Jeffrey and Marylou Ripley like quick trips to different areas of New England, taking in the food, local sights, and just enjoying the different pace and scenery.
Among their favorites: Western Massachusetts, Portsmouth, N.H., and Newport, R.I. But by far their favorite getaway in New England is Portland, Maine, partly because Jeffrey Ripley, a retired commercial fresco painter, used to operate an art studio in the historic city’s downtown district.
“It’s a real restaurant town, and there’s such simple things to do there,” said Jeffrey Ripley, 65, a Pembroke resident. “We try to get up there once or twice a year, usually in the fall or spring. When we get there, I just grab a local paper, look up things to do that day, and we’re set. ”
The Ripleys are part of a demographic tourism operators love: outgoing people 55 years and up, usually with grown children who have flown the coop, and enough disposable income and enthusiasm to visit new places, often during less crowded and less expensive off-season months.
“The over-55 demographic controls the majority of the discretionary dollars circulating through the economy and has a greater level of control over their daily schedule,” said Bill Geist, a tourism industry specialist at Zeitgeist Consulting, which advises tourist organizations across the country. “They have the resources and the time to travel that younger consumers are yet to enjoy.”
Christine Barton, a partner at Boston Consulting Group and tourism expert, said boomers have very set, simple preferences for getting away: visiting museums and art galleries, attending theater shows or concerts, shopping, eating and drinking fine food and wine, and hanging out near a waterfront, no matter the season.
With all that in mind, here are three prime New England getaways.
Easy to get to, and crowded during the summer, Newport opens up during the off-season: Rates at its many hotels and inns drop, seats become available at great restaurants, and the sidewalks along the waterfront and narrow side streets are easier to negotiate.
At the Inns on Bellevue, a small four-building complex with its own little square in downtown Newport, room rates range from $149 to $419 per night during peak tourism season, but fall to $109 to $300 during off-season.
“The empty nesters are a major part of our business in the fall, winter, and spring,” said Paul Galluscio, general manager at the 55-room Inns on Bellevue.
At the 20-room Francis Malbone House, also in downtown Newport, room rates fall by more than 25 percent in the off-season, ranging from $150 to $275 during the week and $195 to $325 weekends.
“This is the type of place that people will come to during the winter and just sit by the fire and read for a while,” said Elizabeth Boxley, a clerk at the Francis Malbone House.
While some of Newport’s famous mansions close after the holidays, a few stay open, including the Breakers, perhaps the best known of Newport’s “cottages” for the uber-wealthy built during the Gilded Age. Newport’s International Tennis Hall of Fame is also open year-round, as are most restaurants throughout the city’s historic downtown district.
This is a place to get a good meal.
In recent years, Portsmouth’s restaurant industry has surged, so much so that there are now more restaurant and conference-center dining seats than full-time residents in the city of 21,300, said Valerie Rochon, tourism director at the Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce.
And, like Newport, the price of staying overnight in Portsmouth falls significantly during the off-season.
At the seven-room Inn at Strawbery Banke, only a block away from Portsmouth’s historic Market Square, room rates during peak-season range from about $160 to $185, but they fall to $110 to $135 during off-season.
Sarah O’Donnell, owner of the Inn at Strawbery Banke, said she has numerous guests over age 55 from the Boston area who stay just for a night or two, largely to walk, shop, and eat in downtown's historic district. Many also attend events at Portsmouth’s Music Hall, a nonprofit performing arts center that has year-round events from opera to comedy shows.
Like Newport, Portsmouth prides itself on decking its downtown with lights and decorations during the holiday season. The downtown Strawbery Banke Museum, a 10-acre, outdoor history museum with historic buildings and period reenactors, hosts “Candlelight Stroll” tours during weekend evenings in December.
Another plus: Visitors to Portsmouth can always dart across the Piscataqua River to shop at the numerous outlet stores in Kittery, Maine.
Another New England city with a waterfront, Portland’s historic downtown area has hundreds of shops and restaurants to choose from year-round. It’s just two hours by car from Boston and is also accessible via Amtrak’s Downeaster train service.
Off-season hotel price can be as low as $79 to $149, said Dale Northrup, owner of the Percy Inn.
“We get many Bostonians up here, no matter what season,” said Northrup. “We also get a lot of boomers, with their season usually starting right after kids go back to school in the early fall. Those visitors generally aren’t beholden to weekends. They can come up any night of the week they want.”
The Danforth, a nine-room inn in downtown, has off-season rates of $129 to $199 per night, down from $229 to $349 during the summer and early fall.
The downtown waterfront, dotted with restaurants and shops, is generally considered the top destination point in Portland. So is the Portland Museum of Art, whose galleries includes works by Winslow Homer and French Impressionists, such as Claude Monet and Pierre-August Renoir.
When Jeffrey Ripley and his wife visit Portland they enjoy the Maine Historical Society in downtown Portland. In their most recent trip, in October, the couple attended a special exhibit called “This Rebellion,” which runs through next spring and showcases collections related to Maine soldiers’ experiences during the American Civil War.
“In New England, you can go to a lot of little cities and towns and have an enjoyable night or two,” said Jeffrey Ripley. “You just look it up, get rates and reservations, and find out what you want to do. As long as you do just a little research, you’ll fill up your time easily.”