• Travel

    Day 6. Boston. Cetacean, Customs, Chowdah.

    In which we go in search of whales, do not have an excellent sandwich for lunch, find out what was going on with that tea thing, and try some classic Boston delicacies.

    Call me Ishmael

    And so, with the seas much smoother and our yum cha craving satisfied (for now), we walked down to Boston Harbor. Boston Harbor Cruises (I keep typing “Harbour” and keep getting corrected by the spellchecker. Wacky American spelling!) run ferries, harbour (it’s not a proper noun here so I’m spelling it as it should be) cruises, water taxis and many other things, among them whale watching cruises. The cruises board right by the New England Aquarium in case you were wondering.

    Trips run about 3-4 hours long; the catamarans are large, pretty stable, and have plenty of viewing spots. Tickets are not refundable but are transferable to a later cruise (if they are not booked out), so consider planning your whale watching for early in your Boston visit, just in case the weather is poor and you want to reschedule.  Food and drink are available, and rather than try to pack something for lunch we bought some sandwiches on board, which were perfectly okay but not worth blogging about.


    Mr Cow showing off his sea legs in front of one of the whale-watching catamarans.

    Harbour cities are often very striking from the sea. Boston is no exception. Motoring out through Boston Harbor into Massachusetts Bay out towards Stellwagen Bank, the eager whale watcher can enjoy views of the city and surrounding areas.

    Boston Light on Little Brewster Island is nicely picturesque. Tours are available, but we had only so many days in Boston.

    But what about the whales?

    Usually there is always someone looking bored and disinterested but not on this trip.  During the journey out you could feel the anticipation simmering away.  Then we saw our first WHALE!  The excitement reached a cresendo over the entire ship and stayed there as a buzz throughout numerous sightings.  There was shouts and laughter people pointing out some detail to their neighbor.  No one was stationary for long, we crossed sides  back and forth as we watched and waited for the next plume of spray, fin or flipper to appear. 

    I’m not a huge fan of synchronized swimming, but with this mother and child it was a beautiful sight to behold.

    We were informed there are three types of whales which can be spotted in these waters; Humpback, Finback and Minke. I’m no whale expert (so please correct me if I am wrong ) these are Humpbacks and this is because of their small dorsal fin and long pectoral flippers. If you watch the video you will notice the black and white pattern which is unique to each whale.


  • Travel

    Day 5. Boston. Hurricane, Har Gau, Hall

    In which we consider natural disasters, do not eat an excellent sandwich for lunch, and go for a walk.


    So, here are some snips of news headlines from the last several years. What do they have in common?

    Well, yes, they are all natural disasters. More personally, they are natural disasters that happened while we were on holiday in those locations.

    I’m not saying we are cursed. But it has definitely occurred to me that we could probably phone the Chamber of Commerce at pretty much any popular holiday destination, threaten to visit them at peak season, and expect a generous payoff for not turning up.

    Okay. Want to guess where I’m going with this?

    Yep. Got it in one. I mean, I did kind of foreshadow it with the heading and all.

    Truth to tell none of the disasters worked out too horribly, as natural disasters go.

    Hurricane Madeline weakened significantly before it hit Hawaii and had very heavy rain but no huge damage; we had to cancel our trip to Big Island because all the flights were grounded, but we stayed an extra five days at a very nice resort in Maui which was no hardship.

    Mount Agung didn’t erupt while we were there (although it did some months later, killing over a thousand people). Flights were grounded for a while because of the ash, but we left Bali as scheduled before the groundings.

    The earthquake in Vanuatu actually occurred the morning of the day that we arrived in the afternoon, so I’m stretching things a little bit by including it. Again, no great damage was done although we did get to experience a fairly exciting aftershock that evening.

    And Hurricane Dorian also weakened considerably before it hit. There was heavy rain and winds around Cape Cod but Boston only got some pretty mild rain.

    It did, however, make the seas rather energetic for a day or two. As a result of which we delayed the whale-watching trip we had booked for this day. And good on Boston Harbour Cruises for making the tickets transferable and being quite frank about what the seas were going to be like. We decided that even if the weather was going to be … okay … today, it was going to be better tomorrow.

    So, there we were at about 11am on a Sunday, at Boston Harbour, and nothing to do for a few hours. How to fill in the time?

    Yum Cha!

    I mentioned last post that one of the things we like to experience in different cities is yum cha. So far we have found it to be an extremely consistent experience wherever we have gone, but there are often some specialties local to the city or just to that restaurant to discover, and there is a comfort to the similarities.

    Having done extensive research about the Boston yum cha scene, the smart money appeared to be on China Pearl. Let’s play yum cha bingo.

    Located in Chinatown? Check.

    Families queueing to get in? Check.

    Located at the top of awkwardly high stairs? That’s a bonus point!

