Eating Boston: Cask n’ Flagon

Eating Boston: Cask n’ Flagon

Part of the Boston experience is so uniquely intertwined with the Boston Red Sox experience. You need to try and take it all in, in one of the cities that truly is a baseball-first place. In a massive market like Boston, there are plenty of sporting options. The Patriots, Celtics, Bruins, Revolution, all take their draws from the citizens of the city.

But no draw compares to the popularity of the Red Sox.

Based on this, the Fenway area of Boston is one that must be visited when in town. A big part of this, are the sports bars that surround the legendary Fenway Park, the largest being the Cask n’ Flagon.

caskThe Cask n’ Flagon does what sports bars are supposed to do. It offers a wide selection of bar food, and a really strong list of beers to keep you entertained while the game is on the multitude of TVs placed around the bar.

First, a couple of negatives from my trip there.

  • The lines are really long on game days. Be aware of that if you plan to go when the Sox are playing at home. I was there when they were on the road, so it wasn’t an issue.
  • The TVs aren’t as big as they should have, or could have been. For a bar that thrives on sports, there should be some monster screens in there, in my opinion.
  • The staff couldn’t seem to figure out how to get the Red Sox game on. Seriously? The place was packed with people, there specifically to watch the game. And it took them nearly an inning to figure out which channel it was on, and how to get their TVs to the right place.
  • We ordered some wings. They forgot to place that order. After watching tables around us get the food they ordered, and an hour having passed, we finally asked about them. Our waiter was very apologetic, and we did get our wings. On the house. With some extra wings on there. This is excellent service, and they more than corrected their mistake.

Some of the good.

  • They fixed their mistake, and not having to pay for the wings was an added bonus.
  • The wings were actually incredibly delicious and filling.
  • Very good beer selection, especially for a sports bar. And quite reasonably priced.
  • Huge establishment, with tons of seating to help deal with their game day crowds.
  • A fairly attentive staff, definitely friendly.

The Cask n’ Flagon does not merit a special trip or anything, but if you are in the area, it is a good, sports-centric place to pop in for a beer and a snack, maybe before or after a game, or when the Sox are on the road and you want to watch the game surrounded by their fans.

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Eating Boston: Cheers

Eating Boston: Cheers

Of course, as a tourist in Boston, you want to go where everybody knows your name.

As one of the main spots on the tourist trail in the city, it speaks volumes about the lasting impression that the TV series Cheers had on people. It was one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, and people still love it.

cheersThe exteriors of the show are based on the Bull and Finch pub in the Boston Back Bay area, and walking up to it, it looks exactly as it did on the TV show. The insides, however, are not the same. Even though the Bull and Finch has officially changed its name to Cheers, it is not the same bar when you walk inside, but you should know that before going in. There is a replica bar elsewhere in the city. This is just the place that served as the inspiration for the show. Walking down the stairs, you hear the theme song to the show. Not just in your head, but actually. They have it playing constantly down the stairs, so you definitely know where you are.

It is still a really good bar, though. Of course, we sat up at the bar, next to the spot that has been deemed “Norm’s spot.” There is a nice selection of local beers here, along with some regular American classics that you see everywhere else. The food is pretty basic, all named after characters from the show, but it tastes good. It is definitely your average bar fare, as Cheers was supposed to be the average American bar.

cheers2There is a good atmosphere inside the place, which is much smaller than I remember it being from a previous trip to Boston. There is a good crowd (mainly tourists, of course), and it really is a good place to go for a pint or two after work, or after a day of touring around the city. The prices are fair, and thankfully not over-inflated knowing that the majority if the patronage is from out of town and looking to have a drink at a place made so famous by the long running TV series.

The staff was very friendly, and efficient. Our bartender was fast at refilling our drinks, and engaging in regular bar conversation.

Overall, Cheers is a good place to go, and for fans of the show, you definitely need to stop in and have a beer.

At the Ballpark: Fenway Park (Boston Red Sox)

At the Ballpark: Fenway Park (Boston Red Sox)

For baseball diamonds, Fenway Park was always the ultimate destination. It was the one place I had to see games, no matter what. It was a bucket list item. Fenway is home to the Boston Red Sox, my favorite baseball team, the team I have cheered with for years, being fortunate enough to watch them through three glorious World Series runs.

