In this storied harbor town where the Mayflower landed nearly 400 years ago, generations of Americans have claimed and reinterpreted the Pilgrim story.
Part of the fun for 21st century visitors is sampling the various layers of history.
Any itinerary should include Plymouth Rock (carted ashore in 1774), Pilgrim Hall Museum (open since 1824, renovated this year), the National Monument to the Forefathers (dedicated in 1889), the Mayflower II (built in 1957), and of course, the area's premier attraction, Plimoth Plantation (open since 1947).
Take a cranberry farm tour while you're in the area and cap off a perfect autumn day with a seafood dinner.
Start your visit at Plimoth Plantation, a living history attraction with a settlers' village that recreates everyday life in 1627. Here you might encounter a costumed interpreter portraying Priscilla Alden making hasty pudding over a fire in a timber-frame house with a thatched cattail roof. Nearby, her neighbors tend goats, pull weeds or share gossip from nearly 400 years ago.
"We had some trouble with the minister," confided one villager, referring to the true story of the Rev. John Lyford, who was banished from the colony. "We had to send him off."
Denise Van Geel, visiting from Belgium, was impressed by the reenactment. "It's so real, you can imagine people have lived here like that."
A wooded path leads from the English village to the Wampanoag Homesite. This part of Plimoth Plantation is staffed by Native Americans in traditional dress, though they are educators, not actors. Visitors can learn how trees were hollowed out with a slow fire to make canoes; step inside a large dwelling that housed several families in winter; and watch as patties of corn meal, ground hazelnuts and blueberries are wrapped in corn husks for cooking.
"It's 17th century Reynolds Wrap," joked Carol Wynne as she tended the snacks in an outdoor fire.
But the Wampanoag site is also designed to help people realize that when the colonists arrived in the New World, "there was already a society that had been here for 12,000 years," said Plimoth Plantation spokeswoman Jennifer Monac. "So many people don't understand that the Pilgrims were immigrants."
A statue of the 17th century Wampanoag leader Massasoit is located in downtown Plymouth and a ceremony is held near there each Thanksgiving to mark the holiday as a "National Day of Mourning" for Native Americans.
Also downtown you'll find a reproduction of the Mayflower, which carried 102 passengers across the Atlantic in 1620. Nearby sits Plymouth Rock, which was identified during the Revolutionary War era as the Pilgrims' point of disembarkation. The boulder's protective portico is under renovation (though scheduled to be completed by Oct. 1), but you can peer through the construction to see the famed but rather ordinary-looking gray stone.
You can lay your hand on an actual chunk of Plymouth Rock at nearby Pilgrim Hall Museum, where it bears a "please touch" sign. While Plimoth Plantation offers a recreation of 17th century life, Pilgrim Hall offers glimpses of the real thing, including a chair and Bible brought over on the Mayflower, an ornate bride's shoe from a 1651 wedding, and the oldest needlepoint sampler in America, dating to 1653. And in case you thought the Pilgrims were teetotalers, guess again. A beer tankard is also on display.
"We don't want to debunk things, but we try to let people know where their misconceptions come from," said director Peggy Baker, who describes Pilgrim Hall as "the oldest continuously operated museum in America." But the building is no musty repository; a $3.7 million renovation completed in June made it handicapped accessible, air conditioned and appealing to the modern visitor.
A five-minute drive from downtown Plymouth on Allerton Street is the National Monument to the Forefathers, a grandiose granite structure the height of an eight-story building. Formidable figures represent Youth, Mercy, Morality and other ideals; dramatic carved tableaus depict scenes like the landing at Plymouth and treaty-signing with the natives. The names of the Mayflower's passengers are also engraved.
Bettyann Archambault calls the monument "the best-kept secret in America." She leads tours of historic sites around Plymouth in the summer and cranberry farms in the fall. Because Plymouth is on the coast, it does not get as much colorful foliage as New England's woods and mountains, but the cranberry bogs do turn bright red in autumn.
"That is our fall color," said Paula Fisher, spokeswoman for the Plymouth County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Even the cranberry industry has layers of history. The fruit is native to North America, but commercial cultivation began in the early 1800s, according to Jack Angley, who owns Flax Pond Farms in Carver with his wife Dot.
At one time, the region's wet, sandy soil was a source of iron ore, used in cannon balls. After the ore was extracted, the excavation sites began to fill with water, making them ideal for growing cranberries. "By the 1850s, there was an industry," Angley said. "They call it red gold."
Flax Pond, which supplies cranberries to Ocean Spray, has been in operation since the 1890s, and visitors can see a 19th century machine in the gift shop that separates the berries from the stems. Cranberry soap, cranberry tea, and cranberry candy are a few of the products you'll find in the store, which also ships boxes of berries and other items around the world.
End your day in Plymouth with dinner downtown. The Weathervane, located on the Town Wharf, offers divine fish chowder and a view of Plymouth Harbor, where boats take tourists out on whale watches and fishing expeditions.
But it's the Pilgrims who are the area's biggest draw.
"I liked the history," said Jeff Baar, who visited Plymouth from Shawnee, Kansas, with his wife. "It was inspiring."
If You Go...
PLYMOUTH: http://www.seeplymouth.com/ or 800-231-1620.
PLIMOTH PLANTATION: 137 Warren Ave., or 508-746-1622. Daily through Nov. 30, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults, $24; children, 6-12, $14. (Add $4 for combination ticket that includes Mayflower II tour.)
PILGRIM HALL MUSEUM: 75 Court St., http://www.pilgrimhall.org/ or 508-746-1620. Daily through Dec. 30, 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Adults, $7; children 5-17, $4.
NATIONAL MONUMENT TO THE FOREFATHERS: Allerton Street.
FLAX POND FARMS: 60 Pond St., Carver; http://www.flaxpondfarms.com or 508-866-3654. Open daily through Oct. 26, 1 p.m.-5 p.m.
BETTYANN'S TOURS: http://www.bettyannstours.com/ or 508-224-6469. Daily tours of cranberry bogs and farms through mid-November, $28.