanterns in treetops and atop ships' masts, so that the enemy gunners on Chesapeake Bay overshot all but one of the houses in the village.

St. Michaels was also overshot―and overlooked―by the march of progress along the bayfront. The town lies on Maryland's Eastern Shore, southeast of Annapolis, and until the 1952 opening of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, most of its neighboring communities were backwaters given over largely to shipbuilding, tobacco farming, and harvesting what H.L. Mencken called an "immense protein factory" of crab and oysters. Even now, though shellfish stocks in the bay have been substantially depleted, you can pass through St. Michaels to the end of the peninsula and watch watermen leaving to harvest oysters on their wooden skipjacks, the last sailing vessels still in regular commercial use in the United States.

The Bay Bridge brought regional development, but St. Michaels occupied such a narrow slip of land that the town has never had much room to expand. It's also benefited from long-standing local taste for historic preservation. The compact village center boasts a wealth of 18th- and 19th-century structures, including the one house struck by a British cannonball. The historic district is anchored by the renowned Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, which features a collection of 85 vessels that trace the evolution of regional boatbuilding. The museum's Hooper Strait Lighthouse, moved here from Tangier Sound farther south, has become as much a symbol of St. Michaels as the mountains of steamed crab served on the deck at The Crab Claw Restaurant.

St. Michaels is a town for walkers and cyclists, where nothing is far from anything else. Heading out of the village can mean an excursion on some of the best sailing waters in the nation (there are a couple of downtown marinas and a local yacht club), a drive 35 miles south to view eagles and ospreys on the 27,000-acre Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, or a trip across the Delmarva Peninsula to the Atlantic. Annapolis, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., are just a few hours away via the Bay Bridge.

what the locals know
Museums are often regarded primarily as attractions for visitors, but it's become a regular ritual for many St. Michaels residents to head down to the grounds of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum and enjoy spectacular sunsets over the water.

Population: 1,139
Median Home Price: $795,000
For More Info: stmichaelsmd.org

Port Townsend, Washington
The standard take on the Pacific Northwest is that it rains an awful lot. But Port Townsend, located on the tip of the Quimper Peninsula just south of the San Juan Islands, enjoys a sunny microclimate. Protected from prevailing weather patterns by the Olympic Mountains, it averages less than 20 inches of rain a year, and often basks under clear skies while towns like Port Angeles to the west keep umbrella makers in business.

Getting here requires some planning. If you start in Seattle you can take a 30-minute ferry ride to Bainbridge Island (bring a windbreaker so you can stand outside as you cross Puget Sound); travel another hour in the car to the Hood Canal Bridge. Then drive up the eastern side of the Olympic Peninsula to the edge of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Think you'll be tired when you arrive? Don't worry―the stunning coastal scenery will revive you.

Like a village out of a musical, Port Townsend is a town that time forgot―only in this case, time suddenly remembered and brought it back to life. Historic mansions occupy some of the prime real estate here, and smaller Victorian houses painted vivid colors line the narrower streets. Many of the finest homes date to the late 1800s, when boosters promoted the town as a major rail terminus. Unfortunately, the Northern Pacific Railroad failed to cooperate, and the community all but disappeared.

Then, about 1970, urbanites looking for lovely surroundings and cheap real estate discovered Port Townsend. Here was a compact, walkable town with a picturesque waterfront far enough from Seattle to keep sprawl at bay.

The community they created was a match for the setting. Today it pulses with environmentally friendly businesses, art galleries, plenty of live theater, and festivals celebrating jazz, blues, and classical music.

Visit in September and you can catch the 31st Annual Wooden Boat Festival―"the Woodstock of wooden boats," sponsored by the local Wooden Boat Foundation and Northwest Maritime Center. Both organizations occupy space on the town's historic waterfront, where they educate students and visitors about the region's sailing heritage and environment.

Sea kayakers often set off from their dock to ply Port Townsend Bay and Admiralty Inlet. And when they come home, they can stroll down to the brewpub―without their slickers.

what the locals know
Susan Grantham, who works with the Port Townsend Chamber of Commerce, likes to take in movies at the Victorian-era Rose Theater. "The Rose shows first-run pictures as well as independent and art films," says Susan. "All movies begin with a live introduction by the staff, and the 20-plus toppings for the popcorn can't be beat. Monday is 'fabulous door prize night,' so save your ticket stub for the drawings."

