After a summer that was busier than most, coupled with a hefty helping of furloughs, Gina and I were finally able to take a vacation recently. We decided to go on a road trip through New England, with a side trip up to Montreal to get a small taste of a different country. Our itinerary included a variety of modes of transportation. First, a taxi to the Alexandria Amtrak station. Then, a train to New Jersey, followed by a rental car for the duration of the trip. Choosing a Chevy Traverse for our journey in Newark, we began our drive. Since both of us had seen New York and Boston before, though at separate times, we decided to check out the towns less traveled using the time we had. We stayed in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, Montreal, and New York before making our way back to Newark for the train ride home. Along the way we also saw a few sights in Connecticut and New Hampshire, so we certainly ran the gamut. I’ll point out here that the soundtrack to most of the trip was the 90’s country station on Sirius XM in the rental car, which might seem incongruous if you picture us rolling through Yankee territory. Maybe because of that irony, it kept me entertained and awake as I spent hours behind the wheel. I hadn’t heard some of those songs since middle school, and it’s surprising how many of the lyrics I actually remembered.
Back to the meat of the trip. New England is certainly a special area of the country. It’s easy to see why early European settlers stuck around despite the harsh winters. In short, it’s beautiful, but it also has variety. Within a span of a few hours, you can start at the beaches and end up in gorgeous mountains, lakes, and rivers. For someone used to a large state like Virginia, it was interesting to be able to bounce from state to state so quickly. And unlike the suburbs of DC that tend to blend together, each state and each town has a distinct character that is easily discernible when you’re there, but not so easy to describe.
Before leaving New Jersey, we made a quick side trip to the boyhood home of Gina’s grandfather. He was born and raised there in Carlstadt, but the view from his house now includes the New York City skyline and Giants Stadium. The only downside to the timing of our train ride and side trip was that we hit the outskirts of NYC near rush hour. We took an unexpected detour over the George Washington Bridge and up the Henry Hudson Parkway, but our Google Maps guide kept us from going into downtown Manhattan, at least. Similarly, our time in Connecticut was unfortunately spent mostly in traffic on I-95. We did stop in the town of Darien, which looked very neat and well-to-do, when our stomachs couldn’t hold out any longer and ended up at a great little restaurant thanks to Yelp. Estia’s, we salute you!
By the time we limped into Newport after fighting traffic and traveling all day, the nautical themed room at the Marriott was a welcome sight. The next morning, I went for a jog that took me along the Cliff Walk near the famous mansions along the bay, which was a great change of scenery. Running in a strange place feels adventurous, though I tried to choose a foolproof route that wouldn’t get me lost. I felt like a local and kept up my marathon training in the process. Not a bad deal! Newport was a great town, all in all. The old town area near the harbor felt like an upper-scale Annapolis, with shops of all stripes lining the streets. There was a cruise ship in port, as well, which brought even more types of people into the shops and restaurants. Interesting souvenirs were easy to come by. After strolling through downtown, we drove the infamous Ocean Drive to see how the upper crust of society lives. Each mansion more extravagant than the last, it really defied imagination how people could really afford houses like that and live there without it feeling like a museum. We stopped for a while along one of the beaches and took in the sights, collecting interesting rocks along the way.
Our next stops took us through Plymouth and Salem, Massachusetts. When planning this leg of the tour, I just wanted to be able to say that we’d been to the sites of some of the earliest and most famous settlements of American history, but after the fact we realized we would have been fine without going. Plymouth’s mock colonial settlement was already shuttered by the time we got there, a recurring theme throughout our trip due to the shorter days and visiting during post-peak tourist season. We looked at Plymouth Rock, which we’d heard about countless times in social studies and history classes and Charlie Brown Thanksgiving specials. In truth, it’s just… a rock. It’s not even the Plymouth Rock, it’s just a rock that someone decided was big enough to carve a “1620” into and build a little pantheon around. And the mockup of the Mayflower might have been cool, but it was closed and we’d both been on sailing ships before. So, I would not plan on spending a lot of time in Plymouth if you ever go there. The same with Salem, which was decked out in Halloween decorations thanks to its connection with the infamous witch trials. Think of people in various degrees of Gothic costumes roaming the streets at all times of the day. Just read The Crucible and save yourself the trouble. The U.S.’s oldest candy shop is there, which was interesting to see, and if you’re a Nathaniel Hawthorne or Bewitched fan or fancy yourself a wizard you’ll probably enjoy yourself, but in hindsight we could have skipped this part of the trip as well and would have been happy.
