Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Top Ten Things to Do on the Boston Harbor Islands

The ferry service to the Boston Harbor Islands will begin again for 2008 on Saturday, May 3. This urban oasis provides an endless number of recreational opportunities, historical sites, and natural wonders just minutes away from downtown. While each island offers its own unique opportunity for discovery, the following highlights are the very best things to do and see on your island adventures:

1. Scale to the top of Boston Light. Take a guided tour of the oldest light station in the country and climb the seventy-six spiral steps and two short ladders to come face-to-face with the lighthouse’s giant Fresnel lens.

2. Take a dip. Grab your bathing suit, towel, and suntan lotion and head to the sand and surf at Spectacle Island’s new lifeguarded beach.

3. Wander Fort Warren’s dark passages. Explore the spooky tunnels of this historic fort that once held Confederate prisoners during the Civil War.

4. Pitch a tent. Camp out on the islands and catch unforgettable sunrises and sunsets in the shadows of the city skyline. Spend the night on Grape Island for the most bucolic setting.

5. Grab a paddle. Beginning kayakers can spend the afternoon exploring the Hingham Harbor islands, while experienced kayakers can brave the outer harbor to visit the Brewsters.

6. See Boston in a new light. The Boston skyline looks spectacular from the ferry and the islands, but there’s no better view of the city and harbor than from Spectacle Island’s north drumlin.

7. Scale Thompson Island’s ropes and climbing walls. Participate in one of Outward Bound’s programs and challenge your limitations by conquering the ropes course and climbing towers.

8. Pack a lunch. There are a plethora of fantastic spots to picnic on the Boston Harbor Islands, but the picnic areas on Bumpkin and Great Brewster Islands offer unparalleled vistas.

9. Brush up on your fish tales. Fish populations are rebounding along with the harbor’s water quality. Striped bass, bluefish, flounder, and cod are among the fish that are biting.

10. Follow your feathered friends. Grab a pair of binoculars and try to spot some of the more than 100 species of birds that frequent the Boston Harbor Islands.

For more information on the Boston Harbor Islands, pick up a copy of my new book, Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands, published by Union Park Press. It will be available in bookstores in June and is available for preorder from Amazon and BN.com.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Paul Revere Capture Site

After spotting the pair of lanterns hanging in the belfry of the Old North Church on the night of April 18, 1775, Paul Revere started out to warn the surrounding towns that British soldiers were on the march. While Revere made it as far as Lexington, he would not make it to Concord. Revere was captured by British soldiers, and the spot where his famous "midnight ride" came to an abrupt end is commemorated by an historical marker in Minute Man National Historical Park.

At the same time that Revere set out from Boston by way of boat to Charlestown, William Dawes left the city on horseback on a longer route down Boston Neck. After reaching Lexington by way of their different routes, Revere and the unsung Dawes set out for Concord in the wee hours of April 19. In my favorite part of my story, Revere and Dawes meet up with Dr. Samuel Prescott of Concord who was riding home after, according to the wayfaring sign at the capture site, "courting Lydia Mulliken." Goes to show that late-night dates weren't a recent phenomenon.

The three riders headed toward Concord but were intercepted by a patrol of ten mounted British officers. Dawes escaped back towards Lexington, while Prescott jumped his horse over a stone wall, eluded pursuit, and eventually carried the alarm to Concord. Of the three, Revere was the only one to be captured. He was questioned and then released a few hours later without his horse.

The site of Revere's capture is located just off Route 2A, slightly north of the visitor center for the Minute Man National Historical Park. There is a small parking lot to turn into to visit the marker, which is inside a low, circular stone wall. The entrance to the marker has an engraving of the names of the three riders along with the time "1:30 AM" and date of Revere's capture. Inside the stone circle are two wayfaring signs and a large plaque that reads "At this point, on the Old Concord Road as it then was, ended the midnight ride of Paul Revere." The plaque also provides more of the story of that night. One interesting note from the plaque is that three Lexington men were stopped earlier in the night by the same patrol and released along with Revere.

Boston 1775 has a great discussion on the importance of Paul Revere's ride in American history and some other Revere-related items that clarify some of the myths that arose about his midnight ride.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Minute Man National Historical Park

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the battles at Lexington and Concord, so it's a good time to talk about Minute Man National Historical Park. The park includes the North Bridge at Concord where the second battle on April 19, 1775, took place (Lexington Battle Green, site of the first battle, is under the jurisdiction of the town of Lexington); the Battle Road between Lexington and Concord that was the site of running skirmishes between colonial militias and retreating British troops; and the site where Paul Revere was captured at 1:30 AM on April 19, 1775. There are interpretive panels and colonial homes along the unpaved Battle Road, which is also popular with cyclists and joggers.

