The Department of Conservation & Recreation, or DCR (tel. 617/626-1250; www.state.ma.us/dcr), oversees outdoor activities on public lands across the state through its divisions of Urban Parks & Recreation and State Parks & Recreation. (The Division of Urban Parks & Recreation replaced the Metropolitan District Commission, a name that still appears on many signs.) The incredibly helpful website includes descriptions of properties and activities, and has a planning area to help you make the most of your time.
The beaches in Boston proper are not worth the trouble. Besides being bone-chilling, Boston Harbor water is subject to being declared unsafe for swimming for health reasons. If you want to swim, book a hotel with a pool. If you want the sand-between-your-toes experience, visit the North Shore or Walden Pond in Concord.
Despite Boston's recent push to be more welcoming to cyclists, out-of-towners who are anything other than complete experts will be better off exploring the area's numerous bike paths or visiting Cambridge. If you must stay in Boston, consider taking a tour -- the supervision of a guide who's experienced in the city's terrifying traffic is well worth the money. Check www.cityofboston.gov/bikes for information about the Boston Bikes initiative, which includes plans for a bike-sharing system.
State law requires that children 11 and under wear helmets. Bicycles are forbidden on buses and the Green Line at all times and during rush hours on the other lines of the subway system.
On summer Sundays from 11am to 7pm, a flat 1 1/2-mile stretch of Memorial Drive in Cambridge, from Western Avenue to the Eliot Bridge (Central Sq. to west Cambridge), closes to cars. It's also popular with pedestrians and in-line skaters, and can get quite crowded. The Dr. Paul Dudley White Charles River Bike Path is an 18-mile circuit that begins at Science Park (near the Museum of Science) and runs along both sides of the river as far as Watertown. Note that there's heavy vehicular traffic at nearly every crosswalk along the way. Bikers share the path with joggers and in-line skaters, especially in Boston near the Esplanade and in Cambridge near Harvard Square. The DCR maintains this path and the 5-mile Pierre Lallement Bike Path, in Southwest Corridor Park. It starts behind the Copley Place mall, on Dartmouth Street between Huntington and Columbus avenues, and runs through the South End and Roxbury along the route of the MBTA Orange Line to Franklin Park. The 11-mile Minuteman Bikeway (www.minutemanbikeway.org) starts at Alewife station at the end of the Red Line in Cambridge. It runs through Arlington and Lexington to Bedford along an old railroad bed and is a wonderful way to reach the historic sites in Lexington.
Rental shops require you to show a driver's license or passport and leave a deposit using a major credit card. Daily flat rates run $30 to $50. Check out Urban AdvenTours, which will deliver to your hotel; Back Bay Bicycles, 366 Commonwealth Ave., near Massachusetts Avenue (tel. 617/247-2336; www.backbaybicycles.com); Cambridge Bicycle, 259 Massachusetts Ave. (tel. 617/876-6555; www.cambridgebicycle.com), near MIT; and Landry's Bicycles, 890 Commonwealth Ave. (tel. 617/232-0446; www.landrys.com), near Boston University.
For additional information, including a calendar of events, contact MassBike (tel. 617/542-2453; www.massbike.org).
You won't get far in the suburbs without seeing a golf course, and given the sport's popularity, you won't be the only one looking. If possible, opt for the lower prices and smaller crowds that you'll find on weekdays. The Massachusetts Golf Association (tel. 800/356-2201 or 774/430-9100; www.mgalinks.org) represents more than 400 golf courses around the state and has a searchable online database.
One of the best public courses in the area, Newton Commonwealth Golf Course, 212 Kenrick St., Newton (tel. 617/630-1971; www.sterlinggolf.com), is a challenging 18-hole Donald Ross design. It's 5,305 yards from the blue tees, par is 70, and greens fees are $30 on weekdays, $37 on weekends.
Within the city limits is the legendary 6,009-yard William J. Devine Golf Course, in Franklin Park, Dorchester (tel. 617/265-4084; www.cityofbostongolf.com). As a Harvard student, Bobby Jones sharpened his game on the 18-hole, par-70 course, which is managed by the city parks department. Greens fees are $40 on weekdays, $45 on weekends.
Less challenging but with more of a neighborhood feel is the 9-hole, par-35 Fresh Pond Golf Course, 691 Huron Ave., Cambridge (tel. 617/349-6282; www.freshpondgolf.com). The 3,161-yard layout adjoins the Fresh Pond Reservoir, and there's water on four holes. It charges $23, or $33 to go around twice, on weekdays; $26 and $38, respectively, on weekends and holidays.
If your hotel doesn't have a health club, your best bet is to ask the concierge or front desk staff to recommend one nearby; you may receive a pass good for free or discounted admission. Guests at the Ritz-Carlton, Boston Common, have the use of the over-the-top facilities at the 100,000-square-foot Sports Club/LA, which is otherwise closed to nonmembers. Other hotels with good health clubs include the Boston Harbor Hotel, the Charles Hotel, the Four Seasons Hotel, the Hilton Boston Logan Airport, the InterContinental Boston, and the Royal Sonesta Hotel.
The "Y" (www.ymcaboston.org) offers the best combination of facilities and value; each of these locations has a pool, gym, weight room, and fitness center. The Wang YMCA of Chinatown, 8 Oak St. W., off Washington Street (tel. 617/426-2237), is convenient to downtown and charges $15 for a 1-day pass. The Central Branch YMCA, 316 Huntington Ave. (tel. 617/536-7800), near Symphony Hall, charges $10. Fitcorp (tel. 617/375-5600; www.fitcorp.com) charges $20 for a guest pass and offers well-equipped facilities but no pool. It has a dozen area branches, including 1 Beacon St., near Government Center (tel. 617/248-9797); 125 Summer St., in the Financial District (tel. 617/261-4855); and 197 Clarendon St. (tel. 617/933-5090) and 800 Boylston St., in the Prudential Center (tel. 617/262-2050), both in the Back Bay. A day pass costs $20 at women-only, no-pool Healthworks (www.healthworksfitness.com), which has well-equipped facilities in the Back Bay at 441 Stuart St. (tel. 617/859-7700) and in Cambridge at the Porter Square Shopping Center, 35 White St. (tel. 617/497-4454).
A Vacation in the Islands
Majestic ocean views, hiking trails, historic sites, rocky beaches, nature walks, campsites, and picnic areas abound in New England. To find them all together, head east (yes, east) of Boston to the Boston Harbor Islands (tel. 617/223-8666; www.bostonharborislands.org). The national park area's unspoiled beauty is a welcome break from the urban landscape, and the islands are not well known, even to many longtime Bostonians. Thirty-four islands dot the Outer Harbor, and at least a half dozen are open for exploring, camping, swimming, and more. Bring a sweater or jacket. Plan a day trip or even an overnight trip, but note that only Georges and Spectacle islands have fresh water, and management strongly suggests bringing your own.
Ferries run to Georges Island and Spectacle Island. Georges Island has a visitor center, refreshment area, fishing pier, picnic area, and wonderful views of Boston's skyline. It's home to Fort Warren (1833), which held Confederate prisoners during the Civil War. You can investigate on your own or take a ranger-led tour. Spectacle Island, which opened to the public in 2006, holds more than 3 million cubic yards of material dug up during the Big Dig -- then sealed, covered with topsoil, and landscaped to allow recreational use. It's home to 5 miles of hiking trails, a beach, and an eco-friendly visitor center with a cafe.
Allow at least half a day, longer if you plan to take the water shuttle ($3/day) to Bumpkin, Grape, or Lovells Island, all of which have picnic areas and campsites. On the largest island, Peddocks, you can hike and picnic but not camp.
Admission to the islands is free. To get there, take a ferry run by Boston's Best Cruises (tel. 617/222-6999; www.bostonsbestcruises.com) to Georges Island (30 min. or less) or Spectacle Island (15 min.) from Long Wharf. Round-trip tickets cost $14 for adults, $10 for seniors, $8 for children 3 to 11, $39 families (two adults, two kids); the water shuttle costs $3/day. Cruises depart daily on the hour from 9am to 5pm (6pm on weekends) from mid-June through Labor Day weekend, with shorter hours in the spring and fall. In the off season, check ahead for winter wildlife excursions (scheduled occasionally).
A public-private National Park Partnership administers the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area (www.nps.gov/boha). For more information, consult the staff at the Rose Kennedy Greenway Boston Harbor Islands Visitor Center Pavilion, on the Greenway across from Faneuil Hall Marketplace, or contact the Friends of the Boston Harbor Islands (tel. 617/740-4290; www.fbhi.org). The Friends coordinate a variety of cruises on and around the harbor throughout the summer and fall; check ahead for details.
For information about hiking in state parks and forests, visit www.massparks.org. The Boston Harbor Islands offer great hiking; circling the largest island, Peddocks, takes half a day.
Ice Skating & In-Line Skating
The outdoor ice-skating season runs from mid-November to mid-March, weather permitting. Check ahead for open hours and closures for private events.
The rink at the Boston Common Frog Pond (tel. 617/635-2120; www.cityofboston.gov/parks) is an extremely popular cold-weather destination. It's an open surface with an ice-making system and a clubhouse. Admission is $4 for adults and free for children 13 and under; skate rental costs $8 for adults, $5 for kids. The rink gets unbelievably crowded on weekend afternoons, so try to go in the morning or on a weekday.
Kendall Square Community Skating, 300 Athenaeum St., East Cambridge (tel. 617/492-0941; www.kendallsquare.org), is an open rink in a courtyard not far from MIT. It charges $5 for adults, $3 for seniors and students, $1 for children 13 and under; skate rentals are $8 for adults, $5 for kids. Validated discounted parking is available.
A favorite spot for in-line skaters is the Esplanade, between the Back Bay and the Charles River. It continues onto the bike path that runs to Watertown and back, but after you leave the Esplanade, the pavement isn't totally smooth, which can lead to mishaps. Your best bet is to wait for a Sunday in the summer, when Memorial Drive near Harvard Square in Cambridge closes to traffic from 11am to 7pm. It's a perfect surface. Unless you're confident of your ability and your knowledge of Boston traffic, stay off the streets.
To rent skates or blades, visit the Beacon Hill Skate Shop, 135 Charles St. S. (tel. 617/482-7400). It's not on Beacon Hill but near the Theater District, not too far from the Esplanade, and has a knowledgeable staff. Expect to pay about $15 a day. The InLine Club of Boston's website (www.sk8net.com) offers up-to-date event and safety information.
The Dr. Paul Dudley White Charles River Bike Path is also a jogging route. The 18-mile loop along the water is extremely popular because it's car-free (except at intersections), scenic, and generally safe. The bridges that connect Boston and Cambridge allow for circuits of various lengths. Be careful around abutments, where you can't see far ahead. Don't jog at night, try not to go alone, and keep the headphone volume low. Visit the DCR website (www.state.ma.us/dcr) to view a map that gives distances. If the river's not convenient, the concierge or desk staff at your hotel probably can provide a map with suggested jogging routes. As in any other city, stay out of park areas at night.
Sailboats fill the Charles River basin all summer and skim across the Inner Harbor in all but the coldest weather. Your options during a short stay aren't especially cost-effective, but they are fun.
The best deal is with Community Boating, 21 David Mugar Way, on the Esplanade (tel. 617/523-1038; www.community-boating.org). It's on a gorgeous but congested patch of water between the Back Bay and Cambridge's Kendall Square. The oldest public sailing facility in the country offers lessons and boating programs for children and adults from April through November. The fleet includes 13- to 23-foot sailboats as well as windsurfers and kayaks. Experienced visitors pay $75 for a day of sailing or $35 for a day of kayaking.
Public courts are available throughout the city at no charge. Well-maintained courts that seldom get busy until after work are at several spots on the Southwest Corridor Park in the South End (there's a nice one near West Newton St.). The courts on Boston Common and in Charlesbank Park, overlooking the river next to the bridge to the Museum of Science, are more crowded during the day. To find the court nearest you, ask the concierge or desk staff at your hotel or visit the DCR website (www.state.ma.us/dcr).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.