Maple leaf for starters, moose for dessert

It's a kaleidoscope of colours, a smorgasbord of smells. It's New England in the fall, writes Julia Kaminski
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The Independent Online
The moose, when he finally turned up, was unexpected.

Unexpectedly big, and beautiful, and, well, just plain unexpected. We had waited for an hour among the trees in the growing dusk and increasing drizzle, near a muddy pool where, we were told, the local moose liked to wallow.

This guy was a huge specimen: 6ft tall to the shoulder, he towered above me, sprouting a huge rack of palmated antlers and setting my hands ashake. He was only 10 yards away, but luckily moose have poor eyesight. He peered nervously into the gloom, thrusting his large rounded muzzle, but while he could sense our presence, he couldn't quite make us out.

Moose are quite common in the hills of Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire, if you believe the numerous "moose crossing" signs along the highway, and for a wildlife enthusiast the first sight of one was an exciting bonus in a week of "leaf peeping" in New England.

The foliage here draws thousands of visitors each fall, and it's not hard to see why: the vivid reds, oranges, yellows and astonishing pinks of sugar maples, sumac, mountain ash and tupelo trees draw gasps at each bend in the road.

You have to be an expert to know exactly where to go and when, since the great misconception is that the whole area changes colour at once. In fact, the trees begin turning earlier in the north where it is colder, and also on high peaks. Thus the red and mountain maples, yellow birch, mountain ash and reds of blueberries peak in late September, while the birches, beeches and sugar maples at lower elevations tend to peak in mid-October. But help is at hand if you're not an expert: local papers and tourist office brochures contain telephone hotlines for a daily recorded report on where to see the best leaves.

The colours are matched only by those in Japan, partly due to the different species of maple, which change from poppy red and orange to yellow.

The wooded mountains and valleys stretch for mile upon empty mile, the kind of vast expanse it is hard to find in Britain. There are many famous routes in the area, such as route 1 running north through Vermont, and the Kancamagus Highway in New Hampshire, which provides 34 miles of beautiful scenery, rising to nearly 3,000ft crossing Mount Kancamagus, named after an early North American native chief.

But you don't have to see it all from the window of a car: walking and hiking trails are plentiful and well signposted. We started our tour in the Catskills of upstate New York, staying in Woodstock - the town whose name was mischievously borrowed for the pop festival in 1969, and is now home to a thriving artists' colony. The evidence for this is in the painting and sculpture galleries, and the Tinker Street Cafe, which claims to have had Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and Van Morrison singing on its stage. The night we were there it was a local blues band who kept the cafe buzzing until after 2am. Leaf-peeping season had barely begun by the last week in September, but the trees were already stunning in their party colours, and will become even more radiant over the next few weeks until the end of October. Vermont is the most well-known venue, but New Hampshire is perhaps lovelier, and a better kept secret.

Mount Washington, at 6,288ft the highest peak in the north-east, dominates the White Mountain National Park in New Hampshire, and makes a good day's hike rewarded by fabulous views at the top. Wimps can go up by minibus. "The foothills" boast an information centre which sells almost everything you'll need but have forgotten: woolly hats, gloves, compasses, water bottles, food. The village of Jackson to the south is a good place to set up base camp for several days' hiking and climbing in the area, and becomes popular in winter, too, when skiers head for Wildcat Mountain nearby and cross-country skiers take over the forest trails. In the height of the leafy season, in mid-October, it's wise to book ahead, but most towns and villages have a visitors' centre with information about lodging and often a free reservation service.

We stayed in bed and breakfast houses throughout, and loved them. The bed and breakfast industry is a relatively new invention in the US, but the nation has entered into the spirit with enthusiasm. A motel is fine if you're just aiming to sleep and go, but the B&B is invaluable for open fires, local literature, huge, wonderful breakfasts, and friendly advice on where to eat and walk and find the best views.

Rather unconventionally, our leaf-peeping week was rounded off by two days on the Maine coast, in hot sunshine, this time to go out into the Atlantic with Captain John Boats searching for whales. We weren't disappointed.

B&Bs: Joe and Lyn Rubino, The House on the Hill,Warrensburg, New York; tel 001 518 623 9390. Price: $99 for two inc breakfast. Sarah and Jeff Maynard, The Blake House, Pinkham Notch Road, Jackson, New Hampshire; tel 001 603 383 9057. Prices: $60-$80 for two, inc breakfast, during the "foliage season". Morrill Place Inn, 209 High Street, Newburyport, Massachusetts; tel 00 1 508 462 2808. Prices: $66-$82 for two inc breakfast. Flights to Boston cost about pounds 240 return.