Summer in New England

North of Boston lies an American region famous for its mountains, maple syrup and ice cream. Ian Birrell takes his family on a road trip from Vermont to Maine

Things began badly. After 15 years, I had finally persuaded my wife to go on holiday to the United States. I had fallen in love with the country when I spent several months working in California, but my efforts to persuade her that there was more to America than Hollywood, Howard Stern and McDonald's had consistently failed.

Things began badly. After 15 years, I had finally persuaded my wife to go on holiday to the United States. I had fallen in love with the country when I spent several months working in California, but my efforts to persuade her that there was more to America than Hollywood, Howard Stern and McDonald's had consistently failed.

The flight was fine. And we picked up the Pontiac at Boston airport without any bother. But it was rush hour, and we promptly became stuck in roadworks that were paralysing the city due to the upgrading of the subway system. I switched the radio on, but an array of Christian chat shows, nu-metal and country music failed to lift the mood. Eventually we escaped Boston, only to join a tidal wave of giant jeeps thundering north as we headed for the mountains of Vermont.

A couple of hours later, just as everyone was starting to relax, we saw exit signs for Junction 10, which, according to our instructions, meant that we were nearly at our destination. Sadly, we had not appreciated that the exit numbers went back to the start at each state line - and we were still two states away. We finally arrived at the Topnotch Resort and Spa in Stowe after another six hours, three coffees, two disgusting doughnuts and one minor accident.

Everything seemed better by the morning. The sun was shining over the pines and sugar maples on the slopes of Mount Mansfield, our log cabin was massive and Hamish, my 11-year-old son, was overjoyed to find a giant television in every room. Having persuaded him to turn off MTV, we drove into town and enjoyed a fabulous breakfast of scrambled eggs, muffins and pancakes in the "English flower garden" of a local inn. Revived, we returned to the car only to find that I had locked the keys inside.

Despite this inauspicious start, our week in the Green Mountains was a winner. Stowe turned out to be the perfect New England town, complete with classic white-spired clapboard church and covered bridges. It has been a thriving ski resort since before the First World War, so, unlike the run-down towns and defeated-looking farms that litter parts of Vermont (the third-poorest state in America), it is filled with upmarket inns, organic delicatessens and immaculate homes. Many are weekend places for wealthy Bostonians and New Yorkers, which explains how 4,000 residents can sustain 58 restaurants.

The town stretches out lazily along Mountain Road as it cuts through colourful meadows and towering conifer forests - roadside signs warn drivers (rather optimistically we decided) to "Beware Moose". Alongside the road runs a stream and a five-mile, two-lane recreation path filled with dog-walkers, cyclists, joggers and in-line skaters. The local kids' football team threw balls in one field, while another hosted a Sunday market selling the state's renowned produce - cheeses, maple syrup and venison - alongside lavishly worked quilts and scented beeswax candles.

To the European visitor it all feels slightly familiar, like a prosperous, faintly alternative Alpine resort. Indeed, the most famous residents were the Von Trapps, who discovered Stowe while on a singing tour of the US and, reminded of the Austrian home they had fled, bought some land and eventually settled there. Fans of The Sound of Music can stay at what is now the Trapp Family Lodge, still presided over by Johann, the son that Maria was carrying when the family hiked over the mountains to Italy.

This is a place where people live outdoors, whether skiing in the winter or hiking in the summer. We did the lot: training at the Topnotch tennis academy; walking in woods with the scent of maple in our nostrils; kayaking down a meandering river past huge terrapins sunning themselves on logs; and, best of all, riding along the trails of Brewster Ridge though forests starting to change into their golden autumn costumes. Feeling a bit lazier, we took the gondola to the 4,395ft summit of Mount Mansfield, the state's highest point, from where you can see the Adirondacks of New York State to the west and Mont Royal in Quebec to the north. Afterwards, we made several speedy descents on a concrete luge track, wondering why the handheld brake seemed to do so little.

Stowe has kept out the fast-food joints and chain stores - instead there are smart boutiques and restaurants serving Thai food. But despite its veneer of sophistication, the country store on Main Street still sold beef jerky and had Little Women dresses in its window, while we ended up eating in Gracie's, a typical US diner with its booths and bad puns. It was named after the owner's late Airedale terrier and served juicy half-pounders and a wonderfully spicy prawn jambalaya. And just along the road was Jeffersonville, a town where the white wooden houses vied with each other to have the most stars and stripes fluttering in their front gardens. They can have changed little since Eisenhower was in the White House.

For all its familiar place names such as Essex, Colchester and St Albans, Vermont is a slightly perplexing place. It has always had a welcome streak of independence, first demonstrated when it played a key role in the American Revolution and then declared itself a republic rather than join the other 13 founding members of the United States. Today, it is a state that discourages chain stores while designer outlets do a roaring trade.

Vermont pioneered same-sex marriages and banned billboards. Somehow, this curious mixture of liberalism and interventionism has a rather alluring outcome, creating a laid-back and easy-going state that has attracted many Europeans.

