Six Ways to See Flowers in Boston in March

Crocuses are pushing their obstinate heads through the last remnants of dirty snow outside my office, but make no mistake — spring is still a good ways off. March may roar in like a lion, but in New England, it doesn’t so much go out like a lamb as like a slightly-less-aggressive-I-just-ate-an-antelope baby lion.

Nonetheless, if you’re itching for a bit more greenery, there are a few places you can get a preview of the lushness to come. In no particular order:

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum greenhouse

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum greenhouse

1. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Their verdant glassed-in courtyard is a perfectly climate-controlled jewel box this time of year. Palm trees, a fountain, potted orchids. Alas, they don’t allow camera use or cellphone use inside the museum proper — I CAN NO HAZ INSTAGRAM?! — but I did snap a photo of their greenhouse, replete with back-up flora. Should any plant-life flag or fail in performance of its duties, I suspect one of these runners-up will quickly get the call.

2. The MFA’s Art in Bloom weekend. Confession time: I have never attended this institutional Boston event. This year is going to be different! The event will feature roughly 70 floral arrangements throughout the museum, inspired by the works of art on display. Keep an eye out for their other floral events this spring; my mom, aunt, and I just attended an ikebana demonstration — that’s a spare, deeply meaningful form of flower arranging from Japan. (Also noted: arranging a few willow branches in a vase is much cheaper than buying a huge bouquet of blossoms, even if you buy them at Shaws.)

3. The Lyman Estate Greenhouses. Somehow, these are in Waltham — just a stone’s throw from my Watertown office — and yet I have never heard of them. Obviously, time to rectify that situation. From the website, I deduce that these are among the oldest surviving greenhouses in America, and that they contain camellias, grapes, and orchids.

4. The Limonaia at Tower Hill Botanic Garden. You’ve heard of orangeries. Well, Tower Hill built a limonaia a few years ago — and that’s another spot I fully intend to visit this winter. Spring. Sprinter. Wring. Springer. Whatever we’re calling it.

5. The Ferguson Greenhouses at Wellesley College. Lo and behold, the most diverse under-glass botanicals in the greater Boston area just happen to be at Wellesley College. While I’ve wandered Wellesley’s arboreal campus many times, I don’t think I’ve ever wandered inside their 16 greenhouses — or even realized that they had any.

6. The Museum of Science’s Butterfly Garden. I once went to a butterfly garden on the outskirts of London and found it a magical, if slightly creepy, place. (They’re still bugs, even if they’re bugs with beautiful wings.) I haven’t been to the MOS’s version, but it promises to be “tropical” — and it’s cheaper than Curtain Bluff.

Did I leave off any favorites of yours? Let me know in the comments!

Boston’s ICA and Central Bottle Make an Excellent Pairing

The tasting flight at Central Bottle: expensive, but not skimpy.

The tasting flight at Central Bottle: expensive, but not skimpy.

Perhaps it is because there is no love lost between me and any art produced after, say, 1940 that my two visits to Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art have both involved alcohol. Or perhaps it’s just because libations are just so libatable.

Hello, art-lover.

Hello, art-lover.

Whatever the root cause, my first visit to the ICA was a success largely because I toured the nearby Harpoon Brewery ahead of time and took advantage of the 30 minutes of unlimited tasting post-tour. (Actually, it would be more accurate to say that — so enthusiastic was I during the tasting period of our brewery visit — the 15-minute walk to the museum, the hour or so perusing various installations made of Scotch tape, safety pins, and disassembled Volkswagens, and the 15-minute walk back to the Harpoon parking lot were all necessary before it was again acceptable to pilot a vehicle.) Scotch tape cloud sculptures have never looked as beautiful to me as they did on that day, through a haze of hefeweizen.

My second visit to the ICA took place yesterday, when I found myself (lo!) with a rare weekend in town. Heading over to the museum with Noah, we decided to catch the closing weekend of This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s. It featured the usual roundup of 80s artists — there was the Basquiat; there, the Koons; and over there, the Richter, along with a Cindy Sherman and a few Mapplethorpes — and was (at least to my unstudied eye) intelligently curated along interesting themes (gender, AIDS, Reagan, nuclear disarmament, poverty, etc). So often the entire decade of the 80s is reduced to a sort of caricature of Gordon Gekko/legwarmers/neon/Vogue (or, my secret dream: Gordon Gekko wearing neon legwarmers and dancing to Vogue) that it was actually sort of refreshing to be reminded that, oh yeah, it was also a time of activism, ambivalence, apprehension, and discomfort.

Then I wandered into a room with a video installation of two hipsters (oops, I mean artists) wearing coonskin caps playing bluegrass in front of various snowy mountain/forest scenes and realized it was time to leave.

So the two of us headed back over the river to Central Bottle, a fantastic wine store that is actually closer to Kendall. Despite being continually overwhelmed by my email inbox, this is one mailing list up for which I have never regretted signing. (Take that, Winston Churchill.) Every Thursday they have a “wine bar,” and occasionally they’ll do one on Saturday, too. This was one of those Saturdays. Fifteen dollars gets you four generous tasting pours, and for extra cash you can get a cheese plate, charcuterie board, or various salumi. I was especially interested in this Saturday’s event because it featured the wines of Sybille Kuntz, one of the few female vintners in Germany. She makes riesling in the Mosel valley… and was there, at the store, to meet and greet the drinkers. I learned, among other things, that she’d brought the 2006 vintage with her on the plane in her carry-on luggage. I snapped up the second-to-last bottle just as the main wave of tasters was coming in.

Ninety minutes, too much duck liver pate, and not nearly enough delicious riesling later, we headed next door to Flour Bakery for cookies.

