Off Season of the Witch: Reasons to Visit Salem in Late Winter

03/07/2017 05:28 pm ET
Aaron Sagers

Autumn gets all the attention, but late winter is also the season of the witch in Salem, Massachusetts.

More than 300 years after the witch trials and executions that occurred between 1692-1693, Salem is known for its place during a dark mark on our nation’s history (the events of which remain a cautionary tale about isolationism, and pursuing an “other” as a threat).

However, while the town was the setting of tragedy, it is now a tourist destination for those seeking to learn about history – of the trials, as an important seaport, and birthplace of the U.S. National Guard. Salem’s primetime is most certainly Halloween weekend, with The Salem News estimating upwards of 250,000 people visited the area over the holiday weekend in 2016.

For me, the allure for Salem begins earlier in the year, with colder months, less crowds, and still with a lot to see in this Massachusetts North Shore town. So, with that in mind, here are my recommendations for a quick late winter/early spring visit to the Witch City.

Salem Witch Museum
Salem Witch Museum
Salem Witch Museum

Witch haunts

There are many spots in Salem dedicated to telling the story of the witch trials, and to learning about (and dispelling misconceptions) about practicing witches. For a quick trip, my favorite is the Salem Witch Museum, just off Washington Square park (also called the Salem Common), and located in the old Second Church Unitarian since 1972.

While some attractions are closed during winter, the museum remains open year-round. And for a $12 ticket, and about an hour of time, visitors enter watch the witch trials unfold in a dramatic re-telling with 13 stage sets. The storytelling of the history is engaging, and I love the retro-style Disneyland-esque figures on display. The second exhibit, “Witches: Evolving Perceptions” is a guided tour that discusses the origins of witches, the pop-culture depiction of witchcraft, what witchcraft entails in modern times, and explores modern “witch hunts.”

Following a visit to the museum is a good time to walk to the Salem Witch Trials Memorial, dedicated in 1992 by Holocaust survivor (and Nobel Laureate) Elie Wiesel. Adjacent to the 17th-Century Charter Street Burying Point, the memorial has a stone threshold inscribed with the protests of the trial’s accused, interrupted by a three-sided granite wall. Along the walls are benches with names of the executed inscribed in each, which serve as a place of remembrance and reflection.

Salem’s Hawthorne Hotel
Hawthorne Hotel
Salem’s Hawthorne Hotel

Where to stay?

Opened in July 1925, the Hawthorne Hotel (shown here) is located in the heart of the historic district of Salem, and while not connected to the witch trials, it has quite a bit of history of its own. Named after Salem’s favorite son, author Nathaniel Hawthorne, the hotel has hosted presidents, celebrities, and at least one Harry Houdini séance (in 1990) in its 91 years. It also was used as a location for movies (the Robert DeNiro, Jennifer Lawrence film Joy) and a 1970 episode of Bewitched. There is even a private club, the Salem Marine Society, that meets on the rooftop of the hotel, but that is unfortunately closed to the public.

I happen to like the Hawthorne because it’s the kind of hotel that transports you back in time to a bygone era of luxury, but remains a modern, newly-renovated, comfortable facility with 84 rooms, and 5 suites. The wood-paneled Tavern on the Green restaurant -- with low lighting, inviting fireplace, and cozy chairs -- is the kind of place where I get a craving for a straight up burger, and need to have a gin martini, or even local New England beer, in my hand. Even for a quick trip, it is worth whiling away the night here. The Steak Frites and Sunday Jazz Brunch at the hotel’s Nat’s restaurant is likewise recommended.

And if Allison is working behind the bar, I make it a point to order the “Waffletini,” a dessert in a glass with Deacon Giles Rum, Bailey’s Irish Cream, Rumson’s Coffee Rum, a splash of heavy cream, maple syrup and, yes, bacon crumbles.

Salem Charter Street Burying Point
Aaron Sagers
Salem Charter Street Burying Point

Feeling spirited?

Unsurprisingly, considering the particular horrors enacted against those accused of witchcraft, Salem has a lot of ghost stories that captivate both the curious visitor, as well as the paranormal enthusiast.

The Hawthorne Hotel itself has its share of alleged ghost stories, with “reports” of an apparition being seen in Room 612, and Room 325 supposedly being an area where lights and water taps turn on by themselves. Although not the oldest structure in Salem, it is nonetheless one of the more well-known haunted hotspots in town. Hotel management does not discourage talk of the ghost stories, but also doesn’t force it upon any guest not particularly interested in it.

However, every late winter/early spring, the Hawthorne hosts to the annual Salem Con paranormal event hosted by the Mass Ghost Hunters Paranormal Society (held this year April 21-22). An increasingly popular event outside the Halloween season, it includes vendor rooms, lectures on history and paranormal topics/theories, as well as a “ghost hunt”/paranormal investigation led by celebrities from that arena.

While there are guided ghost tours in Salem, many operate seasonally (though Spellbound Tours with the entertaining Dr. Vitka is willing to arrange private tours). But I have explored many ghosty spots on my own. Head to the Howard Street Cemetery to look for the specter of Giles Corey who was pressed to death in the trials (but never gave a confession of witchcraft). Supposedly you might also catch the ghost of a woman in a Victorian-era blue dress in the same spot.

There are stories of sightings at Rockafellas, a restaurant and bar housed in an old bank, so you can keep an eye out while enjoying a spirit of another type. Stop in for a show at the Cinema Salem, and some say you may find yourself be sitting next to a ghost dressed in black in Theater 3. And along Derby Street, where waterfront brothels once thrived and underground tunnels existed, the tales say those out for a stroll at night might overhear a disembodied sea captain voice, or catch a ghost pirate on the water.

Bit Bar, Salem
Bit Bar
Bit Bar, Salem

Eats and drinks

Salem has an excellent selection of eating and drinking establishments, each brimming with unique personality.

For instance, Turner’s Seafood at the Lyceum Hall has great fresh catches -- and the establishment is so family owned, that the folks who work there could probably tell you the name of the person who caught the fish. It likewise has its own haunted history, and is reportedly home to the ghost of Bridget Bishop, the first to be hanged in the witch trials on June 10, 1962. According to tales, the restaurant stands on the former site Bridget’s apple orchard.

Accurately described by the Boston Globe as a “bohemian outpost,” the Gulu Gulu Café is a chilled-out, delightfully quirky spot with live music five nights a week, and hard-to-find beers (with an impressive Belgian selection served up by a staff that knows their beers).

For the best lobster rolls on the North Shore, and I’d argue some of the best out there, period, head to Longboards Restaurant and Bar on Pickering Wharf. With just the slightest touch of mayo, the sizeable portion lets the lobster meat speak for itself. But if you want that roll to have a hearty conversation, add a cup of creamy chowder (also pretty fantastic).

While it’s not yet a year old, the Bit Bar (pictured here), located in the Old Salem Jail, combines local history with video game history. With more than 30 vintage arcade games and pinball machines – in addition to a good craft beer menu, and some novel liquor selections – the bar is a fun stopping point for a night out in Salem.

Finally, the less I write about Back Alley Bacon, the better – but only because finding and trying this pop-up speakeasy pork spot is a big part of the enjoyment. Here’s what I’ll say: The joint is located near the Salem Wax Museum; you will need a password revealed on Facebook or Twitter to get food; it is cash only; and the pork meals are served through a cracked door by a man in a pig mask, Chef Jon Hamm. This culinary exploration is certainly worth it, but it requires an appetite for adventure – and, of course, friggin’ amazing pork.

House of the Seven Gables, Salem, Mass.
Aaron Sagers
House of the Seven Gables, Salem, Mass.

Have more time?

If you have more than a day or so in Salem, do not miss the Peabody Essex Museum, which is a stunning facility with exhibits including maritime art, rare manuscripts, and a multicultural array of art, including a large collection of Asian art. The museum was established in 1799, and remains of the oldest in the nation that have been continuously operated. While still open, the museum is currently undergoing renovation and expansion, which will make it one of the 20 largest art museums in the U.S. when it is completed in 2019.

It takes less time (about an hour) to visit the House of the Seven Gables Museum, also known as the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion, “the oldest surviving 17th century wooden mansion in New England.” The house (shown here) is at the center of many interesting anecdotes, and hosted an array of fascinating historic character – including Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was inspired to write his Gothic novel of the same name.

Another shouldn’t-miss destination in Salem is Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery. Though possessing less history than, say, the Peabody Essex, the Count’s menagerie is a cool collection of tributes to horror, sci-fi, and fantasy. Featuring displays honoring classics such as Nosferatu (of course!), Hellraiser, An American Werewolf in London, Alien – and even dedicated to icons such as Vincent Price – the Nightmare Gallery is a fun stop in Salem. Note: They do keep seasonal hours, but are open by early March.

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