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STEP IT UP! USA Travelogue 2005 - Part Two - New England

  • Submitted by: Steve Roach, United Kingdom
  • Submission Date: 15th Apr 2006

Next morning, we’re up early. Our train leaves for Boston at eleven. We check out of the hotel and start off towards Broadway with our gear. We made the mistake of thinking that it’s only a few blocks, there’s no harm in walking.
Bugger that!
Unless you have nothing to carry, always take a cab.

By the time we get the BHI store, we’re in a bad mood and sweating. The guys greet us warmly and usher us inside. The shop isn’t that big to begin with, and they let us dump all our gear in the middle of the floor and boot up the pc for me to use. All of this is done happily, even though we are obviously in the way and limiting the room for any other customers to come in and browse. To top it off, they let us smoke in the store, and one of them even goes next door and brings us back coffees!
We’re there for about an hour. I buy a new memory card from them, and download the more detailed versions of New England, Ontario and Quebec, Oregon and California.

We get to the station and get our tickets with a few minutes to spare. Then there’s a mad dash as we find out that we can’t get on the train unless our luggage is suitably labelled. We tear back to the info booth, all the while hearing the boarding announcements for Boston, and spend an agonising couple of minutes waiting as some idiot in the queue ahead is taking their time over some trifling matter concerning directions, which the attendant repeats three times.
We make it just in time. The train seems bigger that our UK counterparts, and there’s plenty of room for the passengers. It also seems to be very well maintained and clean. We get a nice seat and stow away our luggage, and then look out of the window as we leave New York behind. A trolley-dolly comes round with coffees and sandwiches and we’re all set.
I get the GPS out and turn it on. Within a minute, it’s picked up our location and the 3D map simulates what’s happening out the window. Wow. I monitor our progress out of New York State, into Connecticut and then Rhode Island. About an hour in, we see some snow on the embankments, and the further we go the snowier it seems to get. We haven’t got much in the way of clothing for the cold, so we may need to go buy some things when we get to Boston.

We disembark at Boston South Station and start digging in our pockets for the cigarettes. Then we see the sign:

NO SMOKING - GENERAL LAWS CHAPTER 272 SEC 43.
A PUNISHABLE BY IMPRISONMENT FOR NOT MORE THAN
10 DAYS OR BY A FINE OF NOT MORE THAN $50. OR BOTH.

Jesus. Spark up here and you could get jailed! It’s not the best start to our Boston visit, but generally sets the tone.

We go outside, into the snow. It’s freezing. We drag our luggage around town and I get the GPS out to look up nearby hotels. I had a vague idea that we’d be able to find some old 17th century guest houses but we seem to be a few centuries too late.
We eventually find the Omni Parker House Hotel. The lobby is opulent in that over-the-top way you find in the more expensive hotels. Even the lift doors are covered in some kind of gold engravings. The place costs $139 for the night - plus tax (which is apparently cheap for these parts).
We check in and catch the lift to the twelfth floor, a ride that’s quick enough to send me mildly giddy when we walk down the corridor to our room. Later, the exact same thing happens again, in the very same spot, but lasts longer. Steph doesn’t experience it though, so I’m left wondering if I have some medical condition I need to start worrying about.

We go out and look for a restaurant. The streets are curiously empty and we can’t find a thing. A black man with an American accent approaches, tells us he’s from Scotland, and asks for five dollars. We tell him he’s obviously not from Scotland and don’t oblige him with any money.
After this, we’re a bit warier about walking too far. We come to what we guess is the centre of this part of town and everywhere we look are gangs of youths on the street corners. It’s dark, they’re all hooded up, we don’t like the look of it. We have no idea if Boston’s a nice place or not, but it doesn’t look it.
Eventually, we go back to the hotel and eat there.

The next morning, Boston is a cold and miserable place to be. We’re already fed up, so we’re not unhappy about leaving.
We head for the station to get a cab to the airport, where we’re due to pick up our first rental car. By the time we get there, it’s snowing heavily.
The Alamo girl suggests we take a look at a Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) because of the bad driving conditions, and we’re inclined to agree. We already have to contend with driving on the wrong side of the road, and now we have to do it in the ice and snow as well. For an extra $70, we can upgrade, and so we do.
It’s a lovely vehicle but I’m screwed if I know how to even begin driving it. Everything is weird. It’s an automatic, so there’s no gear stick. I go back and the girl comes and stands in the snow to give me a quick rundown on the car. Afterwards, I spend a few minutes doing some basic things like finding out where the light and wiper controls are.
We pull out of the lot and are soon negotiating a mess or snow covered roads. Without the GPS, we’d have been in real trouble.

