The Complete Guide To: The finest autumns

The end of summer brings new riches. From the forests of New England to the east coast of Australia, there's a world of dazzling colour to enjoy. Cathy Packe reports
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The Independent Travel

Fascinating foliage?

Go west. Between the end of summer and the beginning of winter, the optimum place to be, aesthetically speaking, is the United States – particularly the northeast corner, the best-known leaf-peeping destination. For about six weeks, usually from around mid-September until the end of October, the forests of New England blaze with a dazzling palette of colours. Against a backdrop of evergreen firs, the leaves of maples, gingkos, hornbeams and many other species turn shades of orange, scarlet and crimson. The six New England states of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont all offer "fall foliage" routes.

The best gateway for British visitors is Boston, served from Manchester and Heathrow on American Airlines (020-7365 0777; www.aa.com) and from Heathrow on British Airways (0870 850 9850, www.ba.com) and Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; www.virgin-atlantic.com). Fares for late September and October are available on some dates for under £300 return.

Once you get there, you will probably need to rent a car. The leaves are impressive wherever you go, but some of the best displays are likely to be in areas such as the Acadia National Park in Maine, a densely wooded area of 38,000 acres best explored from a base in Northeast or Southwest Harbor; or the Molly Stark Trail, also known as Route 9, in Vermont, a scenic road between Brattleboro and Bennington that crosses the Woodford State Park. From the top of the Hogback Mountain there are some wonderful views down into Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

With the exception of Rhode Island, each New England state has a dedicated fall foliage telephone line, widely advertised locally and updated daily with details of where to see the best colours; as a general rule, the colours change earlier the further north you go. In addition, the National Forest Service website (www.fs.fed.us/news/fallcolors) contains up-to-the-minute information on each state.

A novel way to enjoy the autumn foliage along the eastern seaboard of the United States and Canada is to take a cruise. Cunard has a 19-night "Autumn Colours" cruise, departing Southampton on 23 September on the QE2; destinations en route include the Canadian cities of St John's, Halifax and Quebec City; Bar Harbor in Maine; Newport, Rhode Island; and New York City. Prices start at £1,999, returning to Southampton. You can also take an abbreviated version – without the Atlantic crossing and the stop at St John's. The 10-night Splendour of the Fall trip begins and ends in New York on 28 September. Cabins are available from £1,719; the price does not include international flights.



Can I go leaf-peeping anywhere else?

Japan also has the right combination of climate and deciduous trees to produce good foliage. While organised foliage tourism is far less developed than it is in North America, leaf-peeping is a popular Japanese autumn pursuit – known locally as as momijigari – a word that has no literal translation but that roughly means watching the autumn leaves change colour. Brightwater Holidays (01334 657155; www.brightwaterholidays.com) runs a 14-day tour of the "Gardens of Japan", including visits to the Kyoto Botanical Garden and the Imperial Palace Gardens in Tokyo. The autumn departure is on 30 October; prices start at £2,475, including flights from Heathrow, domestic transfers and 12 nights' accommodation with breakfast.



Can I stay in Britain?

Yes: dazzling displays of foliage are being put on the map by rangers who identify the best displays, according to Jo Fowler, press officer of the Forestry Commission. "In the autumn season, our rangers go out and monitor the leaves," she says, "and they report their information back to our website www.forestry.gov.uk/autumn". There is also a foliage hotline (0845 367 3787).

The National Arboretum at Westonbirt in Gloucestershire (01666 880220; www.forestry.gov.uk/westonbirt) is the Forestry Commission's flagship site, renowned for the autumn foliage of the Japanese maple collection. Westonbirt is expecting a particularly good display this year because the excessive rain during the summer is causing the tree roots to become waterlogged and go into autumn mode earlier than usual. The Arboretum opens 9am-8pm daily (from 8am at weekends, and until 5pm or dusk from December to March). Admission is £7, rising to £7.50 in the most colourful months of October and November.



Harvest supper?

Back in the US, where they take the Fall seriously, this is the time of the cranberry harvest, which is at its most impressive in Wisconsin. It is a fascinating business. The fruit grows in bogs. These are flooded, and machines strip the berries from the bushes. The berries rise to the surface, so that they can be sucked out of the water using a giant hose.

Several small towns have cranberry festivals; in the absence of much competition, the largest in the world could well be the one at Warrens (001 608 378 4200; www.cranfest.com), taking place this year from 28-30 September. Events include tours of the cranberry bogs, a "biggest berry" competition, farmers' markets and a parade.

There's an American influence, too, at an autumn celebration in the attractive medieval town of Kinsale, 18 miles from Cork, which has established itself as the gourmet capital of Ireland. The fishing port hosts an annual Gourmet Festival (00 353 21 477 2847; www.kinsalerestaurants.com), which takes place this year from 12-14 October. According to Carole Norman, one of the festival organisers, "it's like a big party at the end of the season – a concentrated weekend of drinking and eating". Local restaurants get involved, and a lobster bake is organised by 12 visiting chefs from Kinsale's American twin town: Newport, Rhode Island.

