Tourism is on the increase in this part of the Massachusetts coast, but only just, says Mark Kurlansky

Take a piece of paper. On the left, mark rising increments of money, indicating profits. Along the bottom, mark decades starting, say, in the 1790s, when the British first used the word "seaside" for a coastal place of recreation, and continue into the 21st century. Make two lines. One would start near the top where the money denotes profits from fishing. The line would steadily decline as it crossed the page toward our times. The second line, indicating coastal tourism, would start low on the page, when people went to the coast reluctantly for health cures, then rise steadily.

In most British and American fishing ports, the lines of fishing and coastal tourism would cross somewhere in the 1970s or 1980s. But in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the rising line of tourism profits and the slumping line for commercial fishing are only now about to cross.

Gloucester is the oldest fishing port in the United States and, given the state of New England's fisheries, miraculously remains one of the 10 largest fishing ports in the country. It was founded as a fishing station in 1623, not by Englishmen from Gloucester but from the West Country. They were entrepreneurs who responded to the fact that the Pilgrims who landed by Cape Cod three years earlier had failed to realise Captain John Smith's promise of a rich fishery.

Gloucester is at the tip of a peninsula north of what is now Boston. For a long time it didn't really have a name. John Smith, who named New England and was a great promoter of its fishing potential, decided to call the peninsula Tragabigzanda, which never really caught on, possibly because it is unpronounceable. It was the name of a woman he knew from Turkish wars whose relationship to Smith, whom she saved as a prisoner, was unclear. It seemed Smith had Pocahontases wherever he went. However, in 1624, the future Charles I, unhappy with Smith's explanation of his name, changed it to Cape Ann, named after the Queen. For the first decade the settlers were too busy fishing even to bother naming the town at the tip of Cape Ann until a new group from Gloucester arrived and named it after their home town.

Gloucester, in the United States, has always meant fish. It was the port that supplied it; where Kipling wrote his great fishing tale, Captains Courageous; where fish sticks were invented; and Clarence Birdseye made the first frozen fish – cod. It was always, first and foremost, a cod port.

Tourists havealways stopped by in Gloucester. Well-off families have long built large summer homes there. As a child T S Eliot spent every summer there with his family and wrote about it in one of his Quartets and in copious lines from The Waste Land that Ezra Pound deleted. Some of the greats of American art were drawn to the colourful fishing port. Fitz Henry Lane, a Gloucester native also known as Fitz Hugh Lane, brought his 19th-century school of maritime painters, the Luminists, to Gloucester to paint the harbour in its glorious light. Many others, such as Winslow Homer, came to paint the boats, the harbour and the fishermen. But Marsden Hartley came to paint rocks and Edward Hopper to depict the fine solid wooden houses.

The astounding wealth of Gloucester painting has been collected in the Cape Ann Museum, which is one of the best small museums in America. That is one thing tourists can do in Gloucester. Another is visiting a monument along the harbour on which the names of 5,000 Gloucester fishermen lost at sea are inscribed. Names are still being added as tragedy strikes from time to time. Historians believe there are another 5,000 Gloucestermen lost, mostly from early centuries, whose names have not been recorded.

Gloucester is a tough old town and part of its toughness is a determination not to suffer the fate of other New England ports and become a tourist town. You don't have to look far for an example: take Rockport, which broke away from Gloucester in 1840. Many of Gloucester's visitors stay in Rockport, where there are charming hotels, such as Emerson-by-the-Sea – so called because Ralph Waldo Emerson stayed there once when giving a speech – and cute b&bs.

The town itself is largely devoted to gift shops and boutiques, restaurants and art galleries. There is little fishing or any other industry in Rockport any more. Alternatively, tourists can go antique hunting in the more rural Essex, in whose marshes Gloucester fishing schooners used to be built, or they can go to the quaint whitewashed New England town of Manchester-by-the- Sea where the wealthy of Boston used to go, shunning Gloucester with the name Gloucester-by-the-Smell.

"Keeping Gloucester Gloucester", as the locals like to say, is one of the central political issues. The newly elected mayor – there are often newly elected mayors as Gloucester tortures itself with an election every two years – Carolyn Kirk, has been holding meetings inviting the citizenry to speak their minds. So far, more than 1,000 – in a city of 29,000 – have gone to these meetings to talk about the importance of preserving Gloucester. The city is protected by strict zoning regulations that bar anything from the central harbour that is not termed "marine industrial". Condo-miniums, hotels, and yacht basins are not marine industrial. The struggling fishing industry could never compete with the mooring fees wealthy yachters pay.

Nothing better expresses the issue than a famous building on the harbour known simply as the Paint Factory. This dilapidated red wooden plant with a smoke stack was built in 1870 by Gloucester entrepreneurs who were the first in the US to produce a copper paint to solve an ancient problem known as fouling, sea life attaching to the wooden hulls of ships in such numbers that it affected navigation. Sir Humphry Davy had been among those who tried, unsuccessfully, to solve the problem before Gloucester invented this paint.

The Paint Factory was closed in 1980 and the locals have struggled ever since to keep this falling-down building from becoming something "unGloucester". Finally, in June, it was sold to a group that studies the humpback and finback whales that cavort spectacularly just beyond the harbour every summer.

So what is there for a visitor to do in this stubborn fishing town besides go to a great museum or walk down a curving classic New England main street? For a while there was "Perfect Storm tourism" – people who came to see the sights in the Sebastian Junger bestseller or the movie based on it. They would visit the sleazy bar the locals avoid or the gift shop that popped up next to it. But the shop closed last year, the guided Perfect Storm tours stopped, and the idea of a local fisherman taking tourists out to simulate being caught in a gale never worked out.

Gloucester always gets famous for the wrong things. Most recently, 17 teenage pregnancies in the local school made international news.

There is not a lot of upscale dining except for Duckworths, a fairly new Bostonish-quality restaurant on East Main Street. But you can always look out at the harbour and a still-working fishing fleet and get some cod – haddock is much easier to find these days – or steamed or fried clams or the famous New England clam chowder. You can get a great chowder at the popular and undecorous Causeway in West Gloucester, where the evening rush strangely arrives at five in the afternoon.

And the lure of fishing has long made Gloucester an immigrant city with Portuguese from the Azores and the Sicilians who man half the fishing fleet, so there is plenty of Portuguese linguica sausage and Sicilian pizza and gelati and espresso and cannoli.

You can go to Rockport and shop the galleries for art, but even Rockport painters go to Gloucester to find subjects to paint. You can see two of the last shipyards where railroads are used to haul vessels out of the water.

One of my favourite things is what drew the painters to the light and the rocky New England coast and, what I see every morning when walking my dog by the harbour. It was best described by the celebrated postmodernist poet Charles Olson, a long-time Gloucester resident, who wrote in 1968, "I am up at dawn and my whole soul cries out again looking out my door and seeing early morning sun ... the rarest of all paintings of just this gloire of Gloucester ... Fitz Hugh Lane's immaculate retention in paint of what is still my eye awakening this morning out my door ... I say shoo: this is, and can't be bettered."


How to get there

A seven-night fly-drive with Virgin Holidays (0844 5573; costs from £665 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights with Virgin Atlantic from Heathrow to Boston and car hire.

further information

Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism (