The Boston waterfront is a work in progress. Successive waves of development have lapped its shores since the last glacier retreated 12,000 years ago. Native Americans built weirs to catch fish. European settlers constructed docks and wharves until the horizon was darkened with the rigging s of ships. Ocean liners arrived and departed. Warehouses went up, were demolished, were converted to condos.
The area is undergoing another boom. Several new hotels, the Institute of Contemporary Art, and the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse have brightened the shore. Signs of a working port may still be found, but you have to look hard for them. Ten years from now, the place will be all but unrecognizable to those of us who grew up around here.
As a native Bostonian, my trip to the waterfront to gauge this metamorphosis turned out to be a pilgrimage of nostalgia, surprise, and good, old-fashioned fun.
My wife and I and our 9-year-old son laced on our walking shoes -- the only real necessity for this adventure -- and set out from the southern tip, at the Black Falcon Cruise Terminal, where gargantuan ships receive excited travelers decked out in Kramer-style cruise wear and lathered with sunscreen.
The terminal, owned and operated by Massport, handles more than 100 oceangoing cruise ships and 200,000 passengers a year. Only cruisers are allowed to enter the terminal's restricted areas, but a good view can be had from the Summer Street bridge on the Reserved Channel and from the small park at the southern end of the terminal. It might seem like a passive way to spend a few minutes, but it's a hoot to watch so many happy people pile into a floating resort. And it's not a huge leap to picture the day when trans-Atlantic travelers with steamer trunks full of party frocks did the same thing a century ago, launching their year long grand tours of the continent.
In a perfect metaphor for the juxtaposition of old and new at the waterfront, the adjacent and nearly identical terminal to the Black Falcon houses the Boston Design Center. This mecca for Martha Stewart wannabes is the place to see cutting-edge (pun intended) innovations in fabrics, furnishings, and anything else someone creating dream interiors could use. Walking through the 78 showrooms could be a day trip in itself.
Be sure to catch the Boston Design Center Dream Home exhibit until the end of the month. Nine design companies took over nine rooms that my wife says are so gorgeous it made her want to go home, burn down the house, and start over.
We strolled by Boston Ship Repair, where the dry docks and towering cranes on railroad tracks were reminders of a once thriving shipbuilding industry.
By this point my family was a tad hot and in sorry need of a pick-me-up. Some brilliant person housed an Au Bon Pain in the Design Center terminal, which allowed my wife her iced tea and my son his oatmeal raisin cookie. But the Harpoon Brewery on 306 Northern Ave., a short walk from the terminals, was calling my name. It has regularly scheduled brewery tastings and a Harpoon 5:30 Club for groups of 15 to 80 people.
What would seafarers of old have thought of the parabolic white tent at the
Again, we loved the fact that while it may not be all about fish packing and importing tea anymore, this is still a working waterfront.
A quick jog down Northern Avenue from Harpoon to the intriguingly named Legal Test Kitchen, with its digital menus, Wi-Fi and iPod access at the table, and a menu that includes globally influenced dishes such as pho, Angry Lobster, Spicy Clam Pizzetta, Syrian Skillet Roasted Cheese, and LTK Paella shows that fish is still important here.
And since we're on the subject of restaurants, it's the waterfront's eateries that perhaps best reflect the area's metamorphosis.
There's the iconic Anthony's Pier 4, opened in 1963 at 140 Northern Ave., literally a pier in Boston Harbor where practically no fine dining restaurant had existed. And we're happy to report (because we ate lunch there) that the No Name is still running strong, and is as hard as it ever was to find tucked in among the seafood dealers on the Boston Fish Pier. On the day we lunched on fried clams and fish chowder, we ran into Rodney Teow of Singapore, who sought out this covert eatery for the fresh lobster. "I loved the lobster but it wasn't any less expensive than at home."
Food isn't the only draw for tourists and homeys when it comes to the waterfront. There's also eye candy. For that we headed to the Institute of Contemporary Art in its modern new digs at 100 Northern Ave. Because for a true artist, form fits content, the ICA hired architects Diller Scofidio and Renfro, who designed the site "from the sky down, as a contemplative space for experiencing contemporary art, and from the ground up, providing dynamic areas for public enjoyment," according to the ICA website. In many ways it's a visual foreshadowing of what's to be when the revitalization of the waterfront is complete.
The same could be said for the Moakley Courthouse, where we could have dined on the cheap in the cafeteria during the week. But instead we walked around the building to the park on Fan Pier . There are picnic benches, sculptures, and information boards to fill you in on just what a hot spot of ocean commerce this once was. We even saw a few recreational anglers dropping their lines.
After all that walking and culture we found ourselves ravenous so we headed to Fort Point Landing to the Barking Crab. We know the restaurant is only 12 years old, but it really captures all that's funky and urban about the area. What a hoot. Entering the Barking Crab is like stepping into a wacky clam shack on the set of Robert Altman's "Popeye. " The walls are cartoon red. There are super-sized starfish with Christmas lights draped around them and everything has that tilting boat, off-kilter feeling about it.
Our son loved the atmosphere and the steamers. We loved the cold beers and bucket of Jonah crab claws. And it would be impossible not to love the view s from anywhere in the joint across Fort Point Channel to the new InterContinental Boston Hotel and on this side, of the giant Hood milk bottle at the Children's Museum . This was a detail not unnoticed by our son, who insisted on revisiting Arthur Read, the Japanese House, and the hands-on Blue Man Group-style percussion games at the museum before we moved on.
In an attempt to walk off the carbs and the crabs, we set out again, heading north toward the New England Aquarium, tourist central for out-of-towners. It's there you can buy Boston souvenirs, a hot dog, or tickets to the latest trolley and boating tours.
We didn't want to take the time to do the full aquarium tour, but the
Refreshed, we took a walk behind the Boston Harbor Hotel, played in the giant and impressive retro pavilion out back, and watched families dressed to the nines going to brunch and taking water cabs and sightseeing cruises.
On our stroll back to the car, we passed the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, the Seaport Hotel, and the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel, all glittering new buildings, but none with the soul of the rusting working boats at the Fish Pier.
Now it was time for mom to get her thrills, which meant a visit to an art gallery. We stopped in at the Crump McCole Gallery across the street from the Seaport Hotel. "We're the only store down here," said Norman Crump, the former captain of the boat to Thompson Island, whose Boston area waterfront scenes adorn the walls.
"The seaport is a destination for people going to the hotels and restaurants," Crump said, "but there is no shopping yet. I'm waiting for the neighborhood to catch up with us."
Tom Long, a freelance writer in Hudson, N.H., can be reached at email@example.com.