Monday, 14 May 2012

I'm Shipping Up To Boston - Day Thirteen - Thursday 16 February

My recollection of the last day of our East Coast USA trip might be a little hazy as it has now been three months since then! Tempus fugit...

The first business of the day was the usual pre-check-out stuff: get ready, finish packing, compulsively check for any belongings left behind (more so the Yorkshireman than me) and check the heck out. Then it was back into the Cambridgeside Galleria one last time for one last everything bagel with cream cheese and a coffee for breakfast. I'd miss this little routine! Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of places in Belfast where you can grab a bagel and a latté on your way to work, but you certainly pay more for the "novelty" of it here. It cost me less in dollars each morning in the USA than it would here in pounds!

Suitably fuelled for some serious suitcase hauling, we made our way back to our old friend, Lechmere station, and waited for a green train into Boston. It took quite a while so I was starting to panic that we'd be late for the 10.30am date we'd set with the nice man at the water taxi office who had offered to hold our cases for us. A transfer over to the blue line later and we had soon arrived at the Aquarium stop and hauled ass to Rowes Wharf, as quickly as our three overloaded cases and two backpacks would allow.

Thankfully there was indeed someone there and he was happy to take our cases off our hands. We were instructed just to call a taxi from the yellow callbox down on the wharf when we were ready to go and that the captain would retrieve our bags for us when he came to pick us up. Fair enough! So, on with our day...

I can still remember all the things we got up to that day but, to be honest, I don't really remember what order they happened in! However here are some highlights:

I bought a really cute pair of preppy pumps at TJ Maxx, which the Yorkshireman ruled "not fugly" after careful consideration. Combined with the $16.99 price tag, I took that as sign enough I should treat my feet and skipped off to the cash register. I also saw an amazing collection of Le Creuset cookware which was about a quarter of the price it is here in the UK, even in TK Maxx, but even if I'd had room in my suitcase (which I didn't), I wasn't confident in my chances of getting it home in one piece (slim to none), so I waved it sadly goodbye and left it on the shelf. Maybe next time.

After our good impression the day before, we decided to revisit Quincy Market for lunch.

Food Stalls in Quincy Market in Boston

The Yorkshireman had decided he wanted to try some clam chowder (local delicacy and all that) before he left Boston so we called by Boston Chowda. I opted for the lobster bisque. Both were good and the market was interesting place to eat and people-watch, especially when we actually found a seat somewhere (no mean feat, I assure you!).

Clam Chowder from Boston Chowda in Quincy Market

We called into a CVS pharmacy somewhere along the line to stock up on snacks for the plane and some souvenir "candy" for colleagues. I procured a bag of white chocolate Hershey's Bliss for myself and tucked them away for later enjoyment on the plane when they would inevitably serve dessert and snacks containing real chocolate, which I can't eat (stupid food intolerances...). I was right and I greatly appreciated my own forethought!

Perhaps the main attraction of the day was when we headed out to the Samuel Adams Brewery for a brewery tour. Prior to coming to Boston, my only experience of Sam Adams had been the fake commercial from Family Guy, which claimed Sam Adams was the perfect way to get the taste of "weed and hooker spit" out of your mouth, so I was intrigued if nothing else!

The Brewery is actually in a residential area called Stony Brook, with a pretty little park and tiny children's playground opposite the station and lots of clapboard houses and churches, exactly like you see in movies about small-town America.

Stony Brook in Boston (sepia)

As we'd only been to the main urban areas of the cities we'd visited so far, it was an interesting change of pace for us, although I imagine the residents are pretty fed up of seeing random tourists wander past their front porches, only to stumble back a little the worse for wear a few hours later!

We arrived just on time for one of the brewery tours, which are free, although we gave donations as requested.

Samuel Adams Brewery Tour

It was actually a brilliant tour! It was very interactive, which I loved. They don't just tell you about the brewing process - they pass around handfuls of hops and the like to smell, touch and taste as they explain what part each of the ingredients plays. Then they show you all the different equipment they use before finally taking you through to the pièce de résistance, the tasting room! Here you sit on benches at long tables while they explain how to taste a beer properly (seemingly not as complicated as wine tasting and there's no spitting involved!), then they pass out small tasting glasses and jugs of various beers to sample.

