Sunday, July 19, 2009

New England: You can't escape the quaint

Originally published in the Post Register.
It takes careful strategy to avoid exceeding your "quaint" threshold when touring New England.

If you stick too long to the scenic backroads, you might just get your fill of perfect villages, wooden bridges, rustic inns and the ubiquitous Yankee Candles and Ben & Jerry' s ice cream. The antidote to too much Stockbridge or Stowe is a side trip to the coast of Maine or to Boston, where the ambience and scenery are strikingly different than New England' s inland attractions.

The truth is, you could make a separate vacation out of any number of New England destinations. Boston and the surrounding area could consume a week without walking the same street twice. The coast of Maine has so many opportunities for wandering, shopping, hiking and sightseeing that it could consume another week or more. And you could take weeks traversing the White and Green mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont or the Berkshires of Massachusetts.

The quintessential New England vacation is a fall road trip to see the colors, complete with shopping for quilts and antiques, walking down leaf-covered paths, and spending a few nights in Boston for some history and culture. Whether you' re a hiker, photographer, history buff, food connoisseur, music or theater lover, or just a tourist looking for a good time, you' ll find what you' re looking for in New England if you' re smart about where - and when - you visit.

If you' re traveling to New England to see the colors, usually the first couple of weeks of October, you' ll not be alone. Book your flight and rooms early and keep a stiff upper lip when asking about room rates. In Boston you' ll spend in the high hundreds per night and rooms in the nicest inns around New England run in the $150 range. You can spend less if you shop around and settle for more spartan accommodations.

A little common sense is in order to have the best shot at seeing fall color at its peak. The leaves turn gradually moving north to south, and higher elevations turn before lower areas. Even when leaves are still green in some areas, the "notches" (mountain passes) may be full of color. By the end of September the colors have begun appearing, and they usually peak before mid-October.

Here are some highlights of a "best of New England" tour:

Boston. For most folks, Logan International Airport is where a visit to New England begins and ends. Take a couple of days, at least, to enjoy Boston across the bay from the airport. If you do, don' t get your rental car until you' re ready to leave Boston for elsewhere. Boston is small and walkable, and parking is outrageously expensive, when you' re lucky enough to find a space. You can spend a day or two just seeing Boston' s historical sites and walking the Freedom Trail. In addition, there are frequent outdoor concerts at the Hatch Memorial Shell on the banks of the Charles River, and a variety of theater and concert options.

Dining in Boston is a delight, particularly if you love seafood (you must eat at one of the several Legal Seafood restaurants at least once). There are additional Revolutionary War sites near Boston and other worthwhile destinations, such as Walden Pond. Cape Cod is a nearly three-hour car ride or shorter ferry ride away. Here' s a thought: Consider staying at one of the airport hotels and riding the water taxi across the harbor to downtown Boston. The rates are lower than downtown, the views are great and it' s no less convenient than staying right downtown.

Coast of Maine. This is a glorious drive northeast from Boston, easily the most cenic stretch of Atlantic coastline in the United States. It' s a day' s drive from Boston to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park without stopping too long along the way. The best way to experience the coast is to take three or four days, with frequent stops at fishing villages, lighthouses, beaches and terrific seafood restaurants. Some Maine towns have become downright Aspen-like, with expensive shops and the like, while others have retained a more authentic feel.

White Mountains. There' s a little something for everyone here. This is a hiker' s paradise, with trails from tame to daunting. There are great drives for road-trippers, complete with mountain scenery, rivers, wooden bridges, villages and, yes, outlet stores.

Green Mountains. Less imposing than their cousins to the east, the Green Mountains offer the same attractions, though perhaps on a smaller scale. The Green Mountains run down the middle of Vermont and are home to dozens of ski resorts and gorgeous mountain villages. U.S. 7 (below) skirts the western edge of the Green Mountains. U.S. 7. This highway runs north to south down Vermont' s western edge from Canada (beginning with Lake Champlain), through western Massachusetts and on into Connecticut, terminating at Long Island Sound. It gets a little crowded during the color season, but it' s a road tripper' s paradise featuring gorgeous scenery, wonderful towns, great shops and restaurants, and lodging of all types and price ranges.

New England villages. There's no end to picturesque small towns in New England, but here are just a few to consider:

--Stowe, Vermont. Very upscale and a little pricey, Stowe has made its reputation as a ski resort but it' s a terrific fall stop, too. The Ben & Jerry' s factory is just a few minutes away! n Manchester Center, Vermont. Nestled on the western foot of the Green Mountains in southwestern Vermont, Manchester Center has a generous selection of lodging, dining and activities from which to choose.

--Camden, Maine. Camden offers a reasonable combination of upscale resort ambience and authentic Maine scenery and charm. About halfway up the coast, it' s not too hard to reach and can be a base from which to see the rest of the coast. Camden is known particularly for its restored sea captain' s homes and beautiful harbor.

--Freeport, Maine. Home of L.L. Bean, Freeport is a shopper' s heaven and has a reasonable selection of inns and restaurants.

--Conway, New Hampshire. Conway is New England' s outlet store capital, but don' t let that scare you away. Conway itself and a variety of small towns nearby have many food and lodging options, and they' re at the foot of the White Mountains. Nearby Jackson is a smaller, perfectly New Englandesque village just north of Conway. From Conway there are three spectacular drives from which to choose: the Kancamagus Highway (State Highway 112), U.S. Highway 302 and State Highway 16. You can' t go wrong with any of these, which take you to such sites as the Silver Cascade, Mount Washington Cog Railway (and the road to the peak of Mount Washington), Old Man of the Mountain, The Flume, Greeley Ponds, Glen Ellis Falls and the Pinkham Notch Scenic Area.

--Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Made famous for baby boomers by Arlo Guthrie' s song "Alice' s Restaurant," Stockbridge was already well-known to an earlier generation through Norman Rockwell' s famous painting of its Main Street. A tiny town, Stockbridge has a limited selection for lodging and dining but is home to a Norman Rockwell museum and is surrounded by the Berkshires, with hiking, golf and sightseeing aplenty. It' s a straight shot east on Interstate 90 back to Boston.

--Mystic, Connecticut. Positioned halfway between New York and Boston, Mystic and its seaside neighbors make up a popular retreat for New Yorkers. It offers nice ocean views, good restaurants, good shopping and a wide variety of lodging options.

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