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A Corner of New England

Massachusetts and Maine

Hurray, we’re going to Boston and Kennebunkport, a vacation duo that strikes us as a perfect pairing, like steak and frites. Oops, this is New England so let’s instead choose, clam chowder and lobster, the quintessential regional dishes.

Thoughts of Boston fill me with anticipation of much that the city is famous for: Boston Garden in full-throated cry; spiky church steeples; Quincy Hall; brick sidewalks with gas lamps; Boston as the cradle of liberty with echoes of history, its patriots shouting, “Let every man do his duty, and be true to his country,” before rushing to Griffin's wharf to stage the Boston Tea Party; and fussy old Boston, “home of the bean and the cod, where the Lowells talk to the Cabots and the Cabots talk only with God.”

Swan boats at the Boston Public Garden

Fussy? That was old Boston. The city’s renowned puritanical streak seems to have dimmed to a faint smudge. The taboo against serving alcohol on Sundays disappeared from the books. A blue law or two survives—there was quite a dustup when Whole Foods opened on Thanksgiving Day, 2005.  Nevertheless, Bean Town is now rife with opportunities for indulgence and good times are no longer banned in Boston. A wealth of restaurants from innovative to ethnic lure visitors away from boiled dinners, baked beans, and Boston cream pie. Stylish luxury hotels spring up alongside old-world jacket-and-tie stalwarts. There’s also great shopping, happening bars, red-hot jazz, splendid parks, and outdoor cafes that give the city the air of a European capital.

Boston still cherishes and preserves its revolutionary heritage. Among the several ways to see the tourist sites of the storied city is by trolley or by walking the Freedom Trail. A quick tour on the trolley, a rubber-tired motor vehicle designed to resemble an old streetcar, will help you to get your bearings. The 90-minute route is circuitous and continuous. If you wish, get on or off at any of the stops.

For those who don’t want to miss a thing, follow the redbrick and red-painted path that meanders through the historic districts, covering about two and one-half miles and 350 years of America’s past. Start at Boston Common, a convenient jumping off point for those who stay at the Taj Boston, as we did, and the oldest public space in the United States. From the domed State House, a creation of Charles Bullfinch, a designer of nearby Beacon Hill, a gleam of golden light shines down on the green lawn. Further along you pass Park Street Church on Brimstone Corner. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison made his fiery antislavery speeches here. A roll-call of some of the nation’s earliest citizens—Sam Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere--rest in Old Granary Burying Ground. Nearby are America’s first public school, founded in 1636 and attended by Ben Franklin, Cotton Mather, and Sam Adams; and Old South Meeting House, hatching ground for the Boston Tea Party and other acts of rebellion. The red path leads to the Old Corner Bookstore, site of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Longfellow, Emerson, and Hawthorne’s literary discussions. Faneuil Hall’s upstairs meeting room was dubbed “Cradle of Liberty” by Daniel Webster. Soon you come upon Paul Revere’s house, dating from 1680 and the oldest surviving structure in downtown. Close to Revere’s House is Old North Church where “one if by land and two if by sea” became etched in America’s collective memory and from which Revere seems poised to ride again. The trail eventually leads across Charlestown Bridge to the Bunker Hill Monument and ends at the U.S.S. Constitution (Old Ironsides). http://www.freedomtrail.org

Each month we receive an e-mail “What’s new in Boston, USA.” Compiled by the Greater Boston Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, it lists current theater, ballet, sports events, shopping, exhibitions, tours, festivals and discount admissions. To view “what’s new” open http://www.BostonUSA.com.

Where To Stay

When the word “location” is mentioned, it is more often than not repeated thrice to emphasize a coveted neighborhood or the desirable positioning of a property. Use the words to describe the positioning of the Taj Boston and Back Bay, the city’s tony district, comes to mind. Along with the metaphoric meaning, the use of the phrase “location, location, location” expands when you consider that the hotel has three addresses, or locations if you will, the Public Garden, Arlington Street, and Newbury Street.

The Taj Hotel Boston, one of three United States lodgings belonging to the famed Taj Resorts and Palaces collection, began welcoming guests early this year.  The aristocratic landmark, a fashionable Beaux Arts building dating back 80 years from 1927, previously operated under the aegis of the Ritz-Carlton group. Caesar Ritz himself would be impressed by the quiet transformation. We stayed here in the old days and remembered it fondly. None of the understated elegance has disappeared. If anything it’s been lightly polished to give it a soft, serene finish.