Anyone visiting to the park should start their journey at the main visitor center on Route 2A just north of Route 128. The first thing you'll notice when you enter the center's doors is the stunning 40-foot mural depicting a fierce fight between the colonists and the redcoats along the Battle Road. The colors are vivid, and the images of musket fire and militiamen being violently hurled backwards by the blunt force certainly provide a realistic view of what is often a romanticized event. After all, 273 British and 95 colonists were killed or wounded on that April day, most of them along the road back to Boston. The center includes interpretive displays explaining the lead-up to the battles, profiling of some of the major figures on both sides of the battles, and detailing on the legacy of the battles and the path to independence. Check out the panoramic view of 1775 Boston, under siege by the patriots, and the surrounding countryside that was painted by Lieutenant Richard Williams of the Royal Welch Fusiliers from the top of Beacon Hill. It's a great view of what the city looked like back then. (One ticky-tack point on the interpretive display is that it refers to "Noodle Island" in Boston Harbor. Now part of East Boston, the island was actually "Noddle's Island.")

The highlight of the visitor center is a 25-minute multi-media presentation, "The Road to Revolution." The program depicts Paul Revere's Ride and the battles at Lexington Green, North Bridge, and along the Battle Road. The program is narrated by the video of an actor depicting Amos Doolittle, whose engravings of the battle scenes are depicted outside of the theater. Along side the videoscreen is the interior of the Hartwell Tavern, and the program ingeniously uses a godfather clock inside the tavern to depict the timing of the events of April 19 from the departure of British troops to their return to Boston. Above the video screen is a map of the Battle Road that lights up to show the route of Revere and William Dawes to warn the surrounding towns and also the position of the troops as they fought up and down the Battle Road.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Alexander Graham Bell's Laboratory

Everyone knows that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. (Or did he?) But did you know that he invented the telephone in Boston? Well, tucked inside the lobby of the Verizon Building fronting the south side of Post Office Square is Bell's laboratory, removed from the house on 109 Court Street where in 1876 he uttered his first words on the telephone: "Mr. Watson, come here. I want you." And thus, the era of telemarketers was born.

When the Court Street house in which Bell lived was torn down in the 1920s, the laboratory on the fifth floor was dismantled, and it has been reassembled inside the Verizon Building, an Art Deco structure that was built in the 1940s. The room was restored based on plans approved by Thomas Watson himself.

When you enter the Verizon Building, go to your right. On your right-hand side is a small room with a wooden interior. This rebuilt laboratory includes Bell's tools, patent application models, books on speech and hearing, work sketches, and his workbench. A window frame looks out onto a painting of the view of 1875 Boston that Bell would have seen from his workbench.

When you step inside the laboratory a short recorded narration begins to play, explaining the history of the laboratory, the invention of the telephone, and the artifacts on the workbench and in the display case. The display case includes the world's first commercial telephone and the first telephone switchboard. There is a replica of the transmitter-receiver that Bell used to utter his famous words and a replica of the telephone patent application. On the wall is a plaque that was placed by The Bostonian Society and the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company at 109 Court Street and unveiled by Bell himself in 1916. The plaque reads "Here the Telephone Was Born June 2nd 1875." That was the date that Bell and Watson first transmitted sound over the wires. (In addition to the Bell laboratory, there is a marker commemorating the first telephone on Cambridge Street.) The Verizon Building is located at 185 Franklin Street. While you're inside, also be sure to gaze at the amazing circular mural that rings the lobby. The artist was Dean Cornwell, and the mural is entitled Telephone Men and Women at Work and is 160 feet long.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Butterfly Place

Spring has sprung, but we all know that New England spring weather doesn't always delight. If you find yourself looking for something to do on a dreary spring date, particularly during April school vacation, you may want to check out The Butterfly Place.

Located in the middle of a residential neighborhood in the Boston suburb of Westford, The Butterfly Place has a 3,100 square foot glass atrium that is filled with butterflies. At any given time, the atrium may have up to 500 butterflies representing as many as 50 different species. As you stand inside the atrium, you'll see butterflies fluttering by and landing on the colorful plants and shrubs that provide a source of nectar. And don't be surprised if the butterflies land on you. In fact, you need to check yourself for "hitchhikers" before you leave the atrium in case someone has tagged along for the ride. In addition to the atrium, there are displays that show butterflies and moths in various stages of development. (You'll also learn the difference between moths and butterflies.)