This weekend the Ludlow Food Festival (01584 873957; www.foodfestival.co.uk) is in full swing, so if you are anywhere near Shropshire this is a chance to enjoy the Sausage Trail, Real Ale Trail, pudding tasting and farmers' markets that take over the town for the weekend.



Grape harvest?

Naturally, autumn is when the vendange (as the French call the ritual of picking the grapes) takes place across Europe. One surprising and accessible way to take part in the harvest, and the celebrations that accompany it, is to go to Paris. The French capital was once a patchwork of vineyards beyond the core of the city, and despite encroaching urbanisation one has survived: the Clos Montmartre, close to Gare du Nord where Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com) trains arrive. Gamay and Pinot Noir grapes grown on the hillside produce up to 2,000 bottles of wine a year. The Montmartre grape harvest festival (00 33 1 42 62 21 21) takes place all around the hill over the weekend of 12-14 October. Expect wine tastings, stalls selling local produce, entertainment and a parade.

Even where no festivals are involved, autumn is a good time for a vineyard tour. Among the trips offered by wine tour specialists Arblaster and Clarke (01730 263111; www.arblasterandclarke.com) are several weekend trips to the Champagne region, with tastings. The tours visit small grower-producers as well as some of the larger champagne houses, champagne breakfasts, and an opportunity to stock up for Christmas. Prices start at £355 based on two sharing, and include coach travel to France and accommodation.



Some golden sunshine?

After the summer Britain has endured this year, many people are looking for a bit of warm weather elsewhere to lift their spirits. Much of southern Europe is still enjoying hot weather – temperatures in Sicily and parts of southern Spain have been topping 25C this week. Now that school holidays are over, prices have slumped, particularly for more northerly destinations in and around the Mediterranean.

First Choice (0871 200 7799; www.firstchoice. co.uk), for example, offers a week's self-catering holiday on either the Costa Daurada or Menorca – including flights from Gatwick, Birmingham or Manchester to Menorca or Bristol, Stansted, Birmingham and Manchester to the Costa Daurada – and accommodation, for under £200. As autumn advances you need to head further south to find guaranteed sunshine. This is a good time for North African destinations such as Morocco, Tunisia or Egypt.

Sharm El Sheikh on the southern tip of Egypt's Sinai peninsula is very popular, especially for fans of snorkelling and diving, and plenty of good-value packages are available through the mainstream tour operators; travel to this region is also visa-free.

For something more cultural, Kuoni (01306 747002; www.kuoni.co.uk) is currently offering substantial reductions on some of its holidays in Luxor during September and October. And Kirker Holidays (020-7593 2288; www.kirkerholidays.com) has a good choice of hotels in several Moroccan cities, as well as the coastal resorts of Essaouira, Oualidia and Agadir.

Visitors to any Islamic country should bear in mind that Ramadan lasts from next Thursday, 13 September, until 11 October. Believers fast during daylight hours, and although concessions are made to non-Muslims, it can be a difficult time to travel – for example, tourist attractions may close early so that the staff can be home by sundown to break their fast.



A Gold Coast?

The world has several Gold or Golden coasts – including a stretch of the North Devon shore between Westward Ho! and Lynmouth. But since the British colony of Gold Coast became Ghana (see below), the most celebrated is Australia's Gold Coast, a stretch of about 70km of beach in south-east Queensland that is easily accessible from Brisbane. This city no longer has direct flights from the UK, but connections in Singapore, Dubai or Kuala Lumpur will get you there.

Queensland's Gold Coast is prime holiday country, and ideal in September and October when the climate should be above 20C and the local crowds are thin. The area offers a combination of Pacific Ocean beaches, bush walks, protected rainforest, golf courses and off-shore islands.

Among the outdoor activities available at this time of year is whale-watching, with boats departing from a number of different points along the coast; expect to pay around AUS$85 (£34.50) for a three-hour cruise.

Notable resorts include the Palazzo Versace on Seaworld Drive Main Beach (00 61 7 5509 8000; www. lhw.com), a palatial hotel for the kind of luxury that apparently only the Versace name and lifestyle can bestow; doubles with breakfast start at A$565 (£230). According to some locals, it is places like this, with their high prices and sophisticated style, that have given this part of the Queensland coast its name.

Spanish galleons used to sail along Florida's Gold Coast, a stretch of shore that earned its name from the gold coins that are still sometimes washed up on the beaches. This part of the Florida coast runs from West Palm Beach south to Miami, taking in the cities of Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach; just inland is the Everglades National Park.

Flights to Miami are available on American Airlines, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic from Heathrow, and from other UK cities via a range of US hubs.



Old gold?

In comparison with the bling of eastern Australia and Florida, West Africa might seem a less glittering destination. But until 1957, Ghana was known by the name Gold Coast because of the volume of gold discovered there by early Portuguese and British settlers. Independence brought a change of name, and, slowly, the country is developing a tourist industry. For more intrepid travellers it is a fascinating autumn destination. Ashanti African tours (0870 766 2283; www.ashantiafricantours.com) runs trips through the country, including a 10-day cultural and wildlife tour departing on 19 October. Stops en route include visits to Accra, several Ghanaian villages, the Mole National Park and the Black Volta river. The tour costs £850, including accommodation, meals and internal transport. Flights are extra; expect to pay £500 for a return flight from London to Accra.

