Leaf-Peeping With A Purpose: Five Fall Foliage-Inspired Trips

A leisurely drive through the hills, a trip to the local pumpkin patch, apple picking, a walk in the park, check, check, check and check. Been there, done that.

Considering that autumn is nothing short of New England’s senior prom, why spend it doing the same old things when there are plenty of leaf-peeping expeditions that combine outstanding scenery with a generous helping of things to do and places to explore? With so many appealing options to choose from, you’ll want to order a corsage and head out to the dance.

Riding On The Railroad, All The Livelong Day

Mount Washington Cog

Photo Courtesy of Mount Washington Cog

It can be challenging to enjoy New Hampshire’s magnificent fall colors when you’re stuck behind the wheel of a car and praying for enough cellphone service to run Waze.

So rather than gawk and drive, take a cue from the days when steel rails mapped the land and climb aboard one of New Hampshire’s numerous trains, where rubbernecking is encouraged.

At its inauguration in 1868, the Mount Washington Cog Railway was deemed one of the greatest wonders of all time and nearly 148 years later, it still is. While chugging 6,288 feet to the summit of the highest peak in the Northeast you’ll be fighting the urge to whisper “I think I can, I think I can,” but it’ll be worth it. The views of the White Mountains blanketed from valley to peak in reds, yellows and oranges are majestic. The three-hour round trip departs from the Cog Base Station in Bretton Woods, and purchasing tickets in advance is strongly recommended.

From mid-September through mid-October, the Hobo Railroad in Lincoln runs the Hobo Harvest Time Express, an 80-minute, family-friendly ride along the pretty Pemigewasset River that not only highlights the area’s vibrant foliage, but also offers passengers the opportunity to sample locally-made food items along with other specialty products. Once disembarked, guests are invited to enjoy access to a seasonal farm stand and pumpkin patch, and tour an annual display of scarecrows.

Winnepesaukee Line

Photo Courtesy Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad

The Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad departs from either Meredith or Weirs Beach and travels along the western shore of Lake Winnipesaukee. Like its sister line, Hobo, the Winnipesaukee Railroad offers seasonal foliage train rides that include an evening dinner run and one that takes passengers on a four-hour expedition past a deer farm, through the quaint village of Plymouth and stops at the historic Ashland Railroad Station, where guests are greeted by attendants dressed in period attire.

Other trains in the region include the White Mountain Central Railroad, which offers 25-minute rides out of Lincoln, the Conway Scenic Railroad in North Conway village, offering one- to five-hour scenic train trips in both regular and domed cars, and the Café Lafayette Dinner Train, a two-hour, fine-dining experience located in North Woodstock.

Treasure Hunting In The Litchfield Hills

Regardless of the season, traveling through northwest Connecticut is always an enchanting ride. The winding, tree-lined roads and little villages are the stuff of Norman Rockwell paintings .

During the autumn months, however, the rolling hills and mountainous terrain become Mother Nature’s canvas and serve as a reminder that you don’t have to cross state lines to see some of the best fall foliage in New England.

Hidden Valley Four

Depending on which part of the state you live in, an overnight trip probably isn’t required, but should be considered if you can stay at the Hidden Valley Bed & Breakfast in Washington. Tucked into the woods and overlooking the Hidden Valley Nature Preserve, the manor’s vine-covered exterior and fine European-inspired furnishings will have you convinced that you just arrived for a stay in the French countryside.

Whether you choose to stay in the Red Guest Suite, the Blue Master Bedroom or the Green Bedroom, there’s no bad view, and owner and Holland native, Regine Laverge-Schade, along with her adorable “doggies,” provide a warm welcome.

With Hidden Valley as your base camp, spend a day in nearby Woodbury, aptly dubbed the “Antiques Capital of Connecticut.” While there, search for hidden treasures among the dozens of antiques shops located throughout the town. From folk art to flea market finds, virtually every style, period and price point can be found along the 3-mile stretch of Route 6, as well as other dealer locations in and around the town.

