In old England, autumn means dull brown leaves and misty mornings; in New England, fall signals a rash of brightly-coloured leaves, clear sunny days and crisp nights. Glorious!
Rudyard Kipling called New England’s blaze of autumn colour, the ‘insurrection of the tree people against the waning year.’ While I defer to the poetic pen of the British writer, who lived for four years in Vermont, I am just as big a fan of what Americans call ‘fall foliage’. Yes, the leaves change colour down through Virginia and North Carolina, and into Mid-Western states such as Michigan and Ohio. But only in the northeast corner of the USA do you get the variety and intensity of colour. And only here in New England does it serve as a backdrop to villages with white church steeples, traditional greens and centuries-old homes and inns.
And it is all under way in afew months time! Starting late in September, leaves on millions of trees change colour in northern Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. Then this colour moves south through Massachusetts to Connecticut and Rhode Island. More often than not, the display peaks during the first two weeks of October, with the Columbus Day national holiday weekend (October 10-12 2009) a great excuse for ‘leaf-peepers’ to clog up the popular driving routes.
Autumn is my favourite season in New England, thanks to clear blue skies, crisp clean air – and the colour. Although the fir trees and spruce remain dark green, the leaves on the dogwood, sassafras, and particularly the maples, turn fiery scarlet. The splashes of gold are provided by poplars, elms and ginkgoes; the orange is mountain maple and hickory; the purple is sumac.
As large as the rest of the New England states put together, Maine has plenty of room for leaf-peepers – and more trees than you have ever seen. Drive from Portland to the mountain village of Bethel along Route 26 and you won’t be disappointed. To commune alone with Mother Nature, drive up to northern Maine and the Canadian border. The loop of Route 1 and Route 11 is never crowded with cars; but do watch out for moose! More unusual – and requiring no driving – is a cruise under sail along the Maine coast aboard a windjammer, the New England version of a historic schooner. Indented with coves and extended by rocky promontories, Maine’s coastline is justifiably famous. Photographers love the combination of blue sky and sea, sandwiching hillsides covered in colourful foliage.
Vermont comes into full glory in the fall. Think broad valleys and rolling farmland, white farmhouses and red barns, forests and the Green Mountains. Running north-south, Route 100 is a popular scenic drive, linking classic villages such as Ludlow and Weston. Avoid the crowds by heading for the Northeast Kingdom, close to the Canadian border. As well as providing stunning colour, the maples up here are tapped for America’s finest maple syrup. Alternatively, take the east-west routes, especially in southern Vermont, where roads go up and over the Green Mountains. The two-hour drive along Route 9 from Brattleboro to Bennington (also known as the Molly Stark Trail) is particularly pretty. Or leave the landlubbers behind and see the foliage from the water; cruise down Lake Champlain, where there is gorgeous colour on both the Vermont and New York shores.
For spectacular views, ride the aerial tramway to the 4,180ft summit of Cannon Mountain, near Franconia. On a sparkling autumn day, the vista stretches to four states and even to Canada. But this mountainous state has plenty of bird’s-eye views to offer. Take the easy hike up Mount Monadnock, near Peterborough or, at Bretton Woods, ride the 140-year-old Cog Railway to the 6,288ft summit of Mt Washington. But dress warmly; it is always cold at the summit of the highest peak in the northeast. Or get out onto the water. Lake Winnipesaukee is vast, and aboard the M/S Mount Washington, the backdrop of the White Mountains adds to the impact. One of New England’s best-known scenic drives is ‘The Kanc’, the Kancamagus Trail. This 35-mile-long stretch of Route 112 links Lincoln and Conway, whose sister-town, North Conway, attracts bargain hunters to its outlet shops.
In the Berkshire Hills, scenic Route 7 runs north-south, linking photogenic New England villages such as Stockbridge and Lenox. For an east-west drive, try the Mohawk Trail, a section of Route 2 linking Williamstown with Greenfield, up and over the Berkshires. Both drives are lovely in the autumn. But even near Boston, the foliage can be glorious in and around historic towns such as Concord, where the colour provides a backdrop to colonial houses. On Cape Cod, the grasses and woodlands provide gentle colours, while north of Boston, between Essex and Newburyport, the flaming maples set off more white-painted historic homes.
Within easy reach of New York City, the Litchfield Hills are always popular, particularly the pretty villages of Litchfield and Kent. Near Salisbury, drive up to Bear Mountain, the tallest peak in the state. From the 2,316ft summit, you can see three states, all ablaze with leafy colour. Across in the northeast, the area known as the Quiet Corner has an almost English feel, with gentle rolling farmland, villages and hedgerows. Drive the length of Route 169, with its stone walls, farms and historic hamlets, or, nearer the coast, follow Route 49, where state forests provide the colour between Sterling and North Stonington.
With its soft landscape of winding rivers and gentle hills, the smallest state in the USA is a gem. Route 102 leads through peaceful countryside, passing close to the Scituate Reservoir, a haven for feathered and furred wildlife. Across in the east, Route 77 leads down to Sakonnet, with its little harbour. On the way, it passes through the old-fashioned hamlet of Little Compton, where autumn is also grape-harvesting time at the award-winning Sakonnet Vineyard. Offshore, Block Island combines fall colour with stunning oceanscapes. To cap it all, here in southern New England, the colour usually stays on till the end of October.
Book accommodation and cars well in advance. This is the busiest time of the year for New England’s renowned inns and B&Bs. While you're there, stretch your legs on the well-marked hiking trails in New England’s national forests and numerous state parks.
Where to stay
Bethel, Maine: The Bethel Inn Resort overlooks the village green. On 200 acres; offers everything from spas to golf.
Bethel, Maine: The Victoria Inn is family-owned and run, right in the village, with Victorian decor and a small restaurant. The Italian-influenced menu is popular with locals and visitors alike.
Camden, Maine: Camden Maine Stay ticks all the boxes: historic, romantic, luxurious. In one of Maine’s prettiest coastal towns.
Goshen, Vermont: Blueberry Hill Inn stands deep in the Moosalamoo National Recreation Area. Outstanding cooking, plenty of comforts.
Weston, Vermont: The Inn at Weston is in one of New England’s picture-postcard villages: fine restaurant, stylish rooms, elegant destination.
Hart’s Location, New Hampshire: The Notchland Inn is a classy Cotswold-style manor house surrounded by unspoiled mountain scenery. Away-from-it-all atmosphere; leisurely dinners.
Bretton Woods, New Hampshire: the century-old Mount Washington Resort offers fabulous views of Mount Washington. One of America’s grand historic hotels, but with family fun, great golf, tennis, hiking.
Williamstown, Massachusetts: The Williams Inn is on the green, surrounded by Williams College. Indoor pool, jazz brunches and more. A good base for the Berkshires.
Chatham, Massachusetts: Chatham Bars Inn overlooks the beach on Cape Cod. Choose from the inn or cottages; expect 21st-century comfort. Great for families.
Salisbury, Connecticut: The 200-year-old White Hart Inn on the village green offers comfy rooms, a colonial-era tap room and sunny garden room.
Putnam, Connecticut: The Whitehaven Inn in Connecticut’s 'Quiet Corner', is a very private bed and breakfast offering five-star luxury. A gem.
Block Island, Rhode Island: The 1661 Inn and Hotel Manisses are sister hotels that offer a range of accommodation. Expect big porches, creature comforts, ocean views.
Newport, Rhode Island: the 250-year-old Francis Malbone is one of Newport’s most romantic B&Bs, while the practical Newport Marriott is right by the water, near the visitor centre.