GIVEN OUR MILD winter — not to mention the predictions of the resident groundhog at Lincoln’s Drumlin Farm — there’s every indication it will be an early spring. How fortunate then that this time of year is the best in New England for finding travel bargains. Stuck between ski and beach seasons, hotels tend to slash their rates and restaurants start creatively filling up their specials boards. The following destinations (some off the beaten track, some on) offer hefty deals. And each has enough charm to help you shake off a winter’s worth of cabin fever.
THE SEASIDE CITY’S seal (of a phoenix rising from the ashes) may have originally been meant as a reference to the historic fires it has survived, but these days, it may as well symbolize how the city has reinvented itself as a national food mecca. Portland is crammed with ambitious bistros, gastropubs, and locavore diners, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll spend anywhere near the kind of money you would in a bigger metropolis. One of Portland’s greatest charms is that as sophisticated in behavior as it is, its keep-it-real attitude also tends to keep things largely inexpensive.
To avoid its higher-priced entrees, begin your night with drinks and an appetizer at the bar of the renowned Fore Street restaurant (207-775-2717, forestreet.biz). At this farm-to-table trailblazer, you can enjoy wood oven-roasted mussels or any of the specials that rotate according to what’s freshest that day. You’ll get a taste of the kitchen’s gastronomic know-how — not to mention prep for the next spot.
Make sure that it’s nearby Cinque Terre (207-347-6154, cinqueterremaine.com), and then sit back for sultry but bright-flavored pastas (meaning Ligurian flavors as delivered by Maine farmers). Chef Lee Skawinski dotes like a meticulous dad over all the menu. The results are epic — in flavor, size, and value. Even the most generous entrees ring in under $24. And for a plate of the hand-rolled potato gnocchi with currants, radicchio, and Gorgonzola dolce, we’d gladly pay far more.
Retire, if reluctantly, to the Pomegranate Inn (800-356-0408, pomegranateinn.com). It’s not far from any of the microbreweries you might have stumbled upon on your way home from the Old Port, the city’s working waterfront, but is cosseting enough to ease any overindulgences. The high-ceilinged rooms are painted with motifs ranging from tropical birds to Parisian streets. And in spring, most doubles can be had for an average of $160 per night. Sleep easy: Breakfast is included, which means you’ll be rising to the likes of asparagus-Parmesan crepes and blackberry cream scones.
MAD RIVER VALLEY, VERMONT
MOST PEOPLE WHO’VE heard of the narrow valley carved into Vermont’s northern Green Mountains know it because of the dramatic vertical drop of two of New England’s most challenging ski slopes, Sugarbush and Mad River Glen. But when the snowpacks melt, all that white stuff comes sluicing in an angry torrent that causes the Mad River to live up to its name. It flows through a Grandma Moses tableau of red barns, crumbly mills, and wildflower meadows that rank among the most picturesque scenery of the state.
From the moment the ice breaks, Waitsfield-based outfitter Clearwater Sports (802-496-2708, clearwatersports.com) launches canoes and kayaks for guided tours along the river — an $80 price tag for a full-day trip includes boat rental, transportation, and guidance through the Class 2 and 3 rapids. The trip starts at the swimming hole at Waitsfield’s organic Lareau Farm, home to a lovably creaky B&B in a 1794 farmhouse (802-496-4949, lareaufarminn.com). Innkeeper Lisabeth Magoun has decked out the inn with checkerboard quilts and antiques in rooms with names like Peace (tucked away on a quiet back stairway and lit by afternoon sun), Love (with Jacuzzi and view of the river), and Patience (large enough for a family and filled with kids’ toys). Rates run from $90 to $135.