The temperature inside is on the warm side (about 80 degrees for the comfort of the butterflies), so dress appropriately. The $9.50 admission price for adults ($6.50 for ages 3-12) is a little on the steep side. The Butterfly Place can also host birthday parties and wedding cermonies. The Butterfly Place is located at 120 Tyngsboro Road in Westford, MA.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Patriot's Day Weekend Events

The battles at Lexington and Concord lit the fire of the American Revolution that gave us all the freedom we enjoy today. And every year in Massachusetts it gives us one extra freedom-- the freedom to not go to work on an April Monday.

Monday is Patriot's Day, a state holiday in Massachusetts (and in Maine, which was part of Massachusetts during the time of the Revolution), and there are historical reenactments and sporting events all weekend long. Here are some of the highlights of the weekend:

Saturday, April 19 (actual anniversary of the battles at Lexington and Concord)
6:00 AM Dawn salute at the North Bridge at Concord. Wake up, sleepy head.

8:30 AM Commemoration of the Concord Conflict. Reenactment of the battle in Concord that occurred on the morning of April 19, 1775. It includes a commemoration of the British soldiers who were killed and buried at the bridge.

11:00 AM Reenactment of the British retreat along the Battle Road. Most of the action takes place around the Hartwell Tavern along Route 2A in Lincoln. There are also drill and musket demonstrations. I went to this last year.

Sunday, April 20
8:00 AM 2008 Womens Olympic Marathon Trial. In addition to the Boston Marathon, the Hub will play host this year to the women competing for a spot on the Olympics team. The women will not be running the route of the Boston Marathon, although they will use the same finish line. They will be running a much flatter course through the city streets of Boston and Cambridge. Unfortunately, the route will not be filled with smog to truly give a test of what to expect in Beijing.

7:00 PM Paul Revere Row Reenactment. Revere's row across Boston Harbor will be recreated. I believe his horse did not make this leg of the journey. There will be festivities at the Charlestown Navy Yard where Revere will be welcomed.

8:00 PM. Annual Lantern Ceremony. One if by land, two if by sea. And it was by sea! Two lanterns will be hung in the Old North Church.

Monday, April 21
5:00 AM Lexington Green battle reenactment. Grab some coffee and stop yawning. The musket fire of the reenactment of the first shots of the Revolution will wake you up if you're still sleepy.

9:25 AM Start of the Boston Marathon. The 112th running of the Boston Marathon begins in Hopkinton with the start of the wheelchair race. That is quickly followed by the start of the elite women. Elite men start at 10 AM.

11:05 AM Red Sox-Rangers first pitch at Fenway. Grab a beer and stop yawning.

All weekend long, there will also be special events at the Paul Revere House to celebrate its 100th anniversary as a museum. If you really want to get in the spirit, the Paul Revere House has directions that allow you to follow Revere's route on his midnight ride. Safe bet, though, that Revere didn't have to worry about the rotaries that are now included in the route.

For information on additional events, visit the web site of the Minute Man National Historical Park and The Freedom Trail Foundation.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Kangaroo Island Article in Boston Globe

Yesterday's travel section of The Boston Globe had an article I wrote on Kangaroo Island, Australia. It's a fantastic place to visit. Too bad it's on the other side of the world. A couple pictures of mine also appear in the travel section along with the article. If you didn't have a chance to read it, it appears on The Boston Globe web site.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Morton's Bar Bites Menu

New restaurants keep opening in the South Boston Seaport district of the city. One of the new additions in the last few months has been Morton's Steakhouse. This is Morton's second Boston location. The other location is in the Back Bay.

Ever since it opened, I've wanted to check out Morton's special "Bar Bites" menu that is served in its bar area. During its "Power Hour," the plates on the Bar Bites menu cost $5. The Power Hour (which is actually power hours, plural) is Monday through Friday between 4:30 PM and 6:30 PM and between 9:30 PM and 11:00 PM. Apparently, this is a pretty big draw or people are getting off work early these days with the recession, er, economic slowdown, because the first two times I tried to go around 5:00 PM there wasn't a seat to be had in the bar. This time, I showed up around 4:45 PM and was lucky there was a free seat.

During the Power Hour times, you can choose from a trio of miniature cheesburgers, four petite filet mignon sandwiches, chicken strips, blue cheese french fries, and jump lump crab with dip all for $5. We ordered the filet mignon sandwiches, and I can tell you they weren't as substantial as the picture on the web site. (Morton's used to serve the filet mignon sandwiches for free during Power Hour. Price was better back then. It was OK for $5. I'm not sure how much they cost the rest of the day.) The blue cheese fries were good and actually more filling than the sandwiches. The cheesburgers looked pretty good, and I definitely regretted not going with them instead of the filet mignon sandwiches. For directions and other info on the South Boston Seaport location, check out the Morton's web site.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Boston Harbor Hotel Map Collection

Maps are certainly a great way to learn more about geography, but they also provide a fascinating glimpse into the history and heritage of a city or a region. That is particularly the case with Boston, which has gone through so many changes to its landscape through landmaking, that you may not recognize how the city looked hundreds of years ago--as a narrow peninsula jutting out into Boston Harbor.

