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Fall for autumn's foliage

As the trees begin their magnificent transformation from green to gold, Chris Leadbeater offers options far and wide to see them in all their blazing glory

What's the attraction?

The nights may be getting longer and the days cooler, but the third seasonal quarter of the calendar is surely the most romantic time of the year to take a holiday, its rich colours making a play for the heart. Autumn starts to unfurl its banner – in a heady cocktail of oranges, yellows, browns, purples and reds – once September creeps into view. Here is death at its most beautiful, making for scenery ideally explored at a slow pace, whether via a road trip, an escorted tour, or from the fireside of a country pub.

The joy, of course, is that autumn is not constrained to one continent – but casts its pre-winter spell across Europe, Asia and North America in one burst, with a wealth of opportunity to witness it.

Maine events

New England is the blue riband region of autumn travel – so much so that the US has a specific term (leaf-peepers) to describe visitors who arrive in "fall". This north-easterly shoulder of the country plays host to glorious colour for three months. The season begins in Maine in September, ebbs south through New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts, and lingers in Connecticut and Rhode Island into November. Despite the destruction of Hurricane Irene, leaf-peeping prospects are still looking positive.

Possible itineraries are numerous, but American Sky (0844 332 9391; www.americansky.co.uk) sells an 11-night "Best of New England" road trip until 31 October that covers the White Mountains, Green Mountains and Cape Cod – from £1,129 per person in October, including car hire and flights from Heathrow to Boston.

Canada calling

New England takes the "fall" plaudits, but autumn is no observer of borders – and the fire show continues to the north-east, where the mix of Atlantic air and deep forest makes the eastern Canadian provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island a less-seen option – not least on Nova Scotia's Cabot Trail ( www.cabottrail.com), which spins 200 miles around Cape Breton Island.

Timeless Travel offers an 18-night "Lobster, Lighthouses and Prince Edward Island" package (0844 809 4299; www.timelesstravel.co.uk) that trawls all three provinces. Prices start from £1,849 per person in September, including flights from Heathrow to Halifax, accommodation and car hire throughout the holiday.

Far Eastern flames

Japan is revered for sakura, its spring cherry-blossom bonanza. But koyo, its autumnal flip side, is just as spectacular. Summer's flamboyant demise tinges the trees in areas such as Kamikochi National Park (sometimes called "Japan's Yosemite", roughly in the centre of the country) and Nikko (a mountain-framed city 100 miles north of Tokyo) – while the season clings to Kyoto and the capital as late as December.

Inside Japan (0117 314 4620; www.insidejapantours.com) has a 14-night "Essential Honshu" escorted tour. Places are available on the 17 October departure, costing £2,200 per person, half board. Flights are extra; All Nippon Airways (0870 837 8866; www.anaskyweb.com), BA (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com), Japan Airlines (08457 747 700; www.jal.com) and Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; www.virgin-atlantic.com) fly from Heathrow to Tokyo's Narita airport; BA also flies to Tokyo's Haneda airport.

Home fires

There is no need to fly to the other side of the planet to find arboreal fireworks. Autumn explodes across the National Arboretum at Westonbirt in Gloucestershire (01666 880 220; www.forestry.gov.uk/westonbirt; £9), where 600 acres, 16,000 trees, 3,000 specimens and 17 miles of paths give the season a colossal canvas on which to daub its magic. Of particular appeal are the Acer Glade and Maple Loop sections, where Japanese maples turn to photogenic gold.

In nearby Tetbury, the Snooty Fox hotel (01666 502 436; www.snooty-fox.co.uk) offers doubles from £80, including breakfast. Also in Tetbury, the Hare & Hounds Hotel (01666 881 000; www.cotswold-inns-hotels.co.uk) has a £99-per-person offer that includes half-board and entrance to the arboretum.

To combine the autumn blaze with a spot of history, you can do an "Ancient Tree Hunt" in London. Part of a wider initiative by the Woodland Trust to map the oldest trees in the UK ( www.ancient-tree-hunt.org.uk), this walking tour links the capital's gnarly-limbed veterans on a route from Westminster to Kew. Download a guide at www.visitwoods.org.uk (search for "ancient tree trail").

Gallic grandeur

The Loire Valley continues to dazzle in autumn thanks to the wooded depths that made it the hunting zone of the 16th-century kings of France. The most colourful options include the forest-flanked palaces of Chenonceau (00 33 8 20 20 90 90; www.chenonceau.com; admission €10.50) and Villandry (00 33 2 47 50 02 09; www.chateauvillandry.fr; €9.50), both just outside Tours.

Utracks (0845 241 7599; www.utracks.com) offers an eight-day "Loire Valley Castles" route from £690 per person including bike rental and half-board, but not transport.

Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies to Tours from Stansted, while Eurostar (08432 186 186; www.eurostar.com) runs from London St Pancras, Ebbsfleet and Ashford to Paris Gare du Nord, with a change at Paris Montparnasse for the TGV to Tours.

Antipodean autumn

One of the pleasures of autumn is that you have to wait only six months for it to appear again – assuming you fly to the southern hemisphere. Low season for air fares is March-June, coinciding with autumn in Australasia. New Zealand glows in March and April, notably in the leafy corners of the South Island, where the burnished slopes around Queenstown are reflected in Lake Wakatipu, and the waters of Fiordland (such as Milford Sound) hold a mirror to the change around them.

Discover the World (01737 214 250; www.discover-the-world.co.uk) offers an 11-night self-drive "South Island Explorer" that costs from £1,950 per person in April, room only, with car hire and flights to Dunedin via Auckland.

What Google will tell you...

"Woodstock Connecticut in particular is very beautiful during foliage season: lots of wonderful antique shops, and restaurants like the Vanilla Bean Café – made famous by Coke, they launched their Vanilla Coke from there a few years ago. Stone walls galore and winding roads make it one of the most beautiful places in New England" – forum at www.yankeefoliage.com.

What Google won't tell you... until now

Massachusetts and New Hampshire are seen as the flag-bearers for the American "fall" – but Maine, as the most heavily wooded state in the US, is the autumnal kingpin. "You can find dramatic fall colours throughout Maine, but especially in the western mountains and the densely tree-lined north of the state," says Gale Ross of the Maine Department of Conservation ( www.mainefoliage.com).

Who said that?

"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun,

Conspiring with him how to load and bless,

With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run."

– John Keats, 'To Autumn'

"From the dew-soaked hedge creeps a crawly caterpillar,

When the dawn begins to crack,

It's all part of my autumn almanac."

- Ray Davies, 'Autumn Almanac'

"The trees are in their autumn beauty,

The woodland paths are dry,

Under the October twilight the water

Mirrors a still sky."

– WB Yeats, 'The Wild Swans at Coole'