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A star-spangled summer

ISSUE 8
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John Lewisohn and family take a road trip through New England


A straight arrow indicated the direction to Portsmouth, Dover and Rochester. If we chose to turn off the freeway shortly, we could be heading for Manchester. Except these road signs were in green rather than the British blue and I was on the I-93 in New Hampshire, one of the six beautiful states that make up New England. The clue is in the name.

 

I lost count of the number of English place names we drove through during our 19-day road and rail trip between New York and Boston and north into the White Mountains. Take a visit to Cape Cod, for example, a peninsula shaped like a crooked arm, some 60 miles south of Boston, and you will find Chatham, Sandwich, Falmouth, Harwich, Yarmouth and Truro, each infinitely more enticing than their namesakes in the UK. Not that some of the English ones aren't lovely, but Cape Cod, with its combination of windswept beaches, distinctive villages, mixed woodlands and historical white clapboard homes is just drop-dead gorgeous.

 

We had chosen New England as our first US destination for a family holiday because I thought it would be more familiar. More, well, English, I suppose, than other parts of the USA that I had enjoyed visiting. This time, I was travelling with my wife and children, Daisy (13) and Jonah (11). Certainly this is a region that is justifiably proud of its heritage, with many house facades stamped with the date of building, often in the 18th century and sometimes with the names of the original inhabitants; sea captains by the name of Josiah and Nathaniel, lured to the New World by the promise of rich cod stocks and whaling in Cape Cod.

 

lobster pots

 

Goodness, I loved Cape Cod, although, like many love affairs, it was not love at first sight. Driving down the main highway, Route 6, there was no sign of the sea and turning into Hyannis, we were confronted by standard Americana – drive-ins, shopping centres and fast food outlets.

 

Cape Cod might look like a narrow peninsula with sea on both sides but it takes some effort to find a road heading out to one of the many beaches promised on the map. Our first taste of these famous beaches was at Sesuit Harbor, where we parked by the charming Sesuit Harbor Café, overlooking a creek and festooned with old buoys and lobster pots. On the crowded benches we saw people tucking into Welfleet oysters, platters of broiled clams, cod and scallops and lobster rolls. The latter are a speciality throughout New England consisting of diced lobster soaked in butter in a lightly toasted hot dog roll. We watched small fishing smacks heading out to sea and finally found a small stretch of sand on the busy harbour beach.

 

On the Lower Cape, we stayed at Welfleet. Driving again along the North Coast but this time on the more rural route 6A, we passed a never-ending vista of beautiful Cape clapboard houses, many dating from the 18th century and draped with the Stars and Stripes and all surrounded by white picket fences enclosing beautifully tended gardens and woodland. Pick out virtually any house on Cape Cod and place it into an English village and it would be lauded as the most attractive property for miles around.

 

surfing the waves

 

Welfleet is situated in Cape Cod National Seashore, designated so by John F. Kennedy. So we did what the locals do and hit Marconi Beach, famous as the site of the first transatlantic wireless communication from the US to Europe in the early 1900s.

 

One learns a lot about a nation by observing them at the beach, or rather what they take to the beach. An average American family would pull along gigantic coolers on special beach-friendly wheels, foldaway beach chairs on their backs, boogie boards, surfboards, umbrellas – indeed most people apart from us seemed to have an aversion to sitting on a towel, despite the sand being talcum powder soft. The water, even in mid-August, is glacial but with a hot sun on our backs, extremely refreshing and my children particularly liked body-surfing the gentle waves.

 

At each beach, information boards not only provided the sea temperature (never above 60°F) and surf conditions but a graphic of a great white shark with the simple message, "Great white sharks eat seals. If you see seals in the water, do not swim close to them." This is, after all, the coastline where Jaws was set.

 

We didn't spot any Great Whites but we had already seen whales, including an enormous fin whale, second in size only to the blue whale. We took a trip from Gloucester on the Cape Anne peninsula less than two hours' drive north of Boston. Gloucester is very much a working town, dedicated to the fishing industry, in contrast to the artists' colony and resort of Rockport where we stayed 20 minutes' drive north. Gloucester was the infamous port from where the Andrea Gail swordfish boat set sail, never to return but immortalised in the book and film, The Perfect Storm. There is a very moving memorial in Gloucester dedicated to the hundreds of fisherman who have lost their lives fishing from here over the centuries.

 

Our boat, the Cape Ann, run by Captain Bill & Sons Whale Watch, left Gloucester in the hot sun bound for Jeffreys Ledge, which, together with nearby Stellwagen Bank, is the area most populated by whales. Minke whales were in evidence fairly early on and later, we were thrilled to see the massive body of a fin whale break the surface.

 

In Rockport, our hotel, The Emerson Inn, named after the famous author who stayed there, was situated on a hill overlooking the sea from the town centre. Walking down, we passed more gorgeous clapboard houses with enviable views over the harbour, many with distinctive mailboxes designed to look like lobster pots or whales, another sign of this region's nautical past and present.

 

Approaching the town centre, we passed a bandstand where the smartly dressed orchestra was playing the theme of Star Wars. Families sat out on chairs with their picnics and there was a lovely feeling of permanence and tradition as if they had been coming to Rockport every summer for generations. Who could blame them?

