A rolling introduction to Boston

Massachusetts: Whether you're learning about chocolate, science, African-Americans or the notables in an innovative 'garden cemetery,' the city on the bay has a lot to offer.

Destination: New England

March 17, 2002|By Katherine Imbrie | Katherine Imbrie,PROVIDENCE JOURNAL

Boston is a world-class city sometimes compared to San Francisco and even Paris, and with good reason.

Like San Francisco, it is urbane, educated and situated on a bay. Like Paris, it has broad avenues with sidewalks wide enough for cafes, along with great public gardens, museums and even a "left bank" sister city, Cambridge.

And like any great city, Boston has built an industry on the business of tourism, and with tourists -- voila! -- there are tours.

Tours of Boston cover a lot of territory, ranging from the traditional to the unusual.

The Innovation Odyssey tour is one of the city's newest offerings. Promotional materials promise a mix of theater, historical facts, scientific information and a bus ride through Boston and Cambridge.

You can be a happy tourist in Boston without going on any tours, and not all the tours mentioned below lived up to their billing, but if you like a guided experience, here's a look at several interesting ways to see the city:

Celebrating science

The Innovation Odyssey is ambitious. It tries to cover such scientific advancements as the discovery of ether, the development of radar, the concept of inoculation against smallpox and Alexander Graham Bell's invention of the telephone.

Each of these subjects is worthy of more than a couple of minutes of explanation, but that's all the tour's busy format allows for.

The Odyssey tour uses a stage actor to play the roles of more than a dozen historical figures (each of whom uses a different dialect and voice to describe his or her innovation).

The actor, Frank Ridley, does an excellent job with the fact-jammed material he has to work with, but ultimately, he is bracing himself at the front of the bus as it lurches around city streets, gamely changing hats and grabbing props to try to create the illusion of a changing gallery of characters.

Ridley delivers rapid-fire monologues to his audience. While you could not help but admire the effort, you also had to think: Isn't there a more efficient way of finding out about this stuff?

In fact, there is: The Web site (www.innovationodyssey.com) has lots of information on the subjects covered in the tour, including photos of the people who were involved in the discoveries.

The bus makes three stops in the course of the 2 1 / 4 -hour tour: Massachusetts General Hospital, where a lecture hall was the setting for an explanation of the first use of ether in surgery; Harvard Yard in Cambridge, where Ridley dresses in a dashiki to create the character of Onesimus, an African slave of Cotton Mather who is credited with having given his master the idea for inoculating 18th-century Bostonians against smallpox; and the small museum in Boston's Telephone Building, which contains antique telephones and other memorabilia relating to Bell's invention.

The tour, which costs $25, leaves every Saturday at 2 p.m. from the tour bus stop at 28 State St., near the Old State House.

For more information, or to buy tickets in advance, call 617-350-0358.

The chocolate shuffle

A Chocolate Tour of Boston is a hedonistic counterpoint to the erudite Innovation Odyssey. Presented by the Old Town Trolley tour company, the chocolate tour mixes a large amount of sweetness with a little bit of history. (The first ice cream sundae, the tour says, was served at Bailey's in Boston around 1900, though other communities also claim that distinction.)

The three-hour narrated tour makes three stops, starting with the Top of the Hub restaurant on the 52nd floor of the Prudential Center downtown. There, while they enjoy a panoramic view of Boston, the chocolate tourists also enjoy a "Chocolate Surprise" -- in our case, chocolate creme brulee served with a chocolate caramel nut brownie, or a slice of chocolate ganache cake filled with mascarpone mousse.

Afterward, participants are taken by trolley to the Hampshire House (whose Bull and Finch pub was the inspiration for the television show Cheers), where in an upstairs dining room they are served a maple-roasted almond and Swiss chocolate soup and chocolate-covered biscottis.

Finally, for a finale that all by itself would be cause to enroll in Weight Watchers, the tourists are chauffeured to Le Meridien, one of Boston's most sophisticated hotels, where the Chocolate Bar Buffet in the Cafe Fleuri lays out a beguiling array of more than two dozen desserts. Most people who take the tour don't need a dinner reservation afterward.

Old Town's Chocolate Tour costs $50, but it's not necessary to be part of a tour to go to Le Meridien's Saturday Chocolate Bar Buffet, which is offered weekly from noon to 3 p.m., from September through May. Advance reservations are suggested.

Old Town Trolley's Chocolate Tours depart on Saturdays and Sundays, January through March, at 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. from the Old Town Trolley stop at the corner of Boylston and Charles streets next to the Public Garden.

Seating on the tours is by reservation only. Call 617-269-3626 or log onto www.trolleytours.com / ChocolateTour.

Garden cemetery

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