Get Your Swan On

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Posted May 6, 2013 by Stephanie Dubick in Urban Living
Swan Boat

There’s a story behind those swan boats in the Boston Public Garden. And it all goes back to Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings, the official children’s book of the Massachusetts Commonwealth, and the go-to picture book of New England parents.

Written in 1941, Make Way for Ducklings is a classic tale about Mr. and Mrs. Mallard, two mallard ducks who decide to raise their children in the lagoon of the Boston Public Garden after they misjudge the swan vessels for real birds. I have wonderful childhood memories of reading and rereading the story on beautiful springtime afternoons in the Public Garden, as I watched the mallard ducks splish and splash alongside the passing boats. It’s memories like these that make me proud of being a Bostonian and appreciative of a place like the Public Gardens. It’s an oasis in the heart of the city.

With Make Way For Ducklings nearing its 80th year since publication, the swan boats, instituted in the 1870s by New England resident and builder Robert Paget, are entering their 135th year as the symbol of springtime’s arrival for many New England residents. And as the perfect family-friendly activity, these distinct, handcrafted boats — with their wooden chairs, green floors, and grandiose swan statues — are a unique sight to behold and a peaceful, time-honored tradition for everyone who hops aboard.

So, to celebrate the opening of the boats’ 2013 season, I recommend taking a boat ride through one of the oldest and most beautifully maintained parks in the country. I seriously can’t count the number of times I’ve cruised the lagoon of the Public Gardens. Growing up in Massachusetts, it was a guarantee that I, along with every other Mass child, would experience the swan boats at an early age—and we did.

The first time I got my swan on, I was five. I remember standing in the long line, awaiting the arrival of the boats. Through my five-year-old eyes, the lagoon was enormous. My mom bought me a bag of roasted peanuts from a vendor to feed to the ducks. And, on this particular spring afternoon, I remember the flocks of ducklings waddling around the green grass with a vibrancy incomparable to anything I’d ever seen. The tulips and daffodils were aligned in perfect rows, and flower petals fell from the trees like snow.

From then on, whether it was on school field trips or outings with my parents, the arrival of spring and summer meant a visit to the Public Gardens—and memories like this are hard to forget. That’s why engaging yourself in this Massachusetts pastime and circling the famous lagoon is worth every minute.

With tickets available for adults and children, the swan boats, still owned and operated by the Paget family, are open from April through October. They offer group rates for parties of 20 or more, easy access for wheelchairs, are easy to reach from the T, and are just a few blocks from anywhere downtown.

So experience this part of downtown Boston the way you would a Red Sox game or a walk through Faneuil Hall, with a strong sense of history and excitement. But don’t forget to bring peanuts for the birds, and make sure not to eat them all . . . like I did.

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