Arguably one of the finest features of the inn is its sister property American Flatbread (802-496-8856, americanflatbread.com), the legendary Vermont pizza eatery whose all-natural pies are available frozen in many grocery stores. But there’s nothing like being there, sitting with local brews around an outdoor bonfire with the stars winking above and kids playing in the fields all around, and then moving into the dining room filled with the bright flames and smell of the wood-fired clay oven. The menu includes flatbreads ($11 to $20) piled with vegetables and meats sourced from the neighboring farms. After a day paddling on the river, the pizza will seem even better earned, as will the sleep when you finally head to bed.
QUIET CORNER, CONNECTICUT
THE PROTOTYPICAl New England landscape — stone walls and horse barns, spreading maple trees and brick mill buildings — is alive, well, and flourishing along Route 169, which is one of three designated national scenic byways in southern New England. Rest assured, it makes for an unforgettable road trip. The byway winds through the bucolic towns of Pomfret, Woodstock, and Brooklyn, collectively known as the “quiet corner” of Connecticut. The name is pretty tough to argue with. Even though it’s a half-hour from Providence and just over an hour from Boston, this is a landscape that demands shutting off the Android and taking long walks and deep breaths.
The perfect launching pad is Hickory Hill Bed & Breakfast (860-963-0306, hickoryhillbandb.com), a white-columned Colonial in Pomfret Center complete with border collie and Siamese cat roaming the gardens, and four-poster beds in two guest rooms with shared bath for $125 to $130 a night. For a taste of something more dramatic, head to nearby Woodstock for a tour of Roseland Cottage (860-928-4074, historicnewengland.org), a coral-pink house from the 1840s that’s one of the country’s best preserved examples of Gothic Revival architecture. The home is full of stained glass, embossed wallpaper, and original antique furniture (to say nothing of a 19th-century bowling alley).
If that just happens to inspire you to decorate your own home with antiques, check out the former industrial center of Putnam. Its three-and-a-half-story Antiques Marketplace (860-928-0442, antiquesmarketplace.com) is home to around 200 dealers of everything from Stickley furniture to Fiestaware. Celebrate your finds with a splurge at Pomfret’s Sharpe Hill Vineyards (860-974-3549, sharpehill.com), one of New England’s viniculture success stories with its semi-dry white Ballet of Angels (which pairs well with the on-site restaurant’s signature Creole shrimp). Or stick to the budget with the local favorite Vanilla Bean Cafe (860-928-1562, thevanillabeancafe.com), also in Pomfret, which serves up tasty fare like basil and smoked-mozzarella ravioli and buffalo-meat burgers, accompanied by live music that runs the gamut from folk to jazz to zydeco — proving that not everything good is quiet in the quiet corner.
IN SUMMER, CAPE FEAR isn’t just a movie, it’s a very real state of anxiety felt by all Bostonians looking at the traffic-choked stretch of Route 6 that stands between them and a relaxing vacation. Shoulder season — spring in particular — is an entirely different proposition.
True, the beaches aren’t exactly beckoning with warming sands or the kind of waves you’d want to dive into. But this is when the real Cape landscape and residents take over where the tourists have left off. Locals drop in on gallery shows like the Cape Cod Art Association’s exhibits of member works starting in March (508-362-2909, capecodartassoc.org); frequent excellent restaurants you can actually get into (suddenly there isn’t a three-hour wait at the Ten Tables in Provincetown; 508-487-0106, tentables.net); and walk beaches everywhere, all of which look that much more beautiful for their lack of staggered bodies.
And then there are the phenomenal deals at world-class resorts and their spas. Pretty much any inn or B & B in the area that’s open outside of summer offers a good deal in shoulder season, but what’s noteworthy is how far rates fall (and benefits remain) at the posh likes of Wequassett Resort (508-432-5400, wequassett.com) in Harwich. The exquisitely run enclave books up for the on-season up to a year in advance, but seaside king rooms that go for about $1,000 in summer are sliced to almost half that in April and May. (And they don’t require more than a two-day stay, as they do in season.) Oh, and that price still includes suites that make Versailles look shabby, golf courses that would cause a grown CEO to cry, and tennis courts that tempt even the racket-averse to give love a try.