A few miles away in the New Preston section of town, peaceful Lake Waramaug is the place to spend a sunny, autumn day. Surrounded by forest, the lake serves as a mirror for the changing leaves, creating a symposium of color that’s ideal for an afternoon picnic or leisurely stroll.

Overlooking the lake is Hopkins Vineyard, a former dairy farm transformed into an award-winning winery that offers guided tours, wine tastings, and has a nifty wine bar located in the hayloft of the vineyard’s restored 19th century barn.

White Horse Three

Finally, before leaving the area, a stop at The White Horse Country Pub & Restaurant, also in New Preston, is practically mandatory. The popular restaurant is an area staple, and it’s easy to see why. Nestled against the cheerful East Aspetuck River, The White Horse is both inviting and stylish with its high ceilings, barn beams and antique accouterments.

Large windows give guests the opportunity to observe the bubbling river or on a nice day, many of them choose to sit outside on the restaurant’s expansive deck that, despite its size, feels intimate due to an abundance of greenery, both natural and planted, that flows throughout.

On cool nights, friendly laughter can be heard spilling out from the pub, a warm, English-styled room with a giant stone fireplace as its centerpiece. Late sleepers will appreciate the White Horse brunch, served up from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays, which includes delights like Chicken and Waffle, Filet Mignon Benedict and a pub burger topped with a fried egg and Bloody Mary sauce.

The Bridges Of Washington County

Forget about Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep and instead kindle your own romance with Vermont and its impressive collection of authentic covered bridges. There are more than 100 of the wooden structures throughout the state, one of the largest concentrations, per square mile, in the world.

The Warren Covered Bridge in Vermont has been a National Historic Place since 1974. It spans the Mad River and was closed to traffic after Storm Irene.

Photo Courtesy of Vermont Dept of Tourism & Marketing

Depending on who you ask, there are at least 10 in Washington County alone, warranting a road trip north on I-89 to see a few, if not all, firsthand. The small town of Northfield is home to six, including the Stony Brook Covered Bridge (also known as the Moseley Covered Bridge), the Slaughter House Covered Bridge and three others that are seated in close proximity to one another on Cox Brook Road. All are historic, charming and will likely provide the inspiration for your own National Geographic photo shoot with Vermont’s resplendent foliage as the cinematic backdrop.

Finish up with a stay in Burlington, located about an hour northwest of Northfield, on Lake Champlain. Sophisticated, hip and picturesque, there are more things to do and see in Vermont’s largest city than you’ll ever have time to accomplish.

You’ll be remiss, however, if you don’t take a stroll along the Church Street Marketplace,  an open air mall teeming with a mix of distinctive shops, boutiques and good restaurants, or book one of several boat cruises offered on the lake. Cyclists will want to take a ride on the Burlington Bike Path, a paved, 8-mile route that brings riders along Champlain’s scenic shoreline.

If you find yourself missing the office, make a pit stop at the World’s Tallest Filing Cabinet, a 38-foot tall, art sculpture comprised of, you guessed it, assorted filing cabinets. Located in the middle of nowhere, it’s completely kooky, but in a cool I’ve-Been-To-Wall-Drug sort of way. And, with any luck, you might find that invoice you’ve been looking for.

At the end of the day, untie your shoes at the Willard Street Inn, a fully-restored historic mansion built in the 1800s and converted into a spectacular bed and breakfast, located in the heart of the city. The breakfast alone is worth booking a room for and everything else, from the inn’s well-appointed furnishings to its sunny breakfast room, will make you wish that you booked one day more than you did.

Sailing Into The Mystic

There’s something about spending time along Connecticut’s shoreline that makes you feel like you’re on vacation, especially when visiting Mystic.

According to at least one source, the name is derived from the Pequot term “missi-tuk,” describing a larger river whose waters are driven into waves by tides or wind. However, it seems better suited to the Merriam-Webster definition, which simply states, “having magical properties.”

That magic is no more apparent than during the fall months when the already-charming village of Mystic turns into a scene cut straight from a Charles Wysocki calendar, complete with white clapboard buildings and tall ships set in relief against an autumn background.

