HARTFORD — Filmmakers Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan started with a blank slate that stretched across New England. From the far northeastern reaches of Maine to the southwestern tip of Connecticut, from postcard-perfect villages to historic figures, everything was in play. They looked at maps and deliberated. Then, as Burns said, they “really agonized” over how the whole project would come together, repeatedly questioning the content, the narrative themes, the sights and sounds.
What should a tour of New England include? Where would they find people and places that told great stories? How could two men famed for original, compelling documentaries on the Civil War, jazz, baseball, and national parks focus their creative process on their home region?
The answer: the Hidden Gems of New England trip for Connecticut-based Tauck tours. The eight-day itinerary includes stops in Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, highlighting New England in all its unexpected variety. It explores what Duncan calls “this great seedbed for writers, thinkers, and artists” with lesser-known places that he would recommend to friends. For Burns, Tauck offered a unique partnership, an opportunity to bring some of his favorite film subjects to life through travel.
“There’s a sense that New England gets pigeonholed into ‘We know what it’s about: clam chowder and fall foliage,’ ” said Burns. “And this is really one of the great, if not the greatest, regions of the country. It has a rich literary and cultural and natural and religious and spiritual underpinning. Working with Tauck, Dayton and I wanted to call attention to that. . . . As we try to do in our own work, it’s about exploding the conventional wisdom about things.”
With that in mind, Burns and Duncan could think of no better starting point, no better tone-setter for the journey than Hartford. Burns saw the often overlooked Connecticut capital as a “gateway to New England,” a place that through Mark Twain and his strikingly whimsical home would challenge popular perceptions of the city and the region. He is right about the Twain home, even at first glance. With its Picturesque Gothic architecture, patterned brick facade, and Middle Eastern- and Asian-influenced interior design, it fancifully defies expectations.
Burns sees Hartford as a place on the rebound. He hopes continuing efforts to enhance the Twain house experience “signal a bit of a rebirth” for the city. He is not alone. Randy Fiveash, director of the Connecticut Office of Tourism, sees “momentum moving in Hartford’s direction” and the tour “is validation that this is a place that should be seen.” Naturally, Fiveash hopes that Hartford and the Twain house become a gateway to hidden gems across the state.
Is Hartford the next New England tourism hot spot? As someone who was born in the city and once worked as a tour guide at the Twain house, I’d like to think so. With its prominent place in the Hidden Gems tour, it appears poised for rediscovery. Tauck reported that bookings for the tour include visitors from as far away as Australia. In August, American Airlines will add daily nonstop round-trip flights between the Hartford area’s Bradley International Airport and Los Angeles, providing perhaps the biggest sign that Hartford is on the rise or is at least destined to appear on more travel radars.
“New England is a kind of laboratory of thinking and being for the country and we wanted to reflect that,” said Burns. “If the first thing that comes to mind isn’t Hartford, then the question is, ‘Why not?’ We can begin at the Mark Twain House and anchor you, in the best sense of the word, in New England. And say, ‘OK, come through our door, let’s look at the region differently.’ ”
That different look will take tourists from the Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe houses through the Connecticut River Valley north to rural destinations. Like the Twain house, many stops tie history to people who made unique contributions to New England and US history. Included are the estate of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens in Cornish, N.H.; Billings Farm in Woodstock, Vt., which pioneered land conservation and sustainability; Shaker Village in Canterbury, N.H., with its story of religious freedom; and Burns’s private studio in Walpole, N.H., a quintessential New England town. The tour concludes with Revolutionary landmarks in Lexington, Concord, and Boston.
While the trip also visits popular attractions such as the Vermont Country Store, Franconia Notch, and Fenway Park, Burns and Duncan believe the overall historical and physical ground covered will provide a deeper, multidimensional understanding of the region. When the first tour group departs next month, the filmmakers hope travelers feel transported back to different time periods, hear how accents change from Connecticut to Vermont to New Hampshire to Massachusetts, and see how the natural landscape transforms over short distances.
“Since I started working with Ken and Dayton, my whole way of looking at American history and being an American truly has changed,” said Jennifer Tombaugh, Tauck president. “My hope is that in taking people to these places, letting them experience the stories in these places, the people, what came before and what followed, that they too will have a different way of looking at American history.”
That is why Hartford provides the perfect Day 1 destination. It takes a new perspective or, as Burns put it, “the rearrangement of your molecules” to truly appreciate what the capital offers.
Through Twain, the tour introduces a much different version of Hartford from the one now familiar as the Insurance Capital. When the author lived there and brought Huckleberry Finn to life, it was the most prosperous city in the country, a publishing center, a place animated by new ideas and original voices. That is the Hartford Burns and Duncan want visitors to see and the one they pitched to Connecticut-based Tauck.
“When we first proposed Hartford, there was a little bit of head scratching,” said Duncan. “But sometimes you don’t completely recognize what special places you might have in your backyard. We have filmed lots and lots of historic sites and homes of famous dead people and both Ken and I believe firmly that there is no historic home that we know of where you can almost feel the presence of the person. And it is more than just a place somebody of note once lived. It represents that person in all these different, wonderful, intriguing layers.”
Added Tombaugh: “I don’t think anyone would disagree with the fact that Hartford is probably not at the very top of the list of places, even in Connecticut, that one might visit for tourism. We hadn’t thought about it before, but as we started talking about it, Hartford just seemed like a natural thing to do.”
It helped that Hartford has worked hard to reinvent itself in recent years. Last May, the state launched its “Still Revolutionary” campaign, generating renewed interest. In conducting research for the campaign, Fiveash learned that most people weren’t aware of what was in the state. Now, with Burns and Tauck drawing attention to the state and its capital, Fiveash believes that will change. “If Ken Burns says, ‘You need to be here,’ then I think people will say, ‘I need to see what’s there,’ ’’ said Fiveash.
Traveling from cities like Hartford to more rustic destinations, from riverfronts to mountains to coastlines, Burns and Dayton designed their tour with connections in mind. Burns notes that “there’s a kind of triangulation that can take place” between different stops. At Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in New Hampshire, visitors can see mockups of the Shaw Memorial. Then days later on the Boston Common, they can view the final bronze sculpture with Robert Gould Shaw on horseback and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment marching beside him.
Some connections are subtler, like the persistent theme of New England as fertile and accepting ground for new ways of thinking, whether in the writings of Twain and Beecher Stowe, the methods at Billings Farm or the Shaker Village. In particular, Burns wanted to include America’s religious history as represented by the Shakers, the notion as he said, “that in America you start with nothing, that you can reinvent yourself not just politically, but spiritually as well.”
“I like nothing better than to be on a road I’ve never been on,” said Burns. “That’s just not a physical road, but it’s also an intellectual, emotional, and spiritual road. If you can redirect me, you’ve got my attention. That’s the guiding spirit of the design of these tours. . . . New England can offer guides to who we are politically, naturally, architecturally, and spiritually in ways that will surprise and delight people.”
Hidden Gems of New England tour From $2,990 in June and August to $3,190 at peak foliage times. Prices include ground transportation, accommodations, meals, sightseeing, guides, airport transfers, taxes, and more for the eight-day itinerary. Airfare is additional. http://www.tauck.com/home /tours/usa-tours/new-england-travel/new-england-tours-ne-2013.aspx