Autumn is not the only time to enjoy this rustic corner of the USA
It is a shame, given its varied delights, that New England is reduced in the public consciousness to the cliché of a Cape Cod cottage. Certainly the region’s coastline is littered with pretty, shuttered, white clapperboard beach houses, but this diverse region also embraces ski resorts, picturesque villages lined with antique shops and small, red-brick towns where life seems to have barely changed in decades.
It is a shame, too, that autumn — or “fall” in American-speak — is so oversold. Foliage we can see at home, but only New England segues into spring with achingly crisp blue-sky days while retaining the knack of celebrating those lazy, hazy days of summer in a low-key, old-fashioned way that would seem hokey anywhere else.
The only problem is choosing a focus: this compact region cannot all be enjoyed in one trip. Despite how it looks on the map, driving from one state to another takes longer than one might expect, especially when travelling on small roads lined with hamlets that cry out to be explored. Many steal the heart of the visitor, who keeps returning to the same place, which is why I always turn left out of Boston and head north up the Massachusets coast instead of south along the better-known Cape, and only recently got to Vermont.
That state lived up to romantic expectations — covered barns, sawdustsprinkled general stores and all. And it was easy to reach from New York, which is less than four hours from Bennington, home of poet Robert Frost and a good starting point for a meander up historic route 7A. The Alexandra Inn proved a homey base, serving possibly the best breakfast in the state, with rooms priced keenly enough to allow a splurge at the award-winning, eclectic Pangea restaurant in nearby North Bennington, a town straight out of an Edward Hopper painting.
The road north leads to Manchester, an exquisite little town which must be the prettiest home ever devised for the outlet shopping which attracts New Yorkers in droves. Only the classiest brands are here — Escada, Ralph Lauren and the like — and one of the best shops is Susan Sargent’s with textiles, china and accessories at irresistible prices.
You could shop till you drop, but leave plenty of time for Woodstock. The Vermont Woodstock was not the one that hosted the famous ’60s concert, but is still more about art and culture than shopping, though you would be forgiven for thinking the Lauren Inn was Ralph’s eponymous showcases. No relation, but incredibly stylish, as are the many little art galleries and boutiques lining the main drag. Clearly a favourite of urbanites, many of them New York Jews who have settled here or bought second homes (and established a synagogue which looks like a barn), Woodstock also has important rural delights like the Billings Farm Museum and the nearby Queechee Gorge.
In Queechee itself you can enjoy dinner courtesy of Jewish restaurateur Adam Adler at the Parker House Inn, or dine next door with Irish glass and kitchenware maven Simon Pearce.
Vermont’s ski areas lie north, but except in deep winter, the coast beckons and drivers can zip east to Maine via the Green Mountains of New Hampshire, where the little town of North Conway is an affable stop. There is comfortable accommodation at the Kearsage Inn, with its cheery restaurant, a scenic railway and outlets which are a particular bargain in a state with no sales tax. Maine is distinguished by a wonderful coast, not so much its beaches as the great little villages and towns and leafy forests which sweep down to the sea. Bar Harbor is a good base for Acadia National Park, and is distinguished by some splendid old “cottages” — actually, grand mansions where wealthy families once decamped for summer.
Some have been turned into inns with varying degrees of success. Ledgelawn Inn fielded a splendid reception hall and a pretty dining room, but rooms had nasty furniture, and pancakes which should have been crammed with fresh local blueberries and served with real maple syrup were poor packet affairs. Atlantic Oakes is still a splendid old mansion with wonderful sea views, but rather spoiled by the motel in its grounds.
Heading south, it is well worth a stop at Belfast, for the terrific old-fashioned ice-cream parlour and the pottery and antique shops; and Wiscasset, where the long line outside the riverside Reds Eats kiosk is not for the observant (it serves the best lobster roll in the state). But around the corner is a lovely folk art store and a gourmet food store with plenty of permissible choices.
Camden is a fine place to linger; the Waterfront restaurant is excellent, and the Lord Camden Inn offers fine, comfortable lodgings, even though the breakfast room is a bit of a zoo.
Camden also has many excellent B&Bs in old inns, and some enticing stores, including design boutique The Right Stuff and a superb second-hand bookshop.
Further south, the Kennebunkport Inn offers a splendid old-fashioned welcome; the eponymous town is a little twee, but a good base from which to explore the lovely little town of Ogunquit, which has great antique shops and a gem of a seaside American Art Museum with a lovely garden.
Like Vermont or Maine, Massachusets is sufficiently rich to be a trip all of its own, but driving south from Ogunquit will lead to some rewarding and historic coastal towns for those planning to fly out of Boston.
Salem is famous not only for its witch trials but the fabulous collections in its Peabody-Essex Museum; Newburyport for whale-watching; while sleepy Essex, once a hive of boatbuilding, has lovely river cruises and good restaurants, and Ipswich one of the finest hostelries in New England in the low-key but elegant and tranquil Inn at Castle Hill. Then there is the world-class city of Boston; Wellfleet, Hyannisport and other highlights of Cape Cod; the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard; antique-hunting in the Berkshires and Rhode Island with Newport and its ancient synagogue and beautiful mansions.
It is easy to see why New Englandphiles feel compelled to return to this northeasternmost corner of the USA again and again — and still probably never manage to see it all.
Virgin Atlantic (08705-747747; www.virginatlantic.com) flies into New York, out of Boston from £263 return. Alexandra Inn (001 802 442 5619; www.alexandrainn.com); Lauren Inn (001 802 457 1925; www.theLaurenInn.com); Kearsage Inn, Lord Camden Inn, Kennebunkport Inn (001 207 967 2621, www.kennebunkportinn.com); The Inn at Castle Hill (001 978 412 255; http://innatcastlehill.thetrustees.org); Information at www.discovernewengland.co.uk; Free brochure and map pack: 01271 336195; www.massport.com
Jewish New England
Though founded by Wasps, New England has a large Jewish population, concentrated around Boston and Newport, Rhode Island, but also with synagogues dotted throughout Massachussets, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine.
Each state has a smattering of kosher food shops, but the only kosher restaurants are in and around Boston