And it did not disappoint.

On the streets of Boston, Fenway is nestled in there, almost unnoticeable until you are standing right in front of it. It is not a gargantuan behemoth of engineering placed far away from the city, surrounded by parking lots and a couple of bars. It is right in the heart of it all, lined by the famous Yawkey Way and Lansdowne Street, which is chock full of bars and restaurants, all geared towards the Red Sox crowd. From the outside, you see the green that has been made so famous by the ancient stadium (going on year 102 now).

And you simply can’t wait to get inside.

I took the ballpark tour, because, come on, this is Fenway. The tour was good, and the guide was an excellent source of knowledge, telling stories about the park and about the teams that had played there.

monsterFirst walking into the stands behind home plate, you have arrived. You stare out at the field, you look at the Green Monster in left field. You see Pesky’s Pole out in right, the famous scoreboard on the Monster, the current AL East standings, the signs for W.B. Mason. It is all so iconic, and it takes a moment to stand there, take it all in, take your pictures.

The tour was good, taking us to some of the most memorable and historic parts of the park. The ancient stands, the bleachers and the lonely red seat (which denotes the longest home run hit inside Fenway, by none other than Ted Williams), the press box, the outdoor patio high above left field, the Red Sox museum, and of course, the seats on top of the Green Monster, which have become the most coveted tickets in all of baseball.

The only disappointing thing about the tour was that we didn’t go to the locker rooms, or onto the field. This is understandable, as it was the day before Opening Day, but still…to stand on the shale of Fenway would have been something incredible. For $17, the tour was a good way to spend a little over an our, in the baseball cathedral that is this park.

My initial impression, walking up that ramp to see the field for the first time, was that this park is small! Fenway is intimate, and this only adds to the lustre of the place. It is not a mega-stadium that sits fifty-some-thousand. It is a small place, where fans gather to cheer for their beloved Sox. The beautiful thing about the smallness of the park, is that there is not a bad seat in the house. Wherever you are, even though it may seem like miles away from home plate, you still get a really strong view of the game. That is, of course, unless you are stuck with one of the obstructed view seats, but you would know that going into it.

 

The view from the back of the stadium.
The view from the back of the stadium. (not my photo)

The seats: I was lucky enough to be in Boston for Opening Day 2014, where the champs raised their banners and got their rings, celebrating an amazing season that culminated in an almost improbable World Series win last October. I will write a separate post on Opening Day itself, so for this one I will stick to the stadium. For Opening Day, we sat in the bleachers, section 62 (same section as the red seat), row 50 (actually the last row in the place). Tickets cost us $30 (we were lucky enough to buy them at face value before going to Boston, on StubHub before the game, those seats were going for close to $200- Opening Day!). Despite being as far from home plate as possible in right field, the seats were still great, and this speaks to how intimate the stadium is. There was a good view of the action on the field, and although you can’t call balls and strikes from that far away, it is still pretty awesome. You can soak in all the views from the bleachers, watch as balls ring off the Monster, and see the plays made in the infield with amazing clarity.

The seats, for being the bleachers, were pretty comfortable, and you are never too far from a beer stand, concession, or washroom. There is definitely a passionate fan base that sits in the bleachers, which gives the game more personality than it already has. I have never been to a sporting event where the fans are as knowledgeable as they were in Boston. They love baseball, and they LOVE baseball. It was amazing. No fair weather, just checking out a game because it sounds fun crowd here. The people of Boston live and breathe the Red Sox. I loved this.

Fenway_Park05The Monster: For the second home game of the season, of course we needed to sit on the Monster. This was a life goal, and both of us were pretty giddy to actually be able to get seats. Since we hadn’t initially planned on a second game, this one was more last minute. We paid $90 for standing room tickets on the Monster, for a night game on Saturday night. Even before getting there, we knew it would be worth it. And we were not disappointed.