 

antiques and art galleries

 

A brawny fishwife type with a caustic turn of phrase strong-armed us to our table in one of the many casual seafood restaurants, where we enjoyed huge plates of clams, cod and chips and lobster rolls. As the moon rose over the walled harbour, we wandered around the streets that make up 'Bearskin Neck' near the seafront, where families were browsing in an array of antique shops and art galleries, just the right side of twee.

 

Our trip had started in New York, humid and a bit smelly in August, but for Daisy and Jonah, a concentrated adrenalin shot of 100% pure America with a view of the Empire State Building from our hotel. We took the Acela Express train from Penn Street Station north to Boston. Once out of the suburbs, the train swiftly reached the Connecticut coastline where, for the next hour, we had views of expansive houses, many with jetties to which private boats were moored, overlooking little creeks.

 

In just over three hours, the train pulled into Boston and we were soon relaxing at The Colonnade Hotel in the Back Bay area, one of Boston's most desirable neighbourhoods. Boston is described as 'America's Walking City' and over the next two days, we did a lot of that, in part following the famous Freedom Trail, easily identified by a red line on the sidewalk. The trail covers a circuitous route through parks and around monuments that illustrate the central role Boston and Bostonians had in the American Revolution. Eighteenth century churches and town halls were often the filling between modern glass skyscraper sandwiches.

 

In the North End neighbourhood, we ate in Little Italy, a collection of atmospheric lanes where we had our pick of over 100 Italian restaurants, nearly all packed to the rafters. Our waitress was a kindly Italian mamma with a rasping Boston accent who served us stuffed artichoke followed by veal stew with fettucine pomodoro.

 

Our first car journey out of Boston's gridlocked traffic took us 15 miles north to Lexington, the birthplace of the Revolution, home to an enticing village green, a collection of enormous homes and our hotel, the newly opened Inn at Hastings Park. Our lavish rooms had been personally decorated by the owner, who even ordered the wallpaper from Colefax & Fowler in London. House specials included such individual dishes as duck-egg hash and fries with a parmesan crust.

 

biking through boston

 

To burn off the calories, the hotel lent us bikes to explore the 11-mile MinuteMan Bikeway trail that almost reaches the outskirts of Boston at Cambridge, home of Harvard. The Lexington troops in the run up to the Revolution were called Minute Men because of their ability to wage war at a minute's notice. The town has a number of fascinating museums with artefacts and storylines from the time of the Revolution such as Hancock House, dating from 1698, which was the destination of Paul Revere as he rode from Boston to warn of the approaching British troops, and Munroe Tavern, which served as a British field hospital during the ensuing battle.

 

We ended our holiday in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, staying in the ski resort of Attitash, surrounded by forest-clad green mountains on all sides.

 

Altitude is deceptive; the highest point in the eastern USA, Mount Washington, may be just under 2,000m but it's a malevolent mountain with the highest recorded wind speed in history of over 230mph and a reputation for sudden snowfalls, even in high summer. We took the Mount Washington Cog Railway straight to the summit. The railway was built in the mid-19th century and hasn't changed; an ancient steam locomotive pushes a slightly less ancient carriage up the mountain. Building the track must have been an astonishing feat of engineering as at the steepest part, the front of our carriage was 15ft higher than the bottom. Not only was the summit in fog (as it is for more than 300 days a year) but the temperature had dropped from a rather balmy 24°C at the base to no more than 7°C at the top. In the interactive museum, you can watch videos of the resident meteorologists attempting to take readings in winter when it drops down to -30°C.

 

Summer activities in the White Mountains are numerous. Attitash Mountain has a summer toboggan run which thrillingly twists and turns its way down to the base station like a roller coaster. Many resorts have zip-lines and there are countless hiking trails, particularly along the Kangamagus Highway, known as the 'Kank'. One can only imagine how beautiful this region must be both in the famous fall season, when the trees turn golden, and in winter, when they're draped in thick snow. Add in the huge shopping outlets at North Conway nearby, where I bought three Timberland sweaters and a pair of shoes for under £100, and you've got a great Vacationland.

 

Mention you are going on a family holiday to America and people immediately think theme parks. In New England, a relatively small region by America's standards, we visited cities, ate ice cream, climbed mountains, forded creeks, ate more ice cream, lay on the beach, cycled, zip-wired…

 

Every day we laughed and every day brought excitement and new experiences, whether it was in city, coast or mountains. Any holiday destination that can achieve this gets a giant tick in my book.

WAY TO GO

The Lewisohn family stayed at The Colonnade Boston (Tel: +1 617 424 7000 / colonnadehotel.com); The Inn at Hastings Park, Lexington (Tel: +1 781 301 6660 / innathastingspark.com); Emerson Inn by the Sea, Rockport (Tel: +1 978 546 6321 / emersoninnbythesea.com); Cape Codder Resort & Spa, Hyannis (Tel: +1 855 736 0802 / capcodderresort.com); Attitash Grand Summit Hotel, White Mountains (Tel: +1 603 374 1900 / attitash.com/grandsummit-hotel.html).

 

For more information on New York, visit nycgo.com.

 

For all you need to know about New England, see Discover New England, discovernewengland.org.

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