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 By: Richard C. Ross

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St Louis' Gateway Arch from the train

Our Out and About in St Louis article is also featured online at Amtrak.com!

Travel Tips






I have become convinced -- like many others (at least judging by the sheer numbers of travelers I have seen)-- that traveling by train is preferable to taking a plane.  And I know what you're going to say, because I have heard the arguments many times regarding issues like extended travel times.  All I can say is, if time is that important to you, then by all means... fly.  But done in the proper manner -- and by that I mean making detailed travel plans -- travel by rail is far more fun and relaxing; it is certainly far less hassle...

In another article I mentioned the fact that travel is not so much about the destination as it is about the journey, which is likely why I like going places by rail: the journey from here to there always takes me to and through places which I otherwise would never have seen.  And let's face it, getting from point "A" to point "B" is much easier than it has ever been, but... getting to point A and from point B is, shall we say, a horse of a different color.  And whether traveling by plane or by train, that's the part where planning becomes really important.  The details of getting from Batavia, IL to Union Station in Chicago -- frugally -- can be found here (if you'd like to read them).  The real story starts here...

My wife and I departed Batavia on a Thursday afternoon for a weekend trip to Boston via Amtrak.  It was to be our fourth trip by rail and, although probably not yet considered as veteran rail-riders, we are -- as far as I'm concerned -- pretty savvy when it comes to Amtrak.  Having never been to Boston was as good a reason as any for me, especially when I considered the seafood available there.  But a bigger reason was the existence in me of a burgeoning desire to know and understand more of our country's history.  A grand departure indeed this was from my attitude on the subject during both high school and college, when just the thought of a class in American History was enough to send me instantly into a sound sleep.  But after a recent trip to Kentucky ("It's the Water - Part IV") and a brief stop stop in Perryville to visit the site of a bloody Civil War site, and another trip to Springfield, where we toured the Lincoln Museum, a growing thirst for knowledge of just how we got to our present "condition" has developed.  Boston and its well-known Freedom Trail seemed like a great destination to help slake that thirst.

Save On Airport Parking

This time we decided to go for the higher level of accommodations on Amtrak and, after planning way in advance and noting a fairly good deal on a Viewliner-class sleeper car, we booked our trip on the Lakeshore Limited train.  Each route has its own style of service, "quirks" and accommodations.  I would have preferred the type of car -- a Superliner -- that is found on the California Zephyr that makes the run to California (Superliners have an upper level and a very spacious and comfortable observation car), but ours was really nice, and included fairly roomy space for two with upper and lower sleeping berths, as well as our very own lavatory and shower.  It's definitely a more expensive way to travel, but well worth it; the privacy and quiet are unbeatable and all meals by the way, are included when you secure a room in a sleeping car.  They are, by comparison, far superior to what is served in first class on an airplane!  Our trip, which didn't leave Chicago until almost 9:30 pm, included wine, cheese and crackers to start and breakfast, lunch and dinner the following day.  Alcoholic beverages are available but not included; all juices, coffee and milk however, are.

I will say that of all our trips thus far, the best scenery has been on the California Zephyr trip to the west coast, with the most outstanding views available from the observation car and occurring between Denver, Colorado and Emeryville, California.  The route to Boston could be rated as about a six or seven out of ten; even though we skirted the southern end of Lake Michigan, followed the entire southern shore of Lake Erie and briefly touched a portion of Lake Ontario -- a route that I would have thought to have been loaded with picturesque vistas -- what I mostly saw was a lot of swamp and marsh.  I didn't mind; it was green and serene, and someone else was doing the driving!  At Albany-Rensselaer, New York, the train was split.  The back portion acquired another engine and headed south to Hudson, Poughkeepsie and eventually New York City, while the front half (with our car) continued on to Boston.  Passing not far from Fenway Park and a Red Sox game arrived on-time in Boston at the South Bay station on Friday evening; it was warm and almost summer-like and the streets were jammed with people.

We had planned our trip so as not to need a car, as we would either walk or use the public transportation available to us.  Besides, Boston is pretty much known as a walking city.  Our destination was the Hilton Hotel, located in the heart of the financial district not more than a leisurely 15-minute walk from the train station and only minutes from Boston harbor and the waterfront.  It was also very close to many points on the Freedom Trail -- a path, according to the www.TheFreedomTrail.org website "where you can take in the rich history of Americas Revolution  the events that led up to the historic break from Britain and the brave people who shaped our national government."  It is a total of about two-and-a-half miles of walking and incorporates sixteen sites of historic significance. 

Mid-May is usually a great time for excursions to any destination, simply because there are fewer tourists/smaller crowds.  In this case, the summer months might be better -- albeit far busier -- as more tours are available, led and narrated by guides dressed in colorful eighteenth century/colonial garb.  Ticket prices depend on the tour selected and can cost anywhere from $6 to as much as $45. The nice part is that one can create an individual tour of one's own -- for free -- and start at any location on the trail to visit museums, churches, meeting houses, burying grounds, parks, and read historic markers that tell the story of the American Revolution.  The costumed tour guides are great, but if groups are large, it's often hard to hear everything.  We chose the self-guided style because we could take our time.

