Art imitates life in beautiful Newbury. by Diane Bair, photographs by Robert Boyd
“It’s the stark simplicity of the place that is so astonishing—the trees, the ponds, the salt pannes—everywhere you look, it’s beautiful and peaceful,” says photographer Greg Nikas about the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island in Newbury. “The wildlife adds the crowning touch,” Nikas says. “Every time I go, I see hawks, deer, swans, and great blue herons. It’s different every time I visit. What an amazing place!”
His photos are proof—Nikas’s gallery space, Sweethaven Studios in Newburyport, is full of dreamy, color-splashed shots of the refuge. Often, he hops on his bicycle at dusk or dawn to capture the perfect light at the spot that this globe-trotting photographer deems his “favorite place in the world.”
When it comes to Newbury, it’s easy to gush, as the landscape really is that gorgeous. Heathery pasture lands, marshes, and rivers meld gracefully as they slope to the sea. Nikas isn’t the only creative soul who’s drawn to this setting; local artists sing the praises of this singularly enchanting North Shore destination. Plein air painter Dorothy Aham has lived in Newbury for 32 years, but continues to be astonished by its wonders. “The marsh that surrounds us is so full of natural beauty; it is an inspiration for me no matter what time of the year,” she says.
Born and raised on Plum Island, painter Mary Ann Varoski says, “I try to capture the sounds, smells, and ever-changing environment of Plum Island. I want the viewer to feel their feet squishing in marsh mud and to smell the aroma of the air.” Painter Christine Molitor Johnson’s goal is to evoke in her work the joy of childhood summers she spent on the island— “the roar of the surf, the sizzle of the sun, the warm sand between my toes,” the Amesbury resident says. Her current solo show is called “Plum Island to Paris,” celebrating her two favorite places.
Local painter Susan Spellman, on her way back from painting at Plum Island’s Sandy Point, adds, “It was a glorious morning and I found a bit of beach by myself, at low tide, with Ipswich in the background.” “The light was beautiful, lighting up little pools of water that happen at low tide,” a magical time to be there. But then again, magic at Plum Island happens often, she says. “It’s a wonderful place to paint…I can find something to paint there any time of day and almost any time of the year!” These artists are part of a plein air painting group called The Band of Brushes, which recently exhibited at the Newburyport Art Association.
For first-generation farmer Matthew Kozazcki, the lush, undeveloped lands of Newbury offer a different kind of canvas. Originally from Ipswich, Kozazcki bought the property that is now Tendercrop Farms in 1986, “way before farming was cool,” as he tells it. Back then, “farming was in decline, and there was a lot of available land that had been abandoned,” he explains. “The town of Newbury—both residents and government—were very supportive of my farm and my farming activities. Without that, my farming ambitions would’ve gone…nowhere.” He was only 26, without a “hand-me-down” farm, but Kozazcki knew what he wanted. “Farming is all I’ve ever wanted to do,” he says.
After an initial unsuccessful attempt to sell wholesale to supermarkets, Kozazcki put all his efforts into his farm stand, a decade before anyone had heard the term “locavore.” In the beginning, he grew field flowers and vegetables. Now, of course, Tendercrop Farms is a Newbury landmark, where Kozazcki and crew raise beef, pork, turkey, chickens, eggs, and fruit, as well as winter vegetables in greenhouses. “We’re a real farm, not just a farm stand,” he’s quick to point out. No kidding—Farmer Matt has 600 acres spread around Newbury, including 325 acres off I-95. “I don’t leave Newbury,” he says, noting that the beauty of the town lies in its undeveloped expanses of marsh and open pastures. “There’s really no place like it,” Kozazcki says. “I’m very happy to be here.”
By now, you’re getting the idea that Newbury’s stunning landscape is a major draw. Of course, you don’t have to be an artist or a farmer to appreciate it. The town officially encompasses Byfield and Plum Island– plus the center area of Newbury known as Old Town–and each has its charms. What isn’t available in these neighborhoods can likely be found in the city of Newburyport, which was once a part of Newbury itself.
A fun way to get a feel for it all is to simply drive around and see where the road leads you. A favorite route: Follow Route 1-A north from Rowley into Newbury and out to Plum Island. You’ll go over the Parker River Bridge—gorgeous view alert!—where there’s a boat ramp on the right and a sign that denotes the 17,000-acre Great Marsh, extending from Cape Ann into New Hampshire. Another sign pops up quickly, near Newbury’s Lower Green; this one marks the landing place of the first settlers here (1635).
From there, the scene unfolds with pastoral grace as you cruise past historic properties, farms, farm stands, an organic garden, grazing horses, and the handsome grounds of Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm, with occasional views of the marsh in the distance. Take a right onto Rolfes Lane toward Plum Island, and a different side of Newbury emerges, with water views and a definite vacation vibe. Here, rides at Plum Island Airport, riverside tables at Bob (not Bob’s) Lobster, and a sunset-colored sign all welcome you to Plum Island.
Countryside meets beach colony here, and those who love Newbury wouldn’t have it any other way.
