Visiting Boston and Salem, Massachusetts
Regardless of drizzly weather, the city of Boston (one of America’s first big and important cities), to us had a lovely feel; a nice vibe with very friendly talkative locals, rich and influential history, and a bounty of exploration options. In fact, three days wasn’t nearly enough time in the region – just so much to see! Even aside from the city itself, there’s Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, numerous New England excursions, The Hamptons (playground to the wealthy – Revenge, anybody?), Rhode Island and Harvard University on Boston’s outskirts.
Boston is a popular US ‘walking city’, and much of the centre is accessible by foot. We chose a combination of walking, trolley tour, and public transport (using a weekly pass – called a ‘Charlie’ ticket – approx US $15) to make our way between famous landmarks including America’s first public park opened in 1634, Boston Common; School Street and the site of the very first public school in America (established by Puritans in 1635), and along The Freedom Trail – a 2.5 mile red-brick walking trail that leads to 16 nationally significant historic sites. Each stop along the Trail showcases an authentic American treasure, often with importance relating to the American Revolution. We dropped by the Cheers Boston (yep, the original 80s series’ pub!), and wandered along the city’s waterfront, through Chinatown and colourful markets.
Ask a local what the best free, fun things to do are, and they’ll suggest ideas like keeping an eye out for television or movie filming, visiting Boston’s Italian quarter on Hanover Street to sample authentic Bostonian fare; or instead of paying for a tour to a well-known (ie. expensive) beach-front hotspot, utilise the convenient ‘T’ (metro system) and take a train to a seaside town like Rockport, or to the fascinating and ‘bewitching’ town of Salem – ‘witch’ is exactly where we travelled on our chosen day-trip from the city.
Saturday was appropriately grey as we ventured up the coast towards Salem, a small city founded in 1626 and critical to America’s east coast because of its strong military and shipping history (along with witches of course, but we’ll get to that soon enough). Little kids were all decked-out in their wet-weather wellies, dogs out for a rainy weekend walk, and townsfolk dressed as, you guessed it, witches, ghosts and other Halloween-esque characters.
Salem – it’s the city renowned for the witch trials of 1692, upon which many books, plays and films, in particular The Crucible, are based. Throughout October everyone gets into the ‘spirit’ of Halloween, and I must admit to battling an overpowering urge to purchase ‘lucky’ trinkets, fancy-dress costumes, tickets to psychic readings, magic sparkly things, and dancing witch dolls (complete with straw broom and striped-socks) from the many celebratory ghoulish shops around town.
Jest aside, we did visit the memorial for those accused throughout the hysteria of Massachusetts’ infamous witch trials. Unlike regions of Europe where in some cases this type of frenzy lasted for many years, witch trials only remained for a year in these parts – but they were renowned. Today the stories stand as a lesson of tolerance. The memorials are surrounded by engraved fragments of final pleas of innocence: the missing words are to symbolise the sad fact that in the end no one was listening.
We’d recommend a ride on one of Salem’s trolley tours which takes visitors around town to interesting sites. One of these is Winter Island, a popular camping ground formerly the site of Boston’s last public execution when a young boy was hanged for stealing a horse. Another is Dead Horse Beach, a terrifying place where many people and horses who drew fire-carriages perished in a shocking fire. The horses were taken out to sea and ‘buried’ at low tide, but then floated back up again at high tide – bones are still found today, a hundred years on. We viewed the famous witch museums, extraordinary ‘old town’ areas where homes are engraved with the year they were built – oldest homes we saw dated back to early 1700s; House of the Seven Gables, the oldest surviving original home connected with the witch trials, is appropriately painted all-black.
Salem was home to America’s first billionaire, as well as to the founder of Harvard Law, and America’s oldest candy company, Ye Olde Pepper Candy Companie, which was developed by Mary Spencer – an incredibly poor mum who started the candy business as a way to take care of her children. Long story short, it worked and she became very very successful. Oh, and incidentally she is also a direct descendent of Lady Diana Spencer, aka Princess Di.
Another interesting Salem fact is that it’s the town where the Parker brothers (Parker Bros.) developed games like Monopoly and Clue, and in fact it was their company that kept this region afloat during the Great Depression earlier in the 1900s. They employed most of the townsfolk at that time and paid using Monopoly money when there wasn’t any real money to go around. The town businesses accepted Monopoly money when times were tough, which kept the economic wheels turning. Amazing, don’t you think?
