Brian’s Travel Spot: New England & New York

Our hire car, aka "The Tank", which friends of mine hired for the second part of my stay.These posts are, in more ways than one, a first for the Travel Spot. They cover the first trip I made after starting the Coffee Spot (and long before I had the idea of the Travel Spot). Unsurprisingly, while I visited plenty of coffee shops, I didn’t make any notes about the trip itself, so they’re a combination of memories, sparked when I stumbled across my photos from the time.

This post, the first of three, covers the initial part of the trip, which began in late February 2013 when I flew to Boston. I spent a few days in the city before taking various day trips around New England with some friends. Finally, I caught the train down to New York City, where I also spent a few days.

From New York City, I boarded Amtrak’s Adirondack service, which is covered in the next post in this series. This took me through upstate New York and across the Canadian border to my final destination, Montréal, which is covered in the third and final post.

The post is arranged as follows:

You can find out how I got on when I flew to Boston after the gallery.

Unlike my recent Travel Spots, where I can (and do) give you chapter and verse on my actual journey, I have no notes about my flight from London Heathrow to Boston Logan on Monday, 25th February 2013. Indeed, I only have one photo, which is of the plane, although that was enough to bring back a flood of memories.

I was flying from Heathrow (returning there from Montréal at the end of the trip), having booked the flights with British Airways. However, I clearly wasn’t paying attention since my flight out was with American Airlines. I didn’t notice at the time, only realising the day before, when I discovered that my flight left from Terminal 3 (rather than Terminal 5). By then it was far too late to do anything about it and I was, to say the least, not very happy.

Most of my transatlantic flights had, up until that point, been with either British Airways or Virgin Atlantic and I’d enjoyed flying with both airlines. However, I’d been to Chicago with United a few years before and had been less than impressed. This flight, unfortunately, further reinforced my preference for flying with UK carriers. On the plus side, the flight was safe and on time, but the plane was old and poorly equipped. Worst of all, I felt that the service was poor, something I’ve subsequently experienced on quite a few (but not all) American Airlines flights (since then I’ve also flown with Delta, which, of the three large American carriers, is by far my preferred option).

However, the important thing was that I arrived safely and spent the rest of the week exploring Boston. In reality, this only gave me three full days in the city, since I spent the weekend with friends. Although this was my first trip since starting I’d started the Coffee Spot a few months earlier in September 2012, I was already very familiar with the city, having spent five days there on my first visit to the USA in 1998, after which I became a regular visitor.

I’d already explored much of the city, including its main tourist draw, the Freedom Trail, so this trip was mostly about the coffee shops, Although it was the first time I was exploring them with my Coffee Spot hat on, I already had several favourites such as the venerable Caffé Vittoria in the North End, and the legendary diner, Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe.

I stayed in Back Bay/South End, a favourite area of mine, where I spent a lot of my time. Although it was mostly coffee shops, I indulged my love of Impressionist painting with a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts. I also wandered across the Harvard Bridge, and discovered the beach in South Boston, where, depending on which runway is in use, you’ll find yourself under the flight path to Logan Airport.

The weekend was occupied by a large social gathering, after which I joined a couple of friends, who had hired a car, spending the following week on various day trips around New England, which you can read about after the gallery.

  • Our hire car, aka 'The Tank'. At 6'2'', I was only slightly taller than it was!
  • Here it is, next to a normal car and a person for scale!
  • We based ourselves in a motel in Danvers, northeast of Boston. One thing about motels...
  • ... is that you get a lot more room for your money.
  • Our first day trip started at Rockport, with perhaps its most famous building...
  • ... 'Motif #1', reputedly America's most frequently painted building.
  • The view from the other side.
  • Rockport is, of course, a port made of rocks. Here's a reminder of its working heritage...
  • ... and here's an older version, technology-wise.
  • And a reminder that it is still a working port.
  • There is also a beach...
  • ... where some of the houses have unparalleled views of the sea.
  • Next stop, Ipswich Salt Marsh, on the trail of HP Lovecraft.
  • We stopped at a couple of beaches, although I can't remember the name of this one...
  • ... which had this little settlement at the far end.
  • The second beach wasn't far away. I'm pretty sure this is Pavillion Beach...
  • ... which means this way we're looking back towards Great Neck...
  • ... while over there is Little Neck
  • My friends and I, standing on the beach...
  • ... watching the tide come in, with Plum Island in the distance.
  • From there, it was back inland...
  • ... to the town of Ipswich.
  • Our final stop that day was Newburyport, where Highway 1 crosses the Merrimack River.
  • Here's the view looking along the Merrimack estuary towards the sea.
  • ... from where we watched the sun set...
  • ... which is where I'll leave you for the first day.
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The plan was to a hire a small car, which I already knew from personal experience is near to impossible in the US. Nevertheless, we’d reserved the smallest car we could, but when we arrived to pick it up, we were offered an upgrade to an SUV. We politely declined, which was clearly the wrong answer, since we were asked again. After our four or fifth refusal, we were given a free upgrade and taken outside to our vehicle.

It was only a slight exaggeration to say that it was a tank. I now can’t remember what model it was, but it was big. I’m 6’2” and I was only slightly taller than it was. Suffice to say that the three of us, plus all our luggage, easily fitted inside.

With hindsight, our upgrade turned out to be a blessing, since the weather took a turn for the worse and driving a tank with four-wheel drive was a distinct advantage. Visiting New England in late February/early March (which I do on a regular basis) is always something of a lottery when it comes to the weather. I’ve visited during major snowstorms (once the temperature was down to -15°C) while at other times, I’ve sat in the sun in my shirtsleeves. And sometimes it’s been on the same trip!

This time I’d been lucky with the weather in Boston, having one cold but gloriously sunny day (when I went to the beach) and only one foul day (when I went to the Museum of Fine Arts). However, the following week was relentlessly cold and increasingly windy, with snow on Thursday/Friday, when our tank came into its own.

We based ourselves in a motel in Danvers, just northeast of Boston. I won’t say I knew it well, but on previous trips I had explored the area, taking the commuter rail from Boston’s North Station to places like Salem (home of the famous witch trials), Gloucester and Rockport, which is where we started our first day trip.

With a population of under 10,000, Rockport (a port built of rocks at the tip of Cape Ann) is a commuter town with a small artistic community, its numbers swelled by summer tourists. I’ve only been out-of-season though, when it’s a lovely, quiet spot, an ideal getaway. We only stayed a few hours, but in 2001, I stayed for a few days, enjoying walks along the coast and generally chilling (both figuratively and literally!).

From there, we made our way along the coast, stopping at Ipswich Marsh before ending our day at Newburyport, both of which have connections with the stories of HP Lovecraft (particularly The Shadow over Innsmouth, which we listened to as we drove around). We also called into Ipswich itself, where, six years later, Amanda and I visited Little Wolf Coffee.

You can see where we went on our remaining day trips after the gallery.