    Huge internal space with decor that looks like it’s from the ’70s? Check and check!

    Prawn dumplings – thin, supple pastry and juicy prawns. Check.

    Deep fried prawn and chive dumplings – crispy and chivey.

    Shao mai – densely porky and chewy.

    Turnip cakes – firm, slightly charred.

    Check, check, check.

    Vegetarian pocket dumplings – sorry to say these were a miss. The pastry was thick and stodgy, the filling sparse and lacking flavour. No check here.

    Crab claw dumplings – crispy shell and generous amounts of crab and prawn mince filling. Definitely a check.

    And, egg tarts, because you have to have egg tarts – light flaky pastry, rich slightly sweet filling. Check.

    So overall China Pearl was a good, classic yum cha experience. No special or unique menu items that we saw; but it did have a steam table with fried and steamed dishes on it as well as the usual trolleys navigating speedily around the room, which is not something I’ve seen elsewhere.

    It’s pronounced Fan-ewe-il.

    So, a bit more of a holiday history ramble.

    The first time I visited Washington D.C., we went to the Mall, as you do. Everyone knows the reflecting pool, right? Lincoln memorial at one end, Washington Monument at the other, beautiful reflected vista in between. You know, this one.

    Well, when I was there, it was drained for maintenance. It was a long, shallow trough with a bunch of dead algae and pond scum at the bottom. Inspirational, not so much.

    The next time I was in D.C. we went to revisit the Jefferson Memorial. Founding father (Lisa Simpson’s favourite!), key writer of the constitution, third POTUS, and yes, he had a complicated relationship with slavery (to put it mildly). It was … not closed for maintenance, but was completely covered in scaffolding and draped with cloths for maintenance. The beautiful classical architecture of columns and dome was obscured.

    It seemed like every other American icon that I visited was going to be closed or obscured. I swear, when I went the the Grand Canyon I half expected the whole jolly thing to be covered with painter’s cloths with a “Thank you for your patience” sign.

    Faneuil Hall is a Boston icon. Built in the 18th century and rebuilt and expanded in the 19th, it has been a market (on the ground floor) and a meeting hall (on the upper floors) for several centuries and change. Nowadays it is part of a market district, a museum and gallery in the basement, and the upstairs hall is still used for functions.

    But you are smart people. I think you can see where I’m going with this.

    Yep. The whole darn thing was swaddled in scaffolding and mesh. Everything was going on inside as usual – it’s a bit of a tourist trap, to be honest, but hey, if you’re a tourist, embrace the traps, right? There are plenty of things to eat and souvenirs to buy. If you want a hat in the form of a lobster, this is the place to find it!

    And how is it pronounced really? I completely failed to ask a Boston native. Based on my pretty rudimentary French I would have said Fen-ewe-ay. Googling it I get video clips saying Fan-el and Fan-youl. I guess it’s a mystery for the ages.

    Tomorrow – whale watching. For sure, this time!

  • Travel

    Day 4. Boston. Sneaker, Shirts, Steak

    In which we take care of some tasks necessary for all travellers (shopping!), have an excellent sandwich for lunch, and dine out on some delightful steak.


    One of the (many, many) fun things to do on holiday is shopping. Buying some stuff that is new, interesting, impossible to get at home or much cheaper to get where you are (art supplies in New York compared to Melbourne! We came back with a ton of paper, paint and pencils) or just different. Yay shopping!

    One of the most annoying things to do on holiday is shopping. Away on holiday and you need to get something mundane but necessary. Maybe you forgot to pack it (I never, ever remember to pack a hat when travelling, which actually works out fine as baseball caps are readily available and make fine mementos), maybe you lost something important (somewhere in Arizona in 2003 I left my razor plugged in charging when we checked out of the motel), maybe something just broke or ran out. And then you have to take time away from your precious holiday activities, navigate strange foreign ways (How can I be sure the toothpaste will taste the same?) and after all that you are just back where you started in the first place. Boo, shopping!

    Sneakers & Shirts

    Which is to say that after a very busy day of walking, I discovered that the orthotic inserts in my sneakers were absolutely fine for a couple of hours casual strolling and even for a fair old workout at the gym. But after six or eight hours of pavement pounding, it turns out that chunks of firm plastic positioned to keep your arches up and your feet from splaying out like a distressed duck get quite sore and even a bit blistery. So first order of business was to find some nice soft gel inserts.

    Which is, to be honest, not what you want to hear about. Enough to say that three different sports-shoe shops in downtown Boston didn’t have sneaker inserts but we found them at a pharmacy, and spent most of the rest of the day gently wandering around buying some nice shirts (I’m wearing one of them right now!) and a few other bits and bobs.

