Welcome to the third and final part of the 2016 instalment of my occasional Brian’s Travel Spot series. Part I saw me flying out to Newark and sauntering around New York for a couple of days before heading down to Philadelphia. Part II covered my time in Philadelphia, Washington DC and my brief return to New York as I swung back north.
Part III sees me back in New England, where I started my coast-to-coast trip in June last year. I had a day in Providence, which I first visited last year and, like Philadelphia, has a great, unsung coffee scene. From there it was on to Boston for the end of my trip, before flying home. As I did last June, I flew with British Airways, while all internal travel was on Amtrak, a great way to travel in the US if you’re not in any particular hurry.
Highlights of this leg of the trip were discovering more of Providence, which, as well as having an excellent coffee scene, is a lovely, historic city, and seeing Boston’s speciality coffee scene finally starting to take off with three really excellent places opening in Downtown Boston in the last 12 months.
- Thursday, 18th February: Providence
- Friday, 19th to Monday 22nd February: Westborough
- Monday 22nd February: Back to Boston
- Tuesday 23rd February: Boston
- Wednesday 24th– Thursday 25th February: Boston, The Last Two Days
- Thursday 25th February: The Flight Back
- Friday 26th February: Getting Home
Thursday, 18th February: Providence
That I ever went to Providence in the first place is all down to Allison and her fiancé Chris, as I told in the first-ever Travel Spot. On this trip, since I was starting in Newark, flying out from Boston and travelling around by Amtrak, I knew I’d passing through Providence, so I was determined to call in and see Allison and Chris (particularly as I’d not met Chris on my first visit). I also wanted to spend more time in Providence itself, which is a beautiful, historic city and, compared to most of the big, east coast cities, on a much smaller, more manageable scale. As it turned out, I couldn’t have picked a better day.
A common theme throughout this trip has been the weather. On my last visit to the Boston/New York/DC area, this time last year, I’d flown into Boston with a day-time high of -15⁰C and flown out two weeks later from DC with the temperatures around 20⁰C. In contrast, this trip saw me going south into ever-colder temperatures, while my return north saw things, perversely, getting warmer. Providence bucked this trend by dawning bright (I didn’t see a cloud all day) but cold, at -1⁰C, perfect weather for me to go exploring.
On my previous visit, Allison had acted as host and chauffeur, driving me around on a wet and thoroughly miserable June day, but this time both she and Chris had to work, so I was left to my own devices. Armed only with a (very long) list of coffee shops provided by Chris, I hoisted my pack for the third consecutive day and set off to explore.
Although my hosts live directly above Coffee Exchange, that morning I’d finally published my piece on The Shop, one of the highlights of my previous visit. It’s just up the road from Coffee Exchange and since I rarely get to visit a place on the day I write about it, I headed there for breakfast, basking in the early morning sun while sitting at the window bar. Suitably fortified I headed up hill to the part of town known as College Hill and home of Brown University, although this part of Providence is indelibly associated in my head with HP Lovecraft after my walking tour over a decade ago. It is a very beautiful part of the city, full of large, free-standing Victorian buildings.
Second stop of the day was Blue State Coffee on Thayer Street, a curious mix of college coffee shop and third wave café, a great example of speciality coffee by stealth. It was also, other than the ones I’d been making for myself, where I had my first Aeropress of the trip. After that, it was all downhill (literally!) as I headed west and across the river to the centre of downtown Providence. Having realised that I would never get anywhere near visiting all the places on Chris’ list, I decided to limit myself to just two more coffee shops, the first of which was Bolt Coffee, inside the lobby of the Dean Hotel, a lovely setting if ever there was one, very classy and relaxed.
From there, I wandered back through the city centre, itself full of some lovely old buildings, none more so that my final stop of the day, New Harvest Coffee & Spirits, located inside America’s oldest indoor shopping mall. Known as the Arcade Providence, this National Historic Landmark was built in 1828 and is still in use today. I actually visited New Harvest when I was last in Providence, but that was also at the end of a (very long) day, so I only stopped for a quick coffee. On this trip, I had deliberately left myself more time.
