Gareth Cook

The road more traveled

From the HarborWalk to the Milky Way, the adventure begins right out your front door

By Gareth Cook
Globe Columnist / August 7, 2011

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IN THE 17th century, the sons of European aristocrats began the tradition of the “Grand Tour,’’ visiting the continent’s great cultural capitals. These travels could last years, and were a rite of passage as well as an education.

It is in this spirit that I share a set of three tours to expand your own horizons. They are modest in their way, requiring no more than access to a car and a bike. You won’t be gone for months. Your father needn’t be a nobleman. To steal an idea from T.S. Eliot, you might arrive at the place you started, and know it for the first time.

■ On the waterfront. I’ve lived here for 15 years, but only really discovered the Boston HarborWalk a few weeks ago. I’d been on a small section of it, near the aquarium, but it took a bike to appreciate the path’s drama.

One weekend, my family and I started near UMass Boston and rode north to Castle Island and then over to the new Legal Seafood on Long Wharf. Another weekend, we started near the Institute of Contemporary Art and biked to the foot of the Charlestown Bridge.

There were little thrills everywhere. Seeing the JFK Library from the water. Islands in the harbor. The motley traffic of boats, from enormous yachts to a fireboat to what appeared to be a pair of ships from the Royal Canadian Navy, the seaman on deck and at attention.

The rhythm of a HarborWalk bike ride - the rounding paths around points, the staccato piers of the North End - is a reminder that Boston is truly a maritime city. I have yet to complete the tour - the HarborWalk extends from the Chelsea Creek to the Neponset. Yet even in pieces the sense of history is palpable, as is the hope that you are experiencing a bit of the city’s future.

■ Audubon’s passport. Last fall, my family made its way down a boardwalk near the Ipswich River when we came across a father and his kids standing perfectly still, their hands held out in front of them, palms cupped upwards.

As we drew nearer, it became clear what they were doing. Little birds emerged from the bushes and lit on their hands, took seeds and flew off.

The man was kind enough to share some seeds with us, and so we all stood holding sunflower seeds, as wild birds ate from our hands, the children giggling at the gentle tickle of bird claws and beaks.

We were visiting Ipswich, in part, to get our passports stamped. Mass Audubon has a great program called “A Passport to Nature,’’ with passports that devote a page to each of 21 state sanctuaries, with space to have them stamped when you visit. We have made 7, and every one has been worth it. We are aiming for all 21.

■ The Milky Way. The final tour is unusual in that you can start anywhere. You just need a dark, clear sky.

Go out, look up, and see how many constellations you can spot. There are 88, but to see them all would require a trip to the Southern hemisphere. Thirty would be a very respectable goal. You can easily find or print out a star chart.

The constellations will become your friends, harbingers of the changing seasons. Cygnus the Swan means summer to me, and Orion is winter. Knowing the stars makes it easier to spot the planets and follow their comings and goings. And looking up means you’ll see satellites and shooting stars.

On a recent trip to Maine, I was reminded of just how satisfying a sky tour can be. I stood on the back porch of a friend’s house, in a kind of darkness you don’t get in the city, and saw the Milky Way arcing up, appearing to billow from the spout of the Sagittarius teapot. My father once told me that to look in that direction is to peer right at the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Imagine that: here we are, sitting on one arm of a spiral galaxy, able to take it all in with a turn of the head.

Gareth Cook can be reached at or Twitter @garethideas.