In a perfect world, a trip through New England would take place in the majesty of autumn, when the sugar maples and the beech trees bleed crimson and gold.
But given my football obligations for the Herald & Review, a fall trip to the northeast will have to wait.
My wife and I, however, could not wait, so in July we spent 14 days driving 3,800 miles through the Riesling fields of upstate New York; through the winding roads that guard the maple syrup groves of Vermont; across the ski mountains of New Hampshire; looking for wild moose and exploring shoreline splendor in Maine; soaking up coastal beauty on Cape Cod; touring mansions in Rhode Island; and going eyeball to eyeball with a camel (Hump Day!) in, of all places, central Ohio.
It’s the third consecutive summer we used an extensive road trip to confirm our belief that we live in a marvelous country, but to truly experience it, you must be willing to skip the airport, slide behind the wheel and, as New England poet Robert Frost suggested, “choose the road less traveled.”
Let’s be clear from the start: Driving long distances won’t be for everyone. And if it’s simply not your thing, choose your own way to vacation.
But at least put it in your mind as a possibility. It’s not only that there’s so much to see, but there’s so much to experience — people like the retired lobsterman we bumped into on an island off Maine; shops like the Vermont General store, which is New England’s answer to Wall Drug; and, yes, sights like the huge white barn that appeared like a random cathedral over a rising hill or the tiny, nameless antique-filled barn that happened to hold an amazing display of collectible flow blue earthenware.
Weeks before we departed we spent 7½ hours planning our trip, having gathered guide books, maps, magazines and our laptops. We plotted a circular path that led us east, northeast, south, then west again. We tried to familiarize ourselves with the region and made a list of things we’d like to do and places we’d like to see. Then we worked the Internet and phones to find available accommodations.
I’m not saying this strategy is the best way to plan a vacation, but it worked for us two years ago when we drove to the vineyards of Napa, Calif., and it worked last summer when we motored through the lower and upper peninsulas of Michigan in search of cool weather to shatter the spell of summer-long heat.
And this time it worked on our meandering through New England.
Highlights were too many to recount, and not every adventure turned out as planned. That was true the day we tried to ride the cog railroad up Mount Washing-ton in New Hampshire, only to have the trip end one-third of the way up when a train nearer the summit broke down and ended the sightseeing for the day.
That’s OK. It’s why they call it an adventure. And we can always say we were there the day they closed the moun-tain.
By now you should know that I travel America with the intent of sampling it one bite and one sip at a time.
That means waiting in line 50 minutes to confront the biggest lobster roll in captivity, at Red’s Eats in Wiscasset, Maine — a grilled hotdog bun that holds all the succulent meat from a 1¼-pound lobster, piled in massive chunks and accompanied by a cup of melted butter or a cup of mayonnaise, or both.
Our order (two lobster rolls, one onion ring, one large soda) came to about $43. The guy before me also had an order that rang up at about $47. And the person after me placed an order and handed over $77. This is the fast-food goldmine of all time, a shack the size of a small trailer with no indoor seating that shovels out lobster by the bucketful.
It means tuna tartare at the Brown Hound Bistro in Naples, N.Y., where earlier in the day we sipped dry Riesling at Heron Hill Winery overlooking Keuka Lake in the Finger Lakes region of New York.
It means wood grilled hake at Fore Street in Portland, Maine, one of the finest res-taurant cities I’ve ever had the pleasure to taste.
It means a lush Ranier cherry tart at the Cape Sea Grill in Harwich Port, Mass.
It means crab cakes on Cape Cod and clam chowder at the Black Pearl in Newport, R.I.
And, of course, it meant sampling a still-to-be named ice cream at the Ben & Jerry’s home factory in Waterbury, Vt. After a tour of the facility, visitors were asked to have a cup, then submit a potential name. The winner will receive a free supply of ice cream for a year.
The sample was yummy — blueberry ice cream with chunks of dark chocolate — so I named it Blue Suede Chews. That sounded Ben & Jerry-like, but my phone has yet to ring.
The trip also continued our on-going experimentation with bed & breakfasts.
Using an arm bar and per-suasive conversation, Sara has convinced me to give B&Bs a serious look. On this trip, we stayed eight of our 14 nights in bed and breakfasts and only spent one night cloaked in regret. A place listed as Bar Harbor, Maine, but actually located an hour to the north, was old and in serious need of an update.
I have learned that old is OK, so long as it’s meticu-lously clean and well cared-for, as was the case with the Guilford Bed & Breakfast in Guilford, Maine. But the one exception north of Bar Harbor came up short on both counts.
Three quick highlights:
We spent Independence Day in Vermont and stumbled onto an absolutely memorable Fourth of July celebration in the tiny community of Warren. We learned about it at breakfast, when a man told us he was returning for the 41st consecutive year just to experience the crowded small-town streets, the eclectic parade and the world-class people watching. He was right. It was priceless.
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We fell in love with the beaches, homes and breath-taking blue, purple, pink and white hydrangeas of Cape Cod.
