I started my international travel in 2022 in the same way that I ended it in 2021, with a return to Portland (Maine) to visit Amanda. Unlike my visit in November/December 2021, which included driving all the way from Atlanta to Portland, plus an unexpected weekend round trip to Washington DC to attend a funeral, this was a much more low-key affair.
I’m used to visiting New England in the winter, and have experienced plenty of nor’easters in my time, but this was the first time I’d been in a major New England snowstorm while staying in someone’s home. All the other times, I’ve been in hotels, where someone else shovels the drive for you. Shovelling out half a metre of snow to get to the garage (so Amanda could get to the snow-blower) was a sufficiently novel to be fun.
In all I was there for just over three weeks, flying in and out of Boston. Thanks to the snow, we really didn’t do very much. However, I did pop into Portland on a couple of occasions to visit some coffee shops, while Amanda and I took the train down to Boston for a brief 24-hour visit before my flight home.
The trip is covered in the Travel Spots below, while you can also read about the Coffee Spots I visited on my trips into Portland and Boston.
Header Image: looking north across the Saccarappa Falls on the Presumpscot River in downtown Westbrook, Maine.
You can read about the trip in the following Travel Spot posts.
Brian’s Travel Spot: Flying to America (Again) During the COVID-19 Pandemic
In what is likely to become a common refrain this year, I’m heading back to America, this time flying to Boston in World Traveller Plus (premium economy to you and me) with British Airways, returning the same way in mid-February. This isn’t quite a repeat of the trip I made at the end of the last year, since back then I flew to Atlanta (with British Airways, in World Traveller Plus), so that’s something. And for those who are keeping count, this is the first time I’ve flown to Boston in World Traveller Plus (albeit I’ve done the journey a few times the other way).
I’ll be spending three weeks in Maine with Amanda (as opposed to spending the same three weeks by myself in Guildford) and I’m actually flying today, so this is a pre-flight post (rather than the flight itself, which will be the subject of its own Travel Spot) detailing everything you have to do before flying during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s not quite as involved as last time (when it also merited its own post), but it’s worth explaining the process, particularly for those who might be travelling for the first time in the near future.Continue reading...
Brian’s Travel Spot: Back to Boston in Premium Economy
Welcome to another Travel Spot, all about my first trip of 2022. I’m starting 2022 as I ended 2021, heading back to Boston, once again flying with British Airways in World Traveller Plus (premium economy to you and me). In a change from my usual habit (on trips to the USA at least), I’ll also be returning from Boston when I fly home in mid-February (World Traveller Plus again). It’s not quite a repeat of the trip I made at the end of last year, since on that occasion I flew to Atlanta, but otherwise it’s pretty close.
The reason I’m off is to spend three weeks in Maine with Amanda (as opposed to spending those three weeks by myself in Guildford). As I did when I flew to Atlanta in November, I’ve already written a separate post about the various pre-flight processes now in place when flying to America during the COVID-19 pandemic. This Travel Spot will therefore focus on the flight, along with the usual bits and pieces about getting to/from the airport, etc.Continue reading...
Brian’s Travel Spot: Amtrak Downeaster, Part I
Welcome to this two-part Travel Spot, dedicated to Amtrak’s Downeaster, connecting Boston and Maine with five daily services in each direction, departing from/arriving at Boston’s North Station. Regular readers will be aware of my hit-and-miss relationship with the Downeaster, having been on it just once before, at the start of my Portland-to-Portland trans-America train trip. Since then I’ve found the bus more convenient when travelling between Boston and Portland, although tomorrow that will change when Amanda and I take the Downeaster from Portland to Boston, the subject of Part II of this two-part Travel Spot.
So, what’s Part I all about? Well, the Downeaster doesn’t just connect Boston with Portland: there are two more stops north of Portland, Freeport and Brunswick, where the train terminates. Ahead of tomorrow’s journey, I decided to catch the train in the other direction, from Portland to Brunswick, just so that I could say that I’d travelled the full length of the line, albeit in two separate trips. Ideally, I’d have taken the train back to Portland, but Amtrak’s schedule is quirky to say the least. Returning by train would have required a 2½ hour wait, so I caught the Greater Portland Metro BREEZ bus instead.Continue reading...
