Monday, February 4, 2008

A little advice about Boston.

There are a lot of things I picked up in my stay in the Greater Boston Metropolitan area. Some of these things may seem obvious to you. Just understand -- this was my first ever trip to New England, and it was all new to me.

Ride the T. Boston is not a car city, though you'll see lots of cars rolling through it. As people kept reiterating to me my entire time there, it's a walking city, and it's not especially friendly to commuters. Parking fees are high. Tolls are common. And just finding a place to park can be an ordeal in itself.

MBTA, on the other hand, is pervasive. It's close to everywhere. Whether it's bus lines or subways or trains or even boats, there's a way to get around the area. But to the uninitiated, it can be confusing. The MBTA website is a decent resource -- if you know exactly where you are going and what you are doing. I was fortunate enough to have a semi-native guide.

How to get around it? When you book your hotel, find out how close it is to the T (the subway system). Learn where your stop is. The subway is much easier to negotiate than the bus lines, and it's going to get you around most of the area you're going to be touring.

Oh, and make things easier on yourself. Purchase a Charlie Card. These reusable plastic cards store value, and they're much less likely to get eaten in a machine. Trust me -- I have experience on this. Besides, there's a discount for those who use the card rather than the ticket. If you're going to be traveling away from where you're staying a good bit, charge your card up -- maybe, $20 or more. If you're staying close by, $10 should do it.

Just remember -- if you're starting out on a bus, you're going to need correct change. Don't be afraid to ask an MBTA worker for assistance if you need it. And be courteous to your fellow travelers.

It's dry up there. Here in the South, we like to gripe about the weather. It's always humid, except on the three or four days each year when we get a bit of an ice storm. ALWAYS humid.

Well, it's not humid everywhere.

New England has very dry air in the winter, and you're going to need to keep yourself protected. First off -- lip balm. Your lips will chap, dry out, and try to run away from you. Cover them religiously (you too, men).

That same dry air may dehydrate you a bit. Imagine my surprise at this. I couldn't get enough water to drink my first few days there. Lost my voice. Got nosebleeds. You can combat this. First, and this should be obvious -- drink more. Get yourself some coffee, tea, something warm in the morning to get you going. Add a couple of beverages throughout the day. You might not think you need more liquid, since it's so much colder. But you do. And alcohol? Won't help you hydrate.

Take care of your feet. If you are in a walking city, chances are -- oh, I don't know -- you'll walk more. A lot more. We're not talking a few blocks more -- we're talking a few miles more. Lots of miles.

If you want to be able to get around like the locals, you're going to have to walk it. And if you're not accoustomed to that, it's going to take its toll. And this isn't comfortable walking, either. While most streets are traditional asphault, you have a lot of cobblestone in addition to sidewalk concrete. It can be devastating for your soles.

So, what to do? Bring extra shoes and change them out. Keep your feet dry. If it's cold, wear more than one pair of socks. And moisturize your feet with a good lotion -- believe me, this makes a big difference.

Pace yourself. While you might look at "walking city" and think everything is close by, it's deceptively not. Your tour maps may show popular attractions as being mere inches away, but those inches can be miles or more. Plan accordingly. Do things in one area of the city at a time. This will save you money on the T and a lot of beating pavement. For instance, tour Paul Revere's House and visit Faneuil Hall and the Haymarket on one day, and South End's Arts community and shopping another. Beacon Hill is nowhere near the JFK Library. When you make out your itinerary, be sure to include travel time -- which means, give yourself 20 minutes for places you walk to and 30 minutes (at least) for a short T ride. Anything can happen -- the trains can go down, construction on your route, even crazy folks who want to buy you coffee. You never know.

This is a working town. Unlike many tourist destinations, Boston is not tourist-driven. People come and go every day on their way to work and home and in-between. There are no sideshow-like barkers, no big flashing signs offering 2-for-1 deals or free hotel stays for listening to a sales presentation. And that's very nice.

But on the other hand, you're not going to have quite the availability of official tourist folks to help guide you through, unless you're on one of the tours or at one of the big historical sites.

Not to worry. Everywhere I went, there were people to speak with who were helpful and kind. Regular joes gave me suggestions on good places to visit and eat, and advice on where to go and not go.

If you do find yourself lost in Boston, there are lots of folks that can help you out. Keep the phone number to your hotel in your cell phone -- call the concierge for advice. For that matter, duck into any hotel while on foot to ask for concierge assistance -- this is what they are there for.

The best things in life are free. There are a lot of attractions I could have gone to see that would take a lot of money out of my pocket. But some of the best things were the ones I didn't have to pay for.

The Freedom Trail Walking Tour is one of those. While some of the stops may charge admission, you can pick up a map at one of several "newspaper" boxes along the route, or get one from your concierge. It's a great way to trace back history.

There's also the Haymarket, which I found fascinating in my brief walk through. There are some vendors who rent out the buildings alongside, but during the weekend the area is packed with vendors of fresh fruit, vegetables, and more. And they're out in any sort of weather. It was freezing
cold when we stumbled through early one Friday morning in January, but there were plenty of vendors out -- and plenty of locals, too, picking up the best out of the bountiful offerings. Be sure to look down and see where the litter of the Haymarket has been immortalized.

Skip the souvenir stands. The best souvenirs you are going to find aren't going to be the ones in the airport, or in the most expensive shopping centers. They're going to be the ones you find at the locations you really want to attend. Like baseball? Fenway Park offers a great tour with lots of information about the Red Sox, and has an expansive shop to boot. Faneuil Hall's Quincy Market is loaded with more types of food vendors than you can shake a pretzel at, and you'll also find kiosks lined up in the solarium wings with lots of smaller items. Consider purchasing local art at boutique galleries, or from local booksellers.

Which do you prefer, convenience or comfort? If you're not a big fan of the wait, the expense, the sheer trouble of dealing with Logan International Airport, check out one of the two regional airports in the area. There are two close by --
Providence, RI and Manchester, NH. On my trip, I flew into Manchester, where my dear friends came and picked me up.

You can make it without a pickup from point A to point B, but it is a bit of a juggle. Manchester runs a shuttle to and from two points in Boston -- Sullivan Station on the
Orange Line, and the Anderson Regional Transportaton Center in Woburn. The shuttle runs about every two hours -- check the website for more information.

Manchester's airport is easy to access and has one of the easiest TSA runthroughs you'll find. The concourse is well thought out, and you're not going to find too much trouble there.

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