It was the start of fall and outside the windows of our train, the surrounding hills were ablaze with the fiery red of sugar maples, the soft gold of birches, and the wine purple of sumac. We were covering the fall colors of New England but somebody else was handling the detailsâ€”the luggage, the hotels, and the overland travel. All we had to do was sit back and look. Usually, we prefer traveling on our own. But how else could we cover 900 miles through 6 New England states during 1 of the most intense tourist seasons of the year and get it done in a week?
Great Train Escapes' Fall Foliage Express (888-544-7245; www.greattrainescapes.com) tour was a charming mix of history, small towns and big cities, enchanting scenery, and sweet farmers. It was a chance to hit the highlights of the area: historic sites in Boston, a lobster bake in Cape Cod, the Vanderbilt mansion in Newport, the tall ships of Mystic Seaport, a maple sugar farm, and a gondola ride up a ski mountain.
Soon enough, we were on our first train, the historic Cape Cod Central Railroad. The coaches date back to the 1930s; they are a mÃ©lange of hand-painted hardwoods, ceiling fans, and flowered rugs.
We rolled by cranberry bogs and shorelines dotted with lighthouses, and then we were in Hyannis, with its JFK museum and our first of many gorgings on Ben and Jerry's ice cream. Cape Cod is the kind of place where restaurants have boat prows and house garages are topped with tugboats. It's filled with adorable clapboard cabins, tacky commercial strips, and exquisite, dunestrewn beaches.
Our rail trek the next day was a train buff's delight, with sleekly appointed cars, a wandering historian, and great scenery. Musicians Fred Gosbee and Julia Lane serenaded us on Celtic harp and guitar, singing sea chanteys and Irish tunes. We passed neat rows of New England housesâ€”square white clapboard buildings sitting in the center of their square plots of land.
And then on to Stowe, Vt, with its church steeples poking through the tree canopy and rolling hills scattered with cows. It's a tiny state crowded with maple trees and divided into 60 state forests, 42 state parks, and 76 ski areas. Ah yes, it also happens to be the home of Ben and Jerry.
Beyond lay the Morse family farm with Burr Morse playing the crotchety New England maple syrup farmer to the hilt. "In the spring," Burr drawled, "we need freezin' nights and above freezin' days and a west wind for the right atmospheric pressure." Forty gallons of sap up and back through the tubing for 1 gallon of syrup. "Eh-yah, it does sound a mite like makin' moonshine."
We tasted our way through the Burr farm gift shop, sampling all half dozen grades of syrup and dropping a small fortune on sugar-filled consumables. That afternoon, it was off to the vintage coaches of the Conway Scenic Railroad for a ride through Crawford Notch, its mountains and valleys streaked with autumn colors at their peak. Brilliant red maples seemed to bleed, set off by the occasional yellow flash of birch and ash.
And after that, we experienced more scenic terrain traveling by bus. There was mile after mile of whitewashed houses with steep roofs, covered bridges, and red-roofed barns, all surrounded by the multicolor tapestry of half-turned maples and sumacs, before returning finally to Boston.
Our whirlwind flash through New England had ended: millions of trees, thousands of cows, 910 miles, dozens of covered bridges, 6 states, 4 trainsâ€”oh yes, and all that Ben and Jerry's triple caramel chunk ice cream.
The New England Fall Foliage Express tours run mid-September through mid-October. The $1849 per person trip includes 8 days' travel through New England, hotels, meals, and sightseeing. Air is extra.
Fall colors are in the leaves all year but until cold weather, they're masked by green. In spring and summer, most of the tree's food is made in the leaves. This food making takes place in cells containing chlorophyll, which gives leaves their green color. In fall, the leaves stop making food, the chlorophyll breaks down, and the green disappears.
The more sugar that accumulates, the brighter red the leaves turn. The degree of color, even on the same tree, may vary. Leaves in direct sun might turn red while those in shade on the same tree might go yellow. And weather plays a part. When autumn is warm and rainy, leaves may have less red.
The timing of color peak depends on elevation, temperature, and weather, though colors tend to peak in early October. Red maples and sugar maples usually turn red. Birches, aspens, beeches, and ash turn yellow. Tamaracks (even though they are needle trees) go gold. And sumacs get dark red or purple. Check the following organizations for more fall color information and updates: