Frank Sinatra wants to be a part of New York, New York. Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco.  And then there's the Standells, the one-hit-wonder garage band that tributes Boston: 'I love that dirty water, Boston, you're my home.' The city's ironic anthem is all about the notoriously polluted waters of the Charles River and the Boston Harbor.

Even a few short years ago, you could be forgiven for forgetting that Boston was an ocean-side city (if not for the Standells). A major highway ran through the centre and blocked access to the waterfront, while the harbour was a dumping destination for industrial waste and sewage. The New England Aquarium was an isolated attraction in the midst of the waterside wasteland.

What a difference $19 billion makes. That is the combined total cost of the public works projects that built a state-of-the-art water treatment plant in the harbour and dismantled the downtown highway, running the road through an underground tunnel and replacing it with the so-called Greenway. Boston is finally reaping the rewards of 15-plus years of downtown construction - one of which is free and easy access to the sparkling sea.

Green connection

Where the highway thundered overhead, the Rose Kennedy Greenway now winds peacefully through the city. The network of parks and plazas attracts picnickers to its lawns and frolickers to its fountains.  Most importantly, it offers a seamless connection between Boston's waterfront and the rest of the city.

The Greenway has its critics, to be sure. Many of the planned features like a Boston Museum and a botanical garden have not come to fruition, due to lack of funding. And the existing parks, critics claim, are unattractive and underutilised.

For the time being, the Greenway is more of a pedestrian route than a destination; but as a pedestrian route, it has enabled the waterfront to become a destination. Now the docks are crammed with boats offering harbour tours and whale-watching trips; tourists flock to restaurants for outdoor seating, live music and sea breezes; and the New England Aquarium has opened a new Marine Mammal pavilion facing the sea.

The Islands

From Long Wharf, passengers set sail for the islands - the Harbor Islands, that is. As a part of the harbour cleanup, 15 islands were designated as Harbor Islands National Park, replete with hiking trails, swimming beaches, camping areas and wild berries.

The centrepiece is Georges Island, home to a Civil War-era fort. Fort Warren is highly explorable with dozens of turrets and towers, alleys and archways, not to mention a resident ghost. On weekends, kids romp to family-friendly music and theatre.  Georges Island is the ferry hub, so seafarers must come here before continuing on to most of the other islands.

The exception is Spectacle Island, which is the most accessible and family-friendly island of the bunch. Its visitor’s centre has exhibits about the history and ecology of the harbor; it also has the only beach with lifeguards and facilities. On Thursday nights, chef Jasper White of Summer Shack fame hosts a clambake on the beach.

New look for Southie

The development of the waterfront is gradually moving south. Once the domain of commercial fishing fleets, the Seaport District in South Boston is now home to the striking new Institute for Contemporary Arts. A glass structure cantilevered over a waterside plaza, the building incorporates the ocean into its architecture.

Despite the opening of the museum, a new convention centre and several restaurants and hotels, the Seaport District still has room for improvement (i.e., vast empty parking lots); but its development is a priority for the current mayoral administration, which has targeted the neighbourhood as a future 'innovation district'.

In the meantime, one can avoid the parking lots by following the HarborWalk, a delightful walking path that runs along the water's edge from downtown. Walkers can read about the role of the harbour in Boston's history and economy; or they can simply gaze out to sea, feel the salty air, take in the view and hum the Standells.

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