Thursday, December 31, 2015

Making the most of a seven-day GO Boston Card

I've received very good value from GO City Cards in New Orleans and Chicago on past trips, and made great use of another one in Boston this year.

For those not familiar, GO City Cards enable you to pay one price for an all-inclusive pass to tourist attractions and destinations in the above mentioned American cities as well as in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York City, Oahu, Orlando, San Diego, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. They also let you use shorter lines in many cases, and less waiting means more enjoying.

GO City Cards are available for one, two, three, five or seven days and can provide substantial savings versus paying admission as you go. My seven-day GO Boston Card cost $153 and was valid for 44 attractions and discounts at a couple of dozen restaurants and stores. I didn't catch all of them, but almost everything that I wanted to -- and still had time to do other things unrelated to the pass.

Day one

The first use secured two days of a hop-on, hop-off Red Beantown Trolley pass  (valued at $42) that does a two-hour loop of several Boston neighbourhoods and their highlights. It's a good way to get an overview of things, allows you to judge distances and lets you stop and check out stops that interest you.

My first stop was at Long Wharf for a narrated 45-minute cruise (valued at $22) that provided expansive views of the shoreline. I got off mid-journey at the Charlestown Navy Yard, where I checked out the Second World War ship the USS Cassin Young and the well-preserved USS Constitution, known as "Old Ironsides" for the way its thick oak hull withstood attacks in the War of 1812. I also made a quick stop at the nearby 221-foot Bunker Hill Monument before catching the boat again at 4 p.m. for the 10-minute return ride to my starting point.

Day two

A week-long Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority transit pass cost just $19 and came in handy in crossing the city, especially on a very rainy Sunday when I used the subway to return to the inner harbour area to use my GO Boston Card to bypass a long public line for entry to the New England Aquarium (valued at $26.95). It was very crowded and not as big or good as other aquariums I've visited, but it still held my interest and kept me dry for an hour.

I had a day left on my trolley pass, so I hopped aboard and went one stop to the North End, where I got off to visit the Old North Church where Paul Revere kept his signal lamps in the steeple to warn others of British troop movement during the American Revolution.

Paul Revere's house

I followed the Freedom Trail (which is well-marked by a red line on the sidewalk) to Revere's house, part of which has been restored. It didn't take long to walk through, but the $3.50 entry fee was waived with my GO Boston Card.

I continued my walk along the Freedom Trail, eventually ending up at the Old State House, which has been converted to a Revolutionary War museum. The GO Boston Card got me in for free instead of paying $10, and it was an informative half-hour visit.

The Old South Meeting House, where colonists gathered in 1773 to protest taxation, is still used as a meeting house and museum. Its six-dollar entry fee was covered by my GO Boston Card.

Dinner and drinks were soon on my mind and the Green Dragon Tavern offered a 20-per cent discount on my meal of Boston chowder, Cajun haddock, mashed potatoes and mixed steamed vegetables with my GO Boston Card.

Day three

Harvard University
Cambridge was my destination on day three, and the subway took me to Kendall Square, from which I walked to the Charles River for a good view of the Boston skyline on the other side. I had planned to take a river cruise (valued at $16.80) with my GO Boston Card, but had difficulty finding the embarkation point and decided to skip it.

I returned to the subway and went two more stops to Harvard, where my GO Boston Card allowed me to take the $10 Harvard University walking tour for free. I explored the rest of the campus on my own, including touring the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and the Harvard Museum of Natural History (valued at $12) with my GO Boston Card. It was a fine way to pass a few hours, though a similar museum I'd visited in Chicago a year earlier (using a GO Chicago Card) was bigger and better.

Day four

Beach at Hyannis
I got the most value from my GO Boston Card on day four, which included a day-long Cape Cod bus tour with Gray Line (valued at $62).

A two-hour drive took us through Sandwich, Barnstable and other quaint and picturesque towns before we made our first stop at the JFK memorial near Hyannis. I waded into the chilly Atlantic Ocean up to my knees at the nearby beach.

