Dartmouth, where life slows down

Reprinted from Boston Globe

SOUTH DARTMOUTH — Moving back to New England last May, we arrived at the airport with suitcases stuffed with swimsuits and two temporary places to live while we looked for a lease. We’d spend the first half of summer in South Dartmouth and the second half in Nantucket, thanks to VRBO and a generous friend.

I expected to count down the days to designer digs and drinks in ’Sconset, but South Dartmouth proved the sleeper hit. It’s a quiet alternative to the islands. Eating a vanilla cone at the gas station is a main event, and the Beach Plum’s reopening this month is huge news. The bakery-turned-restaurant is one of the only spots in town.

“Nantucket in the summertime, it’s really crazy, really busy,” observed Kim O’Hara, who settled here after meeting her husband. “And this is just off the beaten path.”

About an hour’s drive from Boston, South Dartmouth seems best reached by word of mouth; we learned about the seaside village from a friend whose parents hosted us at their vacation home one night years ago. Similarly, the waterfront house we rented off Smith Neck Road belonged to a couple whose children had marked milestones there. Entering the kitchen, I noted the wall etchings in pencil, recording their heights. Then there was the shabby — not shabby chic — decor. Most striking were the views of Apponagansett Bay and a bird’s nest perched on a sunken stilt. This piece of prime real estate, it seemed, was about love and comfort, about communing with nature. And it offered a microcosm of South Dartmouth itself.

We established a routine that involved driving along winding picturesque roads, lined by shingled homes and stone walls, to a few favorite destinations. Our mornings began at Alderbrook Farm
(1213 Russells Mills Road, Dartmouth, 508-636-4562, www.facebook.com/pages/Alderbrook-Farm/224127017906), where you can buy coffee and pastries at 5 a.m., around the time my kids and the hens wake. On my most recent visit, I opened the door for an employee as he carried in warm eggs. Chickens form part of the farm’s extended family of animals, which include donkeys, goats, and a potbellied pig. We’d greet them before braving the weathered wooden playground; the slide is faster than it appears, and, in a throwback to my youth, deposits you onto grass, not rubber.

“I like this particular village because it’s very quaint,” explained Nancy Manley, who runs Alderbrook with her husband, Allen. “Not much has changed since I’ve lived here. It seems to have only gotten better.”

That’s true at the 130-acre Cornell Farm (530 Smith Neck Road, South Dartmouth, 508-636-4693, www.thetrustees.org/places-to-visit/southeast-ma/cornell-farm.html), which has raised crops for five generations and offers woodsy trails for exploring. We’d usually make it to the boardwalk and the salt marsh then turn around, but hardier hikers can cover more ground — territory for wildlife. On rainy days, the Lloyd Center for the Environment (430 Potomska Road, Dartmouth, 508-990-0505, lloydcenter.org/) beckons with indoor exhibits and sea creatures to hold. For us, trudging through the trees in boots was also fun and required fewer reminders of “gentle touches” for my 2-year-old.

Sunny afternoons were devoted to the beach: Round Hill (www.town.dartmouth.ma.us/Pages/DartmouthMA_ParkBeaches/parks) , our usual stamping ground. The sandy stretch, which features calm water and tide pools, is technically reserved for residents, but nobody enforces it until mid-June. Demarest Lloyd State Park (www.mass.gov/eea/agencies/dcr/massparks/region-south/demarest-lloyd-state-park.html) is a good public option. Regardless of location, ice cream provided an excuse to stash our shovels, with Salvador’s (460 Smith Neck Road, South Dartmouth, 508-996-6106, www.salvadorsicecream.com/) leading the temptations. Operating since 1936 from a stand that looks like a giant milk can, the place is pure nostalgia.

Thankfully, South Dartmouth is far from the land of Vilebrequin, where toddlers swim in hundred-dollar shorts. Trunks bought at Target do just fine. The same goes in town, and evenings we’d head across the small drawbridge to Padanaram, once a whaling port, for drinks at the pubby Sail Loft (246 Elm St., Padanaram, 774-328-9871, www.thesailloftdartmouth.com/). Meanwhile, over in the Beach Plum’s former space, Little Moss (6 Bridge St., South Dartmouth, 508-994-1162, littlemoss.com/) will soon provide an upscale alternative, or “upscale casual,” as John and Lisa Lofberg put it. The husband-and-wife team plans to emphasize regional ingredients — the same items billed as local in Boston that arrive by truck once a week. Here, they’ll go straight from farm (and sea) to plate. The Lofbergs will continue to serve coffee and muffins seasonally at a takeout window.

Both ventures will keep good company with a spa and a few stores around the corner, Details and Design (332 Elm St., South Dartmouth, 508-990-7337, detailsdesignma.com/ ) being the standout; the unpretentious, pretty boutique could more than hold its own on Nantucket. In need of furniture, I’ve often made the round trip from Providence, where we settled at summer’s end. Owner Margaret Silvia’s curated collection of home goods and fashion is worth the trek, and her stories about Padanaram are equally engaging: “It used to be a thriving village. You could get your medicine, your back-to-school tights,” Silvia told me, adding that now “it’s on the upswing.” Little Moss, for one, has residents hopeful.

And so I found myself stuck at the drawbridge on my last stopover, discussing the restaurant from my driver’s seat. “Everyone’s waiting with bated breath,” reported neighbor Sally Lemelin, who left her car to make friendly conversation. The holdup was more charming than nuisance as a boat drifted by. For the moment, we both had nowhere to go.