Tuesday, December 3, 2013

New England in the Fall

My wife and I are wanderers. Although we sometimes enjoy trips that have pre-arranged itineraries, a drive up the New England coast in the fall seemed the ideal way to just follow our whims. We booked hotels, studied maps, and researched restaurants in advance, but we left most days open.

We flew into Providence, Rhode Island. Based on past experience, I have found fares lower and driving more convenient there, compared to larger cities. (Hartford, Connecticut is another good entry airport for the region.) We drove to Newport (less than an hour) for the first two nights. We found the Newport Marriott (www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/pvdlw-newport-marriott) ideally situated on the waterfront, where we viewed myriad yachts, ranging from modest to unbelievable. Newport, home of the America’s Cup, is regarded as the sailing capital of the world. The hotel’s location provides easy access on foot to all the restaurants we wanted to visit, as well as shops and other venues related to this nation’s maritime history.

The highlight of this part of the trip centered on tours of the Newport mansions (www.newportmansions.org), constructed during the Gilded Age (around the turn of the last century) by families who had made fabulous fortunes, primarily in infrastructure- steamships and railroads, for example- the Vanderbilts. Their “cottage,” The Breakers, is a 70 room Italian Renaissance palace, designed, as were many of these mansions, by famed architect Richard Morris Hunt.

These homes, overlooking the ocean, had one mission- hosting parties for the richest and most famous, in order to engage in ostentatious displays of wealth. All are grand. A huge central ballroom forms their core. Some are beautiful, exhibiting levels of craftsmanship rarely seen in the US. Marble House, another Vanderbilt property, is enthralling for its grace and symmetry. Sometimes, designs strayed into excess. Walking the otherwise beautiful landscaping of The Elms, for example, we noted a statue/fountain of a female figure with water pouring from her breasts. (photo 06) Even with my limited level of taste, I know that’s tacky!

Dinner at The Black Pearl (www.blackpearlnewport.com) was particularly enjoyable. Chef Daniel Knerr has cooked at Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia, La Côte Basque in New York, Taillevant in Paris, and The French Laundry in Napa Valley. His classical background is evident in exquisite butter-based sauces.

We spent the better part of one day driving around Cape Cod- no particular location in mind. That did not do the Cape justice, and although the coast and the small towns were interesting, we would have to go back and spend some time here in order to appreciate the area fully.

Two more nights involved a stay in New Castle, New Hampshire, adjacent to Portsmouth, at Wentworth by the Sea, a historic property rehabilitated and now operated by Marriott. New Hampshire’s coastline is less than 20 miles long, but it is scenic in a unique, rocky, craggy way. Highway 1A snakes along the edge of the water. It’s a slow drive that allows great views of coastal homes as well as the shore.

We had made reservations for dinner at two Portsmouth restaurants, but we wandered into SALT, the Wentworth/Marriott restaurant, for an appetizer, and found ourselves enjoying the food so much we stayed for dinner. Then we went back again the next night- unusual, and a high compliment for a hotel restaurant.

Conversations with other guests caused us to change our destination for the next night, relocating to Rockland, Maine. The spur of the moment decision did not allow time to research the many inns in this area. We would select one of them on a return visit. (A Hampton Inn provided the reliable accommodations and good value I have come to expect from this chain.)

The reason for the change was a restaurant, Primo (www.primorestaurant.com), whose chef, Melissa Kelly, is this year’s James Beard Award winner for the Northeast. Situated in a historic home, the restaurant provides a formal menu downstairs, with seating by reservation, as well as tapas (small plate) selections upstairs, all in Italian style, prepared from ingredients sourced from the restaurant’s own farm.

The day time attraction in Rockland was the Farnsworth Museum (www.farnsworthmuseum.org), which houses a wonderful collection of Andrew Wyeth paintings, as well as Maine-themed works from other artists.

We spent the better part of the next day driving up the Maine coast, mainly enjoying the rugged land, the small towns, and the numerous harbors. A lobster lunch at a roadside stand set the tone for the state.

For the last two nights, we stayed in Bar Harbor, where we enjoyed the location, accommodations, and hospitality of the Manor House Inn (www.barharbormanorhouse.com). It’s easy to see why Bar Harbor has become such a popular destination. The streets are lined with tourist friendly shops, often catering to cruise ships, which anchor in the deep harbor. Whale watching trips and nature tours are the leading excursion attractions.

Leaves in Rhode Island and New Hampshire looked pretty much the same as North Carolina. But by the time we entered Maine, fall colors had begun to appear, and Bar Harbor and the surrounding mountains were awash in hues of orange, yellow, and red.

Dinner recommendations from a friend who comes here often yielded excellent meals. Havana (www.havanamaine.com) terms its cuisine “Nuevo Latino,” and that sounds just fine to me. Mâché Bistro (machebistro.com) is tiny. The French bistro style food is rustic and robust.

We were thwarted by the government shutdown- Acadia National Park, where we intended to spend a day, was closed. More random wandering compensated somewhat, but we regretted missing one of the few parts of the trip that we had actually planned.

We flew back from Bangor, Maine. A late afternoon flight allowed a leisurely lunch downtown, at Paddy Murphy’s pub (www.paddymurphyspub.com). Rollicking songs from a local troubadour entertained the crowd. “Where are you from?” he called out between numbers. When we responded, “North Carolina,” a cheer went up from a nearby table. Shortly thereafter, we met a party from Gibsonville, who come up every year for the Bangor Folk Festival (www.americanfolkfestival.com). “You ought to get him to write about his place,” came the admonition from one of the party (I wish I had been able to hear their names), gesturing toward me. “People eat where he tells them to!” We hope to return for a longer visit, maybe for the Festival, in the future.

Want to go somewhere? John Batchelor hosts travel groups in cooperation with Weezie Glascock, a licensed agent. Send a note to john.e.batchelor@gmail.com.

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