One way to take it all in is to book a cruise aboard the Argia. The 81-foot windjammer takes guests on both half-day and sunset cruises along the area’s scenic coastlines and past some of the surrounding islands and lighthouses.

The schooner also passes through the historic Mystic River Bascule Bridge providing an up-close look at the iconic drawbridge, which opens on two separate occasions during each sail to allow the Argia’s passage.

Since autumn arrives a bit later to the shoreline, the best time for leaf peeping is typically from mid- to late September through mid-October, when the Argia ends its sailing season.

In nearby New London, the Cross Sound Ferry offers two separate cruises, extending through November, aboard its Sea Jet, a comfortable catamaran that offers both indoor and outdoor seating.

New London Ledge Lighthouse I

The Classic Lighthouse Cruise ferries passengers past nine area lighthouses including the New London Ledge, Avery Point, Plum Island, Race Rock and North Dumpling, along with other notable sites like Fort Trumbull and Fort Griswold.

Its sister cruise, Lights & Sights, also views notable lighthouses in the area, as well as cruising along the Watch Hill shoreline so that guests can not only take a gander at Watch Hill Light and the historic Ocean House, but also Taylor Swift’s swanky Watch Hill residence perched high atop a retaining rock wall, overlooking the sea.

Happy Air Line Trails

Airline Trail II
Photo Stan Malcolm

It’s been decades since trains rumbled along the Air Line Railroad which once provided rail service from New York to Boston. Intended to be the shortest route between the major two cities, its course cut a large swath through Connecticut and was meant to reflect an imaginary “line” drawn through the “air.”

Gradually economic and safety concerns closed the railroad, leaving behind miles of abandoned rail beds that now serve as the Air Line Trail.

Considered a linear state park, the trail passes through eleven towns in eastern Connecticut and covers more than 50 miles. The southern portion of the trail links the towns of Portland, East Hampton, Colchester, Hebron-Amston, Lebanon and Willimantic in a 22.95-mile stretch that pretty much requires anyone with a bike to ride it.

Teaming with lush, canopied trees, wooden bridges, bubbling brooks and abundant wildlife, it’s the ideal place to cycle on a crisp, autumn day. The dense forestry, rich with color, makes for a hushed trip and other than passing occasional walkers, the only sound is your wheels on the crushed gravel.

Attractions, both man-made and natural, are plentiful along the trail and include a cranberry bog in East Hampton, as well as Comstock Bridge, one of only three covered bridges remaining in the state of Connecticut; the Salmon River State Forest in Colchester, Grayville Falls Park in Hebron and Lebanon’s Lake Williams.

After a day on the trail, rack your bike or ride it over to Willimantic for dinner.

Once a thriving mill town, Willimantic has seen its share of ups and downs and to some it’s still mildly rough around the edges. With that said, however, the downtown is in the midst of a renaissance and depending on your palate, there are at least two restaurants warranting a pit stop.

Located in an old, abandoned post office building, the Willimantic Brewing Company, or “Willibrew,” as locals refer to it, is an award-winning microbrewery, producing freshly made handcrafted beers and serving up traditional pub fare like wings, sliders and burgers.

Eclectic and relaxed, it’s a casual, back-slapping sort of place with any number of homemade brews to choose from including whimsically-named selections like Willibrew Ambeerlicious, Calypso Blonde, Postmaster IPA and Working Man’s Wheat.

Photo Courtesy of Cafemantic

Directly across the street, Cafemantic offers a completely different vibe. Hip, arty and inviting, it is a culinary nirvana for foodies. Guests are invited to share small (and completely rapturous) plates that include offerings like bacon-wrapped dates, herb-roasted hanger steak, and lamb meatballs among others.

An expansive, illuminated outdoor seating area is where to spend warm autumn evenings and don’t be surprised to find George, Cafemantic’s unofficial cat, rubbing up against your legs as you sip a glass of wine and savor dishes from the restaurant’s seasonal and sustainable menu.

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