Real gold?

A suitable destination might depend on your budget. Most accessible are the items on sale at the gold souk in Dubai, where you go into whichever store takes your fancy, choose something you like and it will be priced according to the weight of the gold; at this point you start to bargain the price down as best you can.

The gold souk is one of a vast choice of shopping destinations in this rapidly expanding city; there are other souks selling carpets, foods and exotic spices, and a huge choice of shopping malls in every area of the city, many of them selling Western fashions at much lower prices than in Britain.

Hotel rooms in this fast-growing location can be like gold dust, but Virgin Holidays (0871 222 5825; www.virginholidays.co.uk) has availability on short breaks to Dubai, starting at £431 for flights, three nights' bed and breakfast accommodation in a four-star hotel and transfers.

To get your hands on some gold if you can't really afford to buy it, a holiday in South Africa could provide the answer. Pilgrim's Rest in the country's Mpumalanga region, east of Johannesburg, was the centre of the South African gold rush.

The original village, now carefully restored, has been preserved as a national monument. Many of the old buildings are still there, with their timber frames and corrugated iron cladding, and several can be visited; most are open daily, typically from 9am-12.45pm and 1.45-6pm. At the Diggings Site (00 27 13 768 1060; www.pilgrims-rest.co.za), beside the Pilgrim's Creek, visitors can see a reconstruction of the valley as it was during gold rush times and can try their luck panning for gold. This is part of a guided tour, taking place 10am-3pm daily, price R10 (£0.70).

Cape Tours (01908 609722; www.capetours.co.uk) offers tailor-made holidays throughout South Africa.



Any autumn city breaks?

If you are a rugby fan, you may want to book a trip to one of the 10 French venues for the World Cup matches. The competition began yesterday at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, 10 minutes by train north of Paris Gare du Nord, and ends there on 20 October. The most appealing alternatives (and places where accommodation is likely to be available) are Lyon, Toulouse, Montpellier and Bordeaux, all of which are accessible from UK airports. Limited numbers of tickets to England, Wales and Scotland games will be available at match venues, but match tickets are no longer available through the official website, www.rugbyworld cup.com; however, thiscontains links to help with booking accommodation and travel. .

Rugby may place France off limits for you this autumn. Instead, you could try Brussels – commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome with an exhibition of the work of Leonardo da Vinci in the vast art deco Koekelberg Basilica at 1 Parvis de la Basilique (00 32 87 88 1000; www.expo-davinci.eu). It runs until 16 March 2008 and covers all aspects of his work, not just his art, and among the exhibits are working models of many of the designs he drew up, including one for a swing bridge. Opening hours are 8am-5pm.

Although September and October are not usually peak times for visiting Switzerland, a couple of current exhibitions make it an attractive destination for art lovers this autumn.

The Lucerne Museum of Art (00 41 41 226 7800; www.kunstmuseumluzern.ch) has an exhibition of the works of Bacon and Picasso, looking at the relationship between the artist and his sitter. The museum opens 10am-5pm Tuesday-Sunday, until 8pm Wednesday and admission is SFr16 (£6.60). Access is easiest via Zurich, from which there are frequent direct trains. Further west, at the Fondation de l'Hermitage in Lausanne (00 41 21 312 5013; www.fondation-hermitage.ch) is a major retrospective exhibition of the work of Henri Fantin-Latour, which continues until 28 October. Geneva is the gateway.

Among the operators offering city breaks are Cresta Holidays (0871 664 7963; www.crestaholidays.co.uk) and the Swiss Travel Service (020-7420 4934; www.stc. co.uk). Cresta offers a three-night break in Brussels from £143 per person, including return Eurostar journeys and B&B accommodation. The Swiss Travel Service offers a number of short breaks, including a three-night trip to Lucerne, which starts at £368. The price includes return Heathrow-Zurich flights, rail transfers and B&B accommodation.

For added culture. JMB Travel (01905 422282; www.jmb-travel.co.uk) arranges trips for opera lovers. Among the choices in September and October are Jules Massenet's Thaïs at La Fenice in Venice, Strauss's Salome at the Staatsoper in Dresden, or Andrea Chenier at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona.

Golden treasure

Take an autumn moment to plan a winter highlight, and book a ticket for the first exhibition in London's O2 Bubble – the structure formerly known as the Dome. "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" opens on 15 November, and will consist of 130 artefacts found in the tomb of the boy king and other important pharaohs – including the sandstone statue of Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten).

Anyone old enough to remember the 1972 Tutankhamun exhibition need not think they have seen it all before; the new exhibition will make use of modern technology, and the majority of the exhibits were not included in the original show. Tickets will be available from mid-September, and you can pre-register via the exhibition's website, www.visitlondon.com/tutankhamun.

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