We visited all of the sixteen sites (and a few more), following the red brick path from Boston Commons to the USS Constitution in the Boston Navel Shipyard.  The difficult thing is trying to visualize the Boston of 1770 while standing in the Boston of 2010.  But the echoes of Revolution still ring, especially in front of the Old State House.  Seat of British Government before the Revolution, the Declaration of Independence was read to the people of Boston from the buildings balcony on 4 July 1776.  Just outside is a memorial to the five men who lost their lives there in 1770 in what is now known as the Boston Massacre. 

Another favorite of mine was the home of Paul Revere.  Who doesn't know the name of the silversmith and father who heard his calling on 18 April 1775.  In a time of great need, he stealthily crossed the Charles River by boat, borrowed a horse and headed for Lexington to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock that the Redcoats were on their way there to arrest them.  After completing that task, he and Charles Dawes, a young shoemaker who had been sent on the same mission along a different route, headed on to Concord (New Hampshire) to warn the residents that British troops were headed there as well, to seize the town's supply of arms.  Revere warned everyone he could between Charlestown and Lexington, but I can only imagine the thoughts running through his head as he was ultimately captured by the British before reaching Concord.  Luckily, the plan ultimately involved three men (Revere and Dawes were joined by a third rider, Dr. Samuel Prescott of concord) involved and Concord was warned in time...

North Church stands today stately, quiet and  reverent.  During our visit, we were told that the trip up into the belfry where the two signal lanterns were hung, indicating the British planned to head for Concord "by sea" (across the Charles River) is over two hundred feet and very treacherous toward the top.  Just looking at the steeple makes me believe that whomever hung the lanterns was as brave as Revere himself.

Perhaps the site that most moved me was the monument erected just across the Charles River on Breed's Hill (actually Breed's Hill is a bit lower than Bunker's Hill and is the actual place where the familiar and bloody battle took place; after the Colonials retreated, the British pursued them only as far as Bunker's Hill and dug in there).  A British gunship pounded the hill for six solid hours with 24-pound cannon balls prior to the initial charge by the Redcoats.  When it was all over, the British had control of Bunker's Hill... but we had proven to a more disciplined and better-equipped army that America was up to the task of fighting for, and ultimately winning, its freedom. 

As I mentioned earlier, we visited all sixteen historical sites, and I certainly don't want to give the impression that the ones I mentioned were the best -- only the ones that impacted me the most.  The final resting places for Paul Revere, Ben Franklin, Samuel Adams, John Hancock and many other figures that played a prominent role in the birth of a free nation are there to see; there are churches, buildings and businesses that date back to the seventeenth century; the Boston Navel Shipyard -- where hundred of navel vessels were built for our developing Navy -- is a great place to visit the USS Constitution and Museum.  Actually, we barely scratched the surface during our short time in Boston, but I would go back in a heartbeat, as our list of things to see and do only got longer while we were there.

It's not just the history in Boston either...  Restaurants know how to do things right, and there are more of them (be it for breakfast, lunch or dinner) than I have ever seen; we barely scratched the surface in that category either.  The seafood, by the way, is nothing short of outstanding.   Legal Sea Foods  (an exceptional restaurant on Long Wharf) provided an incredible Cioppino, huge and bulging-with-tender-meat Crab Cakes, succulent Lobster Rolls and delicious local Wellfleet oysters -- with a great good balance of creamy sweetness and brine -- that were some of the best I have tasted.  A place called The Barking Crab (a touristy and no-frills place right on the water where you crack lobsters and crabs with a giant rock that sits on the table)  delivered mouth-watering fried Ipswich clams, an excellent filet of fresh swordfish and great-tasting and tender whole lobster, while a stop at the Ye Olde Union Oyster House (in business since 1826, the oldest restaurant in America and favorite venue of John F. Kennedy) served up some mighty tasty Blue Point oysters and shrimp cocktail, washed down with a local brew -- Harbor IPA -- for me and icy glass of Chardonnay for Yvonne after a full morning of walking.  Speaking of tourists, we just had to make a brief stop at the Cheers bar (not the original) for a beer and some calamari.  Were we to have been in Boston any longer, the entire North End had a plethora of places -- all Italian -- that were all calling out: eat here!

As with any excursion, it was, all-too-soon, time to return home.  A last, long walk along the wharf and water front in the breezy and crisp ocean air and a last look back at the Boston skyline put the exclamation point on our trip east.  We took the escalator down one level and an elevator down another level for a ride on the Blue Line subway (as clean and well-maintained as any on which I have ridden) that whisked us under the harbor and over to a waiting shuttle bus that dropped us off at Logan International Airport for the plane-ride back to Chicago.  Boston was a very stimulating and memorable excursion and I plan to find a way to return.  A few parting thoughts: In addition to being steeped in interesting and important history, Boston is very clean and vibrant; the people there are very friendly and helpful, and the food is simply excellent.  Make a plan to go there... soon.  It is a city you will thoroughly enjoy.   







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