America’s cradle of liberty is the perfect place to begin an autumn cruise along the maritime coasts of New England and Canada.
If fall is the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” as poet John Keats once wrote, there’s no better way to harvest its beauty than from the deck of a cruise ship. After all, this is the season when tree-lined bays explode into a kaleidoscope of colour, and the picturesque ports of maritime towns are bathed in golden sunlight.
With Keats’s vision in mind, we boarded our ship in New Jersey for our 10-day cruise along the maritime coasts of New England and Canada, and arrived the next morning in historic Boston.
Settled by English Puritans in 1630, Boston quickly became a prosperous port with its own system of participatory self-government. In fact, over the next 140 years the local citizens acquired a substantial voice in their own government, and acquired more liberties than their counterparts enjoyed across the pond in London.
As a result, when England’s kings tried to increase a variety of taxes and restrict local freedoms, it provoked violent protests, including the famous “Boston Tea Party” in 1773 that lit the fuse for rebellion throughout the American colonies a few years later.
Many of the people, places and stories that gave birth to America’s independence can be found along Boston’s Freedom Trail, which is a three-mile stretch of sidewalk marked with red brick and paint. The trail begins at Boston Common, winds through Beacon Hill and Old Boston, and eventually concludes at Bunker Hill in Charlestown.
The autumn sun was just beginning to cast a golden hue across the city’s historic spires as my wife Gail and I began our tour from America’s oldest public park.
Since 1634, Boston Common has served a variety of roles including as a British army camp, cow pasture, town gallows, and gathering place for public celebrations like the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1765. At the edge of the park, we found a beautiful bronze relief sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens depicting Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment marching down Beacon Street on May 28, 1863.
Just opposite the park on Beacon Street, we discovered the 18th-century Massachusetts State House, whose beautiful gilded dome is one of the city’s most prized landmarks. The Beacon Hill area is filled with grand-looking mansions and townhouses, many designed by architect Charles Bulfinch in the classic Federal style of symmetrical brick facades and shuddered windows set in recessed arches.
While the houses are beautiful, many tourists come to the area just to visit the pub at 84 Beacon Street that inspired the television series “Cheers.” It’s what brought us to the neighbourhood, and we enjoyed soaking up the atmosphere in the original set bar upstairs where Sam, Coach, Carla and Norm used to hold court.
After having a pint in Cheers, we retraced our steps past Boston Common to “Brimstone Corner” at the intersection of Park and Tremont streets.
Brimstone Corner is the nickname for Park Street Church, the place of worship that Henry James once called “the most interesting mass of bricks and mortar” in America. Designed by English architect Peter Banner, the early 19th-century church didn’t get its nickname for its fire and brimstone sermons. Rather, the name came from the gunpowder that was stored in the building’s crypt during the War of 1812 (brimstone being one of the key ingredients of gunpowder).
After exploring the church, we walked past the Old Granary Burying Ground where a number of Boston’s most famous patriots are buried including Paul Revere, John Hancock and Samuel Adams. And just a few blocks away in the old quarter of Boston, we discovered several more historic buildings including the 18th-century King’s Chapel, the Old Corner Book Store where some of America’s finest early authors used to gather, and the Old South Meeting House where the Boston Tea Party began.
Built in 1729 for Puritan religious services, the simple brick church soon became colonial Boston’s favourite place for town meetings because it could hold more people than any other building in the city. During a protest meeting there on December 16, 1773, Samuel Adams gave the signal for his band of raiders to make for Griffin’s Wharf and toss all the tea into the harbour from the British merchant ship Dartmouth. Today the church houses a museum, as well a gift shop offering a variety of merchandise including tins of “Boston Tea Party” tea.
By now we were getting hungry, so we made our way past Anne Whitney’s famous statue of Samuel Adams outside of Faneuil Hall and into Boston’s Blackstone Block.
The “block” contains a handful of narrow alleys from the 17th century and some of the city’s oldest commercial buildings, including a structure built in 1714 that is now home to the Olde Union Oyster House. The Olde Union has occupied the house since 1826, making it the oldest continuously operated restaurant in America.
We sat at the restaurant’s mahogany oyster bar near the front windows, where Daniel Webster was once a regular customer and would usually consume three dozen oysters and several tumblers of liquor during a single meal. Since we still had to find our way back to the ship, we opted for a single glass of beer, a dozen oysters and some Boston Scrod.
As we only had a few hours left after lunch before our cruise ship would depart at 6:00 pm, we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon on a trolley tour in order to see as much as we could. While many of the city’s historic sites in the Old Boston section are located on narrow streets that the trolley can’t reach, we were able to hop on and off in a number of spots. In addition, the trolley is a good way to get out to the Charlestown section of the trail across the river from Downtown Boston to see Bunker Hill and one of America’s first naval ships, the U.S.S. Constitution.
While Boston is a compact city that lends itself to walking tours, we sadly discovered that it’s impossible to see all of its major attractions in a single day. But as we walked along the city’s historic market area in the retreating afternoon sun, we agreed we’d already seen enough to know that America’s cradle of liberty still shines brightly.