I'd read a tip online beforehand to sit at the back, because there's often some beer left in the jug after everyone has poured themselves a glass, so you can often get an extra glass or two if you're at the end of the queue. Because you should obviously believe everything you read on the Interwebz (duh!) we did just that. It was actually a great tip and we did indeed get some extra - yay!

Samuel Adams Brewery Tour Tasting Glass

The only strange part of the experience was the very intense and very southern American Air Force guy who sat opposite us in the tasting room and kept showing us photos of him with his plane and of the place about 3 feet away from his bed where an IED had exploded and nearly killed him. Awesome. All Americans, regardless of their political, religious or personal leanings, seem to be all about the "soldiers are superheroes" thing, so I think he was maybe expecting us to be a little more vocal with how amazing and brave we thought he was, but alas the poor man had picked the wrong crowd. Don't get me wrong, I'm greatly appreciative of those who "fight for our freedom" and all that - some of my own family and friends have been/are in the army and have been sent to terrifying places (strange to think that not so long ago Northern Ireland would have been considered one of them!) - but I must admit I find it hard to reconcile my gratitude with my innate pacifist beliefs so I often get stumped for what to say in those situations. Other than the occasional "gosh" and "that must have been scary", I didn't really contribute much to the conversation. Sorry Air Force guy.

The best beer of the day was the Double Pumpkin Ale, a variation on one of Sam Adams' seasonal ales. I could have gotten very drunk indeed on that one but sadly their gift shop was a bit more expensive than the tour, so I left with only a memory of a taste that haunts my dreams. On the plus side they let us take the tasting glasses home. Time to test that confidence in getting breakables back home in one piece! In the meantime we'd settle for getting them back to Rowes Wharf.

Luckily we did just that, found the yellow callbox on the wharf and called for a water taxi. The captain (who I'd imagined to be some kind of Captain Birdeye type) was actually a capable young man who happily helped us retrieve our bags and get us all onboard. I have to say, water taxi is definitely the coolest way I've ever travelled to the airport. It was quick, easy, relatively cheap and our captain encouraged us to stand up and have a look at the views of Boston as we went. It was an experience to remember.

View of Boston from Water Taxi

As our captain waved us off and started ushering newly landed passengers onboard, we set about finding our way via the free airport bus to the right terminal. Again this was pretty straight-forward and we got there and checked in with no problems. This check-in was actually pretty fun because we were travelling Premium Economy baby yeah! We're usually cattle class passengers all the way but there was a seat sale on when we booked our flights and we were offered an upgrade for something like £30 each (it's usually hundreds of pounds). As the Yorkshireman is over 6' tall and I'm nearly 5' 10" myself, we considered it worthwhile for the extra legroom alone! As it turned out, with the unexpected addition of our extra bag, it was just as well we did.

We're always compulsively early when it comes to flights, much preferring to wait around at the airport for a while than risk missing check-in (clearly we've watched too many episodes of Airline), so our first stop was to find somewhere to relax. We found a strange bar and ordered two pints of blueberry beer. Given our newly-acquired experience of brewing techniques, I had imagined this would have been some kind of beer brewed with blueberries, to give it a hint of that flavour. But no, it was a pint of beer with actual blueberries floating in it! How weird!

Blueberry beer at Boston Logan Airport

If I ever start my own brewery I am so totally developing a chocolate stout that comes with chunks of Yorkie floating in it and a Flake as a stirring stick. Despite our drink/snack, we soon found ourselves at a bit of a loose end again and getting peckish. We found a restaurant close to our departure gate which sold Sam Adams and burgers. Sold! Both were delicious and it certainly filled a gap in our never-ending wait to board.

Eventually they called forward both Premium Economy passengers and those who needed extra time to board. With my crutch in hand I deemed myself eligible for both categories and on we went. I have to say I didn't really enjoy Premium Economy as much as I thought I would, although that was more to do with the woman in front of me who put her seat fully back at the first opportunity and then refused to sit up again the whole flight, even for meals, which made it an interesting experience for me, with the foot of space I had in front of me to work with (hint: my forearms alone are longer than one foot; see also previous note about tallness and legroom!).

In economy class the cabin crew would have had none of that nonsense and would have told her to sit up right away, but clearly in the land of Premium Economy such things are verboten. Presumably that's because it's full of arrogant people who can't quite afford First Class but yet feel entitled to do whatever the hell they like because they're paying more dammit, so it's probably not worth the hassle to even try and argue with them. Whatever. I'm clearly an economy class girl at heart, although if anyone wanted to buy me first class seats to New York any time soon, I wouldn't turn them down... Anyone..?

