October 3, 2011

The New England ‘Fall' is a time of shortening days, dipping temperatures and a spectacular display from mother nature.

For a fleeting few weeks a burst of fiery red and shimmering gold sweeps across hillsides and mountains, drawing hordes of tourists with snapping cameras and swelling the hearts of locals.

Fall foliage can be enjoyed from eastern Canada down to the midAtlantic states, but New England has always enjoyed pride of place for ‘leaf peepers' and nature lovers due to its concentrated natural beauty, warm hospitality and scenic drives.

Throughout New England - the six states that cluster snugly in the northeastern corner of the US - autumn brings a discernible crackle to the air. Markers of the season, from doorstep pumpkins to dried corn-husks, pop up everywhere.

Harvest festivals, county fairs and hay rides add a festive energy to towns and cities, and local orchards and roadside farm stands advertise ‘U-Pick' opportunities for energetic gourmands.

Having grown up in Massachusetts, I always feel nostalgic at this time of year. You can map out a visit to New England in October by following predicted foliage peak times along common trails. However, New England states are relatively small and so there's a lot to be said for going off the beaten track on your tour. By supplementing the visual feast exploding in the treetops, and visiting country inns and taverns, you'll get the full experience of this quintessentially American region at its most bewitching.

For the best drives and scenic landscapes - not to mention farm fresh food and locally-brewed beer - go for a wander among the mountains of New Hampshire, Vermont and western Massachusetts.

The city of Portsmouth in southeastern New Hampshire makes a good starting point, with its historic downtown ringed with pubs and gift shops (and close proximity to the outlet shopping and beaches of southern Maine). From here, it's a leisurely drive north to the town of Conway and the entrance to the Kancamagus Highway, a 34-mile drive through the 800,000 acre White Mountain National Forest.

The White Mountains cover roughly a quarter of the state of New Hampshire, and provide much of the state's rugged natural beauty.

Along ‘the Kanc', one of the region's most popular scenic drives, the intoxicating scent of spruce trees fills the air, while hiking trails, rocky pools and bustling riverbanks beckon drivers to take frequent photo ops. Keep your eyes peeled for the famous but elusive local resident - the moose. (And be sure to tank up before heading out on the Kancamagus, as there are no service stations until the highway ends in Lincoln.)

In Lincoln, nature lovers flock to Flume Gorge, a natural gorge running 800 feet at the base of Mount Liberty, open to the public (weather permitting) May through October.

Another natural wonder, the Old Man of the Mountain was a granite rock formation on Cannon Mountain that, until it was destroyed by erosion in 2003, resembled a craggy male profile. It remains the symbol of ‘‘the Granite State''.

The surrounding location, Franconia State Park, is a favourite destination for fly-fishing, hiking, skiing and, of course, foliage watching in the White Mountains. Visitors can get an aerial view of the changing leaves on the Cannon Mountain Tramway, or by gliding along one of America's longest zip-lines in Bretton Woods.

Historic trains offer a chance to pursue a different track, both at Clark's Trading Post in Lincoln, or the Cog Railway in Mount Washington.

Take a scenic drive west across the Vermont state line and exchange white mountains for green ones. The Green Mountain range forms a north-south spine that extends through most of the state. Here, quiet roads are bounded by rolling hills and pastoral farm lands, and the state is dotted with college towns and historic small cities.

The village of Quechee (popular in summer for its ballooning festival and craft fair) is the perfect place to discover Vermont country living. Its antiques stores and ample nature-watching opportunities make it a year-round favourite. The Quechee Gorge and surrounding state park along the banks of Ottauquechee River offer numerous trails for walking and cycling.

The old Quechee woollen mill is now the site of Irish glass-maker Simon Pearce's factory (which operated in Kilkenny in the 1970s).

Today, guests can watch craftspeople at work, view the hydroelectric turbine that draws power from the Ottauquechee and shop for exquisite hand-blown glass and pottery.

A must-taste in Vermont is locally produced, pure maple syrup, the perfect accompaniment to buttermilk pancakes. To start your day with more of a jolt, sample the local coffee too, which is beginning to rival maple syrup as a serious Vermont commodity. We like Green Mountain Coffee, which can be found all over New England, or Brown & Jenkins - their trading company is open to the public in Cambridge, Vermont.

Cabot Creamery has been making cheddar cheese since 1919 and attracts cheese lovers to its headquarters in the town of Cabot. On a recent visit, we chose instead to stop at the Cabot Annex store in Waterbury, where samples are on offer close to the home of another famous Vermont dairy export: the daily tours (and tastings) at the Ben & Jerry's ice cream factory are, unsurprisingly, popular.

Though classic, colonial inns abound in Waterbury, we managed to find a hidden gem in the form of Austrian-style B&B, Grnberg Haus. Its authentic Alpine architecture, quaintly-decorated rooms with bird-watching balconies, and stone fireplace with a crackling fire were a welcome surprise. There are several cabins surrounding the main building (which opens seasonally) and brandy, and marshmallows for roasting, are self-serve in the evening.

