Irish America's heart

 

BOSTON:Like Dublin, Boston punches above its weight in culture, arts, entertainment, sport, politics, food and fun. Not a night passes without some event worth going to, writes JOAN SCALES

WHEN Senator John Kerry, the former US presidential hopeful, looks out of his window each day and sees tourists staring at his house, can he guess what they are saying? It goes along the lines of: “Is that what you get for $14 million? Is that his car? Where’s the Secret Service? His house is right on the street? Does his wife live there, too? Who cleans all those windows?”

The tourists are on a movie walking tour of Boston, but when it comes to the big houses in Beacon Hill movie mania turns into downright nosiness. Politics and wealth get a group fired up like nothing else. Thoughts of Ally McBeal, Cheers, The Departed and Mystic River go on hold.

The tour is a more recent addition to the attractions of the city and a great way to get a feel for how the city is laid out. You can also do it by bus, but nothing beats walking the ground.

For walking generally, Boston Common is a good place to start from; alternatively, the redeveloped harbourside offers 70km of walks along the seafront and Charles River, named after the English king.

Boston takes its history seriously, and there seems hardly an inch of the city where you will not be reminded of its links to the peoples and battles that shaped it. Follow the red line around the city to discover the Freedom Trail, where the past comes alive in the present. Paul Revere is still galloping off to warn the Sons of Liberty that the British are on the move.

Or use the Irish Heritage Trail map (www.irishheritage trail.com) from Boston Irish Tourism Association to acquaint yourself with the part the Irish played in the events of the past 300 years.

The city breathes shamrock all over you. From the look of the buildings to the shape of the faces and the names of streets, shops and dozens of bars, it would be hard to forget we share a past.

The city is smaller than Dublin, with about 600,000 inhabitants, but, like Dublin, it punches above its weight in culture, arts, entertainment, sport, politics, food and fun. Not a night passes without an event worth going to, be it a Red Sox game at Fenway Park, a concert at Boston Garden or an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

The shopping streets of Newbury and Boylston, in the Back Bay area, are examples of how redevelopment can be sympathetic to their environment. Newbury Street is a stretch of mainly Victorian houses that now incorporate top stores side by side with street cafes and trendy restaurants.

The food is terrific, particularly the fish and seafood – Boston sits on the doorstep of Maine, famous for lobster, clams and scallops. New England is also home to many small farms producing high-quality meat and vegetables. The city is dotted with farmers’ markets and fruit and vegetable stalls.

Another famous eating place is Faneuil Hall Marketplace, which includes the three long granite buildings of North Market, Quincy Market and South Market; it’s an outdoor-indoor mall and food court with dozens of places for casual dining. (And it’s where Kerry made his concession speech in the 2004 presidential election.)

Three major engines – politics, education and sport – turn the wheels of Boston, and at any corner you are likely to meet one or other of them.

Politics is the oil that runs the city, and every conversation has to dip into local and national goings-on. The Irish, of all ethnic groups, have maintained the tightest grip on the city, both in city hall and Massachusetts State House, although the grip was loosened when an Italian-American, Thomas Menino, ended 63 years of the Irish at the city helm, in 1993.

Political royalty, in the form of the Kennedys, are also never far from thought and sight.

The John F Kennedy Presidential Library Museum, at Columbia Point, is a bold, modern memorial to the clan’s biggest star, rising seven storeys in glass and white steel. It is very well curated, with exhibitions through the year focusing on aspects of the Kennedy heritage. It is also a research facility for the many students who come to Boston in search of Camelot.

If politics is the oil of Boston, then the colleges are its air. From the founding of Harvard to the present crop of medical, technology, science and arts colleges, Boston has thousands of students. Not just any students, but the best of the best.

Bostonians love their sporting teams, even if they don’t win for years. The city is obsessed with the Celtics, Red Sox, Bruins, Cannons and New England Patriots. Every game sells out. The Red Sox ended an 86-year drought and won the baseball World Series in 2004 and again in 2007. The city is still talking about it – not unlike ourselves winning the Triple Crown and the Grand Slam after 61 years.

Boston embraces visitors, and within a day you’ll find yourself thinking: This is a lovely city; I wonder what it is like to live here.

Go there

Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus. com) flies to Boston from Dublin and Shannon.

Where to stay, where to eat and where to go in the city

5 places to stay

Eliot Hotel. 370 Commonwealth Avenue, 00-1-617-2671607, www.eliothotel.com. The Eliot, which has a perfect location in the Back Bay area, is quiet, understated and reserved. Luxurious accommodation, mainly suites.

Jurys Back Bay. 350 Stuart Street, Back Bay, 00-1-617-2667200, www.doylecollection.com. Located in a former police headquarters, this deluxe hotel has very comfortable rooms and an excellent restaurant.