Finally, it was time to leave and make my way to Providence’s Amtrak station for the short train ride up to Boston. In contrast to some of the lovely stations that had graced my trip, Providence station (with the lovely backdrop of the Rhode Island State House) was built in 1986. While not as visually appealing as the likes of Washington DC’s Union station or Philadelphia’s 30th Street station, it’s definitely a step or two up in looks and functionality compared New York’s Penn Station (or, indeed, my destination, Boston’s Back Bay).
Friday, 19th to Monday 22nd February: Westborough
The final weekend of my trip was also spent hanging out with friends, this time in Boston. Only, of course, it wasn’t Boston, it was Westborough, a small town due west of Boston, about as far out from Boston as Centerville is from Washington DC. And, incidentally, roughly due north of Providence and not that much further away.
However, since I was travelling on public transport, this meant first heading into Boston by Amtrak, then going back out to Westborough on the commuter rail, effectively travelling along two sides of a triangle. This then turned into a slightly more interesting journey than planned due to a day-long signalling system failure at Boston’s South Station. The train from Providence was fine, but my commuter rail train was cancelled. Fortunately, the previous train was delayed, so I caught that instead and arrived on time.
The weekend was an annual event that draws together friends from all over the place, including my friend Marc, from Chicago. Naturally, Marc lives about as close to Chicago as Westborough is to Boston and, incidentally, about as far as Guildford is from London, which perhaps explains why a lot of my US friends think I’m from London… Anyway, Marc brought coffee, which he always does (Marc was the friend I stayed with in “Chicago” on my coast-to-coast trip last year, when we roasted some green beans in a frying pan).
As a result, I ended up as the designated coffee maker, a role I’m very happy with except that I only had my Aeropress with me. As anyone who has tried making coffee for four people with an Aeropress knows, this is a long, slow process… So, we popped out to the local Target to buy a cafetiere (or French Press in the local lingo), which was an excellent investment of $20.
While we were out, we called into a local coffee shop, which, for fear of embarrassing it, shall remain nameless. It’s the sort of place I ought to like: it roasts all its own coffee, including plenty of single-origins, but like many American roasters, it roasts everything a shade (or three) too dark for my liking. Worse, however, was to come.
We’d been sent out to get some lattes, a couple of our party hankering after milky espresso drinks. The barista duly made two lattes which I took back to the car. Fortunately, I took the lid off one before we drove off: it had lumps in it! A sniff and a quick taste were enough to establish that the milk had gone off. I took them back in and the barista changed them without question, but I can’t help wondering how someone can steam milk that is clearly off and then use it to make two drinks without even noticing… The barista couldn’t even use the excuse that the shop was busy: we were the only customers there at the time.
Fortunately, that was the only mishap of an otherwise extremely enjoyable weekend. It also serves to remind me that, coffee-wise, I live in a bubble of very high-quality coffee shops, with some amazing baristas, serving me excellent-quality coffee on a consistent basis. It does me good to stick my head outside of the bubble every now and then to remind me of that fact…
The weather inversion continued, by the way, with Westborough providing me with the warmest weather of the trip at my most northerly point. It got up to a positively-mild 10⁰C on the Sunday. Mind you, this was a distinct improvement over the -15⁰C I experienced when I was in the area this time last year!
By Monday morning the heatwave was over and it was time for me to head into Boston for the final leg of my trip.
