Boston is a city of many firsts, lots of laughs…and at least three lies.
Even Harvard University likes to make fun of itself. The best rated campus tour plays on the unique Boston accent with a visit promoted as “Hahvahd makes you Smahtah.” With facts and funny anecdotes, an undergrad points out sights like the dorms that housed John F. Kennedy and Conan O’Brian (a great prankster) and the massive Widener Library (the world’s biggest university library), built as a memorial to a victim of the Titanic disaster. The guide also delights in telling guests about the John Harvard statue – The Statue of Three Lies – in the centre of the campus in Harvard Yard. The plaque says, “John Harvard, Founder, 1638.” In fact, John Harvard didn’t found the school. The Colonial Government did in 1636 (not 1638) and later named it for Mr. Harvard when he donated generously to the young school. Also, when the artist made the statue in 1884 there was no illustration of John Harvard to be found so a student model was used. Three Lies, at the school known for its academic rigour!
Harvard is in the Boston suburb of Cambridge, but when one is in the middle of the Charles River, the vista is extraordinary and the city becomes one. When we joined the delightful land and water “Duck Tour” in a WW 2 style amphibious vehicle, the humourous and enthusiastic driver regaled us with history facts and stories of Boston Firsts, many from the 1600s – the first windmill in the US in 1632, the first public park in 1634, the first Post Office in 1639 and, of course, the first institution of higher learning. Boston even had the first UFO sighting in America.
After the Duck took us through well-preserved Boston streets, many of which follow the Freedom Trail, passing 16 historic sites connected to the American Revolution, the bus/boat rolled down a ramp and splashed into the Charles River. Now under propeller power, a whole new view of Boston opened up including bridges, parks, the downtown skyline and Cambridge.
As we could see from the Duck, Boston is a city of neighbourhoods and the North End is one of the most interesting. Known as Little Italy, this vibrant section of the city is a testament to the immigrant experience with narrow streets filled with small shops, each with its own authentic Italian flavour. We joined Jim Becker on the original North End Market Tour. His encyclopaedic knowledge of the neighbourhood as we walked from shop to shop combined with samples of homemade pasta and pastry made for a fascinating three hours. Now 20 years old, the North End Market Tour has proven so popular that at least five other companies have recently started food tours.
It’s easy to see why Boston and fine food go together. In our three days in the city, we enjoyed excellent cuisine, often in a setting that reflected Boston’s rich history. The Union Oyster House is the oldest restaurant in the US. Another first. Serving diners since 1826, it was built in the 1740s as a dry goods shop but its speciality now, of course, is succulent seafood.
Another restaurant with an historic but more modern touch was Bond at the Langham Hotel in the financial district. Built almost 100 years ago as the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, the old Member’s Lounge is now a sophisticated bar/restaurant specializing in small, elegant plates (the bank vault is the pastry kitchen). In the large room featuring the original FRB seal in the floor and five Austrian crystal chandeliers hanging from the 20 foot high ceiling, we were served a delicious variety of exquisite food including panko crusted asparagus, pork dumplings and some of the best calamari we’ve ever enjoyed. It reminded us of tapas, but much more interesting and complex.
Another century-old Boston landmark is the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel in the Back Bay area. Its restaurant, the Oak Long Bar and Kitchen, specializes in farm-to-table products with special attention to its Charcuterie Boards. We enjoyed a selection of five dried and cured meats along with three local cheeses followed by main courses of roasted Berkshire pork and carmelized Maine scallops. The restored copper-top bar, with leather bar stools, is the longest in Boston. Highly recommended.
Bostonians love the water so it’s only natural that high end dinner cruises have become part of the culinary scene. The Odyssey is the most elegant of these floating restaurants, departing year-round from Rowes Wharf (close to our excellent hotel, the Boston Yacht Haven) on a three hour harbour cruise. In a yacht-like atmosphere, guests get a reserved table and can enjoy a freshly prepared three-course meal at any time while taking breaks to wander around the ship and marvel at the scores of scenic and historic Boston landmarks in the island-filled harbour. The majority of the guests are locals celebrating special occasions but, for tourists, it’s a splendid way to see the city at dusk while enjoying good food and sophisticated service.
As Canadians, we felt right at home in Boston, mainly because the Massachusetts connection to Canada runs deep. The 600,000+ residents of New England’s largest city are grateful for the giant Christmas tree that Nova Scotia sends annually to the city as a special thank-you for its generous help after the 1917 Halifax Explosion and many families have relatives on both sides of the border. Whenever we mentioned that we were Canadian, eyes lit up and stories emerged of Cousin Ruth in Ontario, Brother Angus in New Brunswick or Grandpa Bill in Newfoundland. That’s true neighbourliness.
All photos by John and Sandra Nowlan
Duck boats in the Charles River
The “Hahvahd” Tour and John Harvard statue.
North End Boston – Narrow Streets and Great Shops
The Union Oyster House, the oldest restaurant in the US.