Exploring New England in Autumn
2020 has been a disappointing year for adventurers and it has outright sucked for those in the travel industry. Our hearts go out to the many individuals that have lost their jobs, had to lay-off workers, or haven’t had steady business because of COVID. Many trips were cancelled, many activities have been limited, but I feel like we are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
One thing that seems to have been a result of the pandemic is a renewed love for nature-centric trips. The National Parks and other outdoors experiences have become all the rage as they allow for fun, excitement, and plenty of space for social distancing. That mentality inspired our 2020 Fall vacation. Autumn is a great time to travel. No matter where you go, things just seem to be a little cheerier as people see the holiday season on the horizon. The weather is moderate and if you’re lucky the leaves will be changing. I (Jared writing this one) have extra travel inspiration in Sept/Oct because it is my partner’s birthday season and she is adamant that we get away for her special day (not that I need much convincing).
This year we plotted a course through New England, hitting Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. The highlights of the trip were Boston, White Mountains National Forest, and Acadia National Park. By now the Cotta Brother Travel Club has a pretty well-established approach to adventuring. If you haven’t heard the pod, here is how it goes. We believe in 4 essential pillars of travel that allow us to fully absorb a destination: Food, Drinks/Nightlife, Culture, and Nature. This was a very nature focused vacation for all the reasons mentioned above but that doesn’t mean I don’t have plenty of suggestions for the remaining 3 pillars.
If you don’t dig seafood, then you may have a tough time in New England. There is a love affair with the ocean up in this part of the country. Our goal was to eat as many oysters and lobster rolls as possible, but we tried other things too.
Boston has a magnificent culinary scene and we couldn’t scratch the surface in 3 days, but we always try to have Asian cuisine on vacation because it is rare in Miami. We went to Santouka Back Bay for ramen and it was absolutely incredible. The broth was rich and complex, the pork belly and cheeks are very tender, and the side dishes accentuated the impressive bowls of soup. For dessert in Boston I can’t say enough about Mike’s Pastry and Modern Pastry. Mike’s has some of the best cannoli in the country (and I don’t think that’s an exaggeration) The hazelnut and classic cannoli are essential. Modern is right in step with Mike’s but has more variety, we had a beautiful pistachio macaroon and a delicious tiramisu.
In Portsmouth, NH we visited The Franklin for happy hour oysters. It was exceptional, the shuckers are right there at the bar and they have 3 oyster varieties on the happy hour menu. Try to get there between 5-7p. Up in the White Mountains, restaurants have unpredictable hours, especially if you are there in the middle of the week. Be sure to use google before making the drive to White Mountain Cider Company (for example). If you believe the best ability is availability you should rely on the Red Fox Bar and Grille in Jackson, NH. This place is always open, does dine-in, and carry out. The pizzas and burgers are clutch after those long hiking days.
Bar Harbor, ME is the place to stay while you explore Acadia. It is has one of the best little downtowns of any city adjacent to a National Park. Side Street Café has the best lobster roll I have ever tasted, undisputed. This already decadent dish is somehow taken to a new level at this joint. Speaking of lobster, hit West Street Café for a three course lobster dinner, for only $37. That dinner concludes with a slice of Maine Blueberry Pie, but on other nights make sure you end the evening with a delicious ice cream cone from CJ’s Big Dipper. The whoopie pie ice cream from this spot is an epiphany, but all of the ice cream in Bar Harbor is famous. Whether you pick your usual favorite or try something new you are going to be happy, although the lobster ice cream was a stretch to far in my book.
DRINK / NIGHTLIFE!
This pillar of travel has been the hardest hit by the pandemic. Gone are the days of popping into a joint and grabbing a few drinks at the bar. Never-the-less we press on and it’s good to see people pouring drinks again.
I was in a beer drinking mood on this trip, I am not sure why. Maybe because intimate cocktail bars seem impossible right now. I really enjoyed Cambridge Brewing Company, in Cambridge, MA (Shout out to my friends JJ and Matt for taking us). I was also a big fan of MOAT Mountain Beers in New Hampshire, especially their Czech Pilsner and the Boneshaker Brown Ale. Maine’s most famous beer is the Allagash White Ale, and I have to admit having it in its home state was a great experience even though I would never order that beer on a regular night out. The best beer I had this trip was Blaze Brewing Co.’s Bailey Boy Brown at The Thirsty Whale in Bar Harbor. The coffee notes are incredibly strong, almost like a very refreshing cold brew. I don’t know if it was the misty weather enveloping Bar Harbor that day, or if it was the fact that I’d just biked 10 miles through Acadia but that pint was unforgettable.
The drink that stole the show however, was not a beer, it was a hard cider. Downeast Unfiltered Cider, is so fresh and delicious. Iliana ordered it every chance she got. The apple taste is incredibly natural and crisp. I kind of wish they distributed in Miami, but then again cider is a fall flavor and that’s not really a season we participate in down here.
New England is rich with American history and the influence of the founding fathers can be seen everywhere. Stories from the revolution and the Civil War come to life in these states, and other relics of America’s development can be witnessed across the region.
Boston is an obvious place to start with this pillar. The city was the home to a myriad of historical figures, like Samuel Adams and Paul Revere. Taking a day to explore the Freedom Trail that runs through downtown Boston is a great way to pack in a ton of historical sites. We also took some time to explore Harvard and Cambridge. To get there we actually rented bikes by the Boston Public Garden and rode along the Charles River until we crossed the Harvard Bridge. It was a beautiful day and I highly recommend checking out country’s oldest university this way.
We made two stops on the way up to the White Mountains. First in a celebrated fishing town called Gloucester, MA, best known for being the port of call in the movie The Perfect Storm. This village pays great respect to those lost at sea with a series of monuments and a beautifully manicured Flower Garden along the shore walk. Further north we stopped in Portsmouth, NH and visited a living museum. Strawbery Banke Museum and it is a delightful experience in a little restored historic district. As you wander the grounds you encounter characters in full regalia, each with a vibrant story about the era they existed in from the Revolution to WWII. They speak in present tense as if their life is still unfolding and their memories are still fresh. Definitely worth a visit, and as an added bonus they will let you leave your car in the lot until 9pm so you don’t have to pay for parking around downtown. (PRO TIP!)
In New Hampshire and Maine we stayed in lovely Bed and Breakfasts. The Cotta Brothers aren’t usually picky about accommodations, but quaint BnBs belong in the culture section when talking about New England. We stayed at the Inn at Jackson, in Jackson NH. This classic inn sits nestled among the White Mountains. Their famous scones are absolutely incredible. Our little room was up on the third floor with windows looking out to orange and red leaves on the trees. We stayed at Anne’s White Column Inn in Bar Harbor. The well-kept and cozy inn had the most unbelievably comfortable beds. The owner Bob is always available and you will no doubt hear him telling stories to groggy visitors stirring their coffees at breakfast. Speaking of, breakfast here is unbelievable, packed with fresh Maine blueberries. Above all else, Anne’s location is unbeatable, only a 5 min walk to the heart of Bar Harbor.
On our way back down from Maine we had one more pit stop to Salem, MA. The Salem witch trials are a captivating and haunting narrative in New England’s past, which is why the best time to visit is October. We happened into town on the first Saturday of spooky season and found the place very lively. Even on Oct 3rd people were dressed in amazing costumes. COVID has definitely moderated the number of patrons allowed in stores, but it did not seem to reduce the number of visitors roaming the streets. Many roads were closed off as friends and families explored this bewitching (sorry) destination.
Like I said at the beginning, the pandemic has encouraged people to rediscover America’s National Parks and find shelter from the virus in the openness of nature.
New Hampshire’s White Mountains National Forest is spectacular region of New England. It is famous for its vibrant fall foliage and world-renowned hikes. We took on two of the region’s most strenuous trails and somehow lived to tell the tale. On first day we climbed up Mt Washington to Hermit Lake, via Tuckerman Ravine. To find the trailhead look for the AMC Joe Dodge Lodge just south of Wildcat Mountain ski area. The hike includes a beautiful waterfall and canopies of vibrant leaves. Eventually the climb becomes a massive staircase of big rocks but at the end of the trail you will find a little shelter at Hermit Lake. This a great place to lunch. We didn’t go all the way to the summit of Mt Washington, but we made it to the “Floor of the Ravine.” This massive rock face looks like something out of Game of Thrones but the onyx-colored cliff was actually carved by glaciers many millennia ago.