There is no better place to watch a game than from the Monster seats. Standing room, while it sounds like a massive inconvenience, was actually kind of perfect. It gives you the chance to move around (which was great, considering it was bone chillingly cold that night). There are under 300 seats and standing spots on the Monster, so it is like a little community up there. There are two concessions just for the Monster people, with beers and Monster dogs (definitely better than the Fenway Franks!), and very close access to a bathroom. For those going for standing room, get there earlier than you normally might, claim your spot, and enjoy. Plus, if you are on the Monster, you really need to get there for batting practice, as the odds of snagging a home run ball are pretty good. All standing room seats are lined up against a bar, where you can lean, and rest your food and drinks. It makes the whole standing thing much more comfortable, as you don’t have to stand awkwardly in one position for hours at a time.

On the Monster, there were some of the nicest, and well-educated, fans I had been around. We made friends with all of the people in our standing section, and looked out for one another by saving spots when they would have to go to the washroom, top up a beer, or need to walk to warm up. Out little piece of the Monster was a nice one, and the great people made this one of the most fun ball games I have ever been to.

The views from on top of the most famous wall in baseball are incredible. In the crisp, cool night of April baseball, under the lights of Fenway, you see it all. You are on top of the action, and even closer to it than I would have thought. You look down at the left fielder, you see the pitches clearly (which makes yelling at the umps easier), and you are literally on top of the action.

If you are planning on going to Fenway as a vacation, see a game from the Monster. Despite the steeper prices, you will not regret it. Apparently standing room tickets are normally about $60, which is well worth it. Plus, as it was freezing cold, and the game ended up going in to extra innings, we ended up with Monster seats for about half the game, as some who were not as prepared for the temperatures ended up leaving early. Since it was so frosty, we still ended up standing, but we had moved closer to the famed edge of the Monster, and it was glorious. Plus, it gave us the chance to sit if our legs were feeling tired.

Prices: It is not cheap to go to Fenway. But I’m sure there isn’t anybody out there who are hoping for a cheap night out by going there. Beers cost nearly $9 for a can, a Fenway Frank is $5 (they are not large), and a Monster Dog is $9 (but good!). The service is fast and friendly.

champsAtmosphere: Simply put, there is no better place to watch baseball than at Fenway Park. Period.

The combination of the team, the city, the fans, the knowledge, the history, and the ballpark all make Fenway THE place to see a game.

The surrounding area: Is there more famous streets that surround a ballpark? Yawkey Way is the place to be on game day. The bars are lined up around the block, and the street is jammed full of people, elbow-to-elbow. There is a buzz there that is unprecedented in my experience. I can’t even imagine it during the playoffs. There are plenty of options for food and drink before and after the game. Either get there early (most places were open at 8:30 AM for Opening Day), or be prepared to wait in line for a decent amount of time. It is cool, because everybody is there for the same reason: because they love baseball, and they love the Red Sox.

Final Comments: Having the opportunity to fly across the country to watch baseball is one that I am grateful for. Seeing a game at Fenway really was a dream come true, and getting to see two was just adding to the perfection. Leaving the park after the end of the 11th inning on Saturday night, I simply thought to myself that I can’t wait to go back.

Book Review: The Cellist of Sarajevo

Book Review: The Cellist of Sarajevo

It is always a welcome change for me when I can put down the YA novels, and get back to reading books that are intended for adults.

It is even more welcome, when the book I choose to read is one as moving, and impressive as The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Canadian author Steven Galloway.

cellistThe Cellist of Sarajevo takes place in the war-torn Bosnian capital, during the height of the siege that lasted from 1992 to 1996. The people of the city lived in fear of the constant shelling, and the sniper fire that would rain down from the nearby hills, making daily life nearly impossible to live. The shells destroyed homes all over the city, and the snipers took thousands of lives from the people of the once-vibrant city. They made even the simplest of road crossings a dangerous event.

And this is where the beauty of this novel lies. In the daily struggle of the characters, simply trying to make it through another day, all with the constant hope that one day, their beloved city would be returned to them, and would be safe to live in once again.

