Independent Families: What does America's East Coast offer a family at half-term?

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The Independent Travel

Q. We want to take our children (aged 12 and 14) to the States during the impending half-term. We have been to California several times and were thinking of defecting to the East Coast this year. We've heard that Cape Cod is popular with families. Can you suggest where to go, where to stay and what to do?
H McConnell, Northants

A. Nowhere captures the essence of autumn quite like New England. The region blankets the north-east US from Connecticut to Maine and is marked in autumn by an abundance of gold and crimson foliage. Cape Cod can become crowded during main the holiday season, so prices are pushed up. As an alternative I suggest the country's most northerly state - Maine, which has just as much to offer: idyllic seaside villages and islands, rugged coastline, historic lighthouses, sandy beaches, thundering rivers and swathes of forest.

The only drawback is getting there. You have two options - fly over Maine to Boston and drive back up, or fly to Halifax in Nova Scotia and cross the border. The low-cost carrier Zoom Airlines (0870 240 0055; www.flyzoom.com), flies to Halifax from Belfast, Glasgow and Gatwick for around £250 return in October, compared with British Airways' (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) lowest fare of £325 from Heathrow to Boston. Halifax is also served by Air Canada (0871 220 1111; www.aircanada.com) from Heathrow, and Boston by American Airlines (08457 789789; www.aa.com) and Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747;). Hiring a car will also maximise your potential for getting around - Maine is around the size of Scotland. This costs from £160 per week through the Irish rental company, Argus Car Hire (00 353 1 490 6173; www.argusrentals.com).

To minimise costs and get a flavour of New England life, I suggest renting a cottage. Tourists are drawn to the coast with its photogenic fishing villages and rocky shoreline. There are some charming properties to be found, such as Our Place Inn & Cottages (001 207 867 4998; www.ourplaceinn.com) on the popular island of North Haven. A converted 19th-century farmhouse, it is surrounded by a cluster of cottages and a three-storey lighthouse, which offer cosy accommodation with fireplaces and quilted beds. A week's rental from 22-29 October costs $695 (£386). North Haven is best explored by bike or boat (001 207 596 0376; www.therealmaine.com), since it is protected from Atlantic winds by its location in Penobscot Bay, the state's largest coastal waterway. It is also well-connected to the mainland by the Maine State Ferry Service (001 800 491 4883; www.state.me.us/mdot).

Further south, Seaside Rentals (001 207 363 1825; www.seasiderentals.com) has many pretty whitewashed clapboard properties along the southern coast, several of them dating back to the 18th century. One of its York Beach properties costs $798 (£443) per week in October and sleeps up to six people, with sea views and its own garden.

Visiting in October, you should catch the end of the stunning autumn foliage. The state government has details on where and when to get the best views ( www.mainefoliage.com), but your best bet for leaf-peeping is in one of the state parks. Southern and coastal locations have a later colour change, so I would suggest Acadia National Park (001 207 288 3338; www.nps.gov/acad) on Mount Desert Island, which has 47,000 acres of lakes, woodland, mountains and dramatic shoreline. Apart from the autumn leaves, activities could include biking, horse riding or wildlife watching - harbour seals and porpoises, minke whales and turtles can often be spotted, as can coyotes and red foxes inland. A seven-day pass to the park costs $20 (£11) per vehicle.

Also on Mount Desert Island is Bar Harbor, which was one of the US's most popular holiday resorts of the 19th century, with summer homes belonging to the Rockefellers, Carnegies and Vanderbilts. It still pulls in the crowds, but there are more economical lodgings, such as the Hutchins Cottages at Acadia (001 207 244 9687; www.hutchins-cottagesatacadia.com) on the other side of the island in Southwest Harbor. The six pine cottages offer cosy accommodation burrowed in woodland, all with kitchens and wood-burning fireplaces. A week's rental in October half term costs an economical $450 (£250). Back in Bar Harbor, stop off at Ben & Bill's Chocolate Emporium (001 207 288 3281; www.benandbills.com) at 66 Main Street, which sells handmade chocolates, sweets and ice-cream.

To get further into the wilderness, head north. Maine's inland parks encompass dense woodland and several rivers that are popular with white-water rafters, particularly in the Upper Kennebec and Moose River Valleys. Water-borne activities draw to an end towards the end of October, but there is still scope for outdoor activity. In the Maine Highlands, you'll find lakes, mountains and woodland. In Baxter State Park (001 207 723 5140; www.baxterstateparkauthority.com) you can spot moose, deer, bears, racoons and beavers within its 201,000 acres.

Finally, if all that fresh air leaves you feeling a bit giddy, there is plenty of culture and history to soak up. The Maine Maritime Museum (001 207 443 1316; www.bathmaine.com) in Bath is the perfect place to learn about the state's maritime heritage. It opens daily from 9.30am-5pm, admission is $9.75 (£5.40) for adults and $6.75 (£3.75) for children aged seven-17. Or drive past Eartha in Yarmouth, the world's largest revolving globe (001 207 846 7000; www.delorme.com).

For more information call the Maine Office of Tourism (001 888 624 6345; www.visitmaine.com).

Send your family travel queries to The Independent Parent, Travel Desk, The Independent, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS or e-mail crusoe@independent.co.uk

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