Weirdo reclining lady aside, it was a quick and easy flight back to the UK. Having watched so much Daily Show and Colbert Report of late, I was in a political mood and I decided to watch that movie with Ryan Gosling and George Clooney in it... hang on a tick... The Ides of March, that's the one! Yeah, the descripion sounds better than the film actually was, plus there was a disappointing lack of his Clooneyness in it for my liking. Woe.

So then I watched the first episode of Boss with Kelsey Grammer, which was disturbing on so many levels (OMG the ear!) but I think I would actually series link it if I caught it starting from scratch on TV sometime because the plot intrigues me. It seemed like a dark version of The West Wing.

By the end of that lot I was in the mood for some Glee or The Simpsons to lighten me up a bit, but alas it was time to land instead. That said, at least I didn't watch the same movie as the Yorkshireman, The Skin I Live In - he described it to me and I've read about it on IMDB but my only reaction remains, WTF dude?!

Suitably depressed we landed in London Heathrow and made our way to immigration. Because of my crutch, a lovely lady ushered us to the front of the queue (I could have kissed her), so we were back on home soil with no muss and no fuss. We retrieved our luggage and made our weary way through the mazes of moving walkways to the central bus station. No straight-forward connection from Heathrow to Belfast for us, oh no. Our first flight of preference sold out before we got the chance to book it, whilst the price of our second went up by about 1000% in the week before we booked. The only feasible alternative was a National Express coach to Gatwick and a return flight to Belfast from there.

The Yorkshireman napped on the coach ride, while I caught up on Twitter and Facebook and marvelled at how much faster 3G is in the south of England compared to Belfast. At Gatwick we checked in quickly and easily and then found somewhere to settle our weary bodies until it was time to board. Thankfully Gatwick has recently been renovated and they have lots of weird and wonderful seating configurations for tired travellers to utilise while they wait. The most awesome, squishy-looking ones were all taken but we soon found some strange recliner style seats and pounced (well, stumbled and fell more than anything).

Eventually our gate was announced and before we knew it we'd boarded, dozed through the short flight across the Irish Sea, and landed in Belfast City Airport, where mother dearest was kindly waiting to take us home. When we arrived, sister dearest and not-so-little brother (well, probably sister dearest really) had made us a good old fashioned cup of tea to welcome our return. We thought it only right to return the favour with gifts.

Out of the suitcase came the hard-won red Converse and utterly baraginous Hollister hoody, the impossible-to-find Take 5 bars and unnecessary tourist box of Hersheys, the t-shirts from the Macy's One Day Sale and JC Penney, the long-deliberated-over hardback book (which, of course, mother dearest already had), as well as her requested Butterfingers bars (in various sizes) and cornbread muffin mix.

It was like reliving our trip one souvenir at a time. Maybe it was just because I was jet-lagged, but it was actually a wee bit emotional. I was glad to be home, with my own bed and pillow upstairs waiting for me, and I loved playing Stateside Santa Claus with my family, but I was already missing the now-familiar streets of New York, the excitement of exploring somewhere like Boston for the first time, or that giant suite at the Helix in Washington DC. Also I really wanted to show my family all these things first-hand, so they would really know why it all made me so giddy. Yes, the travel bug had bitten me hard and even as I lay down in bed and my mind lost its fight to stay awake, I was already working out where I wanted to go next. Then I closed my eyes and allowed my imagination to float off, along the East River, across Boston Harbour and on into dreamland.

Friday, 11 May 2012

I'm Shipping Up To Boston - Day Twelve - Wednesday 15 February

Wednesday soon arrived: our only full day in Boston and indeed our last full day of our holiday. Already! There was to be no free breakfast at the Royal Sonesta (or even so much as a complimentary cup of coffee - major points lost there!) so we ventured across the road to CambridgeSide Galleria again and into old faithful, Starbucks. I had my "usual" stateside breakfast (a bagel with cream cheese and a skinny white chocolate mocha), the only difference being that the sign in this Starbucks was advertising "New York style bagels" rather than just, well, bagels. Bless. Just as yummy though!