Area attractions within easy reach include Cold Hollow Cider Mill, Vermont Teddy Bear Company and the ski areas of Sugarbush and Stowe (where dogsledding tours operate in winter).

Also in Stowe, another piece of Austria comes in the form of the Trapp Family Lodge. The famous singing von Trapp family (made famous by The Sound of Music) found refuge in the rolling green hills of Vermont in the 1940s, after fleeing the Nazis in Europe. The expansive estate has blossomed into an upscale inn, popular with skiers.

Heading southeast, the charming college town of Middlebury is now a great stop on foliage tours.

The Middlebury Inn has been open since 1827,with its classic brick facade and wide, welcoming porch, elegant guestrooms with four-poster beds, in-house day spa and Morgan's tavern.

In town, the fine-dining Fire & Ice restaurant offers steaks and prime rib, while the Big Moose Pub, in the back, has a more casual atmosphere, serving local microbrews on tap and sports on the big screen.

Middlebury is located in Addison Country, home to several of Vermont's more than 100 historic covered bridges, cherished vestiges of a bygone era that, along with the vibrant leaves, have become an icon of New England. While in town, visit the Otter Creek microbrewery to slake your thirst, which is open daily for self-guided tours, pub fare and tastings.

If you get the taste for craft beer, seek out Long Trail Brewing, located in Bridgewater Corners. The award-winning brewery takes its name from the 272 mile-long hiking trail that runs throughout the state of Vermont and traverses nearly all of the major summits in the Green Mountain range, including Killington Peak, Camel's Hump and Mount Mansfield.

In the north, Burlington is a bustling college town on the banks of Lake Champlain, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the country. The largest city in Vermont, it offers a more urban experience, with a lively downtown, pedestrianised shopping areas, bars and restaurants.

Travellers who venture further north, across the waters of Lake Champlain by car ferry and edging ever closer to the Canadian border, will be rewarded by the other-world feel of the tiny Champlain islands. It's an experience arriving off the ferry to a two-lane highway lapped on both sides by gentle waves (at their widest point, the Champlain Islands span a mere eight miles), as modest seaside homes mix with B&Bs and seafood restaurants. The glass-like surface of the lake makes for a vibrant mirror, doubling up the fiery explosion of colour.

I recommend picking up a bag of crisp McIntosh apples from a roadside stand and heading back to mainland Vermont, where you can pick up Route 7 (the Ethan Allen Highway), which runs along Vermont's western edge. The scenic two-lane highway connects to western Massachusetts, where towns like Amherst, Lenox and Stockbridge feel a lifetime away from Boston (though it's closer to two hours).

This area is known as the Berkshires, which is also the name of yet another striking mountain range home to ample outdoor activities and stunning natural beauty, and the surrounding enclave features historic homes and arts and craft attractions.

Iconic American painter Norman Rockwell called the quaint town of Stockbridge his home. You can visit the Norman Rockwell Museum here, as well as assorted art galleries and artisan shops. Also in Stockbridge is the famous music venue Tanglewood (named for Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tanglewood Tales), summer home to the Boston Symphony Orchestra and location of numerous jazz and other arts festivals.

Located a short walk from the historic Berkshire Playhouse, the Red Lion Inn epitomises Massachusetts charm with rocking chairs on the porch, live entertainment nightly in the Lion's Den pub, open fireplaces and a year-round heated pool.

Further afield, discover the wealth of fine art treasures at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, or unearth a simpler way of life at the Hancock Shaker Village and Museum in Pittsfield.

Compared to the rest of the country, these states are small, but they make up for their diminutive size with plenty of small town charm and the best fall foliage around. Hop in a car, grab your camera and discover a world of beauty on the scenic roads of New England.


Getting there: Aer Lingus operates daily direct flights from Dublin to Boston, and three weekly direct flights from Shannon to Boston. Fares currently start at €249 each way, including tax. See

Where to stay: Grunberg House, 94 Pine Street, Waterbury, Vermont: en suite rooms start at $120 per night, cabins from $150 (during fall foliage season, en suite rooms start at $160 and cabins from $180),; Trapp Family Lodge, 700 Trapp Hill Road, Stowe, Vermont: superior queen rooms start at $298 per night,; Middlebury Inn, 14 Court Square, Middlebury, Vermont: standard rooms start at $119 per night or $145.05 with breakfast,; Red Lion Inn, 30 Main Street, Stockbridge, Massachusetts: double rooms with breakfast start at $150 per night, with seasonal packages on offer, combining meals, massages or museum passes, available online,

What to eat: Cabot cheddar cheese, Vermont maple syrup, Lake Champlain Chocolates, Ben & Jerry's ice cream

What to drink: fresh roasted coffee from Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Brown & Jenkins and the Vermont Coffee Company. Craft beer, such as Otter Creek Black IPA and Wachusett Octoberfest Ale

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