The novel follows a trio of characters, with alternating chapters that establishes their point of view, and their struggle. Kenan is a man who is doing little more than trying to get water for his family. In order to do this, he must load up a precarious ensemble of bottles and yoke them to himself, before making the treacherous cross-city trek up to the brewery, one of the few remaining places where clean water can be found. The detours he takes through the city, the people he meets along the way, and the tragedy that he must encounter truly makes him into a sympathetic character. All he wants is some water to drink, and cook with. Maybe a little so that he can shave would be a great luxury.

Dragan is a man who wants to get to the bakery he used to work at, in order to get a meal. This way, he will not need to eat any of the food that his family will have for their meager dinner. His quest is simple, and honourable, and he also meets tragedy along the way, at one of the intersections being patrolled by a distant sniper. During his hours of waiting, Dragan reconnects with an old friend of the family, and is faced with very humanizing situations once the bullets begin to fire.

The final character is called Arrow, a Bosnian counter-sniper, tasked to do her best to protect the city that she loves. She is faced with several wrenching decisions as to when it is right to pull the trigger, and when things are better off left alone. The Arrow chapters are consistently great, and there are some extremely tense moments as we sit in a building with her, ready to fire at the slightest movement.

Bringing all of these characters together is the Cellist, an unnamed man who has made a name for himself in these harshest of living conditions. One day, when 22 people are killed by a mortar attack while waiting outside in a bread line, the Cellist decides that he will go outside, and on the most dangerous streets in the world at the time, and play Albinoni’s Adagio. He decides that he will do this at the same time every day, for 22 straight days, once for every person who lost their life in the bread line attack. He goes about this task simply, and straightforwardly, usually unaware of what is going on around him. He doesn’t notice the occasional crowds that watch him play, while they are pressed against walls across the street to avoid sniper fire.

And he doesn’t know that Arrow is in the buildings above, trying to protect him from the deadly fire of a sniper with the singular goal of ending his daily concerts.

The Cellist of Sarajevo is a wonderfully written book, and shortly after putting it down, I have quickly decided that it is instantly one of my all-time favorites. Galloway paints us a wonderful picture of what Sarajevo used to be, what it is, and what it could be again. The simple hopes and dreams of the characters make this story painfully true, even though it is, by the author’s own admission, only loosely based on actual events.

The real cellist, Vedran Smailovic, who inspired the novel.
The real cellist, Vedran Smailovic, who inspired the novel.

Having visited Sarajevo in 2006, I feel a connection with the city, seeing how vibrant, and alive it truly is, as it continues its recovery from the darkest period in its history. Walking the streets and being among all the history of one of the formerly great cities of Europe, makes one understand what the people there have been through, and what a struggle it has been to recover from that dark past.

Galloway has created a novel full of characters that you truly care about. Often, in books with multiple lead characters, it is often that you look forward to certain chapters over others, because you simply care about one person more than another. Cellist is not like that, because all of these people are interesting, and all of them are painfully human. This book could have been depressing, and at moments it is, but in the end it is about hope, and the past, and the uncertain future.

The Cellist of Sarajevo is so good, I have already pre-ordered Galloway’s next book, The Confabulist. I will also quickly begin delving in to his past works as well. This is a truly solid author, and he tells a story that is brilliant in its simplicity, and heart-wrenching in its depth.

Dream Come True: Opening Day at Fenway

Dream Come True: Opening Day at Fenway

I love the Boston Red Sox.

Ever since I became a fan of baseball, they arbitrarily became my favorite team. I love the idea of the long-suffering fan base, I loved that they were rivals of the New York Yankees, and I loved the idea of the Curse of the Bambino, which had been going on for about 80 years when I started following them.

The reason they became my team was simple, as my sister was on a trip to Boston, and I asked her to buy me a Sox hat. It started there, and has lasted ever since.

This will be my view from the bleacher seats.
This will be my view from the bleacher seats.

After being lucky enough to watch them win three World Series titles during the tenure of my fandom, I feel grateful that I chose them as my team, even if it was a random selection.