Suitably fuelled for a busy day ahead, we made our way back to the now-very-familiar Lechmere Station and the green line. This time we emerged at Government Center and went to check out Fanueil Hall and Quincy Market. On the way we stumbled upon Boston's famous Freedom Trail (subtly marked with a bright red line painted down the street), but our interest in early American history was pretty minimal, so we decided to give this "must-do" experience a miss.

Faneuil Hall was an interesting building but we weren't sufficiently intrigued to go inside.

Fanueil Hall Boston

Quincy Market looked much more enticing but I was still burned from my disappointing experience at the Brooklyn Flea and my expectations weren't particularly high.

Quincy Market Boston

Actually though? You've got to go to this place if you're ever in Boston, especially if you're looking for somewhere to grab a bite to eat. They've got every kind of food imaginable! Unfortunately for us we'd only had breakfast half an hour before but we couldn't just try nothing, so we bought cupcakes from a baked goods stall near the exit on the other side and grabbed a seat just outside to enjoy them.

The cupcake was far from the best I'd had on our trip (also a strange, sickly shade of pink because it had been the-day-that-shall-not-be-named the day before) but the birds pecking around our feet in search of crumbs seemed to like it well enough. There was also some kind of love-themed ice sculpture slowly melting in front of us, so it all made for a pretty surreal experience.

Next we decided that since we were now in the vicinity of the harbour it might be a good idea to check out where we needed to go the next day to book our water taxi and leave off our bags (the company offer to hold your baggage for you on your day of departure, which is nice of them). After a rather long (yet scenic) walk around Long Wharf, we discovered no straight-forward way to walk along the harbour from there to Rowe's Wharf, so we gave up, walked back to Atlantic Avenue and along to Rowes Wharf that way.

After what seemed like forever with my poor, sore hip and feet, we eventually got there and spoke to a nice man who told us to drop our bags off at 10.30am the next morning. We're glad we checked because apparently there isn't always someone in their office during the day and if we'd just rocked up at some random time, we might have been stranded with our three cases and two backpacks all day. Yikes!

Minds now at rest about our departure plans, I declared my urgent need for caffeine and we set about finding somewhere for a quick refreshment break. As we walked up back inland we came across an interesting deli type place. They had all sorts of different counters for different types of food and you got a buzzer to come and collect your order when it was ready. It was a bit confusing for a newbie but I think if I worked nearby I'd love going there for lunch. As it was I ordered a coffee and a chicken cutlet marinara sandwich, which was really nice, other than tasting slightly too much of tinned tomatoes.

The next bit of the day is a bit of a blur to me but I believe it involved some dillydallying en route to the Prudential Center. When we finally arrived there, I made my way straight to the nearest bookstore. You see, I had been struggling with what to buy mother dearest as a souvenir from our trip - she's difficult to buy for at the best of times but since she enjoys reading, I thought I would get her a book from one of her favourite authors that had just been released in the States but not yet in the UK.

Except it turns out that these days release dates on both sides of the pond are usually pretty similar, so both of my forerunning options had already been released in the UK. I considered dropping the idea but they had only just been released and I was coming up blank with other ideas, so I chose the one that had been released in the UK most recently, hoping she wouldn't have had the chance to buy it yet. Of course it turned out she'd bought it herself just before we got back! Doh! I wouldn't mind so much but have you seen how much hardback books cost in the USA?! No wonder everyone's jumping aboard the good ship Kindle these days!

Blissfully unaware of the futility of the contents of the bag in my hand, we set off to find the way up to the Top of the Hub. When I'd been researching Boston people kept mentioning Skywalk, which is the observation deck at the Prudential Center, but I'd also read a sneaky tip that you could save your $14pp admission fee for the observation deck and put it towards a nice meal in the restaurant on the floor below, Top of the Hub, which gives pretty much the same views. Bearing in mind that they have a three course set lunch for $22, the latter seemed like the best value for money to me and up we went!

The restaurant was pretty empty when we got there, with only a few other tables of diners around, but the views were indeed amazing. I'm happy to report that the food was also absolutely wonderful! We started with a lobster bisque with brie, which was really nice and came with a selection of delicious, warm breads. Next we had a chicken pasta dish, the flavours of which went perfectly with each other. Finally we had a crème brulée, which although not jaw-dropping was still as good as any other crème brulée I've ever tasted, with just the right combination of smooth custard and burnt caramel. Also, it was huge! The food and the views were both well worth the price and I would recommend it highly for anyone visiting Boston.

