After our 6-week trip around Spain (read The End Of A Slow Spanish Summer) in 2015, my wife and I took an extended trip around the USA via Cuba and the Bahamas. We went for 3 months and although that may seem like a long time, when you’re exploring a country the size of the USA, it’s not very much time at all.
One year ago today (3 September), we flew to Boston to begin our adventure. I can’t believe it’s taken me a year to write this series of posts, but it feels like the rime is right and it has also been great fun reliving the experience and sharing the (often differing) memories with my wife.
So, executive decisions were made (often over cocktails) throughout the trip about where to go, how long to stay and what to see until we had a plan which was incredibly exciting. We’d only ever been to New York together before, so we were looking forward to seeing what the rest of this fascinating country was all about.
The first few days of this kind of trip were always going to be strange as we adjusted to being on this adventure. We were staying for a few days in the wonderful Ames Hotel, the city’s first skyscraper, to get the ball rolling and the hotel’s central location was ideal as Boston is such a walkable city.
Labour Day was coming up soon and so there was a lot going on while we were there including a fantastic breakdancing display by some local guys outside Faneuil Hall, a beautiful 18th century building next to which you will also find Quincey Market, one of the better known places for food stalls in the city. Given the holiday atmosphere, there was also a fantastic fireworks display across Boston Harbour.
In addition to San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver, Boston was one of the iconic cities I had always wanted to visit and one of the reasons was the TV show ‘Cheers’ which I had grown up with. Yes, of course, it’s a tourist trap, but one of the things that my wife and I had decided was that we were going to embrace our status as tourists and do the things we had always wanted to do and see.
Walking through this city on a crisp, sunny morning was a lovely thing to do. We enjoyed wandering through the old streets of the Beacon Hill district with its antique shops and brunch opportunities, such as at the incredibly popular Paramount restaurant where we had our first blueberry pancakes of the trip. We always knew that food was going to be an important part of this adventure!
We went to the Bull & Finch, the bar on which ‘Cheers’ had been based and had some ‘world-famous’ Boston clam chowder surrounded by memorabilia. Little did we know that we were going to see a lot of ‘world-famous’ clam chowder and Boston baked beans in bars and restaurants all over the city.
One morning we walked through the Back Bay area where hoards of students were moving into Boston University accommodation. Reminiscent of an autumn scene in New York’s Greenwich Village, we soon found ourselves on lovely Tremont St with its independent shops and cafes and lovely old buildings. The next day we headed over to Little Italy which was absolutely rammed with Labour Day weekend crowds and unfortunately had some dreadful service at a restaurant there, but that’s going to happen from time to time I suppose. However we then got to visit the Paul Revere House round the corner on North Street which more than made up for it.
Harvard University and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) are both based in Cambridge just over the bridge from Boston, so we thought we’d take a walk over to see what it was like. Although we’d never been there before, it was strangely familiar being in Cambridge and especially around the university area as the buildings are so similar to their English counterparts.
We stopped en route for a coffee and found the only place in a city which didn’t offer wi-fi and not because they didn’t have it, but because it was their policy to encourage a more social environment for their customers. It was the first of a few places like this that we would see. For example, in San Francisco a few weeks later, we would come across a coffee house which did not sell espresso, cappuccinos and the ‘usual’ coffee fare, but only ‘pour over’ coffee. It was like the trendier coffee places were going ‘old-school’ by going back to filters.
Boston is a small city with incredibly friendly people and lots to experience and although it may not have been the big city experience that we were expecting, it was an excellent first stop on our trip.
Vermont & New Hampshire
After hiring the first of many cars, we stopped off for petrol, coffee and doughnuts (there seems to be little else on offer for breakfast when you’re on the road) at a station and had our first amusing experience where we were divided by a common language. At the shop there, I asked for coffee with hot milk on the side, but the waitress didn’t seem to understand me. I’m from the south of England between London and Oxford, so have quite a neutral accent, but it wasn’t until I had repeated myself three times and the girl’s supervisor translated ‘hOt’ to ‘hAHt’ that we were served! The joys of travel…
One of the reasons we chose to start the trip on the East Coast was so that we could drive through the gorgeous autumn countryside in Vermont and New Hampshire. Sometimes, visiting places you have only previously seen in TV or films or read about in books really can surpass your expectations.
