whale of tale: new bedford, mass

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This is a very strange locale even for me, but I passed through New Bedford on my New England trip and was surprised to see that this little seaside port town has a lot of sites.

First, of all, who doesn’t love Moby Dick?  That whale of a tale has made its way onto the higher echelon of cultural references, either when talking about sheer obsession and determination or anytime you talk about whales.  Before there was Shamu and Free Willy (orcas, natch), there was the great sperm whale that was hunted by Captain Ahab.  And rightfully so, he did bite off the man’s leg.

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Written by Herman Melville, this novel shed light on the whaling industry at its height during the industrial revolution (well before petroleum was discovered anyway).  Of no surprise, Melville was yet another moody author in these New England parts.  Specifically, he spent time in New Bedford as a lad, working on a whaling ship…I think you can can see where this led him.

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One of the oldest structures in town is Seaman’s Bethel, a simple looking white chapel in the central part of downtown New Bedford.  It is said that Melville and many other whalers would hear sermons here before setting sail, as a tradition of the seafarers.  It is the inspiration of Whaleman’s Chapel in the novel, and is on the list of National Historic Places.

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This is just the first of several sites that belong to the New Bedford Whaling National History Park.  The New Bedford Whaling Museum is actually very well curated and has over 750,000 artifacts relating to this maritime period.  There’s 5 whale skeletons including KOBO, the 66 ft blue whale as well as a replica of the Lagoda, a model of what was the largest whaling ship commissioned in 1916.

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With great industry comes opportunity, which draws settlers in search of a better life.  Because whaling was obviously an international pursuit, this city had immigrants from all over Europe.  Particularly, there are a lot of Portuguese descendants in these parts, and so, while in town, you need to have some Portuguese food, and Antonio’s will hit the spot.  The seafood couldn’t be more fresh, it’s like boat to table and there’s nothing like a hearty seafood stew to warm your travelogged body.

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The harbor is very peaceful, but don’t let it fool you.  Apparently, this is the richest harbor in the country with ~$350 million of seafood passing through every year.  Damn, gotta get those clams!  In what may be my favorite thing I’ve ever learned, there was a fishing mogul who was indicted for lying about his catches (!!!) which would be enough to be the best story ever, but add to that the fact that he has been dubbed, the Codfather.  If that doesn’t make you want to visit New Bedford, nothing will.

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