Monday 22nd February: Back to Boston
It seems fitting to me that I ended my trip with three days in Boston, where I started my coast-to-coast trip detailed in the original Brian’s Travel Spot back in June last year. Normally when I’m in Boston, I stay at the Chandler Inn hotel on the border between Back Bay and the South End, a lovely part of the city, just west of the centre. However, due to budgetary constraints, this year I moved down the street a little to 40 Berkeley Hostel. I felt bad about this because I’ve stayed in the Chandler Inn since 2012 and never had a problem there: it’s a great hotel. However, for the price of one night in the Chandler Inn, I could afford three nights in the hostel…
I had my misgivings though, especially over the shared bathroom (there were no single, en-suite rooms), but my fears were misplaced. The hostel was excellent and while the facilities were basic, they were all that I needed. The shared bathrooms were clean, as was the hostel itself, while my room was large and had a really good desk (something that is often lacking in far more expensive hotels). There was no TV (but I can’t remember the last time I watched TV in a hotel), but, in contrast to my hotel in Philadelphia, it had working heating and excellent Wifi (something else sadly lacking from many more expensive hotels), so I was perfectly happy!
At the end of last summer’s coast-to-coast trip, I arrived in my final destination, Seattle, and was surprised to discover that I had plenty of energy left. Whether this was because Seattle was a (relatively) new city to me, I don’t know, but it was very unexpected: normally, at the end of a long trip, I’m very tired and start to slow down, which was exactly what happened when I got to Boston, making my time there rather low key…
However, it was a gloriously sunny day when I arrived, and with the forecast looking rather poor for the rest of the week, I roused myself. After calling in on my favourite South End go-to spot, Render Coffee, I set off for a walk. I really like the South End (one of the reasons I keep staying here). It feels like a real place, where people live, although what the reality is, I don’t know. I suspect that the gorgeous brick-built Victorian row houses are prohibitively expensive.
It’s bordered on its northern edge by Back Bay, the two separated by the long, thin South West Corridor Park, a good alternative to walking along the busy Columbus Avenue. It goes all the way out to Forest Hills at the end of the Orange Line and, one day, I’ll walk out there to explore, but on this particular day I was heading the other way, my ultimate aim to end up in the North End for dinner via The Public Garden, Boston Common and downtown.
I’ve always found Boston a rewarding city for wandering around, very different from the regular grids and massive scale of the likes of New York City, or the monumental splendour of Washington DC (although since I’ve explored its coffee shops, I’ve found a new side to DC). Instead Boston feels much more organic, less planned and, dare I say it, (slightly) more European.
As it was, I was rewarded on this walk by a glorious sunset over Boston Common, an even more glorious moonrise over the airport/harbour and then dinner in one of my favourite spots, The Daily Catch. This is a fish restaurant on Hannover Street, which has an open kitchen in a tiny space that many coffee shops might find too small! On my way back to the hostel I may have accidentally wandered into Mike’s Pastry (also on Hannover Street) and spent my last $2 on a ricotta-filled cannoli.
If I had (and I admit nothing) it would have gone down very well with my constant evening companion, an Aeropress of Extract Coffee Roasters’ Finca Las Flores decaf from Mexico, which I made when I returned to the hostel.
You can see what I got up to in my last three days in Boston, starting with Tuesday, after the gallery.
Tuesday 23rd February: Boston
On my way to Render Coffee the previous afternoon, I’d passed my favourite Boston breakfast spot, the venerable Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe. Early in 2015, I’d heard that it had closed down, but I didn’t want to believe it without seeing it with my own eyes. Sure enough, when I came over in June to start my coast-to-coast trip, I found Charlie’s closed up, although sounds of construction emanated from deep inside. Peeking through a gap in the window, the interior looked gutted and I stopped believing that the closure might be temporary.
I should have had more faith! When I walked by on Monday afternoon, there was Charlie’s, looking just as it had always done! What I’d witnessed in June was part of an 18-month refurbishment, involving completely gutting and refitting the interior. For this, we have to thank local chef, Evan Deluty, who took on the business when the previous owners, the Manjourides family, retired at the end of 2014. The refurbishment complete, Charlie’s reopened at the end of January. Naturally, I had to go in for breakfast.
What’s impressive is that, despite the complete refit, Charlie’s looks and feels just like it used to, right down to the breakfast menu. Of course, creature of habit that I am, I had to have my usual, two poached eggs on wheat toast, with home fries and a griddle cake on the side. You can read all about it and what I thought of the new Charlie’s in the Coffee Spot Update I published the following day.