  • Our second day saw us forsaking the coast and heading for Lexington with its pretty...
  • ... New England church. However, it majors on its...
  • ... Revolutionary War credentials, with structures such as the Buckman Tavern...
  • ... where the Lexington Mililita gathered on April 19th, 1775.
  • The Minuteman Statue stands across the road, with...
  • ... a momument commemorating the battle a short way off on the other side of the green.
  • It's all overlooked by the Old Bellfry on the hill...
  • ... which, historically, has been something of a movable feast.
  • From there, we went to Concord, home of the North Bridge (reconstructed) with...
  • ... the Concord Monument, commemorating the battle on one side...
  • ... and across the bridge on the other side...
  • ... another Minuteman Statute.
  • After that, we retired to a roaring fire for something to eat at the end of our second day.
  • Our third day saw us heading north along the coast. First stop, Ogunquit Beach on a...
  • ... grey, stormy day. This is roughly where Amanda & I reached driving south in 2019.
  • Next stop, Kennebunk and H.B. Provisions...
  • ... for a much-needed coffee break.
  • Even then, I was bringing my own cups!
  • After that, we carried on along the coast...
  • ... stopping briefly at the Bush family's summer home...
  • ... where we watched the waves crashing dramatically on the rocks.
  • Another stop, another beach, another out-of-season town. This time it was...
  • ... Old Orchard Beach in Maine...
  • ... where we stuck to another grey, cold, stormy beach.
  • The final stop was Fort Williams Park just south of Portland...
  • ... and home to the Portland Head Light, an impressive light house...
  • ... on an exposed, rocky headland.
  • There's another lighthouse which is even more exposed...
  • ... right out in the bay.
  • It was getting dark just before we left...
  • ... so the lighthouse sprang to life.
  • There are cliff walks in either direction.
  • We didn't go far, although far enough to get some views from the other side.
  • If you carry on around the headland (we drove!) and look off to the north...
  • ... you can see South Portland/Portland in the distance, where we ended our day.
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The following day we forsook the coast and headed west to Lexington and Concord, famous for their part in the Revolutionary War. Both were interesting, although I think that they will mean more to Americans than to a Brit with an interest in historical accuracy. I’m glad that I’ve visited, but they’re not on high on my list of places to revisit. I suspect that if anything draws me back, it will be a coffee shop!

Our third day was our most adventurous as we drove northeast along the New England coast, picking up where we left off at Newburyport, passing through Portsmouth in New Hampshire before stopping at Ogunquit Beach in Maine. From there, it was on to Kennebunkport and Old Orchard Beach, sticking as close to the coast as we could.

Our final stop was Fort Williams Park and the Portland Head Light before reaching Portland at dusk, a city I’ve now become much more familiar with after a visit in 2015 and several last year. The coastline is, in places, stunning, particularly with the wind driving some impressive waves at various stops along the way. It was partly this drive that inspired Amanda and I to do (much of) the route in reverse when we drove from Portland to Boston in August 2019.

We dined in Portland, then drove back along I-95 in the dark, which was far quicker! The following day (Thursday), the weather had started to close in, so we stuck to the freeways, driving down to Foxborough, where we visited what was then a fairly new concept: an escape room. Next morning, we woke to find New England coated in a thick covering of snow, which, for me, was good timing, since I was on my way to New York City that day.

You can find out how I got on after the gallery.

  • I was greeted by a very wintery scene on Friday morning.
  • This included the hire car, which came into its own in the foul weather.
  • After catching a commuter train (rather like this one) I made my way to Back Bay station...
  • ... in Boston where I was due to catch an Amtrak Northeast Regional service to New York.
  • And here it comes, right on time!
  • The familiar Amtrak coach class carriages. They don't usually come coated in snow though!
  • This is the view inside, although these photos are from 2018. Not much has changed.
  • There's still bags of legroom, even in a standard coach class seat...
  • ... and you rarely have anyone sitting next to you. There's at-seat power & free Wifi too!
  • I didn't get much in the way of views: this is Old Saybrook station in Connecticut...
  • ... where we passed a north-bound service with a more fancy locomotive!
I was greeted by a very wintery scene on Friday morning.1 This included the hire car, which came into its own in the foul weather.2 After catching a commuter train (rather like this one) I made my way to Back Bay station...3 ... in Boston where I was due to catch an Amtrak Northeast Regional service to New York.4 And here it comes, right on time!5 The familiar Amtrak coach class carriages. They don't usually come coated in snow though!6 This is the view inside, although these photos are from 2018. Not much has changed.7 There's still bags of legroom, even in a standard coach class seat...8 ... and you rarely have anyone sitting next to you. There's at-seat power & free Wifi too!9 I didn't get much in the way of views: this is Old Saybrook station in Connecticut...10 ... where we passed a north-bound service with a more fancy locomotive!11
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Our hire car, the Tank, very much came into its own that Friday morning as my friends drove me through the snow to Beverly Station on the commuter line between Boston and Rockport/Newburyport. I caught a train to Boston’s North Station, about a 40-minute ride, from where I had to get across Boston to catch my Amtrak train to New York. Although these leave from Boston’s South Station, I’ve always found it more convenient to pick them up at Back Bay, the first stop on the line.