Brian’s Travel Spot: Amtrak Downeaster, Part II
Welcome to the second and final part of my Travel Spot dedicated to Amtrak’s Downeaster, which connects Boston with Brunswick, Maine, providing five daily services in each direction, departing from/arriving at Boston’s North Station. In Part I, I took a trip from Portland, where I was staying, to Brunswick, taking the opportunity to check out Amtrak’s business class along the way, before returning by bus.
Part II covers the journey Amanda and I took two days later in the other direction, from Portland to Boston, where we travelled in coach class (Amtrak’s standard class for travel). Incidentally, although I’d travelled in coach class many times before, this was my first detailed look at Amtrak’s refurbished coach-class seating. Along the way, we tried out the café car, sampling the on-board coffee which we put up against some of our own that we’d made on the train.
Other than my trip to Brunswick two days before, I’d only taken the Downeaster once before, at the start of my Portland-to-Portland trans-America train trip in June 2015. Since then, for a variety of reasons, the bus had always proved more convenient, so I was keen to see how the train stacked up against the bus.Continue reading...
Brian’s Travel Spot: Boston to Manchester via Heathrow
Welcome to the penultimate Travel Spot of my first trip of 2022, covering my return from Boston in mid-February. 2022 got underway as 2021 had ended, with a visit to North America, flying with British Airways in World Traveller Plus (aka premium economy). This time, however, rather than flying to Atlanta before returning from Boston, I flew to and from Boston. In another twist, instead of returning home to Guildford, I continued on to my Dad’s in North Wales, taking the familiar (from pre-pandemic times) short hop from Heathrow to Manchester.
Initially, I had planned to cover the whole trip in one post, but as is often the case, this Travel Spot grew in the telling. Therefore, I've decided to split it into two instalments, with this, the first, covering my flight from Boston to Heathrow. The second instalment covers the short hop from Heathrow to Manchester.
I flew out to Boston in mid-January on my way to spend three weeks in Maine with Amanda before flying back two weeks ago. On my previous trip, I took the bus down from Portland to Boston Logan airport, but this time, Amanda and I caught the Downeaster, Amtrak’s train service linking Boston with Maine. We go to Boston on Friday afternoon, spending 24 hours exploring the city before I made my way to the airport on Saturday evening.Continue reading...
Brian’s Travel Spot: Heathrow to North Wales via Manchester Airport
Welcome to second instalment of the final Travel Spot from my first trip of 2022, covering my return from Boston four weeks ago. The first instalment dealt with my flight from Boston to London Heathrow, a familiar route, although it was my first time on a Boeing 787-10. All my recent journeys have ended at Heathrow, but on this occasion, I was carrying on to my Dad’s in North Wales, following another familiar route (from pre-pandemic times), the short hop from Heathrow to Manchester Airport.
I’ve always had misgivings about this, not being a great fan of short-haul flights, but the simple fact is that it’s always been the most convenient option, the additional cost of the Heathrow to Manchester leg being negligible (or sometimes zero) compared to the outrageous cost of train travel in the UK. There’s also the additional hassle of hauling my bags across central London and/or taking the tube, neither of which are particularly appealing after a long flight. However, after my experiences this time, compounded by the difficulty in getting from Manchester Airport to North Wales on a Sunday (three trains and a bus), I’m going to be reassessing my options on future trips.Continue reading...
You can read about the Coffee Spots that I visited in during my two day trips to Portland, along with the Coffee Spots that Amanda and I visited duirng our 24 hours in Boston. The Coffee Spots are listed alphabetically for each city.
Little Woodfords (COVID-19)
I’ve been a fan of Little Woodfords in Portland, Maine, ever since I first visited in the summer of 2019. I was therefore rather worried when I heard, in July 2020, that it was forced to move from its original location in Woodfords Corner to a much smaller spot on Congress Street in downtown Portland. Fortunately, while this has meant an inevitable change of character, the friendly, inclusive welcome of the original, plus the awesome coffee from Vermont’s Vivid Coffee Roasters, remains as Amanda and I discovered on our visit last month.