Fairmont Battery Wharf. 3 Battery Wharf, 00-1-617-9949000, www.fairmont.com/batterywharf. The Fairmont has an enviable harbourside location. Just steps from the Freedom Trail, the North End, Charlestown and the Institute of Contemporary Art, it is great for exploring the city.

Aisling Bed and Breakfast. 21 East Concord Street, 00-1-617-2068049, www.aisling-bostonbb.com. This gracious Victorian brownstone is in the Irish district of South End. Hosts Dympna and James Moore make everyone feel welcome.

Club Quarters. 161 Devonshire Street, 00-1-617- 3576400, www.clubquarters. com. An ideal place to stay if you want a bit more than a hotel room. Rooms are not big, but they have fridges and microwaves and free internet access. They book up quickly.

5 places to eat

Sensing. Fairmont Battery Wharf, 3 Battery Wharf,00-1-617-9949001, www.sensingrestaurant.com. Executive chef Guy Martin, of Le Grand Véfour, in Paris, has devised a seasonal menu using as much local produce as possible. The way the post-dinner hot towels are presented will make even the most serious diner grin. Has a terrace for summer dining.

Top of the Hub. Prudential Center, 800 Boylston Street, 00-1-617-5361775, www.topofthehub.net. The best views in Boston, both day and night, from the 52nd floor. Precede lunch or dinner with a visit to the Skywalk Observatory to get the full panoramic view of the city. If you can drag your eyes off the view, the food is very good. Lots of seafood.

Clio. 370 Commonwealth Avenue,00-1-617-5367200, www.cliorestaurant.com. Chef Ken Oringer has put Clio, at the Eliot, on the map with his innovative use of unusual ingredients and superb presentation. The bar menu features Asian-inspired tapas.

Hurricane O’Reilly’s. 150 Canal Street, 00-1-617-7220161, www.irishconnection.com. An Irish pub with a New Orleans twist, in North End. The Hurricane Combo is a great way of enjoying, shrimp, ribs, blackened chicken and salad.

Union Oyster House. 41 Union Street, 00-1-617- 2272750, www.unionoyster house.com.This is the oldest restaurant in the US – it opened in 1826 – and the building has changed little. It is a warren of rooms and cubbyholes, ideal for groups. Boston clam chowder takes pride of place on the menu, as do oysters and New England lobster. If you are a lobster lover, this is the place to go: it serves it a dozen ways.

5 places to go

Movie Mile Walking Tour. Meet outside Boston Common Visitors Center, 147 Tremont Street, 00-1-886-6684345, www.bostonmovietours.net. From blockbusters such as The Departed, Mystic River and Good Will Hunting to classics such as The Verdict and The Thomas Crown Affair, Boston has long been a favourite of Hollywood – and of television, in Cheers, Ally McBeal and many more. The walking tour rambles around the cobbled streets of upmarket Beacon Hill.

Michele Topor’s Boston North End Market Tours. 00-1-212-2093370, www.foodtoursofboston.com. Topor, a chef, offers culinary walking tours of Little Italy and Chinatown.You must buy your ticket in advance.

Longfellow House. 105 Brattle Street, Cambridge, 00-1-617-8764491, www.nps.gov/long. Longfellow National Historic Site preserves the home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the great 19th-century poet. The house also served as headquarters for George Washington during the Siege of Boston, in the 1770s. A ten-minute walk from Harvard Square subway.

John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Columbia Point, 00-1-617-5141600, www.jfklibrary.org. A magnificent modern seven-storey building commanding a view over Boston Harbour. Every day of Kennedy’s life as president is preserved here in some shape or form. If you’re keen to explore the Kennedys more, you can also visit JFK’s birthplace (83 Beals Street, Brookline, 00-1-617-5667937, www.nps.gov/jofi).

Harvard Walking Tours. Harvard University Events Information Center, Holyoke Center Arcade, 1350 Massachusetts Avenue, 617-495-1573, www.news. harvard.edu/guide/to_do. Let a student take you around the oldest university in the US. Tours are free, just book in advance.

Check out

The Plough Stars. 912 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, 00-1-617-5760032, www.ploughandstars.com. A hang-out of artists, writers and poets, with a great tradition of live music, from rock to country and everything in between. The chicken and fish fry, on Sunday nights, is a weekly highlight.

Where to shop

Newbury Street. In the Back Bay area, this is the city’s most famous shopping district. The street has a lovely old-world feel yet is home to all the top stores. And don’t forget about Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market (www.faneuilhall marketplace.com). Faneuil Hall is busier today than when it began, in 1742. The market is not just about buying good meat, fish and other produce but is also a great place to try food. It has a craft market, too, for jewellery, clothes, accessories and giftware. You will also find unusual New England crafts. The experience is livened up by street performers with music, juggling, comedy and more.

Finally

For discounted entry to many of the top local attractions, try the Boston Citypass (www.citypass.com/boston) and Go Boston Card (www.smartdestinations.com/boston).