For the Birds: The Parker River National Wildlife Sanctuary is a hot spot for birders.
Neighborhood Watch Greg Hall, from Jamaica Plain, searches for birds, and John Koza in the bird blind, inset.
To see fabulous bird life, you could take a trip to some exotic locale. Or, you could simply hop over to the Parker River National Wildlife Sanctuary. According to Sue McGrath of Newburyport Birders, the refuge and Plum Island estuary is one of the best birding areas in the country. McGrath has led birding enthusiasts from Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and South and Central America to this amazing place, to see rich avian life in a diverse habitat. “Every visit to the refuge brings joy,” McGrath says. “It’s a treasure trove! You just never know what will be there.”
Birding here is a year-round activity, she explains, because every season has its stars. In fall, it’s shorebirds, raptors, and waterfowl. Winter brings snowy- and short-eared owls, northern rough-legged hawks, and winter sea ducks. In spring, the neo-tropical migrants are the focus of attention, while summertime means herons, egrets, breeding passerines, American woodcocks, and whippoorwills. Plum Island is also a stronghold for the Purple Martin, as well as nearly 300 other species of birds that are observed here annually. “Abundant food sources make the refuge a true buffet for the birds,” she explains.
What do you do if you don’t know a grebe from a goldeneye, but you’d still like to see some cool birds? Newburyport Birders offers an array of birding programs at the refuge, and newbies are welcome. McGrath’s group also guides private tours for friends, co-workers, and families, so you can have your own tour without someone yapping about his life list. “Yes, there are birders who are cut-throat competitive,” McGrath says, but most Essex County birders are more focused on observing bird behavior, nesting birds, and the natural history of birds. Mostly,” it’s about a love of birds,” she says.
Some of the best birders happen to be the littlest ones. “The youth birders are so enthusiastic and have keen vision,” McGrath says. “I call them ‘eagle-eyes.’ We’ve had some fantastic sightings!” Bald eagle-watching trips along the Merrimack River are especially fun for families. “We’re fortunate to have good numbers of wintering bald eagles along the river and now a few pair of breeding birds. Our winter Bald Eagle Adventures are really popular,” McGrath says. newburyportbirders.com.
On the Town: Items for your Newbury Itinerary
Parker River National Wildlife Refuge One of the most beautiful natural places in New England, the pristine coastal habitat is made up of a six-mile-long beach, maritime forests, dunes, impoundments, and salt marsh. 6 Plum Island Tpk., Plum Island, 978-465-5753, fws.gov/northeast/parkerriver.
Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm Set on 230 acres, this Historic New England property features a late-17th-century manor house and attached farmhouse, along with a collection of foster farm animals, in partnership with the MSPCA. Tour the buildings, walk nature trails, or attend a special event, like a farm-to-table dinner or a vintage baseball game, where teams play according to 1861 rules. Open June 1-Oct.15, 5 Little’s Ln, 978-462-2634, historicnewengland.org.
The Governor’s Academy Opened in 1763, the Governor’s Academy is the oldest continuously operating boarding school in America. The co-ed high school hosts rock concerts, musical theatre productions, art shows, photo exhibits, and student performances; many are open to the public. 1 Elm St., Byfield, 978-465-1763; thegovernorsacademy.org.
Bob Lobster Commercial lobsterman Bob Hartigan once sold his catch out of his cellar. Now, he sells lobsters, fried seafood, lobster rolls, crab cakes, salads, sandwiches, and chowder year-round from this rustic spot on the Merrimack River. 49 Plum Island Tpk., 978-465-7100, boblobster.com.
Tendercrop Farm Open all year, this working farm offers a bounty of local deliciousness. Stock up on fresh fruit, vegetables, beef, pork, chicken, turkey, and eggs. The farm’s turkeys are the gold standard on local Thanksgiving tables. 108 High Rd., 978-462-6972; tendercropfarm.com.
Plum Island Grille In winter, a taste of the warm oysters with lemon-chili-chive butter will make you think you’re on a far more southerly isle. Seafood is a specialty at this lively eatery, but there are also Angus burgers, ribs, and lighter fare. 2 Sunset Blvd., Plum Island; 978-463-2290, plumislandgrille.com.
Lenair Self(s)-Healing Center at the Sanctuary At this retreat, the goal is to “attain instant enlightenment and the sanctity of inner peace.” Over 30,000 people have experienced a “predictable miracle” to overcome addiction and out-of-control thoughts using the Self Healing Experience, they say. 75 Scotland Rd., 888-412-8392, lenair.com/sanctuary.
Mad Martha’s Café This café boasts a strong local following, especially at breakfast, when diners swoon over the French toast made with Portuguese sweet bread. Bonus: the beach is right across the street. 51 Northern Blvd., Plum Island, 978-462-7707, madmarthasisland cafe.com.
Plum Island Soap Co. They make and sell 150 different, all-natural bath and body care products; stop by and you might catch them whipping up a batch of enchantingly scented Island Spice soap. 205 Northern Blvd., Plum Island, 978-465-0238, plumislandsoap.com.