Mail on Sunday (UK)
May 17, 2009

It's the gateway to the United States - the area where
European civilisation first took hold and where independent Americans
proudly cast off their colonial shackles. With a wild coast, sophisticated
cities, lakes, islands and mountains, the New England states are at once
undemanding and thrilling.

Undemanding because a flight to Boston is so easy, and - let's face it - an
American holiday presents no problems of language or anything else. But
thrilling because even after countless trips to the US, I'm always taken by
surprise by the sheer beauty wherever you go.

We decided to fit in as much as we could on a great circular road trip
starting and ending in Boston, Massachusetts.

To be honest, we did too much - as is usual with us since the husband likes
movin' on. Over 14 nights, we clocked up eight hotels, which was less than
restful and didn't do justice to any one place.

But the good news is that, bowling through Massachusetts, Maine, New
Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island - we didn't reach Connecticut - you can
stay in some of the prettiest guest houses and hotels, and eat some of the
finest food I've experienced, anywhere.

So the whistle-stop trip begins in magnificent Boston, where you can take
the touristy Duck Tour. You climb aboard an amphibious vehicle and roam the
city with a jovial, well-informed guide, before sliding into the Charles
River to take in a different cityscape.

There's so much to do it's almost criminal to give this wonderful city just
a couple of days.

But in that time, we took a trolley bus tour, strolled the gracious redbrick
streets of Beacon Hill, admired a stupendous mix of architecture old and new
and walked some of the famous Freedom Trail to see places crucial to the
American Revolution.

We saw the golden dome of the State House and stood, silently moved, at the
glass Holocaust Memorial. The Museum of Fine Arts and Isabella Stewart
Gardner Museum are utterly glorious and you can't leave Boston without
trying the seafood at America's oldest restaurant, Ye Olde Union House, or
shopping at Faneuil Hall Marketplace.

Leaving Boston was a wrench but we were heading north to Portland, Maine,
along a beautiful coastline, reminding us of the important maritime history
of this region. After stopping off for a taste of seaside at Old Orchard
Beach We found the state's largest city elegant and cultivated, full of
quirky shops, little bars and excellent restaurants. It's one of those
cities you know you could live in very happily. .

very happily.

Whether I could live on Peaks Island is another matter. There are few places
more idyllic than this tiny Maine island, just 15 minutes by Casco Bay Lines
ferry from Portland, but we discovered that the small community is full of
artists, writers and therapists, all worried about the price of oil and the
cost of living. It must be so bleak there in winter.

Yet watching the late summer sunset from The Inn at Peaks was pretty close
to heaven. Chris, the chef, learned to his astonishment that neither of us
had ever tackled lobster which is, of course, a huge industry in this part
of the States.

When I confessed I dreaded fiddling with those claws, he prepared a dish
where it was all done for us.

Lazy lobster washed down with fine white wine, under the stars, looking at
the lights on the water... perfection.

One of the things that makes travelling in the States so enjoyable is that
friendliness is a way of life; President Obama's inspiring catchphrase:
'Yes, we can,' applies to a spirit of helpfulness which puts us to shame.

We then headed inland to the lakes of New Hampshire. The people of this
small state are famous for their fierce independence; it is no accident that
it was home to a community of Shakers,

Protestant sect which is as much a part of American culture as swashbuckling
frontier self-sufficiency.

The Canterbury Shaker Village, founded in 1792, was occupied for 200 years
but is now a museum where you can see how the community lived.

Men and women had separate sleeplages ing quarters, so is it any wonder the
colony eventually died out? We'd planned a cruise on Lake Winnipesaukee but
our hosts at the Glynn House Inn, Ashland, warned that the water was choppy.

Dry land was the right choice because we saw more driving around the
magnificent lake, stopping in vila with classic white-clapboard houses and
churches, checking out the fascinating cornucopia that is the Old Country
Store and Museum (one of the oldest businesses in the state), and buying a
picture at the Old Print Barn.

We stood by Squam Lake and tried to remember the movie On Golden Pond which
was filmed there..

The solution was to borrow the DVD from our hosts that night and watch
Katharine Hepburn and Henry and Jane Fonda play out their moving drama by
the placid lake we'd just seen.

After the lakes came mountains. We headed further inland to Vermont, too
early to admire the famous autumn foliage (which I saw in October 1984), but
no matter.

A hot sun shone on the smallest state capital in the US, pretty Montpelier
where we had lunch, visited the fine old State House, then left to head
further into the mountains.

Our destination was Stowe, a lively centre for cross-country skiing and
famous because the real von Trapp family (The Sound Of Music) settled there
after their daring escape from Austria during World War II. The pretty
village ringed by mountains reminded them of their Alpine home.

Now, the Trapp Family Lodge is a stunning hotel and we were lucky enough to
dine with Sam Von Trapp, one of the new generation of the family, who had
the business sense to turn the name into a classy 'brand'.

No Autumn foliage and no snow...

