A Floating Sauna and Dogtown: An Annisquam Escape

I had the good fortune of housesitting recently in Annisquam village, part of Gloucester, Massachusetts. This tiny village, part of the northeast coast of Cape Ann, sits on Lobster Cove, a tributary of the Annisquam River. Full of sailboats, old New England style clapboard houses and cottages, Annisquam is off the beaten path and a step back in time. Overlooked simply because it is a residential neighborhood without many attractions and only private beaches, Annisquam is worth a trip.

I first learned of Annisquam last year, when my friends opened a little restaurant perched on stilts above the Cove. I’ll be writing about them, and their Market Restaurant on Lobster Cove, in a future article. I spend lots of time in this area but too frequently I am just a commuter. Staying the weekend changes everything.

Housesitting up on the hill, I stay in a beautifully restored carriage house at least 100 years old. This house is the perfect marriage of new and old, history and modernity. Art from the Montserrat College of Art, in nearby Beverly, adorns the walls, photographs from local artists pop up throughout. An extra large basement door leads to a room with troughs for the horses that used to live here. A Tuscan grill stays in the fireplace, porches wrap around each level. I sit on a bed-like swing on the porch upstairs, swaying, relaxing, watching the water reflect the light. The garden below is bursting with tomatoes and squash is ripening, the grass shorn just recently enough so that the smell still pervades. The dirt road beside the house is barely used; delineations of property lines are only evident by the hedges lining the yards. The partitions seem like afterthoughts, like the homes were originally part of one estate, sectioned off over the years. This house is breezy and soft, welcoming and relaxing in a way few houses ever really can be. I beg of these friends to leave me, and their twenty-year old cat, alone there more often.

Back Porch, overlooking the water

I wake up to the kitten asking for food. She and I go get the newspapers, I have a coffee, she has “beef dinner” from a can. I head down the hill for a croissant at the Market Restaurant, newspaper in hand. The sun is out. Today is a lovely day to do whatever I please in this idyllic hideaway. I decide it’s a beach day, a hike day, and a dinner out day, all in one. I meet my friends Justine and Lily a bit later at the Willow Rest, the local breakfast and lunch counter and market for fresh produce, artisanal crackers and cheeses, and crafts made by residents of Cape Ann. We eat BLTs, early summer strawberries, and the first Black Mission Figs I see this year. I chat with Melissa, the owner, about hikes through Dogtown, and she sends me off in the right direction.

Dogtown Entrance

I head up to Dogtown Commons, a place I had read about in Anita Diamant’s The Last Days of Dogtown, a fictionalized novel about this nearly 400 year old community (now abandoned) in the center of Cape Ann. Dogtown, so named for many fabled reasons, none of them proven, was a place that afforded inexpensive living conditions and access to the main road that connected Rockport and Gloucester, the two main towns of Cape Ann. Over the years, it became a place for widows, freed slaves, unemployed fishermen and stonemasons, and anyone unable to afford living in either town. In its heyday, around 1750-1800, cottages and dirt paths dotted the landscape to create a secluded and protected community. Wild dogs were part of the land, and could possibly be the reason for the name. The region was associated with witchcraft, for single women often used herbs to heal illness for lack of funds to see doctors. There are stories of women demanding toll payment to pass by their homes or over their bridges, dinners of squirrel and beans, and people working together to survive. It is difficult to know exactly what occurred there, but the last resident was found in critical condition and taken to town. No one has lived there since.

Number 15 in Dogtown

I expected to see evidence of life there. I wanted the cellars to be apparent, foundations of houses to remain, but I was expecting too much after two hundred years. Dense woodland had taken over, bringing all the structures to their knees and eventually to decay. Now a protected network of trails, there are reservoirs to visit, hikes to go on, but no real signs of life otherwise. I saw many rock walls, which in my mind were the last remains of a community there, again delineating property in a place where such measures seem unnecessary. These walls ran throughout and every once in a while something more concrete caught my eye: a large, ornately carved “34” in a giant rock, a “15” elsewhere- centuries old addresses. I wanted to get to The Whale’s Jaw, an outcropping of rock that looks like an open whale’s mouth popping up from the land, but was deterred by its distance. That, and the six million bugs flying around my head. I tried to remain cool and not let the dragonflies and horseflies and all the other biting bugs bother me, but I couldn’t help it- I ended up sprinting for half of the hike. I’ll return in another season to see the stonemason’s carvings of inspirational advice, “Keep Out Of Debt” and the like, that Roger Babson commissioned during the Great Depression, but won’t rush to find the Whale’s Jaw, which apparently fell in 1989.

