“My name is Sully Mikestand, I’m 36 years old and I live with my parents,” the wild-haired driver says by way of introduction. He looks like a roadie, wearing fingerless leather gloves, black jeans and a faded, sleeveless denim vest with badges pinned to the front.
Mr Mikestand — if that is his real name, and I doubt it — will be our guide today on a Boston Duck Tour. He’s at the wheel of our amphibious truck, modelled after the DUKWs, or Ducks, used by the US military during World War II.
In their original incarnation, these vehicles were used in the D-Day landings at Normandy, among other battles. After the war, a bunch of bright sparks in Wisconsin had the idea of using them to show tourists around and these days you’ll have seen Ducks conducting tours everywhere from Miami Beach to Malacca.
Of the 21,000 original Ducks, which were built in Michigan, about 1000-1200 are thought to remain. The replica we’re riding in today is wider, rounder and bigger than an original Duck and lacks a few of the original features such as the machinegun mounted to the front. It is named Back Bay Bertha and Boston Duck Tours’ other vehicles have similarly jaunty monikers inspired by local neighbourhoods — Kenmore Karla, Dorchester Dottie, and so on.
I’d feared the Duck tour would be gimmicky but Sully’s easy banter quickly wins me over. He clearly knows his stuff and his enthusiasm for his home city is infectious.
Boston, Sully tells us, is the birthplace of the American Revolution. It’s also known as a city of firsts — among other things, America’s first chocolate factory opened here in the early 1800s in the suburb of Dorchester. Sully fixes us a serious look in the rear-view mirror: “You know what else comes from Dorchester?” We shake our heads. “New Kids on the Block.” Cue laughter, and a high-five from Sully for a woman in the front row.
Our tour begins from outside the Prudential Centre in the central neighbourhood of Back Bay. This area is, Sully tells us as he drives, entirely manmade. Previously a polluted mud flat, it was reclaimed over several decades in the 19th century. A remarkably big portion of modern Boston is on reclaimed land and Sully tells us the rule of thumb is that flat areas are usually infill land.
We drive past Copley Square, home to some of Boston’s grandest buildings including the 1880s Trinity Church, now dwarfed by its gleaming neighbour, the 1970s John Hancock Tower, which is the tallest building in Boston. Sully points out the imposing Boston Public Library, opened in 1895. Home to nearly nine million books, it is the United States’ second- biggest public library behind the Library of Congress in Washington DC.
Here we’re following the final stages of the route of the Boston Marathon (we’re not far from the site of the 2013 bombings). Boston’s is the world’s oldest annual marathon and was first run in 1897 by a field of 15, of which 10 finished. About 37,000 people took part in this year’s race in April and, on average, 90 per cent finish. “That’s the number we’re most proud of,” Sully says.
As we drive past the golden dome of the Massachusetts State House, Sully gives us a potted history of the city. The first European settler in the area was Reverend William Blaxton, in 1625, and it became Boston in 1630 when Puritan settlers arrived and named it for their home town in Lincolnshire.
In the 19th century the city was home to a substantial African- American population and, edging the leafy Beacon Hill neighbourhood, we pass 66 Phillips Street. The address was once home to former slaves Lewis and Harriet Hayden, who sheltered escaped slaves following the Underground Railroad to freedom. This was, Sully says, known as one of the safest stops on the route because the Haydens kept two barrels of gunpowder by the front door. When slave catchers came around, the couple would threaten to blow the place sky high rather than hand over the escapees.
Passing the brutalist Government Centre, on the site of the old red-light district, Sully tells us a little about the lives of the early Puritan settlers. They would go to church all day and all night on Sunday, he says, having cooked a big pot of beans to see them through the Sabbath — giving Boston its nickname “Bean Town”. There’s another serious look in the rear-view mirror. “You know why, when you buy a can of beans there are exactly 239 beans in the can?” We shake our heads. “Because if there was one more bean, it’d be” — he affects an exaggerated Boston accent — “two-fahrty.” A few groans this time and another high-five for the woman in the front row.
Soon we come to the Charles River and it’s time to put the Duck through its paces. Sully sounds the horn as we splash into the water. Out on the river, all the kids on board get a chance to steer — some with more success than others.
Flowing 128km from Hopkinton (also the starting point for the Boston Marathon), the Charles meets the Atlantic Ocean at Boston Harbour and divides the city from neighbouring Cambridge, where Harvard University and MIT are located. For many years it had a terrible reputation for pollution as factories, mills and abattoirs dumped waste into the water. People who fell in were routinely advised to get a tetanus injection.
These days, following tremendous efforts by authorities, the river is sufficiently healthy that there’s a club of enthusiasts dedicated to swimming in its waters and we spot plenty of birdlife on the banks. Indeed, it’s now considered one of the cleanest urban rivers in the country.
Back on dry land and heading towards Boston’s downtown, Sully points out the site of the Great Molasses Flood of 1919. This is, remarkably, not one of Sully’s tall tales but a genuine historical incident, in which a massive molasses storage tank burst, killing dozens and injuring many more as a tidal wave of sticky liquid swept through Boston’s North End. It took months to clean up the mess and, legend has it, the smell of molasses lingered on warm nights for years to come.
Looping past some of the city’s revolutionary-era sites — Faneuil Hall, Quincy Market, King’s Chapel Buying Ground — around Boston Common and past the pub from the TV series Cheers, we end our tour heading back to the Prudential Centre along Newbury Street. Sully describes this as Boston’s answer to LA’s Rodeo Drive, with posh shops down this end and cheaper chains at the other. Or, as he puts it, fixing us with a serious gaze in the rear-view mirror for a final time: “This end is Giorgio Armani; the other end is his lesser-known little brother Salvation Armani.”
By now, the woman in the front row knows the drill, and it’s high-fives all around.
The 80-minute standard tour with Boston Duck Tour runs daily and costs $US34.99 ($37.70) for adults, with discounts for children, students and seniors. bostonducktours.com.
Emirates launched its daily direct service to Boston from its Dubai hub in March and now it flies to numerous destinations in the US. Its services to Boston and New York are a particularly attractive option flying from Perth, enabling travellers to reach the east coast of the US with only one stop, and it launched a direct Chicago service on August 5. Travel agents, emirates.com and 1300 303 777.
XV Beacon Hotel, in an historic building on the edge of Beacon Hill, provides a comfortable and convenient base for exploring Boston. Rooms at the boutique hotel start from $US395 per night. xvbeacon.com.
For information on visiting Boston, see bostonusa.com.
Gemma Nisbet visited Boston as a guest of Emirates Airlines and the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau.