With deep channels and sheltering bays and islands, it’s no wonder the Puritans chose Boston Harbor as the place to build their “city on a hill” in the 1630s. Two hundred years later, Oliver Wendell Holmes, one of their Yankee descendents, dubbed the city the “hub of the solar system,” and Boston has been called The Hub ever since.
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Neither Holmes nor the city’s dour founders would recognize the vibrant, diverse place that Boston has become, but its harbor remains a hub of nautical activity, especially for recreational boaters.
While the downtown waterfront, revitalized after some very rough times in the 1960s and ‘70s, draws the lion’s share of attention, the “greater harbor” comprises outlying towns and cities such as
Hingham, Quincy, Hull, Winthrop and Charlestown, as well as the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area (see sidebar)—an incredible and underappreciated public resource that offers camping, hiking, fishing and, yes, swimming. Indeed, the once-justly maligned waters of Boston Harbor are now cleaner than at any point in the last 200 years, thanks to the massive sewage-treatment facility on Deer Island, which purifies the effluent of some five million Boston-area residents so thoroughly that you could safely drink the end product.
The only downside for daytrippers is that Boston has no public dockage close to the downtown area, save for a couple of small drop-off floats on the Fort Point Channel (great for kayakers). If you wish to leave your boat on a mooring or in a slip, you’ll need to contact one of the downtown-area marinas.
At the head of the harbor is the aptly named Constitution Marina, adjacent to the frigate U.S.S. Constitution (a.k.a., “Old Ironsides”), the world’s oldest commissioned warship still afloat and victor of famous sea battles against the British during the War of 1812. Constitution Marina is a huge facility with 300 slips and is an easy walk to the famous Italian restaurants of Boston’s North End. It’s also close to the Charles River Locks, making it a prime location from which to watch Boston’s famous Fourth of July fireworks display. Boaters can get an even better view by slipping into the Charles River Basin via the improved and easy-to-navigate lock system. Just be aware that any spot will be packed with boats on the Fourth of July.
“That one day on Boston Harbor is a boater’s dream come true,” says Larry Russo Sr., president and CEO of Russo Marine, New England’s largest powerboat dealership with a location on Dorchester Bay. Russo points out that families can spend the day touring the Harbor Islands before making their way up the Charles River to take in the fireworks and live music from the Esplanade. “It’s the most spectacular 12 hours of boating you can have without going more than two miles per hour.”
The city’s waterfront has been similarly cleansed over the years, to the point where seven-figure condos now occupy the former sites of squalid fish wharves and warehouses. Area attractions need no introduction. Boston, as many know, is a walker’s city, and boaters can enjoy easy access to historic sites, ethnic neighborhoods, famous museums, great dining and lively nightlife.
The Boston Harbor Walk, which stretches from Chelsea Creek in the north to the Neponset River in the south, provides easy pedestrian access from the docks of downtown-area marinas to Boston’s many attractions. The project is ongoing, but many sections, especially those along the shores of Dorchester Bay and the downtown waterfront, have been completed.
At the center of Boston’s revitalized waterfront, the high-end Boston Yacht Haven Inn & Marina on Commercial Wharf offers protected slips and luxurious accommodations in their onsite suites and penthouses.
On nearby Long Wharf, the Boston Waterboat Marina also occupies a prime spot in the heart of the city’s poshest waterfront developments, and is close to numerous downtown eateries, including those in the North End, Faneuil Hall and Chinatown. It offers transient slips, but call ahead for availability.
A bit farther south along the waterfront, at the foot of the Financial District and within walking distance of Faneuil Hall and the New England Aquarium is The Marina at Rowes Wharf and the adjacent Boston Harbor Hotel. When it comes to taking care of transient boaters, the marina and hotel combine forces to offer a true five-star experience.
The Marina at Rowes Wharf has 35 slips with enough space and water depth to handle even mega yachts. All of the expected amenities, such as showers, washers and dryers, and power are offered. But there are many unexpected services as well. By working with the Boston Harbor Hotel, Rowes is able to offer room service delivery right to your boat, as well as laundry service.
For boaters looking to spend some time on terra firma, the Boston Harbor Hotel combines lux lodging with world-class dining options such as Meritage, their more formal restaurant, with acclaimed Chef Daniel Bruce at the helm (pun intended). On the casual end of the dining spectrum is the Rowes Wharf Sea Grille, which makes the most of its waterfront location. The Sea Grille’s seasonal outdoor dining space is where the Summer in the City Entertainment Series happens with events such as live music performances and Friday night movies.
Boaters planning a quick stop in Boston while heading to points north or south can also tap into both the marina and the hotel’s restaurants.
“We offer a unique special,” says Kristan McLaughlin, maritime manager and property manager for The Marina at Rowes Wharf. “Boaters can have lunch or dinner at the Sea Grille, show their receipt and stay with us for up to four hours.” Calling ahead for docking space is recommended. And file this one away for future reference: the Businessman’s (or woman’s!) Special allows boaters to come in by 9:00 a.m. and depart by 5:00 p.m. for $40. Shower facilities are even offered.
Although Boston is limited in the number of casual restaurants that offer dockage, there is one standout. The Barking Crab seafood-in-the-rough restaurant on the Fort Point Channel, near the Federal Court House, offers free tie-up for patrons who arrive in small boats and dinghies. The food here is outstanding and the atmosphere qualifies it as a funky boater’s hangout worthy of the Bahamas.
Continuing south, the Liberty Wharf Marina on Northern Avenue, on the former site of Jimmy’s Harborside Restaurant, offers premium transient dockage and access to four restaurants. Hourly rate for boats up to 40 feet is $20.
At the southern end of Boston, in Dorchester Bay, you’ll find the very boater-friendly Venezia Waterfront Restaurant, which offers complementary dockage for diners. Nearby Marina Bay in Quincy, but still on Boston Harbor, also has transient docking available for visitors who want to access its numerous restaurants and shops.
Back on the water, Boston offers no shortage of aquatic diversions. Scattered throughout the harbor are 34 islands, most of them part of a National Recreation Area. “For me—and I keep my own boat in Boston Harbor—the biggest resource is the Harbor Islands,” says Larry Russo. “Many people don’t realize the opportunities available here.”
From sprawling Fort Warren on Georges Island to Boston Light on Little Brewster to the marina and learning center on Spectacle, the islands can provide a season full of fascinating daytrips. You’re allowed to go ashore on most of the islands, and camping is available on Grape, Bumpkin, and Peddocks, all of which have docks for dropping off passengers and gear (see sidebar for more information).
If you want to venture farther afield, Boston Harbor also serves as a convenient launch pad for cruises to outlying cities and towns, such as Salem and Gloucester to the north, and Scituate, Cohasset, Duxbury and Plymouth to the south. Even Provincetown, some 40 nautical miles southeast of Boston Light, is within reach of many powerboats, given nice weather. And if you want to see whales, dolphin and tuna, Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary lies about 25 miles east of Boston.