Cambridge, MA ~ A City Unto Itself

Knowledge is power ~ Francis Bacon, Philosopher, 1561-1626

A post in dedication to my little sister, Katya, who started university in Sydney, Australia this week.

Cambridge has been described as Boston’s Left Bank, and for good reason. Named in honour of the University of Cambridge in England, it is marked by the sprawling Harvard University as well as MIT’s grounds.

If these prestigious institutions represent the brain, then Harvard Square is the town’s beating heart. A gathering place for authors, poets, publishers, printers, teachers, and students for centuries, it is pretty much that way today, albeit against a different scape of storefronts.

A rich mix of bookstores, coffee-shops, ethnic restaurants, and bars – with Harvard University in the midst of it all – there’s a bohemian vibe to this part of the neighbourhood.

It’s not hard to find yourself reminiscing about the days of student-life in these surrounds. Ahh, the good old days, when labour intensive assignments, looming deadlines, exams, and anxiety over grade-averages seemed like the biggest concerns in the world.

Only to find out that real life happened after graduation day.

With MIT to the Square’s Northeast, and Harvard Business School to the South, there’s plenty of opportunity to act like the resident-student – so revel in this feeling. Something has got to be said for osmosis – being surrounded by so much knowledge, so much brainpower, you’ll even feel smarter.

Take a leisurely stroll through the lovely Cambridge, as well as a drive here and there, and prepare to be charmed.

A River Runs Through It

Home to Harvard and the masterminds of MIT, you half expect to be stopped at the bridge before crossing, to be quizzed about your level of education; or perhaps, to show some credentials. Put any such thoughts aside – just look the part of an intellectual. After winding down Storrow Drive, Cambridge is an easy-breezy drive over the Harvard Bridge. From it, you can enjoy some pretty spectacular panoramic views of Boston’s downtown.

Etch these views into memory as it’s not possible to stop until you get to the other side.

A Literary Lineage

Make your first stop Harvard Square, where history and the present exists side by side.

Fact: The first printing press was carried across the Atlantic with the first American printer, Stephen Daye, and found its way here. The Daye Press later became the University Press.

First published American poet, Anne Bradstreet, was a former Harvard Square resident, and American poetry greats of the 19th and 20th century – Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, T.S. Eliot and E. E. Cummings – were no strangers to the area either.

Once a mecca for booksellers, Harvard Book Store was established in 1932 and is one of the few independents left standing in the Square. Browse the well stocked shelves and rifle through its bargain table. You might even have the penchant to self-publish that novel you’ve kept filed away on your hard drive. A far cry from the old-fashioned press, and in a nod to the science and technology so engrained in the area, the store is equipped with a book-making robot nicknamed Paige M. Gutenborg. Simply state your print run and consider yourself published! You might even get your book shelved in the store, or featured on their website,

Definition: Gutenborg 3.0 is an end-to-end platform that optimizes your publishing process.

Around the corner, on Massachusetts Ave and Plympton Street, is the Grolier Poetry Book Shop. Next door to one another, these two form a formidable pair; like each other’s bookends, they live on to tell the stories of a near-extinct breed of booksellers.

Further along Massachusetts Avenue and across from Harvard Square Station, is the multilevel Harvard Co-op Book Building. Managed by Barnes and Noble, there are stacks of books, racks of magazines, and the token café in the midst of paraphernalia emblematic of Harvard. Established in 1882, the Co-op is still one of America’s largest bookstores (it even used to sell wood in the winter). Membership rates have avoided the effects of inflation; they’ve held steady at $1, though be sure to have your Harvard or MIT I.D. number handy if you’d like to join.

The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker…

Meandering through Harvard Square is fun; the streets and paved alleys are easy to navigate. Pass by the old-school stationer and the greeting-card-chain, Papyrus; pop into Planet Records on John F Kennedy Street as well as the next-door Raven Used Books, just under The Harvard Shop…

…. peer into the windows of restaurants and bars, still in a deep slumber; wander into the gourmet food shop, Cardullo’s, to find – much to your delight – that yes, they do stock Earl Grey Green Tea!

You’ll encounter all this before stumbling upon a coffee-shop for a much needed caffeine boost…

… only to find that all the students had the same idea as you, at the same time. Great minds think alike.

Standing room only in here, though it’s not yet 11am. Linger over a cup of java and marvel at its latte art.

Harvard Walk

The name Harvard comes from the college’s first benefactor, the young minister John Harvard of Charlestown. Upon his death in 1638, he left his library and half his estate to the institution… by vote of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.*

Harvard Yard is the historic centre of Harvard University – established in 1636, it is the oldest institution of higher education in the States. Enter through its imposing gates and come face to face with about 25 acres of university sprawl (note that Harvard’s real estate holdings are total: 5,076 acres). In the centre is the grassy Tercentenary Theater; framed on each of its sides by The Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library, Memorial Church, Emerson Hall for Philosophy, and the University’s longest-standing building – Massachusetts Hall, constructed in 1720.

Pathways, dormitories, more libraries (together, they house 17 million volumes!), and classrooms intersect the area within its expanse. The Faculties for Fine Art, Humanities, and Visual Studies line Harvard Yard to its east – despite being located just across the street – together with a number of the university’s museums.

If you’re in need of some luck, rubbing the left foot on the statue of John Harvard in the Yard’s grounds may help you out. Boy, is that boot polished! … Can’t say the same for the shoe on the other foot.

NB: The total 2011-2012 cost of attending Harvard College without financial aid is USD36,305 for tuition; it is USD52,652 for tuition, room, board and fees combined.*

Food for Thought

Definition: Sofra comes from an ancient Arabic word meaning dining table, picnic, or kilim; it is also a synonym for generosity and hospitality.**

Being surrounded by so much knowledge will inevitably exhaust the brain and stimulate the leptin “hunger” hormone. About a 10 minute car ride from Harvard Square is SOFRA, an Eastern Mediterranean bakery-cafe that produces savoury and sweet pastry goods – some, spiced with aleppo; others, sweetened with honey, or flavoured with rosewater.

Try the Spiced Lamb Pie for lunch; the Fig Almond Bisteeya, Baklava and Date Ma’amoul – for dessert. Grab a coffee-to-go if you can’t snag one of the tiny tables in this cosy spot.

Food for the Brain

The mission of MIT is to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century — whether the focus is cancer, energy, economics or literature.***

Heading back towards the Charles River and its bridges leading into Boston, make your last stop the MIT Museum – for a dash of genius. Immerse yourself in the creative energy borne by the masterminds who have attended this institution; there are a few up-and-coming Einsteins amongst them. The inventions of display are interactive, brilliant, and mind-boggling.

Untitled Fragile Motor, 1997 ~ steel, wire, motor

You’ll meet Kismet, one of the world’s first social robots; marvel at the kinetic sculptures, moving with quiet precision; become entangled in the wires of the most complex homemade modular electronic music synthesizer you’ve ever seen. Called the Paradiso Synthesizer, it was built by Joe Paradiso in the MIT Media Lab, mostly between 1975 and 1985.

Before you leave, buy a souvenir “Thinking Cap”, or the extended version of the Rubik’s Cube – it has extra rows of colour to unpuzzle!


For an authentic Cambridge experience, we stayed at the Irving House Inn. This is a lovely B&B, run by a friendly and helpful staff. It is located on a residential street and a short walk away from Harvard Yard, which is adjacent to Harvard University. Surrounded by Federal Revival homes and red-brick dorm buildings, it’s as if you’re staying on campus.

One of the advantages of staying in Cambridge means that you can leave your car in the lodging’s parking lot and discover the neigbourhood on foot. There’s no rush, unless you have a looming deadline to contend with…


** *** Note: MIT is Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Gone for 24 Hours: In Search of Snow and Ice ~ Lake Placid, NY

I had planned to road-trip it to Lake Placid for two reasons: I wanted to see snow again (yes, I know, the Aussie was in search of this year’s hard-to-come-by snow…), and since The Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival wasn’t in my immediate sights, I was looking forward to seeing those of the nearby Saranac Lake Winter Carnival.

A winter getaway to Lake Placid deserves more than the 24 hours I was able to dedicate to it, yet the break is well worth the drive. Blanketed in snow and with a thermostat reading of way below 32F/0C, the town delivers an abundance of sweeping vistas from the get-go. Located deep in the Adirondacks, along the edges of Mirror Lake and those of its namesake, and set against Whiteface Mountain – Lake Placid makes for a particularly picturesque village scene. Blue skies and birches, evergreens alongside bare deciduous trees, a warm sun splaying over a cute Main Street ~ the temps may not be as cold as those of previous years, though being able to participate safely and somewhat comfortably in outdoor activities is a bonus.

Though I had traveled with two things in mind, I came back to NYC feeling refreshed for completely different reasons: for breathing in the Olympic pride so honoured by the town; for appreciating the nature-inspired interiors so influenced by their surroundings; for taking pleasure in such simple activities as reclining in a hot spa, and warming up by a fireplace; for inhaling fresh mountain air; and, for meeting lovely people all along the way.

Here’s a blueprint to enjoying Lake Placid and its surrounds in a 24-hour period.

Day One

10am – 4pm: The Drive

It’s a pretty straightforward drive from NYC to Lake Placid. Travel a few hours along an evergreen lined Interstate 87 and the icy-rock-faced High Peaks Scenic Route 73, and you’re pretty much there. Enjoy as a brilliant sun sets slowly behind tall Adirondack Mountain peaks.

4.30pm: Lights, Cameras, Antlers

Be prepared to take a multitude of photos whilst checking-in at The Whiteface Lodge, located at the corner of Saranac Ave/NY-86W and Whiteface Inn Lane. Handcrafted antler chandeliers and cast iron pine cone light fixtures outfitted with rawhide lampshades illuminate the lobby, where a hefty George Jacques-built tabletop with a gnarled tree trunk base makes for a bold statement. Rustic-inspired floral arrangements add a touch of lightness.

The Whiteface Lodge was developed by Joe Barile, a former Olympic luger, and built in 2005. After three years of planning, the evidence is in the lodge’s details: from the wood paneled walls of its corridors, to the stairways’ log balustrades. The property employs a local artist, who is responsible for all the custom wooden accents throughout the Lodge. Dark leather couches and decorative Persian rugs exude an old-fashioned richness within the Adirondack-style lodge based on the Grand Camps of the wealthy in the 1800’s.

5pm: The Suite Life

There’s no choice at The Whiteface Lodge but to stay in a suite ~ which means a jet spa bath as well as a room with a view. Here, huge chocolate chip cookies at the bedside are the new chocolate on the pillow.

7pm: Icy Aliens

Before the temps get to a barely tolerable freeze, drive a few minutes along NY State Route 86 in the direction of the village of Saranac Lake to view its winter festival; the Alien Invasion themed ice castle and sculptures were built by community volunteers and placed along the Lake Flower’s shoreline (Lower Saranac Lake is actually located a ½ mile west of the village).

The Saranac Lake Winter Carnival, Feb. 3-12, 2012 is the longest-running event of its kind in the eastern U.S. …the Carnival began as a one-day event to break the monotony of the long Adirondack winter and has grown into a 10-day festival that includes sports, dances, performances, two parades and two sets of spectacular fireworks above the world-famous Ice Palace.*

The festival has run for 115 years, and whilst previous years may have exhibited larger constructions (the warmer temps have not been kind this year), you’ll appreciate the effort behind such an installation. Lake harvested ice-bricked palatial walls and aliens carved out of frozen blocks are illuminated by neon lights in greens, blues, purples and reds. Allocate about thirty minutes here: any longer and your fingers may become beyond-numb, and your feet – somewhat of the frozen variety.

Fun fact: Beginning in 1936, Albert Einstein had a summer home in Saranac Lake that he rented from a local architect.**

8pm: S’mores Break

Gooey marshmallow and melted chocolate sandwiched between two Graham crackers ~ need I say more? The Whiteface Lodge offers this Made-in-America treat every evening until 9:30 PM inside their Clubhouse Terrace. Though if you’d prefer to warm up with a pre-dinner aperitif of the alcoholic variety, head to the plush leather and wooded interiors of the Kanu Lounge.

9pm: Surf n Turf by the Fireplace

Grand opulence. The hotel’s Kanu restaurant takes size to another dimension. Its expanse is defined by a high wood-beamed ceiling, accentuated with an enormous cast iron chandelier. The dining room is watched over by a number of mounted moose heads.

The Modern American menu follows the farm-to-table trend. Indulge. Order the crab cakes – two robust patties made of jumbo lump crab meat accompanied by mash; and the braised pork cheeks – so tender, served atop a bed of root vegetables. Don’t let the healthy course sizes deter you from dessert. Recommended finale: Crème Brulee accompanied by a glass of prosecco.

10.30pm: Nightcap

If you can fit it in – well, that’s up to you. The lounge is open until 11pm and the cocktails are good.

Day Two

9am: Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed

That’s how you’ll feel when waking up to a snow covered view. You’ll be itching to get outside; to feel the crunch of snow underneath your boots. Fill up on a big breakfast – coffee, omelet & toast, granola – whilst gazing at the view of Whiteface Mountain.

11am: Snow capped vistas

One of the best views of Whiteface Mountain is at the end of Whiteface Inn Lane, along the fringes of Lake Placid. At the end of the road (it’s a few minutes drive) you’ll come to the Lake Placid Inn. Descend the stairs to enjoy a panoramic view of the frozen lake and that snow capped mountain. Serene beauty – this is winter’s decadent offering. From this vantage point, images of Japan’s Mount Fuji come to mind.

12pm: Jumper-time

The town of Lake Placid is probably best known for its connections to the Winter Olympics; the town hosted the Games twice, in 1932 and 1980, and their legacy lives on. Many activities centre on those Olympic facilities, and make sure to take advantage of them. (Time may be a factor in having the ability to visit them all).

One of the coolest spots to experience pure adrenalin is atop the 26-storey, 120 foot high ski jump at The Olympic Jumping Complex. Located about 15 minutes from the centre of the town, prepare to be exasperated by the sheer velocity of it all. A chair lift ride and elevator ascent later, you’ll be standing on an open air viewing platform looking down the steepest incline ever…  A fear of heights gives way to shock & awe as you put yourself in the skis of those brave athletes; this is the site of their launch before veering off into the air, spanning the length of a football field! You’ll be able to take some overhead shots of the town and Adirondack Mountains from here.

These days, the site hosts year-round international ski jumping and aerial freestyle skiing competitions.

2pm: Snack time

Head back to the center’s Main Street, lined with boutiques, a cinema, library and mom ‘n’ pop shops. No fear, there’s a GAP outlet too. After you’ve dropped into the resident Starbucks or local café for a large hot chocolate and sweet snack, stroll to the water’s edge and watch life as it happens along a frozen Mirror Lake, noticing dog walkers and sledders. There are some great vantage points from which to take photographs, as noted to me by the passers-by, who were only happy to show their top spots.

NB: it’s all paid street parking here though spots are not hard to come by.

Apparently a good spot from which to take a photo

3.30pm: Miracle on Ice

A few minutes walk away from the retail strip is the Olympic Center. This is where the triumphant hockey game of 1980 happened between the less seasoned US team and their mighty Soviet rivals; Team USA went on to win gold, against Finland. The USA-USSR game went down as one of the finest in American sports history; it was a stunning win for the country and an inspiration for sport-enthusiasts all over. The movie Miracle, starring Kurt Russell, was released in 2004 to further cement this moment. These days, the indoor rink is grazed and razored by the US/CAN hockey teams, and pirouetted over during figure skating championships. Sit and enjoy the ambience… don’t mind its sweaty locker room smell. It’s part of the charm.

4pm: Amassed memorabilia

The Olympic Museum is a large room filled floor to ceiling with any association to the Winter Olympics of 1932 and 1980. Vintage posters; old New Yorker covers; team jerseys; newspaper cutouts; a wall outfitted with Olympic torches from every Winter hosting city; medals of various sizes, proportions and metal colours. History was made in this town and continues on within these walls, where the front desk staff is only too happy to chat even further.

5pm: Night driving

Surprisingly, you may find that the road home is slightly quicker than the drive in. There’s less gawking when it is pitch black outside, though you’ll be too exhausted and rested from the fresh air to even care.

(Read: I wasn’t the driver on this trip.)

OPTION: feel free to substitute all of the above afternoon activities with a long relaxing soak in the hotel’s hot tub.

For more photos, see my previous post: Into the Wild: Lake Placid, Upstate New York


In my preliminary research on Lake Placid, I came across this piece of information:

In 2010, U.S. News & World Report rated Lake Placid as one of the “6 Forgotten Vacation Spots” in North America.**

What are you waiting for – get out to Lake Placid and create some memories! Meanwhile, I’m planning to report on it again in spring/summer!


Getting There

If driving isn’t an option, Amtrak stops at Westport Depot – located approx. 40 minutes from the centre of Lake Placid. You may arrange for shuttle transportation if the hotel doesn’t provide it.