Population: 8,900
Median Home Price: $399,000
For More Info: ptguide.com

Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia
Mention "Annapolis" to most people and they think you're talking about the capital of Maryland. But there's another Annapolis in North America, one a lot older than the city on Chesapeake Bay. It's a lot smaller, too―but favored by an equally lovely waterside location.

Annapolis Royal―this Nova Scotia town's full name―stands at the head of an arm of the Bay of Fundy called the Annapolis Basin. The French sailed into the basin in 1605 and set up the first permanent European enclave north of Florida (their "Habitation" has been faithfully re-created by Parks Canada, and is a popular local attraction). Over the next century, the settlement changed hands between the French and British seven times, eventually acquiring its present name and status as the British capital of Nova Scotia in 1710.

In 1749, Halifax became the colonial capital, and Annapolis Royal gradually settled into life as a grandly named backwater. But it would be difficult today to find a townsperson who wishes things had turned out otherwise. Halifax, with its superb Atlantic harbor, got the glory and the bustle, while Annapolis, with its stupendously variable Fundy tides, got to mellow in relative obscurity as a center for shipbuilding, fishing, and agriculture. Today, it's a popular haven for retirees, artists, and artisans, several of whom showcase their work in local galleries. A busy cultural schedule revolves around King's Theatre, a vest-pocket venue for plays and live music including Nova Scotia's signature Celtic-oriented ceilidhs (kay-lees).

For such a small town, the housing stock is impressive, with a rich amalgam of historic architecture and four of the oldest frame buildings in Canada. Few towns in Atlantic Canada are better set up for walking, with views of the broad basin and its forested shores at nearly every turn, and the parklike grounds of Fort Anne flanking the water side of busy little Saint George Street. A special treat is the 10-acre Historic Gardens, with plantings representing the area's past, as well as 2,000 bushes of more than 230 varieties of roses.

It's almost become a cliché among American visitors that much of rural Nova Scotia resembles the New England of two generations ago. Considering the architecture, the setting, and the slower pace of life here, they may have a point.

what the locals know
Paul Stackhouse and Val Peterson, who run the Hillsdale House Inn in Annapolis Royal, like to hike the trails at scenic Delap's Cove, along the Bay of Fundy just 15 miles from Annapolis Royal. Two trails, totaling more than 4 miles, meander through 130 acres of canopied forests and along bay shores. A special highlight of the area is a 43-foot waterfall.

Population: 550
Median Home Price: $100,000 Canadian; $85,056 U.S.
For More Info: annapolisroyal.com

Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Beer was just one of the products that made Milwaukee famous. In fact, this was the quintessential American factory town. Like Carl Sandburg's Chicago, 90 miles south, it was a melting pot on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Some manufacturers still thrive here: Milwaukee remains the home of Miller Brewing Company and a firm started in 1903 by Messrs. Harley and Davidson. But beer and motorcycles are shipped by rail and truck nowadays, leaving the once-hardworking lakefront largely to pleasure boaters. The county-operated McKinley Marina is one of the largest in Wisconsin, and the South Shore Yacht Club hosts a number of annual races and regattas on the big, breezy lake.

To take advantage of all that water, Milwaukee began construction of the RiverWalk downtown in 1999. Today the pedestrian pathway connects the historic Third Ward to Schlitz Business Park, and provides a striking setting for art, especially sculpture.

Further burnishing the city's image are the financial and service behemoths based here (Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance has long been a downtown presence), and the continuing influence of Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. UWM's sprawling East Side campus anchors an upscale neighborhood with a student-quarter edge, tucked along the lake between downtown and a gold coast of beer barons' mansions.

The German immigrants who built Milwaukee were a civic-spirited lot. They brought with them a sense of community that still manifests itself in a superb county park system (with much of its acreage along the lake), and a devotion to institutions such as the Milwaukee Symphony; the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, with three theaters in a rehabbed power plant; and the Milwaukee Art Museum. The museum's new home is a striking 2001 building featuring a soaring pair of winglike sunscreens that can be repositioned to take advantage of changing light conditions.

Tour the galleries to enjoy temporary exhibitions, or just stare through the windows for an instant reminder of the reason Michigan's a great lake. (Keep an eye out for a feature story about the Milwaukee Art Museum in an upcoming issue of Coastal Living.)

what the locals know
John McGivern, a Milwaukee actor, writer, and comedian, suggests that new arrivals head south from downtown on Water Street to Walker's Point, a neighborhood filled with late-1800s Cream City brick homes (so called because of the creamy color of the bricks) that stretches from Lake Michigan approximately to Sixth Street. First Street is lined with antiques shops, including the eclectic, three-story Fox Skylight Gallery of Antiques.

