It is amazing how suddenly Boston abandons the fight to keep us. We have been battling the city for well over an hour — the Friday-morning traffic a clotted corridor of metal and honking horns — when it dawns on me we’ve escaped the conurbation.
The jam has been long enough for us to begin regretting our decision to stay overnight in the metropolis — for almond-flaked salmon at Legal Seafood in the theatre district, a few hours’ sleep, jet-lag-spiking coffees and an early start — rather than head out from Logan Airport. But as we pick up speed on the artery of Massachusetts Route 2, we’re all smiles again. This has been the plan all along — to put distance between ourselves and Boston as soon as possible.
New England is a large place. Its six states — Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine — totalling 72,000sq miles — form the right-hand shoulder of the USA. And New England presents several different faces to the world. There’s Connecticut — rust-tinged in the west and cosseted to the south, where palatial homes make eyes at New York across Long Island Sound. Then there’s Maine, in the hard, wild north, pushing its fist into the exposed belly of Canada.
But my wife and I are seeking the pastoral side of New England that resides in its small villages, wooden churches and forested roads — the side that comes out to play most gloriously in September and October, when the season Americans call ‘Fall’ sidles in.
And we find it in Berkshire County (‘The Berkshires’), at the western edge of Massachusetts, where the wooded slopes around the picture-book towns of New Ashford and Williamstown dance through a subtle range of yellows, pinks, purples, mauves, browns and chocolates, although the pine-clad flanks of Mount Greylock — at 3,492ft, the highest point in the state — offer lofty resistance, sticking stubbornly to green.
Life is just as colourful when, after turning north on to Route 7, we cross into Vermont, passing through the town of Bennington — home to an obelisk marking a US victory nearby, in 1777, during the Revolutionary War against Britain. It rears a mighty 306ft above a treeline that, at this time of year, is spun to gold. Just to the north, in Shaftsbury, the splendour of this landscape is underlined by the Robert Frost Stone House Museum, the house where the Pulitzer-lauded wordsmith wrote his iconic 1922 poem Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening.
At the bucolic Vermont Country Store, in Weston, shelves groan under pickles, cheeses and jams — stoking a hunger that calls us to the Bryant House Restaurant (whose lunchtime chicken pie is so meaty it may have cleared out a coop). In Grafton, which takes the concept of ‘off the beaten track’ literally — the road to reach it having shed its paving halfway along — we bump our way to a hamlet where a clapboard chapel pushes a pale spire at the sky. We then spend an hour perusing watercolours of New England vistas at the Hunter Gallery Of Fine Art.
In Woodstock — a painstakingly perfect piece of New England, all red brick, red leaves, coffee shops and calm — we halt amid the elegance of the Woodstock Inn and sate appetites with weighty steaks that don’t need their sides of blue-cheese polenta. “Can I get you anything else?” our waitress asks us, brandishing the dessert menu. She cannot.
There are further dabs of Vermont’s paintbrush-beauty as we forge north next morning on Interstate 89. Montpelier, the capital, is the sort of government hub George Washington must have seen in his dreams; its state house a vision of careful democracy; a gold dome glinting above a neoclassical portico. As we gaze across at hilltops, even the Ben & Jerry’s factory in Westbury has a certain gentility, we agree, as we gobble its brightly coloured ice-cream.
It would be easy to dally in Vermont but we are anxious to visit the state next door. And there’s a delicate shift as, after veering east to St Johnsbury, we cut south over the state line on Interstate 93. If Vermont is a rustic enclave, New Hampshire is a refined take on rural, its postcard perfection immediately visible in the White Mountains National Forest.
Here is US day-trip nirvana: cars filing politely past theme parks with names like Storyland and Whale’s Tale. We follow a posse of these Saturday drivers, up the toll road that ebbs to the 6,288ft roof of New England atop Mount Washington. The ranks of four-wheel-drive vehicles at the top are somehow symbolic of New Hampshire’s kid-glove attitude to nature — a fearsome bluff tamed by tarmac — but the views are wonderful nonetheless.
There are further wonders on the ground: the splash of Sabbaday and Glen Ellis Falls, the mirror surface of Saco Lake. And there’s sadness — the parking lot that serves the ‘Old Man Of The Mountain’ standing in desolate contrast to the frenzy on the peak. This lost series of granite ledges, which once jutted out precariously from the side of Cannon Mountain, famously resembled a human face — and was so adored by the people of New Hampshire that they immortalised it on the reverse side of their quarter. When it collapsed in 2003, finished off by frost, the state went into mourning.
We end our day with a slice of the bizarre, lured in by the sheer ludicrousness of the concept. Tucked away in the village of Jackson, the Christmas Farm Inn could only exist in America; its white-painted wooden bulk a year-round celebration of all things festive, right down to its address: 3 Blitzen Way. But there’s a pleasantness to its unabashed chintz — even if the theme screams incongruity, with autumn still in full fire outside the window.