I returned to the bus for a short ride to Hyannisport, where a boat was waiting to take us on an hour-long cruise (valued at $17). It provided views of beautiful houses along the shore (including the Kennedy compound) as well as beaches, marinas and impressive boats. It felt good to be out on the sea for a short while.

I got back on the bus again and drove a short distance to downtown, where I had about two hours of free time. My GO Boston card paid my $10 admission to the JFK Museum, which included the Cape Cod Baseball League Hall of Fame in its basement. Both were pretty small and didn't take much time to go through, but I'm glad I went. That left me time for a pint at a local tavern before boarding the bus for our last stop before returning to Boston.

View of Christian Science Mother Church from Skywalk Observatory
The Sandwich Glass Museum (valued at nine dollars) had a glass-blowing demonstration, information on the history of glass, a gallery and a large gift shop. I wouldn't have gone on my own, but my GO Boston Card paid for it and there wasn't much else to do in Sandwich.

The bus returned to Boston and I was dropped off at Copley Square. From there I walked to Boston's second tallest building, the Prudential Center, where my GO Boston Card got me whisked up by elevator to the 50th floor and the Skywalk Observatory (valued at $17). It provided excellent views of the city and beyond and an informative audio guide provided details about what I was looking at. It also included exhibits about Boston and immigration and took me an hour before I'd had enough.

Day five

Day five was another wet one, so more indoor activities were on tap to begin with. I started at the Christian Science Mother Church, which in my opinion has the most beautiful exterior of any building in the city. I went inside to the Mary Baker Eddy Library (valued at six dollars), the clear highlight of which was its unique Mapparium -- a 30-foot stained glass globe made in 1935 that you walk inside of. I was able to spend 20 minutes looking at the beautiful, accurate-to-scale map, but unfortunately no photos were allowed.

Fenway Park

I walked to Fenway Park, where I obtained a ticket for a noon tour (valued at $17) with my GO Boston Card. I'd attended a Red Sox game 20 years earlier, so I was more interested in the inner workings of the classic ball park than in seeing a game. And since the Red Sox were in Toronto anyway, it was all academic.

Our guide offered a good blend of humour and history, and I spent about two hours seeing the visitors' dressing room, press box, the top of the "Green Monster" left field wall, the Red Sox Hall of Fame, a Red Sox museum, a gift shop and more. I'm a huge baseball fan and this, as expected, was one of the highlights of my week.

Day six

Salem was my destination on day six. A $14 round trip commuter train ticket took me to the city 17 miles north of Boston and back, allowing me to arrive at 11 a.m. The station was a short distance from downtown, which is easily walkable and navigable with a free map.

My first stop with my GO Boston Card was the Peabody Essex Museum (valued at $18), which houses one million works, including collections of photography and African, American, Asian, Native American, Oceanic, Indian and Maritime art, as well as rotating exhibitions. I most liked the gallery of Maritime art and a special exhibition dedicated to Frank Burton's vivid and cinematic paintings.

Salem Witch Museum
I then walked along the shore past wharfs and historic buildings to The House of the Seven Gables, a 350-year-old house that inspired the title of a novel by local icon Nathaniel Hawthorne in the 19th century. My GO Boston Card saved me the $12.50 entry fee. A guide took us through the house and explained things, and then I went through Hawthorne's nearby house and the grounds on my own.

After walking through more of the city, I used my GO Boston Card for the third and final time of the day at the Salem Witch Museum (valued at $10.50). The witch trials of 1692 are what Salem is best known for, and an informative 20-minute performance involving a narrator and animated wax figures told the story in an effective and entertaining way. After we were told to wait in the gift shop for 10 minutes after that, we moved on to an exhibit where we were told about witchcraft for another 20 minutes.

Day seven

This was my last day in Boston, and I used my GO Boston Card twice. The first stop was the Museum of Science (valued at $23).  It's more child-oriented than Chicago's science museum, which I used my GO Chicago Card at the previous summer, and had a lot of interactive elements. I let the kids play and just looked around for about 90 minutes.

Swan Boats
I took the subway to Boston Common, the city's expansive and centrally located park, and used my GO Boston Card for the final time by taking a 15-minute, pedal-powered Swan Boat ride (valued at $3.50) with other passengers around a man-made pond.

