Salem Scene

Tell people you’re heading to Salem for the weekend and invariably someone will assume you’re looking to indulge your inner consumer.

It’s hard to ignore the presence of the Mall at Rockingham Park, which, with almost 150 shops, is the largest mall in the state. And the mall is just the beginning of this corridor of commerce that recently prompted resident Michelle Roux to happily declare, “Everything you could ever want is on Route 28.”

But tax-free shopping isn’t the only attraction here. The bustle of big-box stores and chains stand in unlikely juxtaposition with an ancient site nestled in the woods.

Just outside the gift shop at America’s Stonehenge at Mystery Hill, a sign asks visitors to “Take only pictures and leave only footprints.” That’s because the grounds contain what is likely America’s oldest man-made construction — an astronomical stone calendar that spans 12 acres, said to be built by unknown megalithic builders thousands of years ago.

On a crisp autumn day, the sun shines through the leaves of the trees, casting eerie shadows on the Nature Trail’s path. The remains of a wigwam and cooking rack about 2,000 years old harkens back to a simpler, yet harsher time. Three American Indian tribes are known to have lived here: the Pawtuckets, the Agawam and the Pentuckets. Glazed pottery fragments, now encased in glass in the visitor center, hint at their lives. Visitors can climb inside a wigwam frame, and snap a photograph, or marvel at a dugout canoe — a re-creation of an artifact found in the vicinity.

Low stone walls criss-cross and curve through the grounds. At one point, they stand up on angles, like the jagged teeth of some prehistoric creature. Visitors can reach out to touch a tool-sharpening groove or wander through a mysterious “Oracle Chamber,” complete with a speaking tube that leads to what is presumed to be a sacrificial table — a 4.5-ton grooved slab. Layers of history intersect here, as the grounds also contain remnants of the homestead of the Pattee family, who lived in the woods in the 1700s to mid-1800s. Brick remnants of the Pattee hearth can be found out in the woods. Back in the visitor center, more evidence is locked behind glass — a handful of thimbles, a key, fragments of eyeglasses. They also speak to the site’s role in another slice of history: the Underground Railroad. Manacles unearthed likely belonged to slaves seeking freedom in the North, who could have found refuge and cover in the unusual network of caves and passageways under the watchful eye of abolitionist Jonathan Pattee.

But perhaps what is most striking about America’s Stonehenge are the mysterious monoliths that mark the equinoxes and solstices. A map from the visitor center points to significant stones and their part in the ancient calendar and visitors can wander through at their own pace. Many of these ancient days are marked in the present with special events planned at the site, such as a summer solstice celebration that incorporated drumming and flowers.

The aptly-named Pat Stone manages the property with her family. The Stones have owned the site — once dubbed Mystery Hill — since 1961 and been on the grounds since 1956, when Robert Stone first leased the land. She says that visitors are drawn to it because of the sense of history.

“It’s curiosity and an interest in the past,” she says. Unlike Stonehenge in England, which is cordoned off, visitors can go right up to the ancient structures, regardless of the time of year. In the winter, the site offers snowshoe tours — by daylight or, on Saturdays, by candlelight.

After Sept. 11, 2001, tourism dropped off sharply, but Stone says specials on the History Channel still bring in droves of the curious and the skeptical, who range in age from school groups to adults.

She marvels at the distance some come to gawk at the mysterious rock formations.

“The world’s a lot smaller place than it used to be,” she says. In addition to tourists, research at the site is a near constant. But tourism is the bread and butter of the business, which the Stones have boosted with lumbering Alpacas just outside the visitor center as an added enticement. Younger visitors can also participate in gemstone digs held throughout the summer.

In the warmer weather, she says many folks take their history lesson early at America’s Stonehenge and then look to more modern attractions — such as the popular Victorian Park Mini Golf or New England mainstay Canobie Lake Park — to fill out their day.

But when the frost moves in and the rollercoasters turn off for the season, up the street, the Town Forest offers trails to “Walk, run, skip, jump, ski, snowshoe, sled” and more year-round, from 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset. A newer addition, Salem’s Icenter, boasts public skating and tournaments on an Olympic-size ice surface and regulation-size NHL rink. Craft fairs and computer shows at nearby Rockingham Park can also round out an already full visit.

And, of course, there is always shopping, which in Salem can become its own adventure. But before you stop by the mall, the more unique shops in town are worth a visit. Confection heaven awaits in the richly scented cocoa air of The Chocolate Moose on North Broadway, which boasts divine peanut butter cups and decadent monster apples among its wares. Crafty shoppers may find paradise at the nearby Pine Tree Quilt Shop, where owner Dina Niskala stocks “stacks of color and charm” and hosts girls’ nights out in the shop’s classroom. (Upcoming dates are Nov. 17 and Dec. 15, from 5 p.m.-10 p.m.) Book time to hit the Bead Gallery on North Broadway, which offers almost 200 classes and keeps crafters supplied with beads of every variety imaginable — from delicas to pearls to Swarovski crystals.

Deconstruct the day’s adventure and debate the origins of America’s Stonehenge over dinner at The Colosseum Restaurant on North Broadway, which boasts house specialties like chicken capricciosa and a changing menu of specials, such as scallops di bosco, all cooked to order. (Annibale Todesca also offers cooking classes, but save that for another getaway.) Reservations are recommended, both for classes and for dining. The award-winning cuisine provides the perfect coda to a day of wonders — ancient and modern. NH