Taj Hotel

Hoping to walk to dinner, we stepped out into the cool evening air and asked the accommodating doorman to direct us to our restaurant. He thought it a little too far to go by foot—we did walk back--and shooed us into a black limousine, compliments of the management, waiting at the curb. Our driver offered that guests are transported to their appointments every night.

As darkness fell we hurried back to unwind with a drink in the Club Lounge, check email on the house at the tidy business center, and luxuriate in our sumptuous, supersized corner suite on the Club Level. The rose and gold décor whispered outstanding taste and the layout and furnishings shouted comfort. With views to die for, a large dressing room/closet, a powder room and master bath, a living room with a fireplace and easy-to-sink-into sofas and chairs, a kitchen that went unused, and a bedroom that invited a deep and satisfying sleep, it was a night to remember. Some high-end hotels sell their mattresses to the public.  I would not be surprised if requests from guests soon begin pouring in asking to buy the bedding.

Our accommodations suggested that a rajah had been here. Or at least he left his imprint by dropping off two richly illustrated books, “India Goes Global” and “The Centenary of the Taj, 100 Years of Glory.” So engrossing were these tomes that they turned our thoughts to visiting India.

Club level guests enjoy five daily repasts of food and beverage. We caught the tail end of afternoon tea, which looked properly British with an epergne laden with scones, sweets, and fancy finger sandwiches and the beginning of the cocktail hour. A table filled with hot hors d’oeurvre appeared ample enough to substitute for a meal.

Next morning we got to eat in earnest. The breakfast was delicious and another treat came from the concierge who pointed out some of the sites that up make the million dollar spectacle beyond the windows overlooking the Public Garden. He said that the panorama is ever-changing. One can see bulbs in the spring, snow in the winter, and lights on summer eves. At this time of year we sighted pristine flower gardens, weeping willows, Japanese maples, and more.  The bridge over the Garden’s lagoon was reminiscent of a smaller version of Prague’s Charles Bridge. Swan boats inspired by the children’s book “No Time for Ducklings” stood in formation waiting to glide through the water. A bronze statue depicted a patriot sitting tall on his horse. Further away the golden dome of the statehouse shone in the morning sun.

With the warm weather and our short stay we did not have time to partake of two of the unique services that the hotel offers. During the cool season a Fireplace Butler, again gratis, is on call to light fires in the fireplaces, which are an amenity in every suite. Following an explanation of different woods on the firewood menu, you choose a scent—cherry, oak or birch.

A bath menu with several selections is also in place.  A personal attendant draws the water adding lavender and sea salts and serves you herbal tea. Or you can soak in bubbles while drinking hot chocolate and eating freshly baked cookies. For an even more indulgent experience immerse yourself in scented bubbles while sipping champagne and nibbling strawberries. 
Taj Boston, 15 Arlington Street, Boston, MA 02116. Tel. 617-598-5700. http://www.tajhotels.com

Where To Dine

Petit Robert Bistro

Many French bistros are family affairs. Monsieur runs the kitchen while Madame chats up the customers about the menu, takes the orders, and presents the checks. Petit Robert Bistro involves kinfolk, one of each gender, too. But, this time it is pere and fille. Iris Robert, a mere 24 years old, is in command at one of the two branches of Petit Robert Bistro named for dad, Jacky Robert.

At the Kenmore Square outpost where we dined, the food is identical to what is served at the original Columbus Avenue restaurant. In addition to the long menu, there are daily blackboard specials. Food is, of course, French, but hardly haute. Featured instead are Gallic comfort foods, the dishes that are the staples of everyday French meals and much beloved by ordinary folk. You come here to eat bistro standards: onion soup, moules, escargots, salad nicoise, beef bourguignon, duck confit, and tripe, all prepared with a twist. Much lauded is the famous frisee salad, composed with curly greens, lardoons and poached eggs that are panko-coated and deep fried.

Le Petit Bistro

We began with extraordinarily tasty appetizers. The trio of homemade pates with condiments was a novel take on the usual style of preparation. Ranging from fine to coarse in texture, each with its own distinctive ingredients; pork and chicken livers spiced with smoked paprika; chicken liver blended with butter; and rustic rillettes; the charcuterie was accompanied by cornichons, Dijon mustard and baguette slices. We swoon over baguettes that are crusty, crunchy. These loaves, flown in daily from Montreal, seemed to have been baked to feature the crust. The inspiration for the very smoky herring filets sitting on warm potato, carrot, and onion salad napped with herb-flecked vinaigrette must surely have been Brittany. For mains it was rabbit all around. Rabbit falling off the bone and doused in a sauce so rich it was cloying went mostly uneaten, but rabbit liver in mushroom mustard cream bested any liver we’ve ever sampled.  

