Sunday, 17 June 2012

Doing the Water Shuttle

Coming in a day early for my flight from Boston’s Logan to Lisbon, I put up on the Airport Hilton, where they had a fairly good “Get Up and Go” package for $129 including a gorge-till-you-drop New England breakfast. I took a smoke-free room on the twelfth floor—to get off on the dazzle of Logan’s water-encircled location. I was not disappointed.

The tone of the staff was almost aggressively helpful—no doubt a function of the depressed hotel market. It’s amazing, though, how such an attitude makes a body’s stay more pleasant. The Get Up and Go breakfast was marvelous, especially the thick, round, lean, spicy sausages. I had a brief generation gap crisis when the waiter, trying too hard to please, seemed miffed when I wouldn’t douse the hash browns with ketchup. The only other fly in the butter was that my SONY Walkman couldn’t pick up any NPR station loud enough to catch Morning Edition from their basement restaurant. I consoled my ears by playing my new Ellis / Wynton Marsalis tape.

I had flown in from Philly on the 11:14 Northwest Airlink, a sleek 19-passenger Fairchild jet-prop (using one of my senior citizen Ultrafare coupons) to have a late lunch with David Riesman and his wife in their Cambridge home. Because the plane was 45 minutes late, I couldn’t take the subway (75 cents) to Harvard Square and walk to the Riesmans, but grabbed a cab where I lucked out with a very articulate Haitian cabbie who gave me a fast briefing on the country’s new president Father Aristide. Although he had been in America for twenty years, he ached to return, probably after his thoroughly Americanized son (18) and daughter (13) had finished school.

When I took the subway back to the Airport stop (where the Hilton van picked me up), I noticed that the Aquarium was also on the Blue Line. I resolved to get up and go to it the next morning, using the Water Shuttle to get there. The Hilton van dropped me off at the dock, and me and three New York advertising executives in town for a meeting shared the 7 minute (for $7) ride to the Wharf. The Rotunda was architecturally stunning enough for me to go into the Bay Harbor Hotel to see if they had documentation about the area. Did they ever. 

There has been maritime action on this spot since the late seventeenth century. Early on there was a single cannon battery, soon to expand to 35 guns as the volatility that led to the American Revolution started perking. These wharves have seen it all: clipper ships, packets, steamboats, commuter boats, the water shuttle (which will be four years old in July). Locals deride its high cost (a dollar a minute they bleat in unbelief), but to a tourist there is no more beguiling way to approach the Boston skyline.

It was still too early to get into the Aquarium so I started to scout the savoury nineteenth century architecture on both sides of the elevated Fitzgerald (as in “Honey Fitz”, JFK’s maternal grandfather) Expressway. The tall Customs House is the most visible landmark, a turn-of-the-century high-rising Beaux Arts number. But the Funky Award must go to the 1891 Richardsonian-looking Grain Exchange lovingly updated a few years back by Yung / Brannam, with the firm having the excellent judgment to keep the trading pit fourth floor for its own digs. I circled its nutritiously rich rusticated granite interior before taking the elevator up to the fourth floor to schmooze with the architects.

Finally, it was 9:00 a.m. so I split for the Aquarium. What a spiraling gyre of underwater wonders for $7.50—plus two quarters to park my gear, the better to scrutinize the finny things. It’s hip. The pedagogy is brilliant but lightly laid on. You learn why fish are differently shaped—those flat flounders are not freaks: it allows them to hide on the bottom. And it’s much more than mere fish: the penguin colony really knocked me out. (They sport different colored wrist bands so they don’t get fed twice!)

And there are anacondas thick enough to make you flinch just looking at them, teensy tiny frogs, and crustaceans of a bewildering variety of elegant shapes and colors. Open since 1969, its beguiling style attracted 1.3 million fish lovers last year, and a docent proudly bragged that they’ve found an abandoned shipyard in Charleston where they’re going to expand. The Boston Aquarium is a worthy participant in the AquaBoom energizing city downtowns all across the country.

Then I cruised the waterfront, checking out hotel prices and restaurant views. Next time I’m going to eat at the Marriott Long Wharf: its view of the harbor is simply breathtaking. And on its ground floor foyer there is the best guide to walking around the Harbor District you’d ever need. Have a big breakfast there and then plot your moves up and around the downtown.

Back on the subway—two stops from Aquarium to Airport (with only Maverick in between)—why anyone would rent a car in Boston beats me, their public transpo is so good and so cheap. Even the distinctive décor of each station is exemplary public art.

The Hilton was a good bargain in other ways. It picked me up from the Airlink in minutes, took me twice to the Post Office as I filed last minute papers for my application for the Peace Corps. The desk clerks were equally helpful in Xeroxing gratis documents I had to keep copies of.

And thirty-year-old veteran van driver Al Silvestri spotted a free cart and swooped me over to cadge it when I was checking in for my flight to Lisbon. And he told me how I could take my cart over to the Pan American Clipper Club where I’m typing these suggestions for the traveler with a long layover at Logan, or a weekend traveler looking for a lot of stimulation at a low price without a great deal of traveling around. 

Al was even more illuminating on the history of the hotel—first locally-owned, then a Sonesta, and now a Hilton—he had it all in his total recall memory bank. When I commented on the splendidly sculptural twin pier control tower at Logan, he recounted how a CAB inspector grumpily told him it was no damn good as a control tower when there was the traditional Logan low ground fog. I asked Al why he didn’t retire next month when he turned seventy. But I already knew the answer. He accompanied me into the Post Office facility to schmooze with his old pal Frank. Silvestri is an institution at Logan.

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