One of the best things about Boston in the summer is how easy it is to escape. Magnificent beaches are just a short ride away, and many are accessible without a car. Or you can stay in the city, where beaches, public pools, and neighborhood parks offer uniquely Boston ways to cool down. Many of these places are free, and best of all, you're less likely to hit traffic getting to them.
For the beach bums
Nantasket or Manchester-by-the-Sea they are not, but the setting of Boston's beaches renders them a unique charm. A prime example: Constitution Beach, tucked away near Orient Heights in East Boston. The walkway to the beach is quite literally -- as the man who gave me directions said -- "just past Burger King." At the end of the walkway lies a small but beautifully maintained stretch of sand that yields to blue, windswept open water. A facelift by the Department of Conservation and Recreation and the Boston Harbor Association has given the beach amenities including a picnic area, a children's playground, and tennis courts.
On a quiet weekday afternoon, a bicyclist and a couple of power-walkers made use of a short paved path, while a handful of people and far more seagulls sunbathed peacefully. Lest you lose all sense of where you are, Logan Airport's nearby landing strip brings you right back. The incoming 747s on one side and the rumbling Blue Line on the other make for as surreal a beach scene as you'll find, yet somehow, the sounds manage to blend in with the wind and the surf.
Finding the beach by car is not for the weak of will (I couldn't even find it myself on first attempt); indeed, locating a reliable address requires a bit of sleuthing (a man who works at the adjoining Porrazzo Memorial Rink said he had heard 165 Coleridge St. works in MapQuest). But the elusiveness of the beach is one of the spot's appeals. Your best bet might be to take the Blue Line to Orient Heights and look for Bennington Street. Once there, walk past the Burger King and look for the blue pedestrian overpass on the left.
Not so hidden are the beaches of South Boston, which, in the course of a short drive down William J. Day Boulevard, reveal themselves in quick succession. On a recent hazy Saturday, Carson Beach, the first in the row, was quiet and still, with just a smattering of blankets spread out on the sand and a few intrepid waders who had ventured out to their waists.
Farther down the road, Castle Island presented an altogether different scene, as hundreds of Bostonians had descended on the park to take advantage of the cool harbor breezes. A few sun-seekers had staked out patches of sand on the slim beach, but most of the action was in the park: Lifelong Southies talked politics on lawn chairs; small children contended with dribbling, oversized cones of soft-serve frozen yogurt; and teenage couples strolled hand in hand through Fort Independence. By the water, men with fishing poles had stationed themselves on the pier while tourists argued over the identities of buildings within the cityscape.
For the poolside players
Delightful as the beach can be, there are times when nothing is more blissful than kicking around in a pool. Though the city offers a number of public watering holes (see sidebar), the ritzy Colonnade Hotel (120 Huntington Ave., Boston. 617-424-7000) takes this singular pleasure to new heights. Ride the elevator up to the 11th floor, ascend a couple of quick flights of stairs, and voila!: a shimmering sapphire oasis awaits.
A man at the entrance offers you two towels -- one on which to sit, the other for swimming -- and you stake out a lounge chair or a round table shaded by a blue umbrella. On a mild, late Tuesday morning, there were more sunbathers than swimmers, and a man in business casual strategized over speakerphone. Soft rock was piped in, and a blue-and-khaki-clad staff member shuttled salads to a couple huddled at one of the tables.
The pool itself is small, but the view from inside more than compensates. Fenway Park lies straight ahead, and once in a while the action from the park can be heard inside the pool. "I think it was the [Bruce] Springsteen concert, you could hear it clear as day because of the echo off of the buildings," says Christopher Lynn, the hotel's director of sales and marketing. (The rooftop has itself been the site of performances by acts including Simple Plan, Sister Hazel, and Jewel.)
The pool is open to the public during the week, and a day on the roof costs $30 (it is free for hotel guests). But the day is long -- the pool is open 8 a.m.-8 p.m. -- and there is wireless Internet access as well as food and cocktail service. (Menu items include a French hot dog with Gruyere gratinée on a brioche bun, and mini bar burgers with blue cheese, Gruyere, and roasted tomato; both are $9.95). No matter how you spend your time on the roof, there are undoubtedly few cooler places in Boston.
For the wee wet one s
For children (and some bold adults), relief from the heat does not require a trip to the beach or to a pool. A number of area parks have "waterplay" features: sprinklers or sprays that are activated by motion or the push of a button. In Boston's 46 such parks, you can find these features by following the mirthful shrieks. A hot day at Tadpole Playground in Boston Common recently found children darting in and out of the chilly springs while parents hovered on the periphery. (The popular Frog Pond spray pool, also in Boston Common, opens on June 29.)
Although children make the most use of the sprinklers early in the season, this is likely to change come the dog days of August, says Mary Hines, marketing director at the Boston Parks and Recreation Department. "It's mostly kids who take advantage, but if it's hot enough, adults do, too," she says.
Across the river, Cambridge has 20 "waterplay" parks (a map is available on the Cambridge Community Planning Division website, at ci.cambridge.ma.us/cdd/cp). Among the most frequented is the Wheeler Water Garden, near the Sherman Street entrance of Danehy Park. Recently, parents were sitting on the stone steps enclosing the water garden, while toddlers in diapers and Crocs tentatively stepped in and ran squealing from the sprinklers. Older children played tag and fetched water to cook an imaginary dinner on the steps, delegating orders about how much water to use and which ingredients to include. With the sprinkler area to herself, a girl began stopping and releasing the water stream with her toes, reveling in her newfound power. Observing the scene reminded me of my own delight at the same discovery some years before. I couldn't help but wonder how hot it would need to be not to feel foolish about stepping in myself.