The pastry chef has a delicate hand. Her luscious tarte au citron with macerated strawberries was just sweet enough and redolent of citrus flavor. The warm apple tarte tatin matched what one might find in a good patisserie.

The Commonwealth Avenue location near B.U. caters to a lively young crowd. Although the restaurant is casual, tables are dressed with white cloths. The simple décor relies on an open kitchen, brick walls and a cupboard lined with wine bottles to spruce up the premises. Service is friendly. At the front of the restaurant a few steps down from the sidewalk on a small terrace planted with an Eiffel Tower replica and with walls covered with a mural of the scene along the Seine, patrons can dine au pleine aire. Paris it isn’t, but for a pleasant meal in Boston it fills the bill.

Petit Bistro Robert, 468 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA 02215. Tel. 617-375-0699.

Kennebunkport, Maine

You say to a friend we’re taking a vacation in Maine and before you can continue, you’ll be interrupted by a barrage of talk about lobstermen, salt-splayed air, and an old-fashioned inn with creaky stairs.

Except for a slight ribbon of land—a strip of New Hampshire cosseting the coast, Massachusetts practically flows into Maine. Like a rake and a hoe, they might be packaged in the same box and tied up with a big bow. From Boston it’s a short 90-minute hop to Kennebunkport, a town that ought to be famous and is, but possibly for skewed reasons. We saw signs welcoming Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin, which were replaced later in the season by ones announcing Nickolas Sarkozy’s visit. Kennebunkport may be a town for the Bushes, but it’s also a vacation spot for you and me.

What is there for us to do? Plenty! Four public beaches stretch out along the shore. Search out adventure on the water by whale watching or taking a lobster boat or glass bottom cruise. Fish, sail or kayak. Attend summer theater. Visit the Franciscan Monastery, a wildlife sanctuary, the Seashore Trolley and Brick Store Museums, as well as a light house. That’s merely the short list. A longer one awaits you in Kennebunkport.

Where to Stay

Kennebunkport Inn

Sundown is the time to arrive at the Kennebunkport Inn for it is then that the Victorian- style home, poised in Dock Square, the center of town, flashes its magnificence. The sun’s rays flare across the skies and suffuse the inn’s white and green façade with a shower of brightness.

In this charming and historic house, innkeepers Debby Lennon and Tom Nill combine the informality of a home with the professional services of a hotel. With just 49 rooms divvied up between the main mansion, the Riverhouse and the Wharfside Building, complete with water views, the style ranges from traditional to casual. On the way up the stairs to our cozy two-bedroom dormer attic suite, we passed a small public sitting room, an inviting spot to curl up with the Sunday papers. Antiques and reproductions—sconces, wicker, and photographs from days gone by--abound in the old clapboard structure.

Kennebunkport Inn

Returning from dinner, we heard a chorus of voices coming from the turn-of-the-century tavern. Turns out it was the patrons engaged in a sing-along with Diane Charmaine, a chanteuse/pianist whose forte is familiar Broadway tunes. In season the bar hums with music all week. Three other entertainers alternate with Charmaine and all wisely choose tunes made famous by Sinatra, Bill Joel, the Beatles, Bobby Darin, and Elton John. The amateur vocalists are happy that the tunes are familiar ones so that they are not stumped by the lyrics.

A bountiful breakfast, particularly appropriate for Sunday, including a mouth-watering quiche, fresh fruits, a variety of house-baked muffins and cakes, bagels and more is included in the rates. Served in the dining room, which is decorated in a nautical motif involving clipper ships, brass lanterns, and fish prints, the ambiance is decidedly unstuffy. Other guests were amused, rather than annoyed, by the four-year old at our table who announced that she wanted to go for a walk around the world after we finished our milk and our coffee. We did stroll the town and visited the bustling collection of shops and galleries along the main streets. Two of the stores are of particular interest. Owned by the proprietors of the Inn, the Beach House sells colorful housewares, both utilitarian and whimsical, and the Shell Shack offers shells by the pound, beach glass, and other objects associated with the sea.

Inn amenities include spa services, the town’s only steakhouse and seafood grill, Port Taverne & Grille, and special guest packages.

The Kennebunkport Inn, P.O.Box 111, One Dock Square, Kennebunkport, Me 04046.

Summer 2007