Travel: Legends of the fall: Beautiful and true

New England: a riot of gentleness and colour. By Cathy Packe
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The Independent Travel
This is the time of a year for a walk through the woods, with the leaves crackling underfoot, with pine cones, conkers, and the smell of a distant bonfire. Green turns to brown and the brilliance of the countryside in summer becomes subdued.

But in New England at this time of year, it is as if someone has taken a match to the drying leaves and the whole countryside burst into flame. The trees don't shed their leaves here until they have put on a display so dazzling that it would make a coat of many colours look like a camouflage jacket.

New England is a region of mountains and farmland, gentle hills and streams. Everywhere, there are trees: birches, mountain ash, sumach, oak; but it is the maples that make the greatest contribution to the canvas. The intense colour for a brief period in autumn is the result of chemical reactions in the trees brought on by changes in the climate. As the summer days remain warm but become shorter, and the nights become longer and colder, the leaves stop producing chlorophyll and their greenness is replaced by pigment which are not otherwise seen. The result - heightened by the first frosts - is an unreal canvas of fiery oranges and reds displayed against a backdrop of evergreen firs. Towards the end of the season, when the first flakes of snow begin to fall and settle on the green needles like cotton-wool on a Christmas tree, there are few more magical sights.

Coloured accents, if any were needed, are provided by the fruit bushes. The cranberry bogs turn ruby red and the blueberries and blackberries along the coast are crimson against the autumn ocean. And on doorsteps in farmyards and piled up on roadside stalls are gourds, Indian corn and big orange pumpkins ready for Halloween and Thanksgiving.

As with anywhere in America, sightseeing tends to be done by car. In every state, there is an official trail, often taking in many of the most beautiful and historic villages: in Connecticut there is a loop about 100 miles long which meanders through the valley of the Housatonic River and the spectacular farmland around West Cornwall; in Massachusetts, the Mohawk Trail follows an old Indian route past Mount Greylock and through the state forest between the Taconics and the Green Mountains which stretch up into Vermont. The advantage of following an official trail is that it will be well signposted and you will find parking places overlooking the most spectacular scenery.

But the foliage does not have to be seen through a car windscreen. A more imaginative way to look at the leaves is to view them from above and below.

The ski lifts in the resorts of Vermont and New Hampshire are not used by skiers until late November; but they still operate floating quietly above a patchwork carpet of leaves which spreads out below them.

Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire nestles under Mount Washington, the highest peak in New England and densely covered with trees on its lower slopes. A three hour cruise on the lake on the MS Mount Washington can be a stunning prelude to a trip up to the mountain top on the hundred- year-old cog railway.

New England is nothing if not folksy. The urban sprawl and the freeways are for a different America. This is village territory. Here, white clapboard churches stand on village greens; detached houses with rocking chairs on the veranda stand in their own lawns; village stores with their dark corners and homey smells are stuffed with local cheeses and maple syrup; farmers set up shop along the country roads selling apple cider.

In New England, the pace of life is slow and people have time for each other. As village communities gather for harvest festivals and chicken pie suppers, this is a place to feel at home.

Leaves on the line: New England in the Fall

The best airport for the whole of New England is Boston, served daily from Gatwick, Heathrow and Glasgow. For travel at the end of September, availability is patchy, but discount agents are selling such seats as there are for pounds 340-pounds 360 return, including tax.

The season for leaf watching is broadly mid-September to mid-October, although it is expected to be a little late this year. The leaves tend to change colour first in the mountains and in the more northerly parts of the region.

To see the foliage at its finest you should not leave the choice of location to chance. Each of the New England states has its own telephone leaf lines which are updated daily and will tell you where the best colour is to be seen.

The numbers below are charged at normal international rates when calling from the UK (use the prefix 001). Within the US, those beginning 800 are free: Connecticut: 203 566 5348 or 800 CT BOUND; Maine: 207 582 9300 or 800 533 9595; Massachusetts: 617 727 3201 or 800 632 8038; New Hampshire 603 271 2343 or free phone 258 3608. Rhode Island: 401 277 2603 or 800 556 2484; Vermont 802 282 3239 or 800 837 6668.

General information about New England can be found on the internet at http://www.discovernewengland.com

Information about local events can be found in local newspapers and on notice boards in village stores.

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