Next weekend, I intend to repeat this theme with a different sort of art and a different sort of decadence: brunch at Mistral followed by an ikebana demonstration at the MFA, followed (getting ambitious here!) by a visit to the Gardner, followed by who-knows-what.

Sometimes one gets so used to rambling — Maine to New Hampshire to Connecticut to Rhode Island to Berkshires and beyond — one forgets the delights in one’s own backyard.

10 Ways to Deal with February in New England

Estabrook Woods in Concord, MA is quintessentially New English.

Estabrook Woods in Concord, MA is quintessentially New English.

Generally, I hate February. I’m convinced the real reason that the month is so short is because some Roman emperor hated it too, and, one February 29th in a winter that had been particularly gray and bleak, decreed: “Oh, to hell with it. It’s March now. March 1st. Got that?” I’d probably move us on to March even sooner, but sadly I don’t have the same level of calendrical control.

Nevertheless, February is here and it must be dealt with. There are only 10 more days to go, so I’ve come up with 10 ways to deal.

1. Take a winter hike in the Blue Hills. At the beginning of the month, before the major nor’easter that dumped 30 inches of snow on Boston, I went for a vigorous three-hour hike in the Blue Hills, on the Skyline Trail. You’d probably need your snowshoes to make the same trek now (or you could snowshoe or ski one of the wider, flatter trails). It was much more serene than the Blue Hills are in the warmer months; just me, a handful of other blissed-out winter hikers, and some gently falling snowflakes making everything look magical. Dust off your trekking poles and your CamelBak, and bundle up in plenty of layers.

2. Take a walk somewhere pretty. If winter hiking sounds too strenuous, then throw on your Bean boots and do something easier. I’m a year-round visitor to Estabrook woods in Concord (here’s a map), but my favorite time of year to visit is the winter. Just something about the snow, the sunlight, and the bare trees. It’s a great place for dogs, who can run around off-leash — and also a great spot for those of us who like saying hi to other people’s dogs. For other options, check out the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation’s useful park finder.

Long Trail brewery is close to Okemo and Killington.

Long Trail brewery is close to Okemo and Killington.

3. Get thee to a brewery. There are enough great breweries in New England to fill a book. But a quick list of favorites would have to include: Long Trail in Bridgewater Corners, VT (cram in around the woodstove with apres skiiers and be sure to try the Coffee Stout and the Triple Bag); Harpoon in Boston (do the tour and enjoy 30 minutes of unlimited tasting; then take yourself tipsily over to the ICA); Night Shift in Everett, MA (a nano-brewery Ben has been raving about; I’ve yet to go); the Shipyard Brewery in Portland, ME (conveniently located in the historic waterfront district, not far from a charming narrow gauge railroad museum); and Moat Mountain in Conway, NH (sit in the bar and get some of their amazing BBQ nachos to go with your sampler). There’s also the delightful Portsmouth Brewery in Portsmouth, NH — I’m a sucker for their sampler and their pretzel rolls.

4. Eat brunch and ice skate. When was the last time you hit up your favorite Boston brunch place and then went skating on the Frog Pond? There’s a reason it’s a Boston tradition: it’s fun. Pick up some hot chocolate on Charles Street to keep yourself warm while you wait in line for skates.

5. Try nordic skiing. The weekend of the big blizzard, Ben and I were in Waterville Valley, NH taking a ski lesson. Ben’s already a good cross-country skier, but my skills were rather, uh, rusty. We took a skate skiing lesson and I’m hooked. Not only is it vastly cheaper than downhill, but it’s much, much more of a workout. After a couple of hours, your legs will be tired and your endorphins will be up; and unlike with alpine skiing, you won’t be cold. The trail system around Waterville is extensive and well-maintained, and it’s just about a 2-hour drive from Boston. There are also ski tracks closer to Boston, in Carlisle and Weston. Of course, if you have the gear, you don’t need to bother going to a groomed trail system; with all the snow we’ve gotten this month, you can just find an obliging patch of woods and get to it.

6. Go to a spa. Sometimes, you just need to get warm. Boston is replete with spas featuring hot tubs (like at Inman Oasis), Russian baths (like the old-time Dillon’s), Finnish baths, and chi-chi top-shelf spas (like the one at the Mandarin Oriental). Further out, I’ve been to both Essential Therapies Day Spa in Bolton and — way far out — Cranwell in Lenox. This last makes a great day trip if you combine it with a tour of The Mount (Edith Wharton’s estate) and dinner at Nudel (swoon).

7. Ski hut-to-hut at Maine Huts and Trails. Drive north — waaaay north — and take advantage of this ever-growing network of trails and rustic huts in the woods of Maine. Friendly staff will have hot meals waiting for you when you arrive, and they’ll even move your gear along for you so you can schuss unencumbered.

8. Go antiquing. From Cape Ann to Maine’s Route 1 to Connecticut’s Route 7, New England is full of neat old stuff. Find some of it near you.

9. Try a new museum. So you’re bored with the MFA, the Science Museum, the Isabella Stewart Gardner. So what? New England is full of other great options: the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, the RISD museum in Providence, Fruitlands in Harvard, the Currier Museum in Manchester, the Worcester Art Museum, the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton (really — it’s stunning). Pick one and go find out what it is.

10. Make a hot toddy and read a good book. There’s no better time in New England to finally read that novel (or, if you’re like me, pore over your trail guides and make plans for spring). So get off the Internet already and pick up that paperback. For the toddy, I prefer simple recipes. My current favorite is Meyer’s rum, hot water, and lime juice. Lather, rinse, and repeat until spring.