I think my favorite state of the bunch was Maine. I’m not sure I can really put my finger on why, though. Maybe because it both lived up to and exceeded the vague image I had in my mind of what Maine would be like. The fresh seafood helped, but another reason could simply be that we consistently had a lot of fun the comparatively brief time we were there. We visited the shops at Freeport, which naturally included the L.L. Bean flagship store, which is really a campus of four stores with an Outlet across the street, all open 24/7/365 (except for the Outlet). That’s gotta be handy if you find yourself needing a pair of boots or a canoe at 3AM. We ate by firelight on the street, the fire coming from a pit in the middle of our table. It was windy that night, which added an element of fiery adventure to our meal. Portland also seemed like a great town, though we didn’t get to see much there other than the fantastic Bull Moose Music, which restored my faith in the viability of the record shop in today’s digital music era. Before leaving Maine, we visited the iconic Portland Headlight in Cape Elizabeth, which lived up to the photogenic descriptions on Tripadvisor and Yelp. I flexed some photography muscles there, because when you’re looking at something man-made crashing against the strength and beauty of God’s creation, you have to take some pictures. Beyond that, I was charmed by the independently mined but extremely friendly people we encountered in Maine. Upon Matthew’s advice, however, I steered clear of the local soda Moxie, which if I remember correctly could double as a paint thinner.
New Hampshire proved the most scenic for us, since we drove around the White Mountains and into Franconia Notch State Park, former home of the Old Man of the Mountain before he collapsed. The fall foliage was also at its best in the areas of New Hampshire that we drove through. The Flume, a small but deep gorge carved into the forest on one end of Franconia Notch, was beautiful as well. Arriving at sunset, we got some amazing views and photos, which to be honest do not do justice to the bouncing light reflecting off of the mist as you look up to see the sun fully illuminating the trees above. I’m glad we got there to catch the last bus to the gorge, even if it meant walking back to the already-closed visitor center to get to our car. And we didn’t see any bears, either, so that was a plus. While on our way through New Hampshire, we also stopped in North Conway and got some terrific pizza at The Flatbread Company.
Speaking of food, Vermont is the source of a lot of great stuff. I don’t know why this surprised me, but it was a pleasant surprise. Vermont is also quirky. We drove through Montpelier, the smallest state capitol, on our way to Waterbury, and nearly missed the capitol building before driving out of town in the space of five minutes. Waterbury is a bit of a tourist town, but it still has managed to stay fairly small but with a lot of character. Green Mountain Coffee is headquartered there and runs a small coffee shop out of the Amtrak station (there’s not much to see other than getting coffee, though). So I was happy to sample some coffee, but less tempted to buy another Keurig. It was here that I finally made the connection that Green Mountain owns Keurig. No wonder the variety packs that come with the brewers are chock full of Green Mountain Coffee! Gina most looked forward to the Ben & Jerry’s factory tour, which was indeed the happiest place in New England. The tour was reasonably priced, included viewing of actual ice cream being made, free samples at the end, and a trip to the witty Flavor Graveyard. Throw in Cabot cheese tastings and waffles with real Vermont maple syrup for breakfast, and you could say we ate quite well.
From Vermont, we drove across the border into Quebec. The novelty of driving into a foreign country was not lost on us. The Quebec we drove through was a series of small towns interspersed with vast swaths of farmland. We attempted to translate the road signs along the way while relying on our phone GPS to get to the city. Montreal itself lived up to its reputation as being a small slice of Europe in North America. Francophones were everywhere, naturally, but we didn’t run into anyone who refused to speak English. I definitely felt lacking in the linguistic department, all the same. We walked around the Old Port area, drove through Mont Royal park, caught a blues band at a bustling Bistro Le Modavie for dinner, shopped in the Bonsecours Market building, and also hit just a fraction of the vast underground shopping network near McGill University. Before we left, we also checked out the Olympic Park and botanical gardens, where dozens of pumpkins from a decorating contest sponsored by the local schools were on display. I think by this point the fast pace of the trip had caught up to both of us, as we kept crossing things off our sightseeing list when we realized we’d much rather relax and take it slow instead. And while there were plenty of things to do in the city, I think two days was plenty, with a three day trip probably being the max I would recommend without venturing out to other parts of Quebec.
The drive back across the border into New York was a welcome sight on our next to last day. We only saw Albany late at night, arriving at a Panera minutes before closing, which again saved us from certain starvation. There was a chunk of meteorite in our hotel lobby there, though, so that was cool. The final day of our trip was a little more stressful than it should have been when I realized that once again, our train did not stop at the same station where we dropped off the car, forcing another last-minute scramble on a New Jersey Transit train to get us where we needed to be with just minutes to spare. Certainly by the time we got on our correct train, our spirits were broken but relieved.
In summary, we enjoyed New England thoroughly but probably wore ourselves out trying to see it all. If nothing else, we have a few new great memories, and we know the spots we’d like to return to someday. I know that whenever we do go back, we’ll be charmed by the people and the sights and will instantly feel welcome.
You can find the full Flickr set of nearly 300 pictures here, or if you’re pressed for time, please enjoy a selection of my favorite photos from the batch in the Flash slideshow below.