Paths through Dogtown

To wash off all the bugs, I took at swim at Lighthouse Beach, a private beach set beyond a large, grassy hill. Once you top the hill, the ocean opens out in front of you, lighthouse blinking to the right. If the tide is low, there will be sand. I’ve napped on this beach before, dozing in the sunlight and warmth, oblivious to the dogs and children playing around me. I took a dip, wandering out into the tide, floating out beyond the waves to look back at lovely Annisquam. The water here is clean and clear, no seaweed slithering around your toes. A nearby beach has so much mica in the sand that it is named Diamond Cove, and has phosphorescence in the water at night. I refer to that beach as Disco Beach instead, for the entire place sparkles.

Lighthouse Beach at sunset

I met my friends Christa and Ed for what I believe to be one of the coolest and singularly memorable events of recent memory. Ed picked us up on his boat and ushered us over to a floating sauna that can be moored at any dock up and down the Cove. Currently attached to a houseboat, this sauna is a square cabin with a wood-fired stove and benches inside, a platform surrounding. We lit the sauna, enjoying homemade sangria, bread and hummus while it heated. The sun was lowering on the horizon, creating a sunset of such radiant colors and reflections on the water that it seemed fictional. We hopped into the water, swam around a tiny skiff called Thumb Tack. When time, we entered the 200-degree sauna, lit pink from the setting sun and relaxed. In such heat I have a tough time acclimating, but after the chilly swim and the hike I ran through, I was able to calm down to enjoy it. We poured some water on the stones and forgot to smack one another with the birch, becoming quiet and sleepy. When the heat is too much, I exit, stepping onto the platform, and jump into the cool river. I can feel the cold water but it is overpowered by the incredible heat I still feel radiating out of me. I count my blessings. I feel beyond lucky to be treading water next to a floating sauna, surrounded by beautiful sailboats and lush trees, watching a bright pink sun settle into the horizon. Christa splashes into the water, flush red with sauna heat, and we talk about how to make this our lives forever.

Sauna floating on the river

After three saunas and three swims, we are salty and hungry. I drive the boat, my inaugural voyage, to the Market Restaurant, where we have wine, oysters, rocket with anchoiade toasts, and pyramid pastas stuffed with beef short ribs. We are nearly sedated and are completely at peace. I make my way back to my carriage house and settle in with the kitten. I go to sleep by the sound of waves, wake to birds chirping.

View of the sunset from inside the sauna

The Market Restaurant on Lobster Cove is located at 33 River Rd, Annisquam.

The Willow Rest is located at 1 Holly St, Gloucester.

The entrance to the Dogtown Commons trails are on Cherry St, Gloucester.

Lauren Bell

Lauren's interest in travel and food started young; she spent her childhood dreaming of living abroad, speaking foreign languages, and discovering the food of other places. While she's spent her time working toward attaining those goals, she has also gotten properly distracted at home in the US. She's lived all over California and New England: seeking out small farms, delicious eateries, and creative chefs and artists. She's enamored of all things artisanally made- be it food, wine, art, crafts...anything small scale, by hand and with love. She's the artisanal admirer. In an effort to emulate her talented friends, she has learned to make cheese, ran an urban, edible schoolyard garden, cooks, cans, and bakes pies. She dreams daily of moving to Europe to do the same there. Until then, she travels frequently, at home and abroad, works as a pastry chef, sells wine and cheese, and helps run a farm-to-table restaurant. She lives in Brooklyn with her Siamese cat, Henry.

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