Suitably fortified, I set off for a day’s Coffee Spotting. My first stop was near Boston’s South Station, an area revitalised by Boston’s Big Dig, a 15-year construction project to put the elevated I-93 highway that ran right through downtown Boston into a 3.5 mile-long tunnel. As a regular visitor at the end of the 1990s and early 2000s, I-93 was an eyesore as well a literal pain in the ears as it thundered through the city, cutting off the North End and waterfront from downtown. When I returned in 2010, after more than six years away, it was mercifully gone and Boston, east of downtown, was a whole new city.
I was aiming for Gracenote, a coffee shop on the corner of Tufts and Lincoln, not far from the point where I-93 goes underground as it heads north through Boston (or is that not far from the point where I-93 emerges after travelling south under Boston?). I already knew Gracenote as a roaster, enjoying its coffee at the likes of Render, but this was its first coffee shop. Although it had only opened at the end of 2015, several people had told me that I needed to visit.
Gracenote has Boston’s first Modbar espresso system, one of only 10 in the USA (so I’ve been told). I’ve managed to see four of these, three of them on this trip (Slipstream and Compass Coffee in Washington DC, Double Knot in Philadelphia and this one). I’d planned on a brief visit before pushing on, but I ended up staying for a couple of hours, despite the fact there are no seats! I spent my time chatting with the staff and a very engaging customer, a local contra-dance musician, whose name I totally failed to ask, all the time trying to take photographs while crowds of people came and went, the queue often reaching the door.
By the time I left, it was fairly late (I’d not exactly started early) and what will I had to go charging around Boston had dwindled. Boston’s speciality coffee scene is that it’s still quite geographically diverse, particularly across the river in Cambridge, so quite a bit of travelling is involved. Instead, I stayed downtown, calling into Sip, a lovely, sunny spot on Post Office Square, for coffee and a bagel (I find when I breakfast at Charlie’s, lunch becomes optional!) before venturing into a coffee shop that shall remain nameless.
Part of a small chain, it very much talked the talk, but failed to walk the walk. After noting that several single-origins were available as pour-overs, I asked was in the hopper for the espresso machine. “Espresso beans, duh!” was the reply, delivered with all the dismissiveness that the “duh!” implies. Needless to say, I left shortly thereafter.
Instead, I wandered around downtown until sunset (sadly it was cloudy, so there was no repeat of either the previous day’s glorious sunset or its amazing moonrise). On my way, I stopped at the New England Holocaust Memorial. A sobering place at the best of times, it was particularly poignant given a certain US presidential hopeful who is busy demonising people by race and religion…
On that slightly depressing note, I’ll leave you. You can see what I got up to during my final two days of the trip after the gallery.
Wednesday 24th– Thursday 25th February: Boston, The Last Two Days
My last two days in Boston were very low-key. The forecast for Wednesday was rain, which duly arrived. I’d arranged to meet with a couple of friends and to spend the day hiding from the bad weather at Boston’s Museum of Fine Art, a world-class art gallery and museum on Huntington Avenue. Fortunately for me, the route there took me past both Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe (breakfast) and Render (coffee) so I was well set for the day.
The museum itself was, as always, amazing and even though I was there for something like seven hours, I saw only a fraction of what was on display. That evening I met up with another friend for dinner before being driven back to the hostel in the rain (I’d have been soaked if I’d walked).
On my final day in Boston, I’d arranged to meet with yet another friend, who works for Google in its offices in Cambridge. He’d invited me over for lunch and my original plan had been to go out to Cambridge in the morning, catch a Coffee Spot or two, then call in at Google’s offices by Kendall Square on the way back downtown.
However, as regular readers will know, mornings and I don’t mix. This was particularly true that last morning in Boston since I’d stayed up until three o’clock the previous night finishing that day’s Coffee Spot (New York’s Sweetleaf). I was just about to go to bed when an almighty thunderstorm rolled in. Figuring I wouldn’t get much sleep anyway, I’d stayed up for another hour, doing my packing.