The offering is much as it was as before, with a single option on espresso, batch brew and flash brew (a pour-over over ice, akin to a Japanese iced coffee). The coffee changes on a seasonal basis, and there’s also tea, hot cocoa and several latte-based specials. If you’re hungry, there’s a small, vegetarian/vegan breakfast menu, with various toppings on bagels/biscuits. While Little Woodfords has a small indoor seating (standing?) area at the front, it’s currently takeout-only due to COVID-19, although you’re welcome to sit outside, where you’ll find a bench out front, with a couple of picnic tables down the side, which catch the afternoon sun.Continue reading...
Meet the Roaster: Speckled Ax
Regular readers will know that I have a soft spot for Portland’s coffee shop/roaster, Speckled Ax, which I first visited in June 2015. Back then, there was just the original coffee shop on Congress Street, with the roastery out in South Portland. However, Speckled Ax has been busy in recent years, opening its flagship Thames Street coffee shop in 2020, and then, a year later, moving the roastery to its new home on Walton Street, where it also opened a neat coffee bar.
On my return to Portland at the start of this year, I caught up with Matt, owner of Speckled Ax. I’ve already written about the coffee bar, so today’s Meet the Roaster is all about the roastery. Although an outstanding roastery in its own right, consistently turning out some excellent single-origins and blends year-on-year, Speckled Ax’s particular claim to fame is as one of a handful of wood-fired coffee roasters in the USA (reminiscent of Witney’s Ue Coffee Roasters in the UK). The magic happens in a large, industrial unit behind the coffee bar, where you’ll find the 20 kg Petroncini, a refurbished Italian roaster from the 1970s, its fire box filled with local kiln-dried wood.Continue reading...
Speckled Ax, Thames (COVID-19)
On my first trip to Portland, in June 2015, Speckled Ax was one of three coffee shop/roasters that I visited (along with Tandem Coffee and Bard). Back then, Speckled Ax had a single coffee shop on Congress Street, but two new locations have recently opened, a coffee bar on Walton Street (attached to the new roastery which opened in 2021) and a large café on the waterfront at Thames Street (which opened in 2020).
I’d planned to visit Portland in March 2020, but sadly the COVID-19 pandemic ruled that out, preventing me from returning for another 18 months. However, the travel restrictions were eased in November 2021, and I was finally able to return to America and to Portland, where I paid a long overdue visit to the new Thames location.
Speckled Ax occupies a spacious ground floor unit with views across Thames Street to the harbour. At the time of writing, the space is effectively split into two, with a takeaway section to the right, while the seating is at the front on the left. There’s a limited coffee menu (which still manages to offer two espresso options and two on batch brew filter), while the kitchen provides a concise breakfast and lunch menu.Continue reading...
Speckled Ax, Walton
If you’ve been paying attention for the last two weeks, you’ll know that I’m back in Portland, Maine, where, weather permitting, I’m catching up with the local coffee shops. Top of my list was Speckled Ax’s new roastery/coffee bar on Walton Street, which opened last year. It’s out beyond Back Cove, north of Portland’s compact city centre, just over the train tracks from Forest Avenue, the main north/south drag.
Home to Speckled Ax’s new roastery (which has its own Meet the Roaster feature), there’s a small takeout coffee bar attached. Unlike the other Speckled Ax locations (Congress and Thames), with their multiple options on espresso and filter, here it’s just the daily batch brew or espresso, although, of course, plenty of retail bags of coffee are available to buy. There’s no seating, although when COVID-19 allows, there will be a small standing bar at the front. For now, it’s takeaway only, so don’t forget to bring your own cup.Continue reading...
Tandem Coffee + Bakery
A highlight of last summer’s (brief) visit to Portland was Tandem Coffee Roasters, the roastery doubling as a lovely, intimate coffee bar. I was staying on the opposite side of town and Google Maps suggested I’d pass Tandem Coffee + Bakery on my way. So off I went, keeping an eye out for said bakery, only to walk right past without noticing!
My excuse? I, fool that I am, was looking for something bearing a vague resemblance to a bakery. Instead, I should have been keeping an eye out for something bearing a striking resemblance to a gas (petrol) station… Obviously. I discovered my mistake at the roastery, so on my way back, I paid more attention: there, right where Google Maps said it was, I discovered the bakery, occupying an old gas station.