On our second day we took on Mt. Lafayette and the Franconia Ridge. The trailhead is about an hour away from Jackson and North Conway so I recommend leaving early. This is a daunting 10-mile loop. The recommended direction to take is hotly debated. We went left and proceeded clock-wise on the loop towards Green Leaf Hut. This track has a steep climb right at the beginning. Going up Mt Lafayette this way is tiring but it will ensure that the rest of the hike is a gradual decent. Green Leaf is a little pit stop before the final effort to the first summit of the day. Mt Lafayette sits at 5,250 ft and the weather up there can be a little unpredictable. The winds during our hike were gusting close to 40 mph. We climbed through thick clouds and unfortunately didn’t get much of a view from the peak. We took a short water break before heading out onto the ridgeline. Weather didn’t get much better as we made it to the 2nd peak on Mt. Lincoln (5,000 ft) but then as we continued on to the last one, the clouds dissolved and the stunning views of the technicolored valleys revealed themselves. There was a sea of orange on both sides. That scene was worth the challenges of Franconia Ridge. I would not recommend this hike if you’re not in moderately good shape. It was draining, technical, and really long, but the views are indescribable, as is the feeling of accomplishment when you finish.
Bar Harbor is an awesome hub for exploration into Acadia National Park because the whole town is geared towards enhancing your experience in the park. Look to the locals for insights and recommendations. Acadia is one of the smallest National Parks, but it is also one of the busiest, therefore some of its attractions warranted COVID guidelines. Double check if a reservation is needed for vehicle entrance into the park. On our first day we took on another incredibly technical hike, Precipice Trail. This is actually less of a hike and more of a climb up a rock wall to the top of Champlain Mountain. Iron rungs have been hammered into the cliff face to create a series of ladders to the summit. If you’ve been to Zion, it is reminiscent of Angels landing, but even more vertical. It’s not for children or those with a fear of heights, but for everyone else I highly recommend this path. Next we drove our way through the park to get a lay of the land. We saw Thunder Hole and Otter Point, then drove to Jordan Pond. These scenic wonders are popular for a reason but be ready to contend with the crowds.
After enjoying the main attractions, we decided to venture out to a part of the park that is off the beaten path. Schoodic Point is a hidden gem because it is detached from the main portion of Acadia and sits across the bay from Mount Desert Island. This is a magical place, especially if you drive all the way out to the Point. Here you can watch the sunset while sitting on the massive granite rocks overlooking the ocean. Rolling waves spray mist into the orange a pink sky, as the sun slowly dips below the horizon. Acadia is actually an incredible place because you can see both the sunrise and sunset over the water. Whichever you choose to see, I recommend bringing a blanket to sit on as you enjoy the views.
On day two we decided to rent bikes and see the park from a different perspective. A unique feature of Acadia is the famous carriage roads that weave through the park. The Carriage Roads were built by the Rockefeller family to discourage the use of cars on the protected land. Biking along these paths will take you to spots that most people miss. You will end up riding by the little Breakneck Ponds, Eagle Lake, and all the way around Jordan Pond. There are tons of places to pull off to admire the views or enjoy a well-earned lunch along a hidden shoreline. We recommend renting your bikes at Acadia Bike Rental in Bar Harbor. They have great bicycles and detailed maps to help you navigate the Carriage Roads. Another great thing about this activity is that you can choose the level of difficulty. The large loop past both lakes is roughly 10 miles, but just to Eagle Lake and around the smaller ponds will only be about 5-7 miles. Truly no matter how you choose to spend your time in Acadia you can’t go wrong. This is one of the most beautiful and inspiring places in New England and another example of why we must do everything we can to protect our National Parks and their natural wonders.
If you are looking for a perfect fall get away, then our itinerary is going to deliver. New England takes on such an incredible charm during this time of year. The weather, the festivities, the leaves, all combine into a truly magical experience. I found that New England is very driver friendly and it is easy to get to all of the locations mentioned in this post by car. As someone that eventually wants to see all 50 states I can say that New Hampshire and Maine seemed like difficult ones to check off, but using Boston as a launch point is really ideal. There are tons of things to do in this area which is why I encourage all travelers to add White Mountains and Acadia to their bucket list. Thanks for reading and welcome to the club!