As well as what must have been a gazillion trees that we saw, we stopped off at Polly’s Pancake Parlor (Sugar Hill, NH) for some of their inevitably world-famous maple syrup and visited the Brick Store, the oldest General Store in the USA in Bath, NH situated next to a lovely covered wooden bridge from 1832.
We passed through Woodstock, VT which was a very pretty village, though not the location of the (in)famous hippy festival. And of course as we were driving though the miles and miles of beautiful scenery brimming with trees, nature and old white churches, we had to listen to a local AOR Rock FM radio station which played bands like the Eagles, Journey and REO Speedwagon making the driving more fun as we would inevitably sing along.
Our next stop was a tiny village called Saxton’s River where we had found an AirBnB for the night. Although we had booked some hotels on the trip, we were also looking forward to a more personal experience and we got it through AirBnb.
Susie and Jack are retired local schoolteachers who rent out a lovely apartment next to their house where they have lived since 1968 though the house itself was built in the 1830s. Jack smiled when I asked him for a key to the apartment saying that keys were not necessary (I guess we were not in the big city any more). Being in Saxton’s River was like one big film moment in that we were in this pretty village surrounded by nature while having dinner that evening on the front porch at the delightfully traditional Saxton’s River Inn on Main Street.
“People come here for a holiday and are cured of something they didn’t know they had with a hug, listening and conversation” Susie & Jack
After a 4-hour drive, our next stop was Cape Cod, MA. As luck would have it, given the end of the holiday weekend, thousands of cars were in queues leaving, so we just waltzed in on an almost empty road which was fun as well as a relief. En route, we had lunch in Falmouth, a cute little place, reminiscent of Twickenham Green in London, although with a couple on the porch of their white wooden house with accompanying stars and stripes, you knew you were in the USA.
One of the biggest surprises of the trip for me was Provincetown, so much so that I’m currently writing a separate post about this place I love. One reason I liked it so much is because we met up with some New York-based friends who we hadn’t seen in a long time. It was so easy seeing them again, as if we had just seen them the day before. It was a nice reminder that although places are important, the most important and most enjoyable factor is the people that we meet on the road. Provincetown is a charming place by the sea and a mecca for artists and gay people, especially in the summer with beaches, bars and shops proudly displaying rainbow flags.
A girl from a bar in Cambridge, MA had recommended trying brussels sprouts in Provincetown , so we thought we’d give it a go. World-famous lobster rolls in a toasted brioche were also on the menu, so we headed to The Canteen to see what all the fuss was about. And what do you know?! If you chargrill brussel sprouts, add fish sauce, chillis and garlic, you get a fantastic dish. Really. Brussels sprouts. Who’d have thought?
We stayed at the lovely Revere House just a stone’s throw from the beach. Provincetown is relaxed with culture, good food, sea, sunshine, clapboard architecture, fiercely independent local businesses and an attractive quirkiness. Without doubt, one of my most favourite places on the entire 3-month trip.
Then we took our time driving down through Cape Cod passing by the lighthouses and beaches in order to get the ferry from Wood’s Hole to Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard.
On arrival, we drove to the other side of the island to Aquinnah restaurant and Native American cultural centre and also visited the famous Gay Head lighthouse point. On the way we passed the wonderfully named Lobsterville Rd.
If you’re familiar with Cornwall in England, then that gives you an idea of what Martha’s Vineyard is like. Edgartown and Vineyard Haven are pretty, chocolate-box-type villages with an abundance of old-world American charm. We even saw a skunk which is a big deal for a townie like myself.
My wife and I shared a lovely moment listening to the Grease soundtrack, one of my American reference points growing up, while we were surrounded by clapboard houses, big cars and American-ness after having just been to the Edgartown Diner on Main Street.
Everybody we had encountered so far had been incredibly polite, helpful and delightfully chatty. A bit strange for someone who has lived in London for 20 years where that really doesn’t happen very often.
The end of our first week in the USA had been incredible and catching the sunset on Herring Cove beach, one of so many beautiful, unspoiled beaches on Martha’s Vineyard, was the perfect way to end this part of the trip.
We got the ferry to the mainland to head back down the East Coast towards New York.
On finishing this post, I realised that I have only covered the first week of our 3-month trip. I’d only planned a series of 6 posts, so let’s see how that works out.