Typically, this is because I’ve been staying in the area, but it’s also easy when coming from North Station, where it’s just six stops on the Orange Line. In theory, it’s quicker to go to South Station, but this involves three stops on the Orange Line, then a change of trains to the Red Line, where it’s just one stop to the South Station. However, I’ve always found that it’s simpler just to stay on the Orange Line, particularly when travelling with luggage.

On this particular occasion, I might have been better off going to South Station, where at least I could have boarded my train ahead of its departure. This would have avoided waiting in the freezing cold on the platform at Back Bay, but I’d booked my ticket from Back Bay and was therefore committed.

The good news was that my train arrived on time (11:10) and soon I was on my way through the snowstorms to New York. It’s a route I’ve done multiple times in both directions and I’ve always enjoyed it, particularly the part along the Connecticut coast. It’s not the fastest line in the world, but there are plenty of trains and even in the most basic class (coach), the seats are wide, and you have so much legroom! These days, there’s also at-seat power and free Wifi. Just as importantly, since it’s typically four hours between Boston and New York, there’s a café car with a decent range of food and you can usually get hot water to make your own coffee with.

The final bit of good news is that if you book in advance, it can also be very cheap (my ticket, booked a month in advance, was just $49, while at the time of writing, the cheapest advanced single is a mere $39). Note that there are two services running on the line, the regular Northeast Regional (which I always catch) and the premium Acela service. This uses more modern rolling stock and can do the journey about half an hour quicker, but it’s typically twice the price and, for that limited time-saving, I’ve never seen the point.

Sadly, I don’t have many photos from this particular journey because, as you can see, the views were largely of snow on the windows. However, by the time I reached New York City, I’d left the snowstorms behind and was set for a weekend in the city.

You can see how I got on after the gallery.

  • First stop on arriving in New York, a crowded Stumptown Coffee at the Ace Hotel...
  • ... for an espresso...
  • ... and a view of the Empire State Building (the first of many).
  • That evening, I was back in the area to visit Madison Square Garden.
  • I was right up in the rafters (it was all I could afford), although it gave a good view...
  • ... of the massive video screen.
  • Perhaps surprisingly, my view of the game was pretty good too. Here Iman Shumpert...
  • ... of the hometown New York Knicks drives past Al Jefferson of the Utah Jazz to score.
  • Next, Jason Kidd, one of the all-time great point guards of the game, hits a free-throw.
  • At that point, the game was close.
  • However, it didn't last very long as New York pulled away for an easy win.
  • It wasn't much of a game, but I was happy: I'd seen Al Jefferson play...
  • ... as well as a (very young looking) Gordon Hayward...
  • ... and another personal favourite player, Enes Kanter.
  • I was staying in Chinatown, my regular spot when visiting New York.
  • The lights were out in force because it was Chinese New Year (at least, I think that's why).
  • I was also struck by how often you could see the Empire State Building in the distance...
  • ... as well as the Chrysler Building.
  • The Manhattan side entrance to the Williamsburg Bridge...
  • ... which I walked across in the warm, March sun.
  • As well as the dedicated walkway, the bridge carries road traffic...
  • ... and train tracks...
  • ... which can be fun when the New York subway trains roar underneath.
  • This is a J Line train, heading for Brooklyn.
  • And there it goes.
  • Even better is when another J Line train comes the other way...
  • ... this one heading for Manhattan.
  • Best of all are the views of the city. This is looking north to the Queensboro Bridge...
  • ... while here's the view south/west to the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges.
  • As well as trains and automobiles, there's also river traffic, like this East River Ferry.
  • Then there's the city skyline which kept me endlessly entertained with its views of...
  • ... the Empire State Building...
  • ... and the Chrysler Building...
  • ... and the Empire State Building...
  • ... and the Chrysler Building. I could go on, but you'll be pleased to hear I won't!
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Like Boston, New York is a city that I was already very familiar with, since it too was part of my original 1998 trip. As a result, I’d only allowed myself a weekend there, including what was left of Friday afternoon once I’d arrived.

