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Walking the 'walk

By David Arnold, Globe Staff

Under laws that date to Colonial times, the Massachusetts coast below the historic high-tide line should be accessible to all. But some property owners still struggle with compliance. More than 20 years after it was conceived, Boston's HarborWalk - 43 miles of paths, real and imagined, that meander from the old Baker chocolate factory in Dorchester to the Belle Isle Salt Marsh on the East Boston-Winthrop border - remains a work in progress. Here are five of the best spots and five that fall short along the city's ``sapphire necklace.''

Globe reporter David Arnold trekked the entire HarborWalk last spring.

1. The Belle Isle Salt Marsh on the East Boston-Winthrop border seems about as close as one can come to a bird sanctuary and still be in a city. Snowy egrets (those white herons seemingly content to live out life of stilts) have the run of the place, which can be viewed from a 30-foot wooden observation tower. Free parking abuts the marsh off Bennington Street, and baby carriage-friendly paths crisscross the higher, landscaped portions of the 150-acre expanse.

2. If you're having trouble getting to the water, you can always play Find The Donald McKay Granite Marker. McKay's clipper ships, built in East Boston during the mid-1800s, ruled the seas, and then the imaginations of marine artists. His square-rigged racing steeds continue to fire the fantasies of tall ship builders today. The legacy of McKay, creativey exhibited, surely would attract tourists worldwide. At the moment, he is confined to a small granite marker near the waterfront between the McArdle bridge and Liberty Plaza. Hint: It's behind a chain-link fence that blocks access to the water.

3. The Evelyn Moakley bridge was built during recent years, well within the era when the Harborwalk was becoming a known entity. Yet the bridge, opened in the fall of 1996, offers no access for pedestrians trying to cross either end of it as they walk the harbor's edge: It is literally a roadblock. Worse, the neighboring Northern Avenue bridge, which was closed to vehicles last year and has become a pedestrian godsend, is slated for demolition.

4. Just about every visual message sent by the Marriott Long Wharf warns, ``Stay Out. Exclusive Private Property.'' Yet the hotel, where rooms start at about $250 a night, was built on land where access, according to state law, should be unrestricted on the ground floor between the glass doors guarded by bellhops. To the hotel's credit, some No Public Restrooms signs have been removed recently. You can walk through the building, but you'll feel as if you should be tipping someone.

5. Ventura Park is the HarborWalk at its most intimate, a promontory of meadow, trees, and ledge overlooking the Neponset River as it flows out of Dorchester Lower Mills. Boats are moored off the Milton Yacht Club here, and just upstream is the former Baker chocolate factory, an ornate brick structure that dates back more than a century. Just downstream lies the Neponset River Estuary, filled with birds and one of the oldest salt marsh preserves in the country.

6. Liberty Plaza isn't much, but in East Boston, where so much of the HarborWalk remains a dream, it's reality. Located next to Shaw's supermarket and other stores, the small swatch of lighted path abutting landscaped areas and a public wharf mixes business with an acknowledgment of a harbor. East Boston has two impressive waterfront parks, but Liberty Plaza is one of the few places in Eastie where daily life embraces the harbor with a sense of celebration, not a chain-link fence.

7. File this under missed opportunities, at least to date. Chelsea Creek, like the Mystic River, is plied by big ships. Because the creek is narrower than the river, pedestrians should be able to get closer to the sluggish behemoths to play that perspective-altering game: Who's moving, the ship or me? But fences and No Trespassing signs keep you several hundred yards from the water's edge, although groups such as the Chelsea Creek Action Group are trying to improve access.

8. The Schrafft Business Center, the old candy company, is capped to the north by a boardwalk along the Mystic River that permits front-row seats onto commercial harbor business. Just across the way is the Prolerized New England Co., where dead refrigerators and cars are crushed for recycling. Freighters destined for distant ports scoop up the remains, then drop them into hulls that seem to roar as they are loaded.

9. Port Norfolk in the Neponset neighborhood of Dorchester was once the home of a boatyard owned by George Lawley & Sons. The boatyard operated from 1885 to 1944, building some of yachting's finest vessels: The 170 surviving boats are considered so precious that a private association keeps track of their whereabouts and condition. But there's no trace of the boatyard on Port Norfolk today: A restaurant, a yacht club, and several businesses wall off access to the water from the pedestrian public. At Port Norfolk, it's members and patrons only, please.

10. The Charles River locks proved a creative alternative to the traffic-congested Charlestown Bridge across the lower Charles River. Reached through the parking lot to the east of the Fleet Center, the locks offer a zig-zag passage (suitable for baby carriages) over the huge chambers that lift boats into and out of the Charles River. Consider this the engineer's alternative to the Freedom Trail between the North End and Charlestown.

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