My sister and I are leaf peepers. I love saying that. I feel there is something so intrepid sounding about it. Almost, a little naughty. But what it really means is far less impish than peeping implies. In the Fall, my sister and I flew back East to well, look at leaves. We met at Logan Airport in Boston in brisk mid-October and drove off into red, yellow, gold, crimson, and orange maple tree heaven. To us, nothing sounds better than the crunch of leaves under our feet. And, almost nothing tastes better than warming up with a hot cup of New England clam chowder. That, and an Ipswich Ale.
Fall 2012 wasn’t the best year for leaves. Temperatures had been screwy and many of the trees had already lost their leaves. So, we decided not to head into the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Instead, we drove off towards coastal towns for eating, shopping, and general cozying up in taverns… and of course, peeping. But for two Southern California girls, the bursts of color didn’t disappoint, even on the city streets. Truly, we were in East Coast leaf peeping heaven.
Day One: Marblehead, MA
After hitting up The Big Apple farm and bakery in Wrentham, MA for (still hot) apple donuts, steaming coffee, and a to-go apple crumble that (honestly) didn’t last a day, my sister and I headed to one of our all time favorite destinations: Marblehead, MA.
Who knew the “birthplace of the American Navy” is so romantic. But it is. There are over 30 quaint inns and unique family owned B&Bs. And if you are a history buff (like my sister), you’ll be in historical plaque bliss. Over 200 homes predate the Revolutionary war housing rebel residents who played a pivotal role in the independence of our country. While my sister read (almost) every plaque, I went shopping. After perusing a great selection of shoes, I wasn’t surprised to learn that in 1846 Marblehead went from fishing… to shoemaking. Indeed, a town after my heart.
Idyllic Marblehead, MA
We found a gem of a seaside B&B at a steal of a price. Suzy from A Lady Winette Cottage (built in 1890) welcomed us like long lost grandchildren. A perfect hostess, she knew just when to lavish us with stories of Marblehead and baked apples for breakfast and when to “disappear” to let us wind down from the day.
The Harbor Light Inn’s Tavern
The Harbor Light Inn is another quintessential must-see in town. Two Federalist Mansions connect through a formal dining room that is refined and inspires sipping a cocktail with your pinky finger out. Even if you don’t stay at the Harbor Light Inn, pay its tavern a visit for fine wine and sophisticated classic atmosphere. Upon walking in, I felt like I was back in the days when gentlemen threw coats over puddles.
While we don’t agree on everything, my sister and I both concur that the clam chowder at The Landing is hands down the best – and that verdict stands for two years in a row. Not to mention the harbor views are stunning. Another view-centric seafood haven is The Barnacle. Their bowl of mussels is sky high and filled both our bellies. Also the staff has the classic New England humor. When arriving with two Ipswich Ales, (a perfect accompaniment to muscles) she said dryly, “Look what I found.”
Day Two: Portsmouth
In a word, Portsmouth is flipping fun. Okay, that was two words. But it deserves it. There is so much to do. It is so varied and with great energy. There’s the harbor, the downtown, coffee shop culture, breweries, music scene, and great nightlife. Also the gorgeous white-steepled North Congregational Church was our “no-fail” marker for navigating the city and remembering where we parked the car. The cherry on top was the people themselves. My sister and I tried to “out-nice” them. But it was impossible. Even the graffiti “Rick Sucks” on a bathroom wall read next to it, “I bet Rick is a really cool person if you got to know him.”
Along the harbor and city streets, the trees glowed in fall colors against the gold leaf sign lettering. And the city popped at night. We arrived during the New Hampshire Film Festival and hit up the opening party at The Music Hall where we rubbed elbows with up-and-coming actors/writers/producers/directors. No Hollywood posturing there. The place is just packed with down-to-earth, genuine people.
Since there is no leaf peeping after dark, we cozied up at the Rudi’s wine bar and sat next to the owner, who treated us to grilled scallops with saffron puree after she caught us eyeballing hers. And for the history buff (my sister) Portsmouth didn’t disappoint. There were more than 70 points of history – plaques included.
North Congregational Church, Portsmouth, NH
In harmony with the “you can’t out-nice Portsmouth”, we stayed at the Marriott and it truly was the warmest and most welcoming check-in experience I’ve ever had. The ladies at the front desk set the bar high, just being their friendly-Portsmouth-selves. The next morning for breakfast we weren’t surprised when a local recommended the Friendly Toast on Congress Street. Amazing pumpkin pancakes and you guessed it, friendly service.
Day Three: Newport, Rhode Island
I love Newport. It had so many different faces: history, wineries, bays, wharfs, taverns, and it seemed, a bar on every corner. We stayed at the renovated 1893 Victorian Blue Jewel on Pelham Street on the Historic Hill. Newport is a walking town. We parked our car once and didn’t think about it for two days. We headed out the door, turned right and walked down the hill to Bowen’s Wharf and hit up (another) The Landing for sunset cocktails. Once you enter, keep going past the massive lobster tanks until you see a hopping bar with an ocean view.
The Landing at Bowen’s Wharf, Newport, Rhode Island
That night we followed a local’s advice to Zelda’s. We hobnobbed with Newport’s boozy sailor crowd at the bar while waiting for a table. Red-faced crusty men flirted with us, made sure our wine glasses were full, and advised us what to order. Zelda’s didn’t disappoint. It was delicious and since there are antioxidants in wine, it was also nutritious. Skipping breakfast, the next day my sister and I indulged in a seafood festival at Bowen’s Wharf. We stuffed ourselves with quahogs, clam cakes, and shot oysters with the fisherman. I even scored a $6 steamed whole lobster. The only catch was that I had to crack it myself.
Newport, Rhode Island
To burn the calories, we did the legendary Cliff Walk. Along the way, we were invited to sample fresh pressed apple cider from someone’s driveway. When I say “fresh” I mean that I threw apples into a press from the 1800’s, turned the handle, and out came the most delicious apple cider I’ve ever tasted. After the walk, we moseyed on over to The Chanler and felt upper crust in the bar lounge area. Not much leaf peeping that day. But even the most professional of peepers can take a day’s detour.
Shopping in Newport you never know what you will stumble upon. We found everything from “The Largest Man Cave Specialist in New England” to a store that specialized in Miami sequin fashion. Think pink on peach and glitter on gloss. And yes, there was even a shoe store that sold the ubiquitous New England ladies clog. Indeed, something for everyone.
New England Leaf Peeping Do’s and Don’ts:
*It was dark at exactly 6 P.M. every night so budget your time so you aren’t pulling into town with only an hour or two of daylight.
*Do not try to find anything (especially your hotel!) in the dark, unless you have a GPS. New England country roads are confusing enough during the day. Let alone when they are dimly lit at night.
*Some amazing leaf peeping is actually by the sea, not just in the mountains. Try a harbor cruise to see the trees from the sea.
*Weather in New England can be schizophrenic. Layer.
*Book hotels ahead. There actually is a Leaf Peeping Season.
*Mix with the locals. They know where the leaves are peaking. And where to get the best quahogs.
*Photos are courtesy of the Harbor Light Inn, Marblehead Chamber of Commerce, Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce, and Discover Newport. Photographer credits belong to Jeff Folger (Marblehead) and Tammy Byron (Portsmouth).