With so little time, I decided to hit to ground running, having arranged to meet Greg Cohen, who at the time published the CoffeeGuru App. We agreed on the Stumptown Coffee Bar, conveniently located in the Ace Hotel, which is not far from New York Penn Station. Since I was staying in Chinatown, it made sense to meet Greg that afternoon, before heading down to my hotel, so I turned up hauling my rucksack. It was the first time we’d met and I don’t know what impression I made, but it couldn’t have been too bad since I went on to visit Greg a few times in his hometown of Philadelphia.

Continuing my busy day, I headed down to Chinatown to drop my bags off at my hotel, before returning to midtown that evening. My destination was Madison Square Garden, which is practically on top of Penn Station.

If you follow me on twitter, you’ll know that I’m involved with my local basketball club, the Surrey Scorchers, doing commentary on their games. Basketball has been part of my life for even longer than coffee, so it was great to be able to indulge both passions on this trip by watching the hometown New York Knicks take on the Utah Jazz in the NBA. I’ll happily confess to not being much of a Knicks fan, but the Jazz are my “western conference team”, my second-favourite NBA team after the Boston Celtics (who weren’t playing at home when I was in Boston the previous week).

As a game, it wasn’t much of a spectacle, the Knicks winning comfortably, 113-84, but I enjoyed getting to see Al Jefferson, a favourite of mine when he was with the Celtics, and also Enes Kanter and a very young Gordon Hayward, both of whom now play for the Celtics.

The rest of my weekend was rather low-key. I wandered around Chinatown, where, it seems, I took many photographs of the distant Empire State and Chrysler Buildings, both of which are visible from all over the city. I also indulged in one of my favourite New York City activities, walking across one of the many bridges that link Manhattan to Brooklyn on the other side of the East River.

My hotel, which I’ve stayed in many times, is right next to the Manhattan Bridge ramp. A favourite route of mine is to walk across the Manhattan Bridge, returning via the Brooklyn Bridge. This time I decided cross the Williamsburg Bridge, enjoying the fine views from the pedestrian deck which runs above the combined road and railway crossing below. However, there’s no easy alternative walking route back, so I simply returned the way I’d come.

The remainder of my weekend was taken up with coffee shops as I started to explore New York’s speciality coffee scene. I didn’t stray far from my base in Chinatown (had I but known, there are a host of good coffee shops around the Brooklyn end of the Williamsburg Bridge, many of which I’ve since visited) but I did find some gems. What’s sad, looking back, is how many of them have since closed.

Pushcart Coffee was a real find, not far from my hotel. It was all set to become my regular morning coffee spot, except that when I returned almost exactly a year later in 2014, I found that it had closed (on the plus side, I’ve since discovered the Lower East Side Café Grumpy, which is now my go-to spot in the morning). The fabulous, shoe-box sized I Am Coffee survived slight longer, being there on my return in 2014, but when I came back in 2015, it too had gone.

In contrast, Gimme! Coffee on Mott Street, where I sat outside in the warm, March sunshine (such a contrast to New England!) survived right up until this year, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced Gimme! Coffee to close all its New York City coffee shops, concentrating on its upstate coffee shops and roastery in its hometown of Ithaca.

And with that, my weekend was over, Monday morning had arrived and it was time to return to Penn Station to catch the train to Montréal. That, however, is the subject of the next instalment of this Travel Spot.

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8 thoughts on “Brian’s Travel Spot: New England & New York

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