So by the time I got up on Thursday morning, I only really had time to get to Kendall Square, lunch suddenly morphing (for me) into brunch. So, for the fifth time on the trip, I hauled my pack onto my back and set off (I could have left it at the hostel, but didn’t want the bother of coming back out to the South End to collect it, only to then have to retrace my steps to get to the airport). In contrast to the previous day’s rain, it was lovely out, so I chose to walk, enjoying a stroll through the Public Garden and along the Charles River before crossing over the Longfellow Bridge which pretty much deposited me at Google.
Google’s offices were something of a revelation. To start with, there’s a full, self-service restaurant, where everything is free for staff (and their guests!): you just help yourself! Knowing that I wouldn’t be eating until fairly late on the plane that evening, I made the most of the opportunity and stuffed myself. However, the best was yet to come as my friend took me up to the top of the building, where there’s a roof-top café.
In typical Google style, this is hipster coffee heaven. The beans were from Gracenote, the Alpha blend and a single-origin on espresso, joined by three more single-origins on pour-over. The espresso machine, by the way, was a Slayer with a transparent casing! Once again, everything was free and, resisting the temptation to drink ALL THE COFFEE, I restricted myself to a flat white. As you may have guessed, I didn’t want to leave, but my friend had to get back to work (and had to escort me off the premises, otherwise I really was tempted to stay!).
From there, I jumped on the Red Line to downtown Boston, where I had two more calls to make before getting the Blue Line out to the airport. My first stop was Ogawa, a Japanese chain which had opened in Boston the previous year. At the top end of Milk Street, near its junction with Washington Street, this is Ogawa’s first branch outside Japan and it’s delightful. All the coffee is roasted in Japan and airfreighted over, which must make it expensive to run, but despite this, I thought it was quite reasonably priced. I was undecided what to have until I saw the single-origin tasting flight, which allows you to try Ogawa’s three single-origins side-by-side. Well, that’s not something you get to do every day, so I spent a very happy hour at the back of the store, sitting at the brew bar, drinking and talking coffee with the very friendly and knowledgeable staff.
My final stop of the day, and of the trip, was in the nearby Boston Public Market, an indoor version of a farmers’ market, reserved for local producers. The market opened just last year and contains, amongst its many stalls, one belonging to George Howell, a well-respected and long-standing third-wave roaster, who roasts in nearby Acton (thus qualifying as a local producer). I say stall, but this is a large, well-equipped coffee counter, serving a full range of espresso and filter coffee. Fittingly, this is where I had my last coffee of the trip, a single-origin Kenyan espresso.
Then it was time to hoist the pack once again and head off to Logan Airport…
You can read about my flight home after the gallery.
Thursday 25th February: The Flight Back
It’s now almost four weeks since I flew back from the US, although I actually wrote a good chunk of this post while I was sitting in Gordon Ramsey’s restaurant in Heathrow Terminal 5, waiting for my connecting flight to Manchester, which wasn’t to leave for another 2½ hours.
It’s very rare that I fly out of the same airport that I fly into when I go to the US. I suspect that the last time I did it was on one of my trips out to Chicago, which was at least five years ago. Since I fly into Boston more often than anywhere else, this means it’s pretty rare that I fly out of Boston, so I’d forgotten just how ludicrously long it takes to get from the Airport stop on the Blue Line to the actual terminal using the shuttle bus (just under half an hour). Fortunately, I’d done what I very rarely do, and turned up at the airport with bags of time to spare. Probably something to do with having a 9.30 flight in the evening…
Anyway, having 2½ hours to kill in airports seems to be a theme of this post, so I used the time to good effect by writing four postcards before going through security (coincidentally, the same number of US stamps I had left to use). Logan’s improved a lot since the last time I flew out of there and getting on the plane was a relatively painless process, particularly compared to previous trips, where I remember nightmare queues at security and precious few airside facilities. How things have changed!
