Urban Adventures: New England's Cities
As an outdoors writer living in Boston, I lay claim to a region that within close proximity rewards me with an array of adventures. If I wake up early, by 9 a.m. I could be hiking a 5,000-foot peak in New Hampshire, sea kayaking along Maine’s granite-lined shores or Cape Cod’s dunes, mountain biking in Vermont, or sailing the former America’s Cup cruising grounds of Newport. Yet friends and family will tell you that I spend just as much time playing outside in my urban backyard.
Those early settlers got it right when they founded cities at the edge of the ocean and on our big lakes and mighty rivers. There are sections in all our cities where beauty rises from the shadows like an early-morning fog, and the scenery is best appreciated in slow motion.
Portland, ME: Kayaking
While lobstermen ply the ocean waters for their catch, Portlanders play in the waves with their shiny new kayaks. Follow their lead into the open water to paddle around a handful of the 220-plus Casco Bay islands (only a quarter of them are inhabited). Casco Bay Lines (207-774-7871; cascobaylines.com) leaves every hour or two year-round for a 20-minute cruise to Peaks Island ($3.25-$6.25 round trip). Once there, you can hook up with Maine Island Kayak Company (207-766-2373; maineislandkayak.com) for a full-day ($105) or half-day ($65) paddle.
On the half-day trip, you’ll slide into your kayak and paddle over to Fort Gorges, built just before the Civil War, in 1858. From atop its thick stone walls, you can see the Portland waterfront in all its rugged grandeur. Huge cranes tower over the larger boats of the cruise fleet, while silver oil-storage tanks mushroom along the wharves. As you paddle your way around the northern tip of Great Diamond Island, be on the lookout for ospreys nesting in the tall pines that line the granite shores. Farther inland, new houses are going up to accommodate the year-round commuters who yearn to have the sea as their welcome mat. After this little jaunt, you might make that same move.
Providence, RI: Biking
All it takes is a mere six miles on a paved path to leave industrialized Providence and reach the coastline of Narragansett Bay. No wonder residents would rather bike to the beach than deal with car traffic. The 14.5-mile-long East Bay Bike Path (riparks.com/eastbay.htm, rigreenways.org), originally part of the Providence/Worcester rail line, heads southeast from the city along the bay’s scenic shores to the town of Bristol. Less than two miles into the ride, fishing trawlers and sailboats appear on the right and small inlets and wetlands can be seen on the left. In warmer months, you’re likely to see folks clamming for littlenecks in the shallow waters along the route. That’s quite a contrast to the view of the Providence skyline that stands behind you.
South of the Riverside area, the trail becomes more secluded as you head through forest and over two wooden bridges toward Warren, a good place to stock up on food and drink. Continue pedaling south, hugging Narragansett’s waters once again as the bay widens. Soon you’ll arrive at Colt State Park (401-253-7482; riparks.com) and neighboring Bristol Town Beach, the finest spot for sunbathing in East Bay. The trail ends in Bristol at Independence Park, near a handful of seafood restaurants that sell those fresh littlenecks.
Boston, MA: Kayaking
Far too often, writers compare the pastoral landscape of New England to a Currier and Ives print. Stand on the edge of the Charles River on either the Boston or the Cambridge side, however, and you can’t help thinking of Thomas Eakins’s paintings of rowers in the 1870s. The Charles is still a quintessential 19th-century scene: Crew teams from Harvard and Boston University paddle by, joined by all those individual scullers who yearn for yesteryear, when they, too, were in some collegiate rowing club. The best vantage point is from the Cambridge side, on the bend of the river between the Western Avenue and Eliot bridges.
By all means, head down to the docks and join in the fun. Rent a kayak from Charles River Canoe & Kayak (617-965-5110; paddleboston.com; from $14 per hour) and paddle alongside the crew teams. If you want to give the one-person shell a go and you have some experience sculling, contact the company’s Newton branch (781-891-6575). If you’re brand-new to the sport, call Cygnet Rowing (617-876-8653; paddleboston.com/rowing); this private club offers “learn to row” weekend packages for the general public ($300 for nine hours of instruction).
Be forewarned: Learning to scull isn’t easy. Both oars have to be together at all times or the boat quickly tips to the left or right. You must push off with your legs and scoot back as you propel the oars forward. Once you get into a rhythm, though, your cares will be forgotten as you quickly skim across the Charles. Folks who use the rowing machine at the local gym know what a great workout sculling is for the whole body. It’s far superior when you’re cruising along a river in the heart of Boston.
Hartford, CT: Walking
Why eat indoors at one of Hartford’s shopping malls when you can dine alfresco atop a ridge? The slight uphill climb to Farmington Mountain, just outside the city limits, is part of Connecticut’s extensive network of blue-blazed hiking trails, weaving through forests of maple, oak, and birch across relatively flat terrain, making for perfect noontime walks.