So it feels like a real change when we leave New Hampshire the next day, sliding east on US Route 2, and spearing into Maine at Gilead. Almost instantly, the largest state in New England wears a weathered face and a harder expression: the paper-industry town of Rumford, the wide dams of Skowhegan — although we both smile when we cross the border into Mexico, an outpost that, swathed in the flourishes of Fall, could not look any less Latin as we speed through.
Too big to explore on this trip, we are seeking only a taste of Maine. And as soon as I open the car door in the logging city of Bangor, it feels like we’ve entered a different world. There’s a hint of winter in the air, while the sense that we have reached frontier territory is emphasised by the giant statue of Paul Bunyan, the mythological lumberjack of the US north, that greets visitors as they exit the interstate.
There’s a darkness, too. Perhaps it’s Sunday-evening gloom; perhaps the knowledge that Bangor is the home of horror author Stephen King, and the setting for several of his novels (and films). We search out swift refuge in the Sea Dog Restaurant, on the banks of the River Penobscot.
“The river was the site of our heaviest naval loss before Pearl Harbour,” says the waiter, referencing a 1779 scrap with Britain that saw a dozen ships scuttled. This is bleakly fitting, though the pumpkin ales with which we wash down our food return warmth to the room.
Monday arrives, and we flee the onset of the coldest season, relieved to find that autumn still clings to Maine’s tattered coastline, down through the rocky communities of Belfast, Bath and Brunswick. At Portland, Maine’s largest city, we cheat, roaring on to the I-95, and scything south, briefly re-entering New Hampshire as we dart past seafront Portsmouth.
Our urgency comes as we want to catch a glimpse of New England’s most notorious city. Even now, three centuries on, and swamped by Boston’s expansion, Salem’s name is redolent of the period between February 1692 and May 1693 when a collective outburst of judicial hysteria saw 26 of its residents accused of witchcraft, and 19 of them hung.
The town turns out to be a fascinating mess of witch-trial ‘museums’, grizzly waxwork galleries and shops selling everything from seances to novelty black cloaks for dogs. Bemused and amused in equal measure, we stroll for three hours before repairing to the dockside for reassuringly thick bowls of clam chowder at Capt’s Waterfront Grill.
Outside, the Friendship idles by the quay. A 1998 recreation of a 1797 merchant vessel, it also serves as a cheerful metaphor for the region: a not entirely seamless mix of old and new, but all the more charming for it — especially when autumn’s breezes billow in her sails.
New England Tradition: Although viewed as a Canadian speciality, maple syrup is a staple on New England breakfast tables. See how it’s made – and sample a surprising wide range of products – at Morse Farm, a maple sugarworks near Montpelier, Vermont. www.morsefarm.com
The Perfect Day
■ 10am: Absorb the view from the observation level of the Bennington Battle Monument in Vermont. You should be able to spot two other states: Massachusetts and New York.
■ 11.30am: Visit the Robert Frost Stone House Museum in Shaftsbury, where one of the greatest US poets penned some of his finest work from 1920-29. Many poems were inspired by New England’s country life.
■ 12.30pm: Grab lunch in the cafe at the eclectic Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, then flash a little plastic at the outlet shops in this small Vermont town.
■ 2pm: Admire the New England-inspired paintings and the dramatic al fresco sculptures at the Southern Vermont Arts Center, also in Manchester.
■ 5pm: Enjoy a slice of rural New England in the ‘preserved’ village of Grafton.
■ 7pm: Check in at the Woodstock Inn in Woodstock, have dinner at the in-house Red Rooster restaurant — bacon-wrapped scallops cost from $28 (£17.50).
Amtrak operates trains throughout the region, and connects Boston with New York in 3h35m. www.amtrak.com
Car rental companies are located near Boston Logan airport or in downtown Boston.
When to go
September to October is the best time to see autumn colours.
When to go
Currency: US dollar ($).
£1 = $1.60
International dial code: 001.
Time difference: GMT -5.
Ben & Jerry’s factory. www.benjerry.com
Bennington Battle Monument. www.historicvermont.org
Bryant House Restaurant. www.vermontcountrystore.com
Capt’s Waterfront Grill. www.capts.com
Legal Seafood. www.legalseafoods.com
Morse Farm. www.morsefarm.com
Robert Frost Stone House Museum. www.frostfriends.org
Sea Dog Restaurant. www.seadogbrewing.com
Southern Vermont Arts Center. www.svac.org
Vermont Country Store. www.vermontcountrystore.com
Where to stay
Christmas Farm Inn. Doubles from $271 (£165). www.christmasfarminn.com
Courtyard Bangor. Doubles from $159 (£96). www.marriott.com
The Woodstock Inn. Doubles from $322 (£196). www.woodstockinn.com
The Rough Guide To New England. RRP: £13.99
How to do it
Seven days’ car hire plus return flights to Boston costs from £677 per person.
Published in the Sept/Oct 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)