View from Top of the Hub Restaurant Boston

The only dampener on the experience was after our meal when I went to the back of the restaurant to look out of the windows there - just to see what was on the other side really - when a snooty member of staff rocked up and snapped that "this area is closed for the views" and stared at us until we left. Um, ok… I can't imagine how looking out of a window for a few seconds could do any harm whatsoever, especially when we'd already just given the restaurant our custom and a pretty big tip, but it just goes to show how one person with a bad attitude can tarnish an otherwise wonderful experience.

Back on terra firma we made our way up to Newbury Street. Our original plan had been to walk the full length of the street, which is famous for its shopping, but we were pretty tired and pretty much all shopped out, so we headed straight for the bus across the river and on to our next stop of the day… the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This had been on the Yorkshireman's bucket list for our trip. He'd read about an exhibit they had about holograms, which had made his inner geek giddy, so on the list it went. The only problem was that, since it had been one of "his" activities, I hadn't bothered to research where, other than "MIT", we needed to go when we got off the bus. Unfortunately neither had he, probably assuming that the itinerary queen had it under control. In his defence it was odd that I didn't.

But anyway, a bit flummoxed by the many buildings around us, we stared at the campus map for quite a while and then the Yorkshireman decided we would head to the MIT Museum building. Google Maps had been telling us that the place we wanted (with the holograms) was not the same place as the museum, but when we reached the point it had marked it turned out to be a warehouse, so I suspect they were a bit off with that one! Onwards to the museum.

Thankfully it was indeed the museum we wanted. We paid our admission and made our way up to the second floor (Museum Visiting 101, lesson number one: start at the top and work down). It was a small museum but it was actually really interesting!

Plasma Ball at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

I really enjoyed learning all about the various robotic technology that had been developed, not to mention the awesome kinetic sculpture displays (I really don't know how else to describe those but they're really cool) and, of course, the holograms.

Holograms Exhibition at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

I also enjoyed doing a spot of artwork where the challenge was to draw what you would like robots to do for you in the future.

The Great Wall of Ideas Robot Technology Art at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Our visit ended downstairs where I sucked at, and was insulted by, a video game, which was ok because that was the point of the experiment.

By then I was pretty tired and my hip was starting to get sore, but the Yorkshireman declared that there was no need to get a bus or a subway back to the hotel - it was only a short walk. Well. A two mile walk might have been short for him but with my crutch it felt like an eternity and by the end of it I was spitting feathers. Again he had been misled by Google Maps (or rather the scale it showed) so he wasn't entirely to blame, but by the time we'd limped up through the hotel lobby and back to our room I was nearly in tears. The only plus point had been the nice views as we walked along the river but it was little solace by then.

View of Boston over Charles River Basin

View of Boston at night over Charles River Basin

Back at the hotel we decided now would be the ideal time to try out the spa. If a jacuzzi couldn't help soothe my aches, pains and temper, I didn't know what would. Luckily it was straight-forward enough to use the spa as a hotel guest and before I knew it I was sitting in the hot, bubbly water with the water jets massaging my tired feet. Bliss. After a while I even felt brave enough to try a little swimming in the pool and managed about 25 lengths before retiring to the jacuzzi again.

We made our way back to our room to get showered and changed and then headed across the road to the California Pizza Kitchen for dinner, where we enjoyed pizza with several pints of Sam Adams lager. Man did I need both by that point. The dessert menu didn't appetise me so I stopped by The Cheesecake Factory on the way back to the hotel and picked up a slice of Pineapple Upside Down cheesecake to eat in our room. Oh it was soooo yummy!

Now absolutely shattered and with the longest of days ahead of us, we retired to bed once again after The Daily Show and Colbert Report. Our last full day of our trip had been a mixed success but there were still a few activities left on our itinerary that we were looking forward to taking on before we flew home.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Oh my word, it has been ages since I last wrote. Sorry for the hiatus but as you may have read on the Yorkshireman's blog, we've been a bit busy of late... y'know, moving to the other side of the city, etc etc. There's been other stuff too like work being mega busy but it's all incredibly boring so I shall simply leave it at a simple halfassed apology and an intention to come back really soon to finally finish off those trip reports from our trip to the 'States in February (which I realise is like a whole lifetime ago in the online world) and get back to some good old fashioned waffling about life in general. Sounds like a plan. So...