As in all supernatural tales, the sign of ‘3’ appeared out of nowhere. I arrived in town, we met a dog named Sarah and then promptly happened across poor Sarah Good’s memorial (she was one of those famously accused of witchcraft); I’m the third Sarah – am still unsure as to whether all this is a good sign or bad omen, but nothing has seemed out of the ordinary, so far…
I thought it pertinent to stop by with a few quick tips based on our experiences because in all honesty, I’ve spent hours researching how to travel this side of the world on a budget.
I always thought it would be quite simple to ‘backpack’ through North America. Unfortunately it is much more expensive than I had anticipated, and the spaces between places we want to visit is much more vast than I originally understood.
For example, it’s been a struggle to find a way to get out of Prince Edward Island (Canada) that is time or cost-effective (time over, I would have done this location first, then booked a flight long before to get a good rate; or taken a train out across to Montreal, rather than doing Toronto and Montreal first).
Also, the theory that it is ‘cheaper and more efficient’ to fly rather than ‘train’ or ‘bus’ it here is true. I’ve literally spent hours (if not weeks) investigating numerous possible routes and paths through to various cities, as well as accommodation options.
USA and Canada top travel tips and sites
a) Greyhound services are not great (that’s putting it mildly).
b) Amtrak services aren’t that terrific either – but I suppose I’ve been a bit spoilt for choice in Europe and the UK because the rail services there are excellent.
c) Hiring a car is more difficult than you would expect – if you want to hire a car in one place and drop it off in another, the prices are exorbitant, which defeats the purpose in the end.
Hiring a car isn’t such a bad option if you are happy to travel in a loop, back to the original destination. If you’re driving and want to camp, some mates made us aware of reserveamerica.com which offers details on free places you may set up camp.
d) I always compare reviews on sites, and if in general the reviews address your individual requirements (eg. we don’t mind if somewhere is a bit older, as long as it is clean and close to public transport) then the place is probably worth a go.
I’ve found accommodation to be very expensive, especially in cities like Toronto, New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, so shop around and compare. I have generally been flicking between expedia.com, booking.com, hostelbookers.com and comparing reviews on these sites against tripadvisor.com. I’ve also begun adding reviews in on properties – it’s only fair to share your experience with others who may benefit in the future, and also to give a ‘thumbs up’ to properties that deserve a good review.
e) Throughout America I’ve found that Southwest Airlines is pretty good value (price and baggage). We also had a fantastic experience flying AirTransat (operates budget flights between Europe and Canada).
Alternatively I’ll shop around for flights on expedia.com. Also we’ve found cheapair.ca to advertise inexpensive flights that are booked out – only you find this out after inputting credit card details and regardless of a message to say you’re not charged, I have random ‘tax’ charges on my credit card for transactions that were ‘cancelled’ which I’m yet to follow up.
f) Finally, if you’re in Canada, ViaRail is a decent option – relatively inexpensive, and even the economy seats are pretty good – large, there’s a power supply for computers etc. and on most journeys there is WiFi. The food car is reasonably priced too, but I’d still advise taking some of your own snacks.
In summary, probably best to choose a section of North America and travel it ‘bit at a time’, as it has proved an expensive exercise to hop from one side to the other. Still, keep saving because regardless of higher prices we adore this part of the world!
We love travelling around America and Canada! So fun and diverse.
By Sarah Blinco
The super sweet Big Apple. We had five days to see, do and experience this fabulous city thanks to a lucky break on Capital FM London. I leave New York City feeling the same way I did ten years ago though – as if I haven’t seen enough, done enough. It’s such a big space with so many dynamic pockets and amazing things to experience – unfortunately there’s just never enough time (or money!). The energy of New York is fantastic, very similar to London (but ‘American’… which is cool), so every experience is a good one.
New York inspiration
Upon arrival, I had music on my mind and a vision of bright lights across the Manhattan skyline, as we traipsed around town searching for the ultimate New York City rooftop bar experience. Only problem was, I was coming down with a cold, the weather was chilly for April, and nothing was reflecting my Sex and the City dream. Certainly, I’d done my research, but as we trudged from one metro stop to another, in and out of venues that in reality didn’t match up to Internet imagery, we feared the sun would set on our first NYC bucketlist item. Ever the trooper, I insisted to my very obliging-despite-being-jetlagged man, Cooper, that perhaps this last address might be “it”. We counted numbers along the very fancy Fifth Avenue, and as we turned a corner at 230, gazed up − and up − a glimmer of hope surfaced; when the elevator doors opened at the top of 230Fifth, somehow Cooper and I both knew − we’d found it!
