Legends of the fall
A blaze of autumn colours lights up a coach tour of New England
IT is mid-afternoon on a cloudless October day and Mother Nature is putting on a dazzling display. As our luxury coach motors along the Kancamagus Highway, deep in the heart of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, dense forests on both sides of the road are ablaze with autumn colours, as if someone had struck a match and set the trees on fire.
Vast stands of oak, ash, birch, aspen and beech are interspersed with thickets of speckled alder, pin cherry, linden, witch-hazel and tupelo, creating a kaleidoscope of burnished golds, flame reds, pale pinks, radiant yellows and lime greens.
We’ve missed the peak of New England’s celebrated but unpredictable ‘‘leaf peeping’’ season by about a week, which sadly means the sugar maples have largely shed their fiery vermilion leaves, but the intensity of the remaining foliage is breathtaking.
‘‘The colours this year are fantastic,’’ says tour director Steve Jobrack, who is overseeing his third Grand New England trip of the season for US operator Tauck and marking his 32nd year as a guide. ‘‘A wet summer, October snowfall and Hurricane Irene led to almost no fall foliage in 2011, but this is one of the best I’ve seen.’’
Tonight’s stay at the historic Omni Mount Washington Resort, nestled at the foot of the highest peak in the northeast, is the halfway point of a remarkable 11-day luxury coach tour of one of the most charming and prettiest regions in the US.
Starting in Boston, ending in Albany, and stretching 1554km from ocean to mountains, our journey takes us through four of the six states of New England — Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont — as well as the beautiful Adirondacks of upstate New York.
This is a bucolic landscape of whitewashed churches, red-painted barns, covered bridges, verdant hills dotted with black-and-white Holstein cows and neat clapboard houses with wisps of woodsmoke curling like cats’ tails from chimneys. It’s a time of pumpkins and chrysanthemums, tiny blueberries and fat lobsters, cinnamonspiced cookies, mom’s apple pie and more maple syrup than you could poke a pancake at, all framed by foliage saturated with autumn colours.
While a coach trip might not be to everyone’s taste, our merry band of 24 well-heeled and widely travelled passengers — three from Australia, two from Malta and the rest from across the US — quickly settles into a daily rhythm. Not surprisingly, it’s a mature group with ages ranging from early 50s to mid-80s and a mix of couples and singles, but the different personalities and nationalities bond easily.
While Tauck can’t guarantee five-star accommodations at every location, it does well with its choice of grand hotels and small country retreats, from the upscale Langham in Boston and cosy Harraseeket Inn in Freeport, Maine, to the lovely Stoweflake Mountain Resort & Spa in Stowe, Vermont, and romantic Mirror Lake Inn at Lake Placid, New York, with leisurely two-night stays at each. I’m disappointed to spend only one night at my favourite hotel, the beautifully restored Omni Mount Washington Resort, but elated to drive to the summit of the mountain the next morning under a cloudless sky.
Dining is more of a hit-and-miss affair, but one thing’s guaranteed — you won’t go hungry. With the daily itinerary rolling from breakfast to morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner (some meals are included, others are at your own expense), you might want to pack clothes with expandable waistlines.
The operation of the deluxe motor coach, an almost new 46-seat Setra (Mercedes-Benz), is in the capable hands of Bostonian Mike Ryan, a former Marine who handles the driving, maintenance and on-time departures and arrivals with military precision.
The vehicle’s two-by-two leather recliner seating is premium economy airline-style. Oversize windows offer wide-angle side views and Tauck cleverly rotates passengers on a daily basis, so every guest scores the prime front-row view behind the driver at least once.
Ryan’s expertise ensures a relaxed and incident-free road trip, rarely stepping on the brakes, skilfully negotiating busy freeways and narrow country lanes, and always on hand to assist less mobile passengers on and off the coach.
He and tour director Jobrack have an easy rapport, sometimes veering off the planned route on to side roads and happily stopping for unscheduled photo opportunities at moments of astonishing beauty.
On-board WiFi, electrical outlets and a good audio system allow for easy listening to Jobrack’s informative, if occasionally goofy, commentary and also for keeping mobile phones and cameras fully charged, which is just as well because the photo opportunities come thick and fast.
We take a vintage schooner cruise on Maine’s beguiling Boothbay Harbor (albeit in lashing rain); enjoy a hilarious lesson in maplesyrup production with Burr Morse, whose family has been tapping maple at Morse Farm Sugarworks in Vermont for seven generations; and savour a tasting of the latest Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavour (vanilla bean with a caramel swirl and fudge-covered potato chip clusters — sounds disgusting, tastes delicious) at its headquarters in Vermont.
And how to forget a visit to the incomparable Shelburne Museum, a national treasure on the shore of Lake Champlain? Or a heart-stopping 120m ski jump demonstration in Lake Placid by 16-year-old Winter Olympics hopeful Luke Daniels? Or a private behind-the-scenes tour of historic Saratoga Race Course?
Given this is Tauck’s 88th year offering upscale excursions by motor coach, small ship and river cruiser worldwide — and I’m travelling on its 836th Grand New England tour — you’d expect the company to get it right, and for the most part it does.
Well before departure date, passengers receive a comprehensive package on everything from arrival information to luggage, weather conditions, health, clothing and packing tips, hotels, dining and shopping, gratuities, additional expenses, a suggested reading guide and, of course, a detailed itinerary.
Hotels are chosen carefully for their unique location, history, comfort and character and the trip has a mostly leisurely pace for relaxed sightseeing, with free time for rest or quiet moments away from the group.
Personal service is a cornerstone of the Tauck philosophy, especially evident at critical moments such as when the coach arrives at a hotel and pre-assigned room keys are presented to weary and restless passengers on board rather than at the reception desk, thereby avoiding an unwelcome scrum at check-in.
Quieter moments also speak to thoughtful, behindthe-scenes planning, such as handy route maps, personally marked by Jobrack, and informative leaf-peeping guides placed on each seat at the start of the tour.
On the flipside, there are some frustrating blink-andyou-miss-it moments as the coach motors along. A couple of Tauck’s lunchtime restaurant choices are less than stellar, and repeated references to rest rooms and gift shops at every stop grate after a while. But minor gripes aside, Tauck offers a professionally organised and largely hassle- free experience that covers a lot of ground in a relatively short time.
And the proof, as they say, is in the maple-infused pudding.
Denis and Ina McMahon, of Corlette, NSW, combined a seven-day Tauck Cape Cod tour with their Grand New England trip and enjoyed both. ‘‘We’d absolutely do it again,’’ says Denis. ‘‘The main reason we booked was to see the autumn colours, [which] blew us away. I’ve travelled a fair bit and I reckon New England in autumn must be one of the most beautiful places in the world.’’
Intriguingly, Tauck has reversed the route for this year’s 12-day itinerary, starting and ending the tour in Boston (a more convenient entry-exit city than Albany), and including some prime revolutionary sites, such as Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts, as well as beautiful Bar Harbor in Maine.
A new eight-day Hidden Gems of New England tour, co-designed by acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns and visiting the homes of Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe in Hartford, Connecticut, is on offer between June and October. Andrew Conway was a guest of Tauck’s Australian representative, Travel The World.
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