Just as Tandem Cafe & Roastery’s a roastery with coffee bar attached, so Tandem Coffee + Bakery’s a bakery with coffee shop attached. And lovely outdoor seating. It doesn’t have quite the same range as the roastery, just a house-blend and single-origin on espresso, the same single-origin on Aeropress and another on bulk-brew. Being a bakery, there’s also multiple savoury and sweet things to feast upon.Continue reading...
George Howell, Boston Public Market Update
When Amanda and I arrived in Boston last weekend, getting coffee was top of our list, and where better than George Howell in the Boston Public Market? It helped that it was on the way to our hotel, plus the New England winter had taken the weekend off, resulting in a glorious spring day, so we were able to take our coffee (it’s takeaway only thanks to COVID-19) across the road to the Rose Kennedy Greenway, where we enjoyed it while sitting in the sun.
I originally visited the coffee bar almost exactly six years ago, in February 2016, not long after it had opened. These days, it (and the Boston Public Market) is still going strong, do so well, in fact, that it’s now open seven days a week and has moved across the aisle to a much bigger counter, at least doubling in size. The basic offering remains the same though: top-notch coffee (espresso, batch brew and pour-over through the Chemex) along with a large range of retail bags of coffee for sale.Continue reading...
I’ve been a fan of roasters, Gracenote, for a while, having first had its coffee at Boston’s delightful Render Coffee. Based in Berlin, Massachusetts, where it’s been roasting since 2012, Gracenote took a first step into serving its own coffee with a lovely coffee bar in downtown Boston, which opened in October 2015. During my most recent visit in February 2016, it was the place that everyone in the area (including Providence, Rhode Island) said I had to visit, and they weren’t wrong!
The coffee bar’s standing-room only, catering primarily for office workers from the area around Boston’s South Station. A lovely Modbar installation provides espresso, offering house-blend, a single-origin or decaf. There’s batch brew filter, cold-brew on tap and a choice of speciality tea. Naturally you can buy all of Gracenote’s coffee in retail bags, whole bean or ground-on-demand. If you’re hungry, there’s even a limited selection of sweet treats.Continue reading...
La Colombe, Seaport
Regular readers will know that one of my go-to American coffee places is La Colombe, the roastery/coffee shop chain from Philadelphia. Along with its Philadelphia coffee shops, I’ve visited La Colombe in New York City, Washington DC, Chicago and, most recently, Boston, when I caught La Colombe, South Station between arriving by train from New Haven and catching the bus to Portland. However, that still left the subject of today’s Coffee Spot, the Seaport location, which I was able to catch just before my flight back to the UK on my most recent trip.
As the name suggests, La Colombe, Seaport is in Boston’s Seaport District, just across Fort Point Channel from Downtown Boston. Although the address is Northern Avenue, it’s actually around the corner on the pedestrian strip connecting it with Seaport Boulevard. A fairly small shop, with just seven tables inside, this doesn’t stop it from providing the full La Colombe offering of two options on espresso, another two on batch-brew and two more on pour-over. There’s also a range of in-house teas and draft lattes and, if you’re hungry, cakes and pastries. For now, La Colombe only uses takeaway cups, so don’t forget to bring your own.Continue reading...
Ogawa Coffee Boston
Ogawa Coffee is a large (40+ stores) speciality coffee shop chain from Kyoto. However, the branch on Milk Street, right in the heart of downtown Boston, is its first overseas venture, having opened in 2015. An interesting blend of Japanese and American coffee culture, I loved it, particularly the attention to detail shown by the baristas.
The shop itself is long and thin, with perhaps the highest ceilings I’ve seen in a coffee shop this year. About as wide as it is tall, Ogawa has a great sense of space. There’s a good choice of seating too, with tables at the front and what is called stadium seating at the back, opposite the counter. Best of all, you can sit at the counter itself and watch the filter coffee being made.
Talking of coffee, it’s all roasted in Kyoto and air-freighted to the shop on a regular basis. There is a house-blend and three single-origins, which can be had by any method (espresso or hand-pour filter). These are joined on espresso by decaf and guest single-origins which change every week or two. Perhaps best of all, Ogawa serves a tasting flight, where you get to sample all three single-origins side-by-side.Continue reading...