Sunday, August 17, 2014

Crane Beach and Russell Orchard: Adventures on the Ipswich Essex Explorer

There are many things that I hope for when I first look over a beach. White sand, sunny skies, seagulls calling, waves gently crashing, blue water beckoning, a sense of calm and peace. Which is why, when I made it over the gentle sand slope up to Crane's beach and stood surveying the scene, I nearly had one of those cinematic moments where I drop to my knees, pull at my hair, and scream, "WHY, WHY,WHY?!!!!"

Yes, the sight of hundreds of people packed in front of me almost induced hysteria. But I kept what little dignity I had, largely because I'd already read about the crowd at Crane's beach, and also the remedy. The beach is huge, like a few miles long, and if you turn right at the entrance, and walk for twenty minutes or so, you get away from the circus crowds, and are left with this.

The downside is that there are no lifeguards once you get past the crowds, but I am not really an ocean swimmer. I like to sit on the sand and breathe in the calm, then dip my toes in the water, maybe go in as far as my knees, and then splash about like an elephant, pick up some pretty shells, and call it a day. And I have to say, under those criteria, Crane beach was a hit. Among its other virtues, the sand sparkles. That's right, it sparkles. Whatever bits of shell and mineral wash up here, I noted as the water bubbled over my toes that I could see little bits of glitter swirling about me.

Crane's beach alone would've been worth the time and effort to get there, but I had other fish to fry. So I hopped on the bus (which was on schedule), and took the ten minute ride to Russell Orchards, a place where a city girl can have a little bit of a farmyard holiday and still make it back to the city before dinner. You will find a barn filled with an ice cream stand, a produce store, nick-nacks, wine tasting, and most importantly, a fully functioning bakery.

apple rolls

These folks make their own cider donuts, fresh. And they are in such demand that it is probable they will be straight out of the fryer when you buy yours. The same is true of their full size pies (blueberry, strawberry-rhubarb, and apple on the day I visited). When I picked up my hefty blueberry pie, it wasn't just warm on the bottom, it was in, just came out of the oven, HOT. And that was in the afternoon. So as far as I can tell, the farm is basically cooking up a storm all day, and the goodies are flying out the barn just as rapidly. I'll grant you, it was summer and it was a weekend, but I have a feeling that apple-picking season is no less joyous and busy on the farm.

That said, let me point out that waiting for you outside the barn is...nature. I wandered off to the blueberry patch to pick my own carton of blueberries in my flip flops and was not only followed by a very strange looking pack of fowl (turkey?) but soon noted the preponderance of biting flies, wasps, ants, etc. It belatedly occurred to me that this is why they sell bug spray in the store.

Pretty pond with ducks and chickens.

Oh, hello.

Pretty apple tree. Picking season isn't until September for apples.

My haul.
It also occurred to me as I saw the body of a long-deceased birdy being eaten by wasps (stuck in the netting above the blueberries), that possibly there was a reason some people were just buying the cartons of blueberries in the barn store, rather than coming out to pick their own. After that, a stinging fly went for my foot, and I started to imagine that every little tickle on my legs were ticks and ants...and yes, I hot-footed it back to the store.

Cider donuts
Now, you are probably wondering, how does the barn bakery stack up on taste and value? Well, the cider donuts were hot, crispy, and mildly flavored. I inhaled one at the speed of light, and noted people walking out with ten and twelve at a time. Personally, I expected more of a cider flavor, but the aroma was heavenly and I certainly wouldn't say no to another helping. The scone was not too dense and had a nice flavor of rhubarb, the goat cheese and vegetable pocket was quite tasty, and the little peach-berry tartlet was a tender bite. But now to the hard part: the blueberry pie.

It looked as it ought to look when I cut into it, a flaky golden crust with a juicy interior of wild blueberries and jellied goo of the Gods (well, how else do you describe a good pie filling!) It had even bubbled up a little over the crust, which is always a good sign. My foodie buddy and I were alight with anticipation as we lifted our forks. And....well, what can I say, there was not a lot of flavor. It tasted like they forgot the salt, the berry flavor was extremely mild, and the crust was...not bad, but not wonderful either. It is the first and only time I've ever had to get up and fetch the salt shaker in order to feel that a pie tasted right...and we even snuck in a squirt of fresh lime juice to give it a little more flavor. It was not that the pie was an abomination...but it was not the level of excellence that I would expect from a farm bakery that specializes in pie. That said, I believe the visit to the orchard and the purchasing of goodies is, in and of itself, so unique and fulfilling an experience that you should absolutely go.

Inside of barn store

The mysterious octopus carrot. I dared not buy it!
For those on a budget, please note that the store is by no means inexpensive. Most of their pies are $20. And when I went up to the counter with this canvas tote bag, I nearly spittled up a lung when the lady informed me it was $40. So don't go expecting dirt-road apple-stand prices.

Logistics: It's $18.25 for a round trip from North Station to Ipswich (on the Newburyport/Rockport line). When you get off the train in Ipswich (a 40-minute train ride), the Ipswich Essex Explorer bus will be waiting right at the train station. For $5, you can hop on/off its route to Crane Beach, Russell Orchards, Wolf Hollow, and the Ipswich visitor center. Note: the Ipswich Explorer bus can't give change, so be sure you have exactly $5 on you. It's a ten minute ride to the orchard, and another ten after that to the beach. A very doable day trip from Boston for someone who doesn't have a car. IMPORTANT: The Ipswich Explorer only runs in the summer and only on weekends, so check their schedule before you go.

Info on the Ipswich Essex Explorer:
Crane Beach:
Russell Orchards:

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