That allowed me just enough time to return to my accommodations to pick up my bags and make my way to Logan Airport by 1:50 p.m. in anticipation of my return flight to Toronto.

So, let's do the math. I received a 10-per cent discount when I purchased a $170, seven-day GO Boston Card online, for a cost of $153. For that I received $341.95 worth of admissions and discounts over a week. That's a savings of $188.95.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Steve McLean's favourite music of 2015

The top 10

1. Guantanamo Baywatch - Darling … It's Too Late
2. J.D. McPherson - Let The Good Times Roll
3. The Mavericks - Mono
4. Tough Age - I Get The Feeling Central
5. Frank Turner - Positive Songs For Negative People
6. Dogheart - What Burns The Best
7. Best Coast - California Nights
8. The Bottle Rockets - South Broadway Athletic Club
9. Wilco - Star Wars
10. Dune Rats - Dune Rats

Honourable mention

Twin River - Should The Lights Go Out
The Libertines - Anthems For Doomed Youth
The Strypes - Little Victories
Lindi Ortega - Faded Gloryville
Whitehorse - Leave No Bridge Unburned
Elvyn - Valley Of The Kilowatt Hour
Barrence Whitfield and The Savages - Under The Savage Sky
Blur - The Magic Whip
Kitty, Daisy and Lewis - Kitty, Daisy and Lewis The Third
Beans On Toast - The Grand Scheme Of Things
Corb Lund - Things That Can't Be Undone


The Struts - Have You Heard
Sam Roberts Band - Counting The Days EP
The Bends - Bikini Grandma
The Key Frames - Monophone Heart
Jennie Vee - Spying EP


Reissues, compilations and live albums

Stompin' Tom Connors - Collector's Series: Bud The Spud & Other Favourites
Bob Marley and The Wailers - Easy Skanking In Boston '78
Pete Townshend - Truancy: The Very Best Of ...
The Rolling Stones - Sticky Fingers: Deluxe Edition
Drive-By Truckers - It's Great To Be Alive!
Frank Turner - The Third Three Years
Simple Minds - Sparkle In The Rain (Reissue)


Concerts (chronological order)

Frank Turner at South by Southwest
Steve Mahabir - Feb. 6, Cameron House, Toronto
Dwayne Gretzky - Feb. 6, Horseshoe, Toronto
Hushdrops and The Dickens - Feb. 21, Cameron House, Toronto
J.D. McPherson - March 7, Lee's Palace, Toronto
Beans on Toast and Frank Turner - March 9, Horseshoe, Toronto
South by Southwest Music Festival - March 16-22, various venues, Austin
The Real McKenzies - March 26, Horseshoe, Toronto
Canadian Music Week Festival - May 6-9, various venues, Toronto
The Pixies - June 7, Horseshoe, Toronto
North by Northeast Music Festival - June 17-20, various venues, Toronto
The Black Lips - July 10, Horseshoe, Toronto
Teddy Fury's 60th birthday party with Beatles cover band and The Millwinders - Aug. 6, Horseshoe, Toronto
Catl and Barrence Whitfield and The Savages - Aug. 22, Horseshoe, Toronto
Robyn Hitchcock - Sept. 11, The Drake Underground, Toronto
Robyn Hitchcock with The Sadies - Sept. 13, The Drake Underground, Toronto

The Pixies at Toronto Urban Roots Fest

Toronto Urban Roots Fest - Sept. 18-20, Fort York, Toronto
Low Cut Connie - Nov. 7, The Drake Underground, Toronto
The Arc Sound - Nov. 29, Artful Dodger, Toronto
Communism and The Lowest of the Low - Dec. 4, Horseshoe, Toronto
The Skydiggers - Dec. 19, Horseshoe, Toronto
Joe Strummer tribute with The Kensington Hillbillys (The Crooked Beat) and others, Dec. 22, The Old Laurel, Toronto
The Sadies with Robyn Hitchcock - Dec. 31, Horseshoe, Toronto