Oh well, we might as well head south again, towards the coast south of
Boston. In some ways, this was the part of the trip I was most looking
forward to: Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Rhode Island.

Cape Cod is a hook of land that juts out below Boston and has always
attracted writers and artists. Our base was The Belfry Inne ( a converted
church with stained glass in every bedroom) in the pretty town of Sandwich.

We took the difficult decision to pass up a whalewatching cruise - a 'must'
for most visitors.

The waters off the Cape are alive with finback, minke and humpback whales
but we've watched whales off South Africa and wanted time to explore the
pristine coastline. Anyway, I'm not very keen on boats...

You can explore the gem that is Cape Cod in a day but it leaves you wanting
to live there. No wonder the

Kennedy clan have holidayed there for generations. I'll never forget the
empty boardwalk at Sandwich bathed in early-morning light, beachcombing, the
paintings at the Cape Cod Museum of Art at Dennis, or elegant Chatham with
its tempting shops.

Instead of a smart lunch, we chose fresh fish and chips by Chatham's fish
market and spent ages watching the tough-looking fishermen unloading their
catches as the gulls cried hungrily and the seals slid between the boats,
waiting to be thrown rejects.

We ended our day's drive at Provincetown, a bohemian community at the
northernmost tip of the Cape, where we watched the sunset on the beach. I'd
say that was the perfect end to a perfect day - except that we then ate a
fine dinner in one of Provincetown's best restaurants.

Next morning, we took the ferry from Hyannis to Martha's Vineyard, a small
island. Oak Bluffs, where you dock, was the site of annual Methodist church
camp meetings.

Every year families would pitch big tents on the same spot and, at some
point, the first cottages were built.

People tried to outdo each other (as people will) and the result is a unique
village of about 300 socalled gingerbread houses, each one a confection of
fretted and carved wood painted in pastel colours. Each time you think
you've spotted the prettiest, you see another contender for that title.

There are plenty of galleries on Martha's Vineyard and shops and beaches
within a very short drive.

We ended up at Aquinnah, the site of one of the impressive lighthouses which
line the New England coast.

Standing at the top, where the light revolves endlessly as you gaze out over
the Atlantic Ocean, brings home the vital role lighthouses played (and still
play) for those who go out in ships.

Our two-week trip was nearly over but we had one last state to visit: Rhode
Island, the smallest of the 50 which make up the US.

Elegant Newport, home to the rich and famous, is just a two-and-a-halfhour
drive from Sandwich. Fabulously wealthy families like the Vanderbilts built
holiday homes there to escape the stifling heat of New York.

But these are no gingerbread cottages; the Newport mansions (most now open
to the public) are unbelievably opulent, even though some of them were used
for only 10 weeks a year.

My favourite was Rough Point, owned by heiress Doris Duke who had exactly my
own taste in art and furniture. 'I could live here!' I told the husband.

Rough Point stands at one end of Newport's famous Cliff Walk, a 6km path
along the top of rugged cliffs, used by joggers and walkers.

In winter, it's wild and bleak; in summer, fringed by wild flowers.

Our hotel, the luxurious Chanler, sits at the other end of the walk and when
we arrived, a wedding was in full sway. The guests could not use the
terrace, all laid out with champagne glasses, because of a sudden downpour,
the first of our holiday.

From Newport, it's a short hop to Providence, a graceful and historic city
which was founded by breakaway clergyman Roger Williams on principles of
religious tolerance and freedom of speech.

In Providence we had what was probably the best, most surprising experience
of our whole trip. We'd been told about an event called WaterFire(www.

waterfire.org): 100 bonfires strung like a necklace along the three rivers
that pass through the city.

Yet nothing prepared us for a living ritual in which fire, water, sound and
smell all play a part.

This celebration of renewal takes place regularly through summer and autumn.
On the day of a Water- Fire event, volunteers begin at 6am, setting fires in
braziers, hanging speakers and providing extra lighting in dark underpasses.

At sunset, the streets are thronged: all ages, all races. A gong is struck
and the braziers lit in turn. At the same time the music starts, with no
piece lasting more than about five minutes and ranging from folksong,
through classical, to world and 'new age' - all haunting and uplifting. It
all goes on until after midnight. And there's dancing in the streets, too.

We took a boat along the fires, breathing in the sweet scent of cedar and
gazing up at the faces of the thousands watching.

I'm a great believer in giving thanks when something wonderful happens.
Sometimes I thank God, sometimes the universe, but that night, for the first
time, I could (literally) thank Providence.

GETTING THERE

For tourist information, visit www.discovernewengland.org.

Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus.com) flies to Boston from Cork, Dublin and
Shannon.

Accommodation: Royal Sonesta - www.sonesta.com

Portland Regency - www.theregency.com

The Glynn House Inn - www.glynnhouse.com

Stoweflake Mountain Resort - www.stoweflake.com

The Belfry Inne Bistro - www.belfryinn.com

The Chanler - www.thechanler.com

Providence Biltmore - www.providencebiltmore.com

Copyright © 2009 Associated Newspapers Company

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