After completely falling in love with the game, I will finally be able to fulfill one of my bucket list wishes: I will get to go to a game at Fenway Park. And not just any game, but I will be able to go to Opening Day, to start a season after they won the championship. I have long dreamed of going to Fenway, and have been to Boston before during the season, but that was during the 2005 playoffs, when they were facing the White Sox, the year after they won their first, curse-breaking Series in 2004. There was no way I would have been able to afford tickets to that game. So I watched, along with the rest of the city, in bars. The Red Sox lost that series, but the city was still abuzz with the team, still basking in the afterglow of their series win the year before. I had decided that when I returned to Boston, I would see a game, if not several games.

I may not have the chance to see more than one, but I will be there for the most important, and celebrated, games of the year, outside of the playoffs.

A friend won tickets to opening day, and when she was not able to go due to her small children, I bought them from her. Quickly, I booked a flight to Boston, as they were more reasonably prices than I would have expected, and so it goes. I will get to sit in Fenway, watch the team I love, and party with the other faithful of one of the most popular teams in baseball.

To say the least, I am truly excited. April 4th can’t come quickly enough!

At the Ballpark: Safeco Field (Seattle Mariners)

At the Ballpark: Safeco Field (Seattle Mariners)

Seattle is one of my favorite US cities, and Safeco Field has become one of my favorite big league ballparks. Part of this may because of the proximity of the stadium to me (or relative proximity, I suppose). The Mariners are my defacto home team, since it is only about a 14-hour drive to get from my house to their stadium. Like I said, the proximity is relative. Since Seattle is closer than other major league cities, I have been to more Mariner games than any others across baseball. This is not to say I am a season ticket holder, by any stretch of the imagination, but I have been to four games there, which defeats any other stadium in my travel history.

Safeco_Field_nightSafeco is a great place, a great stadium. Nestled in downtown, you can look out into the outfield, and see the incredibly impressive Seahawks Stadium, just across the way. Two have two amazing, modern, and quality stadiums right next to each other, right on the waterfront, and close to everything in town, is truly a great demonstration of city planning. Around Safeco, you are around the center of the action, and most of the highlights of the city are within walking distance of here.

The stadium itself is proof that all of these modern stadiums will offer the best of the best, in order to draw in the best crowds they can 81 times per year. Granted, the Mariners haven’t exactly provided the most stellar on-field lineups in recent years, but now with stars like Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano, the team should improve, as should the average crowd.

Ticket prices in Seattle are great, where $40 can get you incredible first or third base seats, only a few rows up from the dugouts. And, since the team has struggled in recent years, it is always easy to get tickets. Of course, you should plan ahead, but walking up to the gates before a game and getting seats is never a major issue. Great seats seem to always be there for any game.

The amenities in the stadium are solid as well. There are tons of food options, perhaps the best variety I have seen in a ballpark. You can get everything from your unhealthy doses of hot dogs and beers, to pretty damn good sushi, or seafood. Who knew a lobster sandwich from a baseball stadium would actually be really good? And affordable, as far as stadium costs go.

safecoCertain sections in Safeco are where you can be catered, and feel extra lazy. For one of my games there, we were in these seats, below the overhand of the upper deck, where there are waitresses that will bring you all your food and drink needs. The menu items cost a little more than walking up to the lines yourself, but sometimes you want a beer and don’t want to miss any of the game. In these instances, I will pay the extra buck or two to have somebody get it for me and bring it to my seat. Another bonus of this service is that you are able to pay for your items with a credit card, and save your cash for something else. A small bonus, but something that I liked about it.

Seattle, being a city known for rain, of course has a stadium with a retractable roof. I find that many stadiums that are indoors lose all of their appeal and baseball traditionalism, but at Safeco, when the roof is closed, it still feels like you are at an outdoor ballgame. The stadium is still open and airy, and you never get that feeling that you are closed in to watch the event. For baseball, I want to be outside, to feel the slight chill of the summer night air. It didn’t feel to me as though this was an issue with a closed roof in Seattle, something I give the stadium creators a lot of credit for.

The fans in Seattle are some of the best in baseball, that I have experienced. The general person is knowledgeable about the game, and very friendly. People respect that you have traveled a long way to see their team, and even in the down times, they still love their Mariners.