Population: 578,887
Median Home Price: $159,000
For More Info: milwaukee.org

New London, Connecticut
You might say that New London's modern era began in the 1970s, when a group of protesters rallied in front of the historic downtown train station (designed by Henry H. Richardson) and stood down a city wrecking crew. That victory led to the city's present-day status as, in the words of a community activist, "one of the last places with this much waterfront and this much potential."

Like many historic coastal communities, New London struggles with competing visions of revitalization. Just a few years ago, it was at the center of the controversial Supreme Court decision allowing municipalities to use eminent domain to seize land for private development. But the furor over that decision led to the formation of a new political party―now with two seats on the city council―that's determined to put the brakes on eminent domain and save what makes New London unique.

There's no shortage of history here, or housing stock to go with it. Wander a few blocks off State Street, downtown's main drag, and you'll pass block after block of 18th- and 19th-century buildings. None of them are far from Ocean Beach (a seaside park with a boardwalk and pavilion) and the venerable Dutch Tavern, where Eugene O'Neill used to take his libations. Nearby, on the grounds of old Fort Trumbull, which once guarded a harbor forested with the masts of whaling ships, the U.S. Coast Guard is building its new museum.

And that old gem of a train station? It's in fine shape, standing alongside a lovely waterfront park. Best of all, trains actually stop there! Amtrak's Acela Express will get you to Boston or New York in about two hours.

what the locals know
Richard Humphreville, a New London furniture maker who has played a leading role in the city's revitalization, is especially proud of the lively local art scene. One of his favorite galleries is the Hygienic, a onetime luncheonette whose looks are deceiving―the front room still has the original counter, stools, and coffee urns. "In the winter, the Hygienic Art Show is a major event," says Richard, "and there are shows in the garden in summer."

Population: 26,000
Median Home Price: $250,000
For More Info: ci.new-london.ct.us

Jersey City, New Jersey
Until recently, anyone caught using the words "Gold Coast" and "Jersey City" in the same sentence was relegated to the ranks of the seriously confused. By the 1970s, New Jersey's second-largest city (after Newark) looked like a place that had a lot more past than future.

Today, Jersey City is all about the future, thanks largely to a simple calculation on the part of financial service titans. Peering from their Manhattan offices at the forlorn landscape across the tidal Hudson River, Wall Street's planners did the real-estate math, and the "Gold Coast" became a reality. Out of a landscape of warehouses, riverfront factories, and abandoned rail yards grew a new urban center with office towers, retail space, and thousands of housing units located in handsome old structures and brand new buildings. It's all practically in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, at the point where the Hudson meets Upper New York Bay.

While the renaissance in residential property recently has spread inland from Jersey City's shoreline―even the city's gargantuan former Medical Center, near the less attractive West Side, is being converted to luxury condos―the poshest neighborhoods are along the river and bay. Developments such as Newport and Liberty Harbor offer waterfront town houses and high-rise condos, while the under-construction Trump Plaza Jersey City is expected to contain the tallest luxury residential towers in the state. All are an easy hop from lower Manhattan via Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) subways, ferries, and (for die-hard drivers) the Holland Tunnel. Newark Liberty International Airport is only nine miles away.

Commuting convenience isn't Jersey City's only amenity. The new, private Liberty National golf course carpets a former waste site and features an 18th hole less than 1,000 yards from Lady Liberty's sandals. Nearby, the Liberty Science Center (OK, the statue has exerted a numbing influence on local nomenclature) is set to reopen this July following a 100,000-square-foot expansion. And the American Podiatric Medical Association named Jersey City one of the "Best Walking Cities" in America.

All this, plus something no New York City address can offer: a view across the Hudson of New York City.

what the locals know
Joan Mara, who grew up in Jersey City and works for a prominent developer on the revitalized waterfront, advises newcomers to sample the community's phenomenal ethnic diversity. "Check out the short stretch of Newark Avenue between Kennedy Boulevard and Tonnelle Avenue," she says. "It's Jersey City's Little India―within the space of a block, you can dine alongside Indian families, order a custom-made sari, buy Indian wedding jewelry, or get a henna application."

Population: 240,055
Median Home Price: $385,000
For More Info: cityofjerseycity.com

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