By Joanna O’Leary
Photo by John Andrews
If Halloween is your favorite holiday—or if you just have a penchant for the color orange, candy, and the macabre—then you should strongly consider a sojourn in Salem, Massachusetts, this month. Perhaps best known as the site of the 17th-century witch trials that ended with the execution of 20 men and women, Salem has become a mecca for those intrigued by magic, the supernatural, and what lies beyond. And while most visitors come to this otherwise sleepy New England town for the museums and Nathaniel Hawthorne tours, in October Salem is all about Halloween. The sheer number of events held each year is (appropriately) scary, so plan ahead in order to use your time well. (Never fear—if your touring group has a wide range of interests, you’ll find activities that encompass the painfully scary to the not-so-spooky, the adult-themed to the kid-friendly, and the haute to the hokey.
While Salem proper is pleasantly walkable, the town is best reached by car from Boston’s Logan Airport. Renting an automobile can also come in handy should you want to stay just outside of Salem at one of the chain hotels. However, to really get in the spirit (in every sense of the word), book a room at The Hawthorne Hotel. Since 1925, this hotel has accommodated a number of noteworthy guests including Walter Cronkite, George H.W. and Barbara Bush, Colin Powell, and Bette Davis. Book early, as the Hawthorne’s charming architecture and location in the historic district causes its 93 rooms and suites to fill up quickly. Cocktail aficionados will also be tickled to find that the hotel’s Tavern on the Green bar is home to the award-winning “Waffletini,” a sweet-savory concoction of Deacon Giles Rum, Bailey’s Irish Cream, Rumson’s Coffee Rum, heavy cream, and maple syrup with bacon-crumble garnish.
Another prime (but more modern) resting point is the Salem Waterfront Hotel, which holds many events that are part of the town’s “Salem Haunted Happenings.” From September 18 through October 9, the hotel’s Regatta Pub hosts a Halloween Bloody Mary Bar for those in search of some sanguine, boozy sips, as well as “Spooky Treats” sessions in which children can socialize in costume and nibble on themed goodies. The Waterfront Hotel’s creepy coup de grâce is the Salem Witches Ball (October 28), an extended evening of entertainment featuring laser light shows, psychic readings, ceremonial dances, rituals led by witch doctors, and a costume contest with a $1,000 cash prize.
Other Haunted Happenings events include live music performances, ghost tours, theatrical presentations, and (for the athletic post-mortem enthusiast) the Zombiewalk. Held this year on October 1, the Zombiewalk invites families and their pets (also in costume) to participate in field-day activities and face-painting at Collins Cove Park, then strut their undead stuff throughout Salem. (By the way, if sprinting rather than sauntering is more your style, check out the “Running the Dead” 5K run.)
Those seeking a foretaste of what’s to come should check out the Annual Psychic Fair and Witchcraft Expo, where a wide array of psychic readers and practicing witches are on hand to foretell your future. Added bonus: the opportunity to do some early holiday shopping at the Expo’s magical gift emporium. The fun continues every Saturday night in October on the “Boo’s Cruise,” a party boat with dancing, costume contests, food, and a full bar.
When it comes to scary-good sustenance, Salem offers a fairly impressive variety of cuisines for a village of its size. A most pleasant breakfast or lunch can be had at the Red Line Café, which proffers signature seasonal baked goods like apple cider donuts, salads, coffee, drinks, and overstuffed crêpes with fillings. The “Farm House” crêpe (goat cheese, mushrooms, heirloom tomatoes, and baby spinach) is a welcome healthy balance to all that candy you’ll consume for Halloween. Still, it’s hard to resist at least trying a bite of “The Elvis,” filled with peanut butter, bacon, bananas, and whipped cream. For dinner, newcomer Sea Level Oyster Bar has already made a name for itself due to its voluminous buttery lobster rolls, mussels, creamy chowdah, black linguine with shrimp, and, of course, briny bivalves by the half-shell.
Mulled cider and candied apples are available from vendors on the promenade, and more substantial street food can also be found at Salem’s new annual Food Truck Festival held in early October, where more than 20 food trucks from all over New England serve up their best grub to ravenous souls.
One final caveat: Salem is so delightfully fun and scary during Halloween that you may find yourself mortified by the lackluster celebrations held elsewhere. Be prepared to make an annual pilgrimage!
Joanna O’Leary is a freelance food and travel writer based in Houston. Her exploits are chronicled on brideyoleary.com.