A great way to see the evolution of Boston is to check out the map collection that hangs on the walls of the Boston Harbor Hotel. The collection was assembled by Norman B. Leventhal, who developed the Rowes Wharf property and is an unabashed cartophile. (He also donated money and maps to start the Norman B. Leventhal Map Collection at the Boston Public Library.) The collection includes great maps of Boston, New England, and America dating back to the European discovery of the continent.

I went on Friday to a great talk at the Boston Harbor Hotel hosted by The Boston Harbor Association and featuring Alex Krieger, an urban design professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design who helped Leventhal assemble the collection. Mr. Krieger gave a fascinating talk about how the collection was assembled and gave some in-depth information on some of the collection's most interesting maps. Fun fact I hadn't known: Causeway Street got its name from the causeway that used to run along the north side of Mill Pond. (There's an outline of the old Mill Pond shoreline in one of the new parks on the Greenway.)

The Boston Harbor Hotel just received its fifth star to become one of 41 five-star properties in North America. The maps are located near the Rowes Wharf bar in the hotel and off the Harborwalk side of the hotel. Also check out The Boston Harbor Association for upcoming events. They do some great programs along the harbor's edge, and the best part is their programming is free.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Central Artery Endures

For decades, Fenway Park wasn't the only place in Boston you could find a Green Monster. There was also the green-painted elevated highway—the Central Artery—that snaked through Boston and cut off downtown Boston from the North End and the neighborhood. The Central Artery carried I-93 and tens of thousands of cars every day through the heart of the city.

Now that the Big Dig is over (Actually, is it over?), the North End and Waterfront have been reconnected to the city, the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway has replaced the ugly green monster with open parkland, and all remnants of the Central Artery have been demolished and removed, right?

Well, not exactly. If you go to Congress Street where it crosses the Greenway, between Purchase Street and Atlantic Avenue, you'll find a solitary green beam. Right behind the beam is one of the ventilation buildings for the Big Dig tunnels and an exit ramp from the underground highway that has allowed the Greenway to blossom above it. It's sort of a singular view of the old and the new. I believe there is another remnant of the Central Artery near Clinton Street along the Greenway. Love it or hate it, there's no doubt that the Central Artery was an important part of Boston history for about 50 years. On the plus side, it was a vital transportation link for the metropolitan area. On the other hand, it wasn't an achievement in urban planning by cutting off areas of the city from downtown. I like that these beams were kept as reminders of the Artery. The Boston Globe had an article a few weeks ago on Vincent F. Zarrilli, a Charlestown resident who wants to erect a plaque or monument to the Artery somewhere on the Greenway. It's an interesting idea. I wouldn't be in favor of anything very large or placed separately on the Greenway, but I think it would be a good idea to place a plaque or some sort of interpretive panel on or next to the beam on Congress Street to explain what it is and briefly tell the story of the Central Artery--good and bad.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Boston Athenaeum

I'm a bit of a public library freak. I spend hours in there doing research and writing, and I even like to check out public libraries when I'm on the road. I love the new generation of libraries being built in cities such as Seattle and Vancouver. They are funky, modern architectural gems and definitely not your father's library with their wi-fi features, computer labs, and cafes. But I still love the stately manses and reading rooms of older libraries, such the the Boston Public Library and the New York Public Library.

Despite the democratic benefits of public libraries, I've always been a bit fascinated by athenaeums, which are private membership libraries. (Although for the life of me, I can never spell "athenaeum" correctly without spellcheck.) They are particularly prevalent in cities across New England, and The New York Times had a interesting article recently in its Escapes section on athenaeums. The Boston Athenaeum is among those covered in the article. I've only been on the athenaeum's first floor while checking out exhibits, but what a sanctuary it is with its rows of books, sculptures, wood floors, and painting. And there is a great view over the Granary Burying Ground.

You don't have to be a member of the Boston Athenaeum to go inside. It regularly hosts exhibits that are open to the public, and tours of the building are given. Tours with an emphasis on the art and architecture of the athenaeum are offered twice weekly—Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3pm. Tours are limited in size and require reservations. Call the circulation department at 617.227.0270 ext. 279 for reservations and questions. For more information, check out the web site of the Boston Athenaeum.