“Get offa my bumpah, New Yorkah!” It’s that time of year, when we start channeling Mark Wahlberg’s accent and hurl insults at the tourist hordes sharing the roadway. (We keep the windows rolled up; we’re not crazy.) Foliage season is supposed to be New England’s most glorious time of year, but it can quickly turn ugly when we’re in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a Tour de Foliage.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
Up near the Quebec border, there’s a sweet little burg with seven covered bridges, a sky-high tramway, and venison burgers. It’s delightful, but too remote for most leaf peepers (about 236 miles north of Boston). And can you name the New Hampshire village that’s home to a famous filmmaker, a fabulous chocolatier, and one of the country’s best apple orchards (with the best views)? Here are three colorful foliage towns where you’ll notice maple trees, not motorists.
Located just outside Hartford, Simsbury is listed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of its “Dozen Distinctive Destinations.” It has charm to spare, including a downtown filled with historic homes and fine restaurants. Rising above Simsbury is one of the best places around to admire autumn’s splendor: 165-foot Heublein Tower, built for the Heublein family (creators of A.1. Steak Sauce), atop Talcott Mountain.
Located within Talcott Mountain State Park, 1,000-foot-high Talcott Mountain offers views encompassing 1,200 square miles on a clear day, they say. There’s New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock, 80 miles away, and the Berkshire Hills to the northwest. That thin blue streak to the south? That’s Long Island Sound. All of this stunning scenery is swathed in Mother Nature’s fiery hues. And did we mention the Tower Trail is a mere 1.25 miles long? At the base of the mountain, the Talcott Collective (www.talcottcollective.com) offers disc golf, food trucks and craft beer, and live music.
A mere weekend isn’t enough time to have all the fun here. For serious hiking, the blue-blazed Metacomet Trail runs through the entire length of the town. By bike, the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail (https://fchtrail.org), rewards cyclists with a colorful, easy-going tour (and free bike rentals for visitors). By water, the Farmington River offers flatwater and whitewater paddling; rentals are available at Collinsville Canoe & Kayak (www.collinsvillecanoe.com) in nearby Collinsville. The Old Drake Hill Flower Bridge is another fun destination for a fall ramble. Inspired by our own Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne, this old 19th-century truss bridge-turned-walkway/bikeway is lavishly bedecked with blooms.
For a room with a view, try the two-story 98-room Simsbury Inn (www.simsburyinn.com; from $179). And don’t leave town without paying your respects to Connecticut’s largest, oldest tree, the Pinchot Sycamore, at Pinchot Sycamore Park on Route 185. The goliath tree, 106.8 inches in diameter, is estimated to be about 400 or 500 years old.
For information: www.ctvisit.com/listings/town-simsbury
Home to about 3,700 residents, including filmmaker Ken Burns, this pretty village is set in the southwest corner of the Granite State, nudging Vermont. The drive up north on N.H. Route 12 reveals plenty of color, a preview of glories to come. “Drive up to Hooper Golf Course or Alyson’s Orchard. The views are fabulous,” said sculptor Philip Morgan at Walpole Artisan’s Cooperative. “You go up the hillsides overlooking the Connecticut River valley, and, wow!”
After buying blueberry soap at the co-op (www.walpoleartisans.org), we took his advice and drove up the winding hill to 450-acre Alyson’s Orchard (www.alysonsorchard.com). This pick-your-own farm stand (named one of the top 12 US orchards by Travel + Leisure) was abustle with families, visiting the resident goats and filling billing baskets with apples (they grow more than 50 varieties here).
Those kid goats are cute, but if Walpole had a mascot, it would be a tiny chocolate ganache mouse with toasted almond ears, sold at L.A. Burdick (www.burdickchocolate.com). Walpole is the original location of this exquisite chocolate shop, founded by chocolatier Larry Burdick. The mice are handmade over three days, just a couple of miles from here. On a cool fall day, Burdick’s famous drinking chocolate is a perfect indulgence. And Burdick’s namesake cookie is so good, “It would make Mrs. Fields weep,” said our companion, Paul.
Adjoining the chocolate shop on Main Street is The Restaurant at Burdick’s (www.47mainwalpole.com; entrees from $26). Co-owned by Larry and Paula Burdick and Ken Burns, the French-American eatery is a local gathering place (try Ken’s Salad, the filmmaker’s own creation). South of town, the Hungry Diner (www.hungrydinerwalpole.com) is a farm-to-table restaurant with food sourced from their own Walpole Valley Farms. The casual eatery offers indoor and outdoor seating, 16 craft beers on draft, delicious edibles such as Korean BBQ beef salad ($17), and absolutely killer blueberry milkshakes.
There’s good hiking nearby (the Mount Kilburn Trail is a favorite), but the major draws are the color-drenched views and small-town vibe. Located just steps away from the first tee of Hooper Golf Course, c.1788 Watkins Inn & Tavern (www.watkinstavern.com; from $190) has four guest rooms and period details such as wide plank floors and old stenciling. The new owners (as of January 2021) added some updates. But in the fall, “it’s all about the view!” says co-owner Eric Brandolini.
Covered bridges and country inns? It doesn’t get more ‘Quaint New England’ than that. Add some crimson-and-gold-flecked mountains to the mix and it’s Instagram heaven. That’s the allure of tiny Montgomery, population 1,184. Way up in the Northeast Kingdom, near the Canada border, “Vermont’s Covered Bridge Capital” boasts six such bridges within the town’s limits. There’s another one straddling the town line with Enosburg. That’s more covered bridges than any other town in the United States, they say, thanks to the unique geography of Montgomery.
A Tour de Bridge (there’s a list and directions on the town’s website) is a great way to get acquainted with the area. If you’re a skier, you may already know Montgomery, thanks to the proximity of Jay Peak Resort. Big Jay, a 3,786-foot-tall spur of Jay Peak, looms over the northeast corner of town. The Jay Peak Tramway (www.jaypeakresort.com; $20; daily until Oct. 10), an aerial tram, is a fun way to take in nature’s handiwork, with lofty views of Vermont and Quebec. Canoeing and kayaking on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail is yet another active option. Back on land, explore the network of hiking trails at Hazen’s Notch, maintained by the Hazen’s Notch Association (www.hazensnotch.org), best enjoyed while munching a crunchy apple from a local farmstand.
Speaking of food, local folks will direct you to Bernie’s Restaurant (802-326-4688; www.berniesvt.com), named for chef John Boucher’s wife, Bernadita. They offer all-day dining, and nightly specials (Tex-Mex, prime rib, roast turkey). For dinner, the INN Restaurant at the INN on Trout River (802-326-4392; www.theinn.us/restaurant), open from Thursday through most Sunday nights, is a great place to try, say, the Bambi burger (venison; $25) or ostrich steak ($42). The inn itself offers 11 rooms set in a Victorian house and a carriage house, with rates starting at $204. Meanwhile, the c.1880 Phineas Swann Inn & Spa (802-326-4306; www.phineasswann.com; from $139) feels very Vermont, with its four-poster beds, antiques, and fireplaces. The 10 guest rooms are located in a river house, a carriage house, and the main inn. Other than the main inn, this B&B is dog-friendly.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org