We head for Cape Cod. Without the stress and arguments of studying maps, we soon settle in to enjoy the car and the scenery. I brought some cd’s with us, and the stereo is really bassy and loud, so we’re soon coasting and smoking and feeling just fine.
The scenery consists of trees lining either side of the Interstate, and snow everywhere else. There are individually designed wooden houses peering down from embankments. That’s pretty much it.
We cross a really high bridge and enter the Cape Cod and Islands area. We end up in Yarmouth, at the Colonial House Inn. We park up and get a soaking as we stand in the rain trying to work out how to lock the car. Finally, when we complete what should have been a simple task and we’re sure all the doors are locked, we go inside.
A fifty-ish doll with lots of hair and a strong accent is waiting. She takes us through the main house, across a short external boardwalk and into an annexe building. Our room is at the back, up some stairs and down a creaky corridor. After we’ve dumped the bags, the woman shows us the main attraction of the place - there’s a huge underground section, complete with a swimming pool and a tasteful lounge, decorated with old and expensive furnishings. There’s even a Jacuzzi, tucked away by the pool.
Whilst we “Ooh!” and “Wow!”, a little white dog comes sniffing around. It belongs to the owner is just as friendly.
Steph has a Jacuzzi whilst I have a kip. We think the place is so nice that we decide to stay another day and use it as a base to explore Provincetown and maybe New Bedford.

Breakfast is a curious mix of fruit, crumpets and muffins, served by a very noisy waitress that insists on speaking to us every few minutes. She has the chainsaw buzz of a strong, New York accent.
We mention that we’re thinking of going up to Provincetown. Right on the tip of a kind of curling peninsula, Provincetown seems to be the place where we’ll see working whalers, guys in big jumpers smoking pipes and mending fishing nets on the wharves. Maybe there’ll be some Old-World schooners docked up too.
“What’s it like up there?” I ask.
“Awww, it’s full of faggots. Good luck with that one.”

We risk the trip up there, thinking the waitress’ summary may well be a tad harsh. It isn’t. This old community certainly is colourful. Men walk down the main drag holding hands. Shop windows have posters featuring men in leather trousers and caps, flexing their muscles.
There’s not much else here, not at this time of year. We buy a couple of books from a great little book store with an eclectic mix of stock, and then head out for Falmouth.
We find a dull and nondescript beach area. Across the flat and miserable-looking Nantucket Sound, we see Martha’s Vineyard. It’s all very boring.
The day is brightened considerably upon the realisation that we have a large tub of rice crackers that aren’t very nice, and we’re surrounded by a mob of greedy seagulls. I toss a handful into the air and there’s an instant explosion of feathers, beaks and squawks. Steph doesn’t like it and sits in the car. Hitchcock is to blame for that. Their yellow eyes do look kind of evil, and when you have two hundred looking right at you it’s a little unnerving.
One or two hover by the car window, looking inside. Even better than this, when I toss a cracker out, the little bastards actually catch them.
After such an exciting day, we drive back to Yarmouth in time for dinner, and spend the evening sitting in the lounge enjoying the surroundings. It’s not often we get the chance to sit in a room where the furnishings cost more than our house, and there’s begger all else to do in Cape Cod.

Fruit and cakes again for breakfast. I thought maybe they’d given us a bunch of leftovers yesterday, scrabbling together whatever was in the cupboards for their unexpected Winter guests, but this isn’t the case. This is how they do things around here.
The waitress asks us how “P-Town” was.
“Full of faggots,” I say. We all laugh.

