Foliage is fantasy time. Normally, green trees turn ruby and gold, and normally sensible adults day dream about driving country roads for no good reason.
Of course, foliage colors ``peak'' at different times in different places, in late September on mountaintops in northern New England but not until after Columbus Day in lower elevations of the central and southern parts of the region.
This tristate tour should be satisfying at any time during the monthlong color progression because of the varying altitudes it threads, from river valleys up into surrounding hills. It's a 360-mile tour that's doable in a day but ideally should not be a daytrip. In other words: Near enough to home so you can bail out at any time but far enough so that it makes sense to spend the night.
Brattleboro, Vt., just two hours from Boston, is the hub of the tour, and its chamber of commerce is unusually helpful in lodging leaf peepers throughout southern Vermont. Of course, it helps if you come midweek.
From Boston, drive west along Route 2, past Concord's fields and farmstands. The first stop is the Johnny Appleseed Trail Visitors Center in Lancaster (47 miles west of Boston between exits 34 and 35), a showcase for what's made as well as what's where in the surrounding apple-rich country. Pick up a glossy new Massachusetts highway map and a seasonal guide to pick-your-own orchards and the many local harvest and foliage fests.
Your next stop may depend on the time of day. Mine was a late start, after a quick lunch, and the tug to turn off at Templeton (some 16 miles west of Lancaster) was stronger than usual. Besides Country Mischief, a Federal-brick mansion with 20 rooms full of crafts and antiques, this town's classic common is the site of the Templeton Ice Cream Barn, a source of road food served in the old stable of an 18th-century tavern that also houses the general store.
Studying the map from the visitors center, sugar cone in hand, I spotted a likely road going my way: Route 68 to Royalston.
From Templeton Common, follow Route 2A the couple miles north (it ducks under Route 2) to Route 202; Route 68 is a couple more miles up on the left. It climbs steadily through woods and meadows, dips suddenly across the bridge and railroad crossing in the old mill village of South Royalston, and continues up and up, past the turnoff for Tully Lake (a 200-acre reservoir, good canoeing) and into Royalston.
An antique mile-marker puts us 80 miles from Boston, but the feel is far farther. The single, quiet street, running along the crest of a ridge, is lined with striking Federal and Greek Revival clapboard mansions. This village was rediscovered around the turn of the century as a summer resort, but is best known these days for its three waterfalls. Doane's Falls, the most accessible (turn south on Route 32 at the junction with Route 68) spills through a granite gorge crowned with pine and hemlock.
At this same junction, our foliage route turns north on Route 32 and climbs six more miles, crossing the New Hampshire line into Richmond. Turn west (left) on Route 119 and follow it down into the Achuelot Valley.
As you wait at the light in Winchester, spot the small, cream-colored diner, topped with a fanciful rendition of Mount Pisgah, across the street. This circa 1930 Worcester Diner (No. 769: 12 stools, three booths) is a proven bet for omelets or club sandwiches, not to mention Joni's pies (open weekdays just 5 a.m. to 2 p.m., until 11 p.m. Saturdays).
Next along Route 119 is the photogenic white, red-roofed covered bridge built across the Ashuelot River in 1864 (there's a small pullout to park). Ashuelot itself is a mill village that has obviously seen better days. In the next village, Hinsdale, the mill is gone, but there's a good clue to who worked there: the Village Pantry, across from town hall. Not much from outside, this is a real find if you like ``Polish American Home Cooking'' (open Wednesday-Saturday for all three meals, Sunday until 2 p.m.).
Route 119 enters the Connecticut River Valley, leaving higher, hemmed-in landscapes behind. Ahead, across the iron bridge, is an improbable lineup of brick buildings and church steeples: Brattleboro.
"Brat" is Vermont's largest town, an 1870s brick commercial hub for the rural corners of three states (population goes from 12,000 at night to 30,000 by day). It's an earnest and yeasty place in which the spirit of the '60s continues to build.
Many former members of the numerous communes that once flourished in surrounding hills have never left this southeastern corner of Vermont. It also continues to attract idealistic young people and academics, thanks to the School for International Training/World Learning and to Putney School, to Marlboro College, Landmark College, and to several more educational organizations such as Oak Meadow School (world headquarters for home schooling programs).
Among the many local nonprofits, I should note the Brattleboro Music Center, sponsor of the 30th annual New England Bach Festival (Oct. 1-18) with chamber music, choral, and organ concerts held in local church and campus venues. ``I never expected to find a community this friendly, open, and nurturing,'' artist Ginger Ertz told us at the Windham Art Gallery (69 Main St.). Ertz, who came from Philadelphia, suggested that Brattleboro is one of those places where artistic energy converges.
"It's said you can't throw a stone on Main Street without hitting a writer or poet, musician or artist," William Hays told us. An artist himself who came here from Alaska, Hays maintains the Artist's Loft B & B and helps organize the Gallery Walk held the first Friday of every month (live entertainment and refreshments in at least a dozen shops and galleries). He points out that Brattleboro also offers no fewer than seven bookstores, several music shops, more than 25 restaurants and coffeehouses, and two micro-breweries, all within several downtown blocks. All are, moreover, for local, not tourist, consumption.
Like the progression of foliage itself, the colorful counter-culture stores that now predominate along Main Street began as splashes of color along side streets in an otherwise traditional old Vermont river town. Gradually, however, they have replaced Main Street's old anchor stores.
