A weekend in Woods Hole, Mass.


Eel Pond in Woods Hole, Mass. The campus of the Marine Biological Laboratory surrounds the pond, a rich source of fauna for researchers and marine biologists. (Melanie D.G. Kaplan/FTWP)
September 2, 2011

In another life, I used to vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. My guy and I would fill the car with bags and beagle, and we’d drive to Woods Hole — a village in the town of Falmouth on the southwestern corner of Cape Cod — singularly focused on catching our ferry to the Vineyard. At the Steamship Authority, we lined up with everyone else who’d made reservations two seasons in advance. The staging area was stressful and intense, filled with SUVs jockeying for spots and people anxious to reach their summer retreats. Certainly, it was worth all the hassle to vacation with some of my favorite people on a blissfully perfect island.

But today, I forgo the ferry and enjoy the port town I once bypassed.

Woods Hole was settled more than 300 years ago, and for centuries, it was a fishing and farming community. Today, thanks to the abundance of fauna in its waters — luring researchers from around the world — it’s known as a center for marine, biomedical and environmental science.

It’s home to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), the largest such research institution in the country; the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), where more than 50 Nobel Prize winners have taught, taken courses or conducted research; and divisions of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Geological Survey. Together, these institutions occupy about 170 buildings in town and operate a dozen research vessels and collecting boats. Walking into Woods Hole (and especially crossing over the drawbridge, which few tourists do) feels like walking onto the set of a marine biologist reality show.

But to fully enjoy this show and all the town’s treasures — bike path, small beaches, fiery sunsets, deck dining, resident scientists — the best time to visit is just after Labor Day, after all the college students, post-docs and those making a beeline for the Vineyard ferry have gone home. Or alternatively, before it all begins around Memorial Day.


During my most recent visit, I picked up a bike map at Pie in the Sky bakery and started each day with an early ride. The town’s commercial center is tiny, but it’s worth exploring the MBL campus, nestled around Eel Pond. Woods Hole is surprisingly hilly, and no matter which direction I headed in, my legs enjoyed a serious workout. Some days I followed the path of the Falmouth Road Race, which starts at the Woods Hole drawbridge and then passes the Nobska Point Lighthouse, a long stretch of beach and finally the gray-shingled houses of Falmouth.

Other days I pedaled along the Shining Sea Bikeway, a 10.7-mile paved path along the shore of Buzzards Bay between Woods Hole and North Falmouth. Morning tweets and chirps provided surround sound, fog hung low on the path, bunnies scampered into the woods, and I often wouldn’t see another human for miles.

During the off-season, it’s easy to feel like a local in Woods Hole. Before long, you’ll know the schedule of the drawbridge (every half hour), and you’ll start calling Coffee Obsession “Coffee O.” You’ll become a regular at Pie in the Sky because you can’t resist the popovers, and for the simple reason that you have to adore a place that keeps a dog bowl and bike pump on its patio. And once you discover the lobster and grilled fish tacos at Quicks Hole, you will find yourself making excuses to eat there at least once a day.

While the facilities of the WHOI and the MBL aren’t open to the public, both have visitors centers and gift shops in town. The institution — in the news this spring after locating the wreckage of Air France Flight 447 off the coast of Brazil — has its own museum, which is worth a visit.

And it doesn’t take much effort for a curious soul to hook up with the scientific community. One of the attractions of Woods Hole for visiting scientists is that there are endless opportunities for impromptu dialogues with other scientists simply walking around town or sitting at one of the watering holes. Spend a few nights at the Captain Kidd and you’re likely to meet a scientist doing something super cool and eager to talk about it over whatever’s on tap.

One night at the bar I met Bruce, a pilot for the submersible Alvin, who had all kinds of stories. The old Alvin, which made more than 4,200 dives, including surveying the wreckage of the Titanic in 1986, had recently retired, and Bruce was helping to build its replacement.

My friend David, a cell biologist from Boston who has been going to the MBL to teach and conduct research for decades, said years ago that Woods Hole was a town of scientists and fishermen. “There were two camps,” he told me one night at the Kidd, “and plenty of bar fights.” He said that the scientists used to hang out at the Kidd, and the fishermen hung at an establishment across the street called the Landfall.

Scientists clearly still reign at the Kidd, but I didn’t see many of their rivals around. “Where do the fishermen go now?” I asked over a drink.

“The fishermen,” he said, “are gone.” Along with the fish.

Woods Hole may have changed from the era of scientist vs. fisherman bar brawls, but the village retains enough old-fashioned charm to appeal to anyone who cherishes a water view and conversations that stretch well into the night. And if I weren’t indebted to the locals for sharing their town with me in the first place, I certainly was after forgetting both my cellphone (for hours) and my bike helmet (for days) in public places and finding both exactly where I had left them.

My final morning, I took one last bike ride out of Woods Hole, catching a whiff of pre-sunrise baking splendor at Pie in the Sky. I rode up the steep hill to the lighthouse and along Buzzards Bay. Sand on the side of the road sprayed off my tires and covered my calves. Off in the distance, I heard the foghorn of the ferry coming in from the Vineyard and preparing to pick up a new shipment of island-goers. Gritty and exhilarated from the cool salty air, I felt — once again — glad to have stayed in Woods Hole.

Kaplan is a freelance writer in Washington.

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