Touring the towns: Unusual themes and informative guides peel away the predictable and offer a less-traveled view of three great American cities Boston: Options: A variety of vehicles take visitors to see the sights, taste the foods and hear the history.

September 07, 1997|By Richard P. Carpenter | Richard P. Carpenter,BOSTON GLOBE

In some cities, taking a tour means climbing into a bus and peering out the window as the city's sights roll by.

But not in Boston.

Oh, you can still take some good bus tours. But you can also experience the city, its history and its panache by trolley (in your choice of color), on foot, by boat and even in a hybrid land-and-sea vehicle called a Duck. And, you can sample beers, visit an Italian kitchen, follow the path of John F. Kennedy, relive Revolutionary War battles, hunt for ghosts or maybe go underground. Depending upon the tour, you can spend as little as an hour or as much as a day doing so. Costs generally range from $5 to $38.

Boston's most familiar tour vehicles are the trolleys. Depending upon the company, these vehicles -- which are actually cleverly disguised buses -- come in orange-and-green (Old Town Trolley), red (Beantown Trolley), white (Discover Boston) and blue (Minuteman Trolley Tours) and hold about 40 people each. A basic narrated tour provides a good overview of the city and usually allows you to get off for as long as you wish at attractions such as Faneuil Hall Marketplace, then climb aboard again. Thus, you can make a day of it. Or, if you're in a hurry, the new Minuteman Tours offers an 80-minute excursion covering all the key sites.

Whatever the tour, you'll learn about Boston. Did you know, for instance, that the two Christian Science Center buildings are identical, except that one is horizontal and the other vertical?

But such general tours are only a start. How about stopping for a microbrew? Old Town Trolley Tours has teamed up with three Boston area microbrewery-restaurants for a three-hour tour. At each stop, passengers sample two kinds of beers plus appetizers.Along the way, tour-takers get a bit of scenery and beer history, too, learning -- among other things -- that George Washington was an enthusiastic home brewer.

Old Town Trolley Tours also offers "JFK's Boston," a three-hour, anecdote-filled tour created in conjunction with the John F. Kennedy Library. The tour, given only on Sundays, takes passengers to sites connected with our 35th president, with the tape-recorded voices of JFK and other family members heard along the way.

A key stop is in Brookline to see the relatively modest house at 83 Beals St. that patriarch Joseph Kennedy bought for $6,400 -- the house where JFK was born in 1917. There is a picture stop (and a visit inside the house if the tour group isn't too large), then a National Park Service guide hops aboard to point out other Kennedyesque sites during a ride around the neighborhood, such as St. Aidan's Catholic Church, where a young JFK roller-skated to Mass. Another principal stop is at the new museum at the Kennedy Library in Dorchester, where, in addition to the dozens of exhibits about JFK, there is a new section on the president's wife, Jacqueline.

On the water

The city's waters and islands are rich in history and legend. There are tales of a mysterious tunnel beneath Boston; of a sea serpent; of a grisly occurrence at Castle Island that may have inspired Poe to write "The Cask of Amontillado"; of women

pirates; of a treasure reputedly buried on one of the harbor islands; and of the Lady in Black, whose ghost is still sighted on Georges Island.

Several companies offer sails of various lengths of Boston Harbor and its islands. Among them: the Boston Harbor Cruise Co., Massachusetts Bay Lines, and the schooners Liberty and Liberty Clipper. The ships also present an evening musical at sea, filled with swashbuckling duels, cannon fire and those tales of the harbor.

One of the city's most popular tours, though, takes place on land and sea, in renovated World War II vehicles nicknamed Ducks. Boston Duck Tours offers an 80-minute ride through Boston history, led by conDUCKtors who drive through city sites, encouraging passengers to quack at passers-by.

But for many, the highlight is a plunge into the Charles River for some of the most scenic views of Boston available anywhere. The Charles Riverboat Co., meanwhile, offers hourlong cruises of the Charles.

For those who enjoy walking tours, the famed Freedom Trail has been refurbished with a permanent brick line to follow, distinct signage and maps, and 16 bronze medallions to identify the official sites, ranging from Boston Common to Paul Revere's house. You can tackle the three-mile tour on your own, of course, but guided tours of all or part of the trail may add a new dimension of knowledge. Was the Boston Massacre really a massacre? And how did it actually start? The National Park Service, the City of Boston Park Rangers, Boston Adventures, Boston by Foot, Discover Boston, Historic Neighborhoods and New England Stepps are among those conducting Freedom Trail and/or other tours, including the Black Heritage Trail and tours especially designed for families.

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