It could be a portal into the world F. Scott Fitzgerald described in his seminal novel “The Great Gatsby.” Or an American version of the British mega-hit television show Downton Abbey. It’s Castle Hill, a 59-room Stuart-style mansion overlooking the pristine sands of Crane Beach, once the summer estate home of Chicago industrialist Richard T. Crane, Jr.
Today, Crane Beach is part of the Crane Estate in Ipswich, a splendid property owned and protected by The Trustees of Reservations. Just 30 miles northeast of Boston, it’s a wonderful destination for history buffs and nature devotees alike. All told the estate encompasses more than 2,100 acres of beachfront, dunes, maritime forest and planned landscapes, managed for both recreation and conservation.
Bequeathed by the Crane family to The Trustees in 1949, the 1,400 acre Crane Memorial Reservation’s barrier beach stretches along Ipswich Bay and is separated from the mainland by Essex Bay and the Essex and Ipswich Rivers. The reservation includes a variety of habitats, including a drumlin known as Castle Hill, shrub thickets, cranberry bogs, salt marshes, dunes, and forests.
Native American tribes that originally inhabited the area called it “Agawam,” which translates to a lowland, marsh, or meadow. Colonized in 1633 by John Winthrop, Jr., son of the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Ipswich primarily remained a fishing and shipbuilding colony until the 1820s, when smugglers brought in the country’s first stocking machine from England. Amos A. Lawrence established the Ipswich Hosiery Mills in 1868, and by the turn of the century, the town had become the largest stocking manufacturer in the country.
These days it’s a perfect spot in the fall when the crowds have thinned to take a coastal hike and enjoy all the beauty Crane Beach has to offer. More than five miles of trails wind through dunes and a pine forest, to points with marshland views, and spectacular views at the ocean. Finally you reach a deserted stretch of beach for a stroll along the shore. These trails are part of the Bay Circuit Trail.
Crane Beach is a classic example of a barrier beach with Plum Island just to the north being an actual barrier island, a rarity in New England. A ban on watercraft and gear keeps man-made disturbances to a minimum. Most visitors are content to soak up the tranquil beauty. However, this beach is also a wildlife refuge, meaning the trails may reward hikers with glimpses of rare species.
It’s also among the world’s most important nesting sites for piping plovers, a threatened bird nearly hunted to extinction in the 19th century for its eggs and feathers. Crane Beach has been nationally recognized for its successful shorebird protection program. To protect these threatened shorebirds, avoid the fenced nesting areas and the wrack, the line of washed-up organic debris and seaweed where the birds feed and hide.
As for Castle Hill, the first house Crane built was an Italian Renaissance Revival villa that wa razed and replaced in 1928 with the mansion designed by architect David Adler. It’s still there today. The grounds were designed by the landscape architects, the Olmsted Brothers, perhaps best known for being the creators of Central Park in New York City. The “Grand Allee,” a half-mile manicured lawn, leads from the rear of the mansion to the Atlantic Ocean.
Furnished with period antiques, it is open to the public for house tours on Tuesday afternoons from May through October and by appointment or for seasonal concerts and events. The stunning mansion and gardens were featured in several movies including “The Witches of Eastwick”, and more recently “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.” The oldest building on the estate, The Inn at Castle Hill, is now a spectacular bed and breakfast featuring simple yet luxurious pleasures such as snug beds, hearty meals, and stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean. Built as a farmhouse in the 1880s and completely renovated in the 1990s, The Inn at Castle Hill has 10 guest rooms.
There is plenty to do at Castle Hill. Mountain bikes with helmets are provided for guest use. If you’re a kayaker, there’s easy water access. The water is typically flat, the breeze mild as you paddle through the Crane Wildlife Refuge a patchwork of coastal and island habitats. Depending on the season you may see golden crowned kinglets, bobolinks, savannah sparrows, and sharp shinned hawks. You may also spot deer, coyote or foxes.
Crane Beach is a slice of the town of Ipswich. One of the oldest towns in the United States, founded in 1633, it comprises 33 square miles of forests, fields, farmland, marshes, dunes, and beaches. Sign up for one of the guided tours of historic Ipswich, which has more 17th century homes than any other town in America, magnificent oceanfront estates, historic restaurants, and miles of protected nature trails. These preserved houses were cherished as the homes of ordinary townsfolk who during the 20th century could not afford to modernize and make the kind of changes that might have spoiled their simple Colonial architecture.
Start your day with a stop at Zumi’s Expresso and Ice Cream. A coffee shop owned by a former mountain guide from Nepal, it has been the North Shore’s favorite destination for free-trade organic coffee, ice cream, chocolates, tea, pastries, bagels, and frappes since 2003. Zumi has branched out teaming with Ipswich Ale Brewery using its full-bodied Sumatran beans to create an earthy cold-brew blended into a smooth stout.
Step back in time at Appleton Farms (est. 1638), America’s oldest working farm, with rolling grasslands, grazing livestock, stone walls, extensive forests, and historic farm buildings are part of the farm’s 1,000-acre pastoral landscape. The farm operates a 550-member Community Supported Agriculture program, and a farm store that sells artisanal cheeses, butter and yogurt as well as beef and eggs. During the haying season, the farm produces thousands of bales of hay annually to feed the livestock. Hundreds of families visit the farm during the growing season to pick their own vegetables as a part of their CSA program. Interpretive tours and programs for families and adults are offered throughout the year.
The Clam Box has been a beacon on a Ipswich hill since opening in 1935. Big-bellied clams are top of the menu at the most iconic shack in this most iconic clam town. The clams make the short trip from the sandy mud of the estuaries and bays near Essex and Ipswich. Owner Marina “Chickie” Aggelakis personally selects all the clams from her suppliers’ trucks each morning. They’re “washed” in evaporated milk, coated with corn flour and white pastry flour, then twice-fried for perfect taste and texture. According to local lore, it wasn’t until Lawrence “Chubby” Woodman introduced a shucked clam to sizzling oil in 1916 that the fried clam was born. It’s a summer staple of New Englanders to this very day.