We drive to Salem, back through Boston. I had a definite image of what to expect - a windswept Common, surrounded by old Pilgrim houses dating back centuries. Elderly ladies, hunched and tottering along in their black shawls, on their way back home after picking some hemlock from the nearby menacing woods.
Of course, they don’t keep the entire town in the 17th century just for the tourists benefit. The Witch Museum and Dungeon is just another wooden house in a typical street. And it was closed for the season. The Peabody Museum, which for years I imagined was this great sprawling, dingily lit building stuffed with dusty old books and jars full of macabre remnants of lost civilisations, was just like a modern art installation. No Red Indian medicine man charms, no scalps or two headed animals pickled in formaldehyde, just bad poetry hanging from canvas banners and a shop selling African Art books and New Age music.
Salem Common was, at least, open and windswept, and we had a quick walk around it in the snow. But the rest of the place was pretty much like Leamington Spa back home. Nice new flat complexes, too much traffic. It must be exactly the same for American tourists who go to Stratford-on-Avon looking for a sleepy English village and the Shakespeare trail. Very disappointing.
Salem did have its good points though. One of them is a large shop called ‘Army Barracks’, where we stocked up on our winter clothing. As we’d soon be heading for Canada, we knew it was going to get a lot colder, and trainers and sweatshirts just weren’t going to cut it. We found some stout boots each, and I bought a big fur-lined parka, all for $130. This stuff would easily have cost £200 back home (about three times the cost). America is surprisingly cheap for a lot of things - nearly everything, in fact - and it clearly shows how we are ripped off for consumer goods back in Britain.

Next up is Portland, Maine. It gets dark and we follow the GPS directions to a B&B that doesn’t exist. Cursing, we head back into town and book into a smoking room at the Holiday Inn.
We pick up a map from the receptionist, who tells us to head for the lively part of town, which she rings with a red felt pen. When we get there, it doesn’t seem that lively. There’s just us, clumping along through the ice and snow in our huge boots. We have a beer and a meal in ‘Three Dollar Deweys’, and look out the window as the jukebox belts out some English music (The Cure).
Walking back, very much alone in the streets, I see a guy hanging around on a corner holding a hockey stick. Sphincter tightening, I hiss at Steph to get a move on, then feel some relief when a dozen other guys appear with sticks and the entire hockey team starts boarding a van. Well, you never can tell.
Back at the hotel, the bath plug won’t stay in and we have to swap rooms, but the new bath keeps draining as I’m in it. The towels were already grimy. The typical policy is for towels to get changed when the occupants leave them on the bathroom floor, or in the bath itself. When the cleaner comes round, if the towels are still on the rack, they’re deemed clean and left alone. The system is honourable, and as we often read, saves “millions of gallons of detergent annually, thus saving the environment”, but the system fails if the previous occupant was a dirty bugger who didn’t leave the towels down.
Despite all this Fawlty Towers goings-on in the room, we decide to stay another night here. The Deweys waitress told us where to go for the tourist photo of Portland, some lighthouse a few miles away. I have also found a leaflet for the Map Store, a cartographical treasure trove of all things mappy. It has the world’s biggest rotating globe, so we’re going to check that out. Steph isn’t ecstatic about the idea, but she wouldn’t let me go inside the big porno store in New York so this kind of redresses the balance.

The lighthouse is at Fort Williams Park, a few miles away. Next morning. we navigate there and get out of the SUV for a good mooch around. The snow is everywhere, piles and piles of the stuff. We kick it around and throw snowballs at each other.
The lighthouse itself is very scenic. We take the obligatory photo, and then walk back along a cliff path. It’s a lovely way to start the day, and more like the New England I was hoping to find.
After an hour or so, we get back in the car and head for the Map Store. The globe turns out to be the biggest thing there, as it’s pretty much just that and a shop, though there is a huge conference room out back somewhere. I get a big, laminated map of the USA, and from now on we use this to chart our progress. They also have maps of the World, the USA and Canada, all hand drawn with the most significant landmarks. They’re brilliant. For the first time, we see clearly what we’re about to do, geographically. They show the mountains, the lakes, the big cities, some of the main tourist attractions like Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon.
There’s not much else to do, so we content ourselves by walking around the world - or Eartha, as they call the globe here - in less than a minute, and then we leave.

We drop the car back at the hotel and go back down towards the main part of town again, which is a little livelier in daylight. We have some lunch in ‘Gritty’s’, and then mooch around a few shops. And that’s about it. With nothing else around, we go back to the hotel and flop out for a while.
On the tv, we see the first of many severe weather warnings. At any given point over the next three months, there seems to be some sort of severe weather occurring somewhere. This time, the Mid-West is suffering the worst weather they’ve had in years, heavy rain and storms. Also, more snow is due for Boston. California has seen a deadly mudslide.