XC90 on the New England pioneer trail
When the Mayflower landed in Massachusetts in 1620, its passengers disembarked with a determination to build a new world. Four hundred years later, New England’s historical reputation for an innovative, pioneering spirit is proving as strong as ever
In November 2020, Americans will celebrate 400 years since the historic Mayflower first saw land at Cape Cod, 80km south of modern-day Boston. The 180-ton square-rigged sailing ship had left south-west England in September 1620 with just over 130 passengers and crew aboard, united by a collective vision to build a better future. A ‘new’ England.
It was from here that modern America grew. Today New England is proud of its history and its pioneering, innovative spirit. It’s these two sides to this intriguing region – a fascinating past balanced with a modern reputation as a global tech hub – that make it such an exciting place to explore at the wheel of the new Volvo XC90.
Boston: birthplace of today’s connected society
We begin under slate grey skies on the streets of historic Boston. It’s a city that’s home to some of the world’s great colleges and universities. The research undertaken in establishments like Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University, particularly in the fields of biotech, transport and robotics, are helping shape the future for the entire planet… and beyond.
Boston has been voted one of America’s most walkable cities but it’s the type of day when you feel fortunate to have the XC90 T8 Twin Engine, with its refined, strong character, as your companion. Cocooned inside its cabin, access to its intuitive tech is easily within reach. Pressing a button on the steering wheel allows us to set our destination using the Sensus Navigation’s Voice Control technology simply by speaking to it. There’s no need to learn any commands, we just say “Rogers Building, Massachusetts Avenue,” and we’re on our way to explore MIT.
Our route takes us past the Renaissance-style Symphony Hall and over the Charles Bridge. Here, the predominant architecture is the brownstone building. A particularly elegant example, its protruding copper bay windows turned green by oxidation, stands next to the riverside doing its best to look beautiful despite the weather.
Across the bridge in Cambridge, the focus shifts from commerce to academia, where the work of the pioneering research labs of Boston’s colleges are changing our world. Facebook and the World Wide Web were born on these streets. After finding a parking space, we engage Park Assist Pilot to guide us into it, the XC90 making use of the sensors and cameras technology to allow us hands-free parking – all we do is control the brakes. Beyond the imposing colonnade of the Rogers Building, on Massachusetts Avenue, is the
Senseable City Lab.
We meet with Professor Carlo Ratti who, along with his team of designers, planners, social scientists and engineers, is focusing on how our cities can work better in the future. They are developing an autonomous boat. Currently being trialled in Amsterdam, it can be constructed using a 3D printer and can be used as a taxi, to collect refuse or even as a floating stage when connected together. It’s a brilliant example of technological synergy between new and old.
Central Massachusetts: a journey back in time
The following morning, we take the I-90 Turnpike, west into central Massachusetts. It’s late September and the leaves on the trees standing guard along the highway – maple, beech and ash – are beginning to morph in colour. In a month, drivers along this road will be greeted with a stunning tapestry of autumnal hues, attracting visitors from all over the world.
The typical American interstate is long and straight, the type of road where some drivers find their attention wavers. Pilot Assist in the XC90 helps makes driving in heavy traffic less tiring, keeping us at a set speed and distance to the vehicle in front and in the centre of the lane. A gentle vibration through the steering wheel lets us know where the technology is active. And now, with added Curve Speed Adaptation technology, our XC90 is able to use map data to adapt the car’s speed to make cornering more comfortable and secure.
Off the turnpike, we discover a world of gently rolling hills, beautifully-preserved churches, and cows munching contentedly in fields. We’ve also got a date with one of the region’s most recognisable landmarks. Covered bridges aren’t unique to New England – they are even found in China – but they are part of the landscape in this region. Built in 1886, the Ware/Hardwick Covered Bridge in the village of Gilbertville is an especially beautiful example. Straddling the gently bubbling Ware River below, its green gabled roof sits atop a bridge made of vertical wood slats, into which is set pretty latticework.
The theory behind covered bridges is simple. The climate here is unforgiving – so much so that uncovered wooden bridges typically last little more than a decade. The one here at Gilbertville has stood for over 130 years. It’s a reminder that technological innovation doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective, and shouldn’t be viewed merely through the prism of a world built on the silicon chip.
Our lunch stop is in nearby Northampton, a buzzing college town that’s surrounded by densely wooded hills. It’s a place that sways to the sounds of music, whether it’s the buskers who are out in force on the warm autumn evening when we visit, or its clutch of venues, where every taste seems catered for. The Calvin, the city’s main auditorium – a handsome converted picture house – is named after Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States, who made Northampton his home.
Before the Europeans arrived, the area around here was home to the Pocomtuc, a Native American tribe, but something much larger used to stalk the land long before them. In 1836, in nearby Holyoke, a significant discovery was made by a local college professor on the banks of the lazy, majestic Connecticut River. The collection of fossilised dinosaur footprints found by Edward Hitchcock proved to be of great significance, as their spread was early evidence that the animals travelled in packs. You can still see them today, set for eternity into the sandstone rock.
Rhode Island: the small state with grand designs
It’s a 90-minute trip south-eastwards to Rhode Island, the smallest state in the US. En route to Martha’s Vineyard, we spend an evening in the state capital, Providence. Providence is dominated by its grand Statehouse. Completed in 1904, it boasts the fourth-largest self-supporting marble dome in the world – of the three domes that are larger, two are the Taj Mahal’s and St Peter’s Basilica. It shines like a beacon at night, illuminated by over 100 floodlights.
The new Volvo XC90 features tailored Wool Blend Textile upholstery. This is our idea of modern, sustainable Swedish luxury.
The presence of leading Ivy League university, Brown, and one of the world’s leading art schools, The Rhode Island School of Design, gives the city a relaxed, youthful vibe. Its colourful downtown area is host to a thriving arts scene, full of proud Georgian houses and the site of the Westminster Arcade, America’s first enclosed shopping mall, built in 1828. Using the touchscreen on the centre display, we access Apple CarPlay to browse for suggestions, and settle on The Grange restaurant, a busy vegan restaurant housed in a low-rise 1920s building on Broadway. Providence, we discover, is an understated gem of a city.
Martha’s Vineyard: a feeling of exclusivity
The next morning we’re heading back into Massachusetts, towards one of America’s most exclusive pieces of real estate. At 23 miles long, Martha’s Vineyard is Massachusetts’ largest island. After catching the ferry from Woods Hole on the mainland, you feel less like you’ve arrived on a small island and more that you’ve stepped back to more simpler times. Chain restaurants and hotels are conspicuously absent, making this feel like a sanctuary from the excesses of modernity.
The soft seaside light floods in through the panoramic roof of the XC90 as we head towards the former whaling town of Edgartown. In the 18th and 19th centuries, whaling was one of New England’s largest industries. Whales were hunted primarily for their blubber, which was turned into oil for lighthouses and the machinery that powered the Industrial Revolution, making the captains of the whaling ships very wealthy. Today, the grand homes they built in Edgartown stand as striking reminders of a very different Martha’s Vineyard. The writer Herman Melville visited here in the 1840s, during his brief time as a whaler. His experiences formed the basis of his novel Moby-Dick, one of the greats of American literature.
Such is the calming effect that Martha’s Vineyard has on residents and visitors alike – its untainted sandy beaches, lobster-pot festooned cottages and smart bohemian vibe – that when we arrive back on the mainland and head north, back towards Boston, we experience a palpable jolt to the system. But, on the drive back into the city, the uncluttered design of the cabin of the XC90 acts like a filter, easing our reintegration into city life.