Another surprise was waiting for me when I boarded the plane. It was a Boeing 747. Now, I haven’t flown on a 747 in a very long time. In fact, my very first transatlantic flight, back in 1998, was on a 747 and things have moved on a lot since then. There was nothing wrong with the plane, but given the choice I’d prefer a 777 or 787. The seats on the 747 felt that little bit narrower than the 777 I flew out on (on the other hand, the flight out was one third full, so the seat next to me was empty; my flight back was almost full and maybe I was more noticing that the seat next to me had someone in it for once, particularly as this guy had surprisingly wide arms…).
I didn’t manage to get my normal exit row seat, but instead I went one better and got the aisle seat in the middle row by the divider between World Traveller and Club Class. This gave me the leg room (if not the arm room!) I needed, with the bonus of not costing me an extra £51… Normally these seats end up being reserved for families with small children, but there didn’t seem to be any children at all in economy on this flight.
The other major (potential) draw back with the 747 was a lack of at-seat power in economy. I’ve been spoilt flying in modern 777/787s in recent years, but as it turned out, the lack of power wasn’t an issue. We had ridiculous tail winds and crossed the Atlantic in just over 5½ hours, easily the fastest I’ve ever done it. My old laptop might have struggled, but my new one still had a good chunk of battery left when it was time to put it away for landing.
It was, in many ways, a very strange flight. I didn’t make any coffee, largely because there were constant warnings of turbulence, so we spent most of the flight with the seat-belt signs on. During the couple of short stretches they were off, I was too busy getting up and stretching my legs to be worrying about getting my coffee gear out, fetching hot water from the galley and so on. Plus, in the back of my mind was the thought that I’d get half way through just as we ran into some bad turbulence. Not a good scenario when you’re juggling containers full of hot water!
As it happened, despite other aircraft ahead of us reporting bad turbulence, we hardly encountered any, for which I’m grateful. In the end, I had a very smooth and quick flight, landed at Heathrow early, breezed through passport control and security, then had 3½ hours to kill because I’d left plenty of time between my flights in case there were delays… Which is how I ended up having breakfast with Gordon Ramsey…
You can find out how I got on on the final leg of my journey after the gallery.
Friday 25th February: Getting Home
My time at Heathrow went relatively quickly and before long I was getting on an A319 back to Manchester where I’d started my journey almost three weeks before. While the flight from Boston had been pretty full, this one was absolutely packed. In fact, as far as I could tell, there were only two unoccupied seats on the entire flight. And, bizarrely, they were next to me.
I’d managed to nab the aisle seat on the exit row, but both the other seats were empty, so I was asked by the cabin crew to sit by the window (ie, by the emergency exit), a sensible precaution if we did need to get out in a hurry. However, this meant that I had the novelty experience of flying next to the window and of having plenty of room to stretch out. I’d forgotten how nice the views can be and, fortunately it wasn’t cloudy, hence all the pictures in the gallery.
The flight itself was uneventful and before long (about 35 minutes to be precise) we were on our final approach to Manchester. Again, getting off the plane was a breeze and, for the second time on the trip, my bag was one of the first on the carousel. In fact, I think I spent longer walking from the terminal to the train station, than I did between getting off the plane and picking up my bag!
On the way out I went via Crewe, but on the way back, I decided to go via Manchester Piccadilly. The only problem with this route is that the trains to North Wales are only once an hour, so if you miss one, you have a while to wait. On the other hand, an hour is just about enough time to sneak out of the station to the Idle Hands pop-up for a leisurely flat white and a chat before catching my train.
So, that was it. I rolled up at my parents’ house mid-afternoon and I was back. After almost three weeks, seven cities and 32 Coffee Spots, my trip was over. Five of those Coffee Spots are already published (The Shop, Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe, Sweetleaf, Jackson Avenue, Northerly Coffee and Ox Coffee) but you’ll have to wait for the rest of them. I’ll be publishing them over the course of the year, although I still have a bunch of places from my US trip in 2015 that I want to get out!
Thanks for staying with me to the end of the trip. I hope you enjoyed it!
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