    Speaking of wandering around Boston, here is a view of the Custom House Tower, an elegant early skyscraper dating from 1915. In the foreground is part of a linear park created on the grounds of an old railway line, now studded with greenery, art, water features and nice places to sit, relax and have a pleasant drink.

    Tourist tip – make sure you have comfy, worn-in shoes for your holiday. I mean, everyone knows that, but holiday walking isn’t always the same as at-home walking.

    It was a rock lobster (roll)

    Our excellent sandwich today was a lobster roll from Luke’s Lobster.

    A lobster roll at its simplest is some good fresh lobster, lightly bound in mayonnaise, served in a hot-dog bun that has been split from the top down, buttered and lightly grilled. There are fancy versions with all kinds of toppings (we’ll see some of those when we get to Portland) but Luke’s serves the classic style with just a sprinkle of seasoned salt on top.

    The meat was fresh, sweet, succulent and delicious. The slaw was fresh and crisp, lightly dressed with a vinaigrette, and perky with poppy-seeds. Even the soda was delicious!

    Steak – Smith and Wollensky

    So, one of the things we like to do when we travel is compare things. Compare things that are similar, compare things that are different, just as long as they are comparable they are fair game. It’s interesting, it’s fun, and it makes you think.

    Another thing we like to do when we travel is eat. I know, I said I wouldn’t dissect every single meal we ate. But unless you want to see pictures of the shirts, there’s not much else to talk about this day. And bear with me, there’s a theme gently rolling into sight.

    So put the two together. What are some things that are similar enough to compare, different enough to contrast, and common enough to reliably find?

    I mean, yes, art, architecture, local throat-singing techniques. And also yum cha, burgers, and steaks. They’re everywhere!

    Smith and Wollensky is a chain of steakhouses, technically an international chain with restaurants in London and Taipai, but most of them in the US. We love a plucky local hero of a restaurant, fueled by the love and passion of the owners. They can be unique, creative, and brilliant. But a chain can bring plenty of good things too – good staff training, good managers, deep corporate pockets for a high-end fit-out and a great wine list, and organisational buying power to source quality ingredients.

    The Atlantic Wharf branch is a steakhouse in the old school mould – dark panelling, cozy booths and banquettes, a great big marble-topped bar, and staff dressed up in waistcoats and ties, very natty indeed.

    The menu is also classic steakhouse. Classic cuts of beef, classic sauces. classic sides. Not a ton of creativity on display in the menu, and that’s okay – there’s definitely a place for the classics.

    I’m not sure if it’s still available, but when we visited we had the After Eight menu – three courses from a slightly reduced menu and unlimited wine from a choice of four (a Spanish cava, a Chilean chardonnay, and Californian pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon the night we were there, all very nice). At $80 per person it’s an excellent deal.

    Tuna “poke” – really a tartar, with pickled watermelon radish, charred avocado, lotus root crisps and a wasabi emulsion.

    Bacon salad. I have to admit I was surprised by this. By bacon salad I was expecting some greens and some slices of lovely crispy bacon. What arrived was a huge slab of truly excellent belly bacon, with a complex burnt-caramel, orange and bourbon gastrique and some completely anomalous sprigs of Thai basil. This is manly steakhouse food taken to the next level.

    Eye fillet, gorgonzola sauce, applewood smoked bacon. Cooked to an accurate medium rare, perfectly tender as eye fillet should be, the sauce was heftily blue-cheesy without being overpowering.

    Eye fillet again, with a coffee rub and a pleasantly warm ancho butter drizzle and topped with a giant pile of crispy onion strips. I haven’t seen that much fried alium as a garnish since the ’90s, I think. It was a retro joy to go through.

    We had side dishes of grilled mushrooms (simple, classic, delicious) and hash browns (sadly rather soggy and the least exciting dish of the meal. We should probably have gone with the fries, but were trying to eat things we couldn’t get at home, hence hash browns.). And with that we were quite full.

    Unable to fit dessert, our excellent waitress insisted that it be packed for us to take home.

    A very nice chocolate cake with a Bailey’s flavoured chcolate mousse filling and chocolate ganache. Mr. Cow was impressed.

    Overall it was a classic steakhouse experience. Really good beef, well cooked, tasty sauces, very nice surrounds and excellent service.

  • Travel


    So. obviously I haven’t posted anything for months and months.

    It seemed … weird, at least, maybe even tasteless, to be posting about all the fun things we did on our holidays when all the things that are going on, are going on. But I’m going to get back to it. Because it was a fun holiday. And a lot of things have changed, and more will change, but I want to memorialise all the things we did before they fade out of my memory altogether.

    So to all the people who made our holidays great – running restaurants, and tours, and hotels, and Air B’n’Bs, and Broadway shows, and everything – thank you. I have confidence in (this may sound tacky) the human spirit that whatever new normal we end up at will be at least as good as the old one.