By “it”, I mean a lavish, open-air designer space featuring a number of chic bars and comfy seating, surrounded by the skyscrapers of Manhattan, and next door to the Empire State. Remarkable is an understatement. Danced-up 80s and 90s tracks and the sound of cocktail shakers set the tone, as we kicked back on a comfy couch at the top of the world, and sipped appletinis (best I’ve ever tasted − and did you know it only takes two to cure the common cold?). Snug red robes were handed around to keep revellers warm, and I’ll remember forever, the dazzling matinee that Mother Nature presented. It’s one of my very favourite moments of travel, as the sun set over the extraordinary city that is New York; sunny skies faded to a golden glow, gradually blending to a cerulean blue, only for the skyline to then entirely transform into a magical, sparkling cityscape.
That pretty much sums up New York – big, bold, bright, glittering and enchanting – and yours for the taking. Aside from taste-testing cocktails in a sexy rooftop venue as the sun sets over America, what else is a Manhattan first-timer to do? I’d suggest:
In my mind, New York is synonymous with film and television, so what better way to get your bearings than by jumping on one of the popular TV & Movie Sites tours, beginning and ending in iconic Times Square. During the adventure, you’ll see Washington Park (Sesame Street, among hundreds of other productions), The Trump International Hotel (Crocodile Dundee and more filmed here), New York Library (Spiderman, Suddenly 30, Sex and the City), Tiffany’s, the Soup Nazi’s kitchen (Seinfeld), the Friends apartment, and many other fun recognisable locations. Taking a tour of any description however, will give you an idea of what’s where, and those areas you might like to revisit.
This historic landmark signifies freedom. I personally found it exciting to see first-hand – it’s a real reminder that you’re in the USA! If you’re disorganised and forget to book a tour (my fault), or keen to avoid lengthy tourist queues, do as we did following advice from a friendly NYPD officer, and catch a ride on the free, local Staten Island Ferry, which passes by the famous lady and presents spectacular views of New York’s boroughs.
“Guarding the entrance to Lower Manhattan since 1886, Lady Liberty is positioned to gaze sternly across the waters at ‘unenlightened Europe’. Known as the ‘Mother of Exiles,’ the statue serves as an admonishment to the rigid social structures of the old world. ‘Keep your ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ says Lady Liberty’s famous poem. ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”
–Otis, Lonely Planet New York Encounter (2010).
On a sunny day, there’s nothing better to do than explore this serene urban wonder. Be prepared to be accosted by street salesmen pushing tickets for horse + buggy and pedicab rides – lovely options, but it’s just as easy to wander on foot or hire a bike. Central Park is vast – there is rock climbing, baseball, playgrounds, performance stages, lakes, food stalls, even ice skating (in winter). It’s an extraordinary space, offering welcome respite from big-city chaos. There’s a new discovery to be had daily, and on our stroll we passed a wedding, a Voguephoto shoot, and a poignant memorial to peace and John Lennon in Strawberry Fields.
Eat at the High Line; Shop in Soho
Of course there’s shopping everywhere in New York City, but Soho’s a cool area full of coffee shops where you can fuel-up before discovering some of the city’s flagship retail stores like UniQlo, H&M and Mango, along with a number of stylish and unique boutiques. From Soho, you can cab (inexpensive in NYC) or take the metro to the Meatpacking District, an area that enjoys rejuvenation year-on-year, and where a fabulous foodie precinct, Chelsea Market, is situated. Above the market overlooking this bustling metropolis and the Hudson River, complete with craft stalls, wooden sun lounges and gardens, is a delightful meeting place – the High Line – built on a 2.5-kilometre-long elevated rail structure which was originally a freight line, 1934 to 1980.
Down to business
Our accommodation was actually near Wall Street, one of the world’s most important financial districts. Along with historical buildings sprinkled across some of the oldest streets in Manhattan, intriguing east-coast architecture and sensational river views towards Brooklyn, we found a nice row of pubs and restaurants around Broad Street and Exchange Place. We’d also recommend exploring the nearby waterfront shopping and dining precinct, South Street Seaport, which boasts beautiful close-up views of the Brooklyn Bridge. The World Trade Centre memorial site is around here too; a landmark that symbolises an event that was to forever change yours and my world. Reflect for a moment when you’re here, and be thankful for our freedom – a state of being which this city has represented to millions of immigrants for hundreds of years. New York, New York; city of lights, big dreams and grand escapades – too many to even begin describing here. It’s a place where you can enjoy the world’s best stage shows, be a live-television studio guest, dance with a “Naked Cowboy” surrounded by a sea of yellow taxis, and indulge in cosmopolitans with a real chance of Sarah Jessica Parker taking a seat next to you. There’s only one problem. One visit – just like one appletini – is never enough.