If anywhere sums up the state, it is a factory a few miles down the road from Stowe. Here, amid the perfect red barns and white picket fences, you turn off a little country road and suddenly remember why all those mottled, black and white Holstein cows that dot the landscape are so familiar. This is the global headquarters of Vermont's most famous export: Ben & Jerry's ice cream, created by those hippy-dippy eco-warriors who conquered the world with their wares and then sold out to Unilever. You can join some of the attraction's 250,000 annual visitors (many of them walking testimonies to America's obesity problems) as they slurp their cones of Chunky Monkey on the half-hour tour of the surprisingly small factory. After a seven-minute promotional film - or "Moo-vie" - a wise-cracking guide whisks you round (sample joke: "Why does a milking stool have three legs? Because the cow's got the udder"), informs you that all staff get three free pints of ice-cream a day and then oversees a tasting in the FlavoRoom. Afterwards, you can visit the Flavor Graveyard, where discontinued lines such as Peanut Butter and Jelly are commemorated. It was a strangely enjoyable excursion.

The next day it was time to head off to the coast. After a more relaxed drive than a week earlier, stopping off for lunch in New Hampshire, we came to the ship-building town of Bath, on the Kennebec River in Maine. A further 12 miles and we were installed in another log cabin, this time somewhat smaller and much more basic, that sat among pines at the edge of the Atlantic. This was Sebasco Harbor, a 115-room resort that prides itself on offering simple, old-fashioned family holidays.

Tourist officials in Vacationland, as the state boastfully bills itself on car registration plates, claim there are 17m acres of forest, 6,000 lakes and hundreds of rivers in Maine. That may or may not be true, but beyond doubt all life here revolves around the state's 5,000 dramatic miles of coastline. The myriad inlets, natural harbours and tiny islands are dotted with rickety-looking wooden jetties, from which the natives chug out in small boats to harvest the famous lobsters and clams, and, more recently, sea urchins for the Japanese sushi market.

The chilly waters that lap this craggy coast attract the millions of visitors who swarm here in summer and autumn. They come to swim, to sail, to canoe, to fish, to dive and, of course, to eat the seafood. A few hundred yards down the road at Sebasco we discovered the Water's Edge Restaurant, a bustling, crowded shack that could have come straight from the pages of an E Annie Proulx novel. Fifty years ago it helped to pioneer the new-fangled concept of television dinners. Today, fishermen in checked shirts knock back jugs of beer and munch steaks while tourists happily gorge on clam chowder, scallops stuffed with crab meat and steamed lobster pulled from the seas outside the window.

We spent several contented evenings there after busy days doing nothing. Such simple places provide a glimpse of a disappearing world, one that has not yet been eroded by the Starbucks culture. It could not be further away in spirit from the pastiche of the state's better-known resorts, from the polish and prosciutto of Portland, the state capital, or the soulless factory shopping centre of Freeport (from where, incidentally, we bought "bargain" luggage that turned out to be cheaper at Brent Cross). It was a reminder of the real heart of America.

After all the exercise in Vermont it was tempting to while away the week just sitting in the sun on seaweed-strewn rocks, watching the boats go about their business and listening to the lapping water and screeching gulls. The occasional turkey vulture wheeled overhead and seals bobbed their heads out of the water, as if checking out events above the surface. After a while of this, perhaps a few lengths of the pool, if only to escape the wretched mosquitoes...

But for all these soporific delights we did rouse ourselves occasionally. With the indomitable Julie looking after our daughter in her kids' club, there were kayaks to be paddled, tennis matches to be played, boats to sail and beaches to visit. And suddenly we were on the freeway back to Boston, nu-metal blasting from the radio and my wife wondering aloud about how soon we could return to the States.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

You can fly non-stop from Heathrow to Boston's Logan Airport on Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; www.virgin-atlantic.com), which operates a code-share with Continental; British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com); and American Airlines (08457 789 789; www.americanairlines.co.uk). American also flies from Manchester. In addition, Icelandair (0870 787 4020; www.icelandair.co.uk) flies from Heathrow or Glasgow via Reykjavik, while Aer Lingus (0845 084 4444; www.aerlingus.com) flies from several airports via Dublin. Air France via Paris, KLM via Amsterdam or Lufthansa via Frankfurt or Munich are other options.

STAYING THERE

The writer's trip was organised through Travelbag (0870 814 4440; www.travelbag.co.uk). Two weeks in Vermont and Maine for a family of four costs from £3,539, including flights from London, accommodation and car hire from Boston airport. The writer and his family stayed at the Topnotch Resort and Spa (001 802 253 8585; www.topnotchresort.com) - double rooms start at $196 (£123) per night, room only - and at the Sebasco Harbor Resort (001 207 389 1161; www.sebasco.com), where double rooms start at $163 (£102) per night, room only.

THINGS TO DO

The Ben & Jerry's Factory Tour (001 866 258 6877; www.benjerry.com) is located near Waterbury, Vermont. The half-hour tours run daily from 10am-5pm, every 30 minutes from November-May; every 20 minutes from 9am-5pm in June; every 10 minutes from 9am-8pm July-mid August and every 15 minutes from 9am-6pm mid-August-October. Admission is $3 (£2) for adults, free for under-12s.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Discover New England (0870 264 0555; www.discovernewengland.org) provides comprehensive information for tourists in Maine and Vermont, as well as other states in the region.

In addition, you could contact the Maine Office of Tourism (001 207 624 7483; www.visitmaine.com) and Vermont Tourism (020-8877 4506; www.vermont-uk.com).

Sophie Lam

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