Twice Upon a Time now fills the 63 Main St. space created in 1906 for the E. J. Fenton Department Store. In the '50s, it was chopped into smaller storefronts, but the two-story-high Corinthian columns, bubble glass, and wooden gallery are back, a setting for clothing, antique furniture, and furnishings (the markdown schedule is patterned on Filene's Basement) representing no fewer than 103 dealers, 4,000 consigners.
By the same token, Vermont Artisan Designs, Southern Vermont's outstanding contemporary crafts gallery, has replaced the clothing store that had been there 95 years; Candle In The Night, an Oriental carpet store, now fills the entire front of the Main Street Gallery; and a former supermarket is now the Brattleboro Food Coop. The eating/meeting heart of town, the Coop, includes Vermont's best cheese counter, knowledgeably selling as well as showcasing dozens of Vermont cheeses. It also sells local maple syrup in bulk.
Main Street specialty stores include Delectable Mountain (only all-natural fabrics), Beadniks (string-your-own-beads), and a "Save the Corporation From Themselves" featuring environmentally positive products and services. Flat and Eliot streets incubate similar enterprises.
Brattleboro is a town in which the most expensive and revered restaurant (T.J. Buckley's) is housed in a tiny diner. Another landmark, is the Wednesday Farmers Market, a mix of produce, finger food, and flowers (behind Merchant's Bank, beside picnic tables overlooking the river) is a standout.
The physical heart of downtown remains the mansard-roofed, brick Brooks Hotel, a reminder of the four years (1892-1896) during which Rudyard Kipling frequented its public rooms. At the time, Kipling was writing ``The Jungle Books'' at Naulakha, the home he had built in nearby Dummerston.
While The Brooks House no longer functions as a hotel, Brattleboro does still offer an exceptional downtown hotel, the Latchis, a vintage 1938 beautifully restored, family-owned Art Deco complex that also houses the Latchis Theater (guests receive a movie pass with their room key).
For film buffs, this 900-seat movie house is itself a destination. Apollo still drives his chariot through the firmaments on the ceiling; walls are graced with Doric columns, and the lobby floor bears the zodiac signs in multicolored terrazzo. Oct. 2-8, the Latchis hosts a National Film Registry Festival for James Earl Jones, who will be on hand.
The Latchis is, of course, the antithesis of the classic country inn, and Brattleboro is no clapboard Vermont village (two splendid examples -- Newfane and Townshend -- are just up Route 30). But both offer something rarer. In '60s speak, they are ``real.''
My spacious, third-floor (elevator-accessed) room in the Latchis overlooked Main Street. Next door, across Flat Street, is Sam's Army & Navy Deptartment Store, a family business begun in 1934 that now fills two floors of two buildings with clothing, shoes, hunting, fishing and sporting gear, as well as government surplus. It's one of several old downtown shopping landmarks like Brown and Roberts Hardware, the Rexall, and the Baker's Hallmark (stationers).
My windows also overlooked Brattleboro's former stone railway station, now the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center and Watastiquet Mountain, webbed with walking trails, just across the river.
Minutes from Brattleboro in any direction, you are in the hills. I drove west a dozen miles to the 350-acre Robb Family Farm, which welcomes visitors in its barn and country store any day, and especially Oct. 3 for an Apple Fritter Fest.
From Brattleboro. you can scoot back to Boston via Interstate 91 south and Route 2 east. Or you can follow Route 30 north along the West River the half-dozen miles to the state's (newly reopened) longest covered bridge in use. Cross it and follow the east/west road two winding, wooded miles uphill to picture-perfect, white clapboard Dummerston Center and then two miles down to Route 5 and the Connecticut River.
Everything glowed in a warm, late afernoon light, and I drove on, six more miles up Route 5 to Putney, browsed in the several village shops, and feasted at Curtis' Barbeque on spectacular barbecued ribs. The neighboring Putney Inn is, of course, one of Vermont's better dining spots.
I-91 works like an elevator up and down the Connecticut River Valley. With a little more energy or planning, I might have zipped the 15 miles up to Bellows Falls, departure point for the Green Mountain Flyer excursion train.
Truthfully, however, I drove I-91 from Putney south to Exit 3 and Route 9 east into New Hampshire, past the Chesterfield Inn (another good dining/lodging bet), past Chesterfield Gorge (a great walk), and on down Route 12 through Troy and Fitzwilliam (dining/lodging) and past the Golden Pineapple (dining) in Winchendon to Route 140, a highway to Route 2.
SIDEBAR: IF YOU GO . . .
The Brattleboro Chamber of Commerce (802-254-4565), 180 Main St., is a source of lodging help and maps.
The Franklin County Chamber of Commerce (413-773-5463), 395 Main St., Greenfield, covering the scenic area just south of the Vermont line, is also unusually helpful with foliage season lodging.
Sept. 26-28, Brattleboro area. Apple Days will be celebrated at the area's many orchards as well as downtown; pick up a map/ guide to Southern Vermont Working Farms.
Oct. 2, Brattleboro/ First Friday Gallery Walk, 5 to 8 p.m. with refreshments, entertainment, open studios; pick up a guide at the Chamber of Commerce.
Oct. 10-12, Townshend. Helicopter Scenic Rides; tours of the West River Valley (508-636-4376).
VARIATIONS ON THIS ROUTE
Beyond Brattleboro, we suggest Route 30 up the West River Valley. While our route stops at the Dummerston covered bridge, you might well continue on to Newfane and Townshend, and on up Route 35 to Grafton (all three are famously classic Vermont villages) and back down Route 12 through Saxton's River, Bellows Falls, Walpole, etc.
For details about special foliage excursions aboard the Green Mountain Flyer, phone 802-463-3069.