But our most brilliant piece of planning was to devote an entire day trying to find a moose in the wild of Maine.
Through research, I became aware of two areas that had a high concentration of moose. One is the Rangeley area in western Maine and the other is the Moosehead Lake area further to the north.
We decided to pinpoint the Moosehead Lake region but were discouraged when talk-ing to locals along the way. They said we were unlikely to spot a moose in the middle of the day but had a much bet-ter chance if we’d venture out at dusk or after dark.
Trouble is, moose lookers are warned to drive slowly near dark. Posted signs warn about the possibility of a collision, and a vehicle doesn’t fare well when it plows into a 900-pound animal.
But in the middle of the afternoon, while driving north on Highway 201, Sara spotted an area of perfect moose browsing habitat — marshy, secluded and wet. We pulled off the road for a peek and — Bingo! — there she was, casually grazing in the shallow water, eating vegetation and mostly ignoring our intrusion.
For 15 minutes we were able to watch this female moose. We felt fortunate to see such a huge, gangly beast and I felt certain that a buck or two calves might appear. Alas, that didn’t happen, and in time, she lumbered back into the woods.
But we felt victorious. We even saw a second moose that night returning from dinner just south of Greenville, on the southern tip of beautiful Moosehead Lake, and we were grateful that encounter also happened without threat of a collision.
We were on the road for 14 days. After leaving Maine, we went to West Harwich, Mass., on Cape Cod and wished we had a couple extra days to soak up all that region has to offer.
Then it was back through Newport, R.I., where we toured the opulent 70-room Italian Renaissance mansion “The Breakers” that show-cased the obscene wealth of Cornelius Vanderbilt.
And, finally, the long drive home. Coming back, we’d planned to visit the Columbus Zoo in Ohio. That’s Jack Hanna’s zoo, and I’d always wanted to see it.
Instead, however, we decided to take a chance on The Wilds, a 9,000-acre wildlife preserve located in Muskingum, Ohio. Hanna’s name is associated with this project, too, and we jumped on an open air bus and were able to have surprisingly close encounters with a variety of animals, including giraffes.
The two most memorable experiences were watching rhinos munching grass at the edge of our bus, and having to retrain Sara so she wouldn’t pet the camels (no touching!). Not sure this is the best destination for all kids, who might appreciate the traditional zoo experi-ence. But it was perfect for us.
Alas, it was time to head back across Indiana and into the familiar flatlands of Central Illinois.
Where next? Not sure, although Oregon, Washington and up into the Canadian Rockies has been discussed.
I just know we’ll take our time, enjoy the drive and never be afraid to venture off the main road. Never know when a moose might be wait-ing.
7 must-sees in New England
* Warren, Vt. on Independence Day: If you are traveling around July 4, it’s worth shaping your itinerary to fit in a visit here on the birth of our nation. Park at Sugarbush Ski Resort, take the shuttle bus down and wander into a red, white and blue slice of Americana that will make you glad you took the time. The parade begins with a cannon blast at 10 a.m. Stay around for the band playing on the balcony of the Warren General Store. And keep an eye on the sky for the aerial daredevils flying overhead.
* Montpelier, Vt.: Behold the golden dome of the smallest state capital in America (population 7,855). Wander into nearby downtown and look for the artisan shops that feature beautiful hand-crafted, locally-produced glass, wood, jewelry and pottery.
* Acadia National Park, near Bar Harbor, Maine: Some 47,000 acres of jagged shoreline, forest, mountains and lakes make this a breath-taking sight. Stand atop the pink granite of Cadillac Mountain and look out onto the Atlanta Ocean. You’re now standing where each day America sees its first glimmer of daylight.
* Portland, Maine: When you think of Portland, you may think of Oregon. That’s fine. Portland, Ore., was named after Portland, Me. It’s an amazing city of great restaurants, shops and if you jump on the “mail run” boat, you can be a passenger on the vessel that tours the neighboring islands delivering goods to the islanders and giving you a water-side view of a different world.
* Red’s Eats, Wiscasset, Maine: It’s got to be the most profitable fast food joint in America. Be prepared to stand in line for up to an hour, but if you like lobster, the wait is worth it. The lobster rolls are the big draw with more than a pound of lobster meat piled atop a grilled hotdog bun and served with drawn butter or mayo. It’s a sinful splurge!
* Cape Cod, Mass. It’s really the perfect size – big enough to offer a diversity of sights, small enough to tour in a single day. But take longer to enjoy it all, including the ferry ride to Martha’s Vineyard and a trip to the tip – Provincetown, where you might see whales and you’ll surely see the “artistic” side of humanity. And soak in the beaches and cannon ball-sized hydrangeas.
* Antique shops — everywhere. You’ll see them throughout Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine and there’s no better place to find nautical items (lobster traps, colorful buoys, shore bird carvings, etc.). But have room in your vehicle, because we left behind many items we just didn’t have room for.