I had the chance to witness a couple of cool games there, including one of the legendary Ichiro’s final games as a Mariner, before moving on to the evil Yankees, and a 2-hit shutout gem of a game thrown by Hernandez, one of the best pitchers in the game.

The last time I was at Safeco, at the conclusion of the 6th inning, a man left his prime seats in the first row behind the Texas Rangers dugout, and gave us his tickets. He said that he had to leave, and he wanted us to have them. Gladly accepting, we were able to watch the rest of the game with our beers sitting on the Rangers dugout, a mere couple of feet away from their players. We got to watch the game as the Rangers were throwing sunflower seeds at Yu Darvish, their (at the time) rookie pitcher acquisition from Japan. It was a truly awesome ballpark experience, and one that speaks to the generosity of Mariner fans. It was a perfect conclusion to our couple of days at the park there.

Safeco Field is a secret gem in baseball. The Mariners may not get the media attention of the mega-market teams, but quietly they have created one of the most positive baseball viewing experiences in the league.

I know that I will be back to Safeco in the future. Because it is closer, and because it is great.

Hit the Slopes: Skiing Panorama, BC

Having the chance to get away over the past couple of days to do some skiing was a great opportunity. Having the chance to return to Panorama, BC, for another year of a school ski trip was excellent. The mountain never really fails to disappoint, and will surely keep us coming back again and again.

Despite fairly chilly early-morning temperatures (both days started off around -18 Celcius), the days would warm up as the sun peeked through the mountains and bathed the front side of the mountain in light and warmth. At its warmest, it probably got up to about -8, which really is ideal skiing temperatures. On Friday, the hill was in great shape, fresh off a new layer of snow, giving the mountain ideal skiing conditions. Just a little bit of powder over a nice and forgiving pack underneath. Some mildly icy patches appeared on Saturday, when the hill was much busier, but it was still great conditions, earning great reviews from people who were all over the different runs.

pano mapPanorama has a great selection of runs, and this time around, we spent the majority of our time on the right side of the mountain, around the Sun Bowl area. Some great, long, open runs, that offered a strong variety of challenges and difficulty levels. Panorama is always very good and not getting people stuck on a series of runs that are too difficult or easy for people: there are always plenty of options, no matter where you head off the chair lift.

The lines were reasonable, even on Saturday, when it obviously gets much busier than a weekday. Once you go up the quad chair at the bottom, you will rarely be waiting more than a minute or two on any of the the other chairs on the mountain. Definitely a bonus, as you can ski continually without having to cool off and stand around for too long.

The accommodations of Panorama are always great. The wood condos are pleasant and well-equipped, with some excellent two-bedroom suites.I believe that all rooms, even the smaller ones, have kitchenettes and balconies offering great views. It is an ideal place for a school trip, since everyone is contained in the village. There really is nowhere to go, and the village is small enough that you can easily walk around it to get to the various restaurants. Being right on the hill is a huge bonus, as it is only a couple of minutes of walking before you are on the first chair. No messing around with the gondola or shuttles or whatever else. Being in the lower village would be slightly more inconvenient, but still better than many hills. The facilities, such as the hot tubs, are good, and not usually overcrowded, which is nice, making them a good place to relax, and meet some new people. And there are plenty of good restaurants in the village, including the T-Bar and Fireside, which are right on the hill next to the chalet.

panoThe chalet is decent. Not particularly sumptuous or anything, but effective in its basic nature. The food is decent, and reasonably priced (for a ski chalet, at least. A chicken burger with fries will run you about $10), and this time, the lines seemed to move faster than in years previous. It used to be a significant wait (especially around breakfast time) to get some freshly cooked food, but this year it was more organized and effective. The ski shop is actually pretty good as well. It is, of course, very pricey, but was smart enough to offer some good prices on basics that people tend to need to the hill (for example, buying a balaclava to combat the cold was only $20).

Overall, Panorama is one of the hills I have skied the most in my life. And for a reason. The conditions are almost always good, the weather is, for the most part, cooperative, and the facilities are top notch.