By Carol Canter.
We were early — maybe one to two weeks before peak fall foliage. So instead of colors that scream, we had hillsides that whispered with hues perhaps more subtle than we had hoped for, but achingly beautiful in a restful way. More earth tones – umbers and russets and coppers, punctuated by yellows pale and golden. And then there would appear one lone sugar maple turned aflame, drawing all the attention like the woman in red, passionate and dramatic, who captivates, as all eyes momentarily are diverted from the subtler beauties. And so it was on a week-long Fall Foliage Tour with Great Train Escapes, as we viewed nature’s palette of color splashed across hillsides and mountains, reflected in New Hampshire’s multitude of lakes, rippling in Vermont’s flowing rivers. Yet fall foliage was but the raison d’être for a week of adventure, education and fun, always with a backdrop of picture postcard beauty. The journey, by train and motorcoach, took in all six New England states.
We gathered in Boston for an overnight and briefing, then appropriately began our journey through Yankee territory at the Boston Tea Party ship. Under tutelage of a rabble-rouser leading us in an 18th century meeting, our quiet well-behaved tour group was instantly revolutionized by the unfairness of British taxation without representation. After yelling “fie” with a downward thrust of the fist to a litany of injustices suffered, we agreed to dump the entire cargo of tea overboard. This important revolutionary act transformed and exhilarated our group, who spent the rest of the week laughing and bonding as we shared New England’s wondrous bounty.
We tasted it all, from Yankee humor — dry, to Vermont apple cider – tart, to Maine and Cape Cod lobster – sweet, then we laughed and went back for more. We watched cider pressed from fresh-off-the-tree Macintosh apples as we sipped, and learned the sugaring process as we tasted maple syrup, from light amber to the darkest richness. We strolled across covered bridges, explored centuries-old cemeteries and photographed those irresistible white church steeples in the middle of every village and town.
Each day was packed with experiences, new and nostalgic alike. From the gleaming towers, rich history and cosmopolitan sophistication of Boston, we headed north to Kennebunkport, Maine, that evening’s destination. En route we hugged the coast of Massachusetts, New Hampshire (only 18 miles long!) and southern Maine, stopping in the Yorks — the “poor man’s Kennebunks” — to view the Nubble Lighthouse at Cape Neddick, off on its own island. Artists were painting, bikers biking and the birds were diving for lunch.
In Kennebunkport, after viewing the Bush hideaway, we took time to poke around town. I headed to The Clam Shack for a quick fix – a small bowl of chowder thick with clams, watching fellow diners toss oysterette crackers to the screeching gulls and patient ducks. In one shop, an elegant kaleidoscope turned the world into a sea of melting aquamarines, amethysts and rubies.
Next morning began our rail adventure. We boarded our train, the North American Explorer, with 8 fully restored vintage cars drawn by a diesel locomotive. The 1940s era cars, constructed of stainless steel, reflected a pre-war opulence with fine wood paneling and etched glass. Groups rotated time upstairs in the two glass-domed lounge cars, ideal for leaf-peeping. As the train left sea level and began to climb 100 feet into the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the dome cars became more sought after. As the whistle blew and the train chugged slowly out of Portland, a young pony-tailed historian shared his passion for trains. When the bar car opened, though it was well before noon, it was “free Bloody Marys for all!!”
That’s where I first met the late Joe Perham, and by the slow Yankee drawl and twinkle in his eye, I wasn’t surprised to learn he was the humorist onboard to entertain us. And that he did, as he had once entertained fans of “Postcards from Maine” on CBS’ Sunday Morning. Folks were rolling in the aisles, while Perham barely cracked a smile, playing the staid Yankee citizens that were his subjects. Even Mark Twain had a hard time getting a laugh in Maine, Perham related, where folks try real hard not to crack a smile! Though Perham calls Abe Lincoln one of America’s best humorists, my vote is for Joe!
After disembarking and lunching at a small, family-owned ski resort, a gondola ride whisked us to the 4,000 foot peak of Wildcat Mountain, the highest ski peak in the Mount Washington Valley. From the summit our panorama stretched from the rolling hills of Maine all the way to the sea. Evening at our inn in North Conway began for me with laps in the indoor pool, a soak in the jacuzzi, then wine on the terrace as dusk streaked the autumn sky with shades of cabernet and honey.
North Conway, a tiny town of 2,000, is a popular year-round sports and mountaineering center. A gorgeous Victorian train station in the heart of town was our point of departure for a historic trip on the Conway Scenic Railroad. Aboard gleaming cars painted the reds and golds of autumn, we traveled the same route the first trains ascended over 120 years ago, a route carved out of the mountains with hand tools. The scenery was all the more breathtaking from the open-air observation car some of us journeyed in, the better to breathe in the drama of sheer granite bluffs, steep ravines, and cascading streams as we ascended the steady mountain grade of the Crawford Notch Line.
The two and a half hour trip was rich with history and folklore, groves of fiery red sumac and sugar maples, and “a guarantee of at least three bears along the way,” and still the Saco River weaving in and out along our route. We climbed the steepest grade — 2.2%, passed New Hampshire’s highest waterfall, and were greeted by an entire family of pumpkins, displayed every year by one family along the route.
We learned there are 20 notches — same as a gap or pass — through the White Mountains, and other important facts like — people living in Vermont can’t be buried in New Hampshire. Why, one asks? Because, our conductor assured us, they’re still living! We were beginning to identify railroad humor, and decided there were a lot more laughs to be had by train than by car or plane!
Crossing the Connecticut River, we left New Hampshire, whose motto “Live Free or Die” reflects its fiercely independent spirit. We entered Vermont, most rural of all the New England states, and stayed the night in Stowe. Here the days blend into a gauzy haze of gazebos, gardens and graveyards, a cornucopia of pumpkins, squashes and apples, everywhere spiced with folk art, folk humor and folk wisdom. The longest train ride of the trip transported us along the spine of the Green Mountains where marble is mined and 150,000 gallons of maple syrup harvested each year.
In southern New England we traded the bucolic hamlets and flaming foliage of the north for very different highlights. From the thriving 19th century whaling stations of Mystic Seaport, Connecticut to Newport, Rhode Island, yachting capital of America and playground of the rich and famous, we revisited history. Newport was our point of reentry back into the privileged life of the Gilded Age as we viewed the summer “cottage” of the Astors and toured The Breakers, Vanderbilt’s turn-of-the-century mansion.
The day concluded on the Cape with a New England lobster bake, bib, butter sauce and all. An early walk on a sunlit beach began my Cape Cod morning with time for sightseeing before boarding our final train at the Hyannis Station. We indulged with great pleasure in a catered onboard lunch of boneless breast of chicken stuffed with baby spinach, goat cheese and roasted yellow pepper served over a cranberry lime coulis with assorted field greens and marinated asparagus ravioli as we chugged past island scenery from cranberry bogs to salt marshes to landscape with llamas and lobster pots.
At our final dinner back in Boston, folks agreed that even the most dedicated independent traveler would be hard pressed to achieve the amazing overview of New England’s diversity we got from this trip, as we applauded our tour director for the insight, inspiration and incredible wealth of information she enveloped us with along the way.
IF YOU GO:
Contact Great Train Escapes at 800-895-2554; www.greattrainescapes.com.
For current trips, expect variation from the itinerary detailed here.