When sociologist Thorstein Veblen visited Newport at the turn of the twentieth century, he was so horrified by the extravagance that he coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption”. From the 1880s, this had been the summer playground of the New York elite, with wealthy families competing to outdo each other with lavish mansions and annual parties.
The Gilded Age lasted just a few decades; beginning with the introduction of US income tax in 1913, by the early 1940s most of the mansions had closed for good; the Preservation Society of Newport County maintains the bulk of the dozen or so houses open for public viewing today.
The mansions each boast their own version of Gilded Age excess: Marble House, built in 1892 for William Vanderbilt with its golden ballroom and adjacent Chinese teahouse; Rosecliff, with a colourful rose garden and heart-shaped staircase; the ornate French The Elms, known for its gardens; and Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s The Breakers, an Italian Renaissance-style palace overlooking the ocean and the grandest of the lot. Besides those, a number of earlier, smaller houses, including the quirky Gothic Revival cottage Kingscote, built in 1841, may well make for a more interesting excursion. Note that many houses can only be seen on hourly tours; unless you’re a mansion nut, viewing one or two should suffice to get a glimpse of the opulence.
One way to see the mansions on the cheap is to peer in the back gardens from the Cliff Walk, which begins on Memorial Boulevard where it meets First (Easton) Beach. This spectacular three-and-a-half-mile oceanside path alternates from pretty stretches lined by jasmine and wild roses to rugged rocky passes.
The states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine – collectively known as New England – exemplify America at its most nostalgic: country stores that brim with cider and gourds, snow-dusted hillsides, miles of blazing autumn foliage, clam shacks, cranberry bogs and an unruly ocean that distinguishes and defines it all.
Scratch just beneath the surface, and you’ll also uncover fiercely independent locals, innovative chefs, some of the country’s best contemporary art museums and a profound sense of history.
Boston especially is celebrated as the birthplace of American independence – so many seminal events took place here, or nearby at Lexington and Concord. New England was also home to many of the preeminent figures of American literature, from Mark Twain and Henry Thoreau to Emily Dickinson and Jack Kerouac. The Ivy League colleges – Harvard, Yale, Brown, Dartmouth et al – are the oldest in the country and remain hugely influential, continually channelling new life into towns like Cambridge and New Haven and setting a decidedly liberal tone throughout the region.
To the east, the peninsula of Cape Cod flexes off Massachusetts like a well-tanned arm. Here you will find three hundred miles of shoreline, sea roses, tumbling sand dunes and the fantastic isles of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. In the western part of the state, the tranquil Berkshires offer the best in summer festivals as well as fascinating art museums. The sights of Connecticut and Rhode Island tend to be urban, but away from I-95 you’ll find plenty of tranquil pockets, particularly in the way of Newport and Block Island, fifty miles south of Providence. Boston is a vibrant and enchanting city from which to set off north, where the population begins to thin out (and the seafood gets better as you go). The rest of Massachusetts is rich in historical and literary sights, while further inland, the lakes and mountains of New Hampshire and Maineoffer rural wildernesses to rival any in the nation. Maine is especially known for its coastline, dotted with lighthouses and wild blueberry bushes. The beloved country roads of Vermont offer pleasant wandering through rural towns and serene forests; during your travels, be sure to pick up some maple syrup, a local delicacy, for your pancakes back home.
The best time to visit New England is in late September and October, when visitors flock to see the magnificent autumn foliage. Particularly vivid in Vermont, it’s an event that’s not to be missed.*
Boston: Drinking & Nightlife
Newport Folk Festival
The Freedom Trail, Boston
No visit to Boston would be complete without an afternoon spent strolling around delightful Beacon Hill, a dignified stack of red brick rising over the north side of Boston Common. This is the Boston of wealth and privilege, one-atime home to numerous historical and literary figures – including John Hancock, John Quincy Adams, Louisa May Alcott and Oliver Wendell Holmes.
As you walk, keep an eye out for the purple panes in some of the townhouses’ windows (such as nos. 63 and 64 Beacon St). At first an irritating accident, they were eventually regarded as the definitive Beacon Hill status symbol due to their prevalence in the windows of Boston’s most prestigious homes.
Delineated by a 2.5-mile-long red-brick (or paint) stripe in the sidewalk, the Freedom Trail stretches from Boston Common to Charlestown, linking sixteen points “significant in their contribution to this country’s struggle for freedom”. About half the sights on the trail are related to the Revolution itself; the others are more germane to other times and topics.
Though some of the touches intended to accentuate the trail’s appeal move closer to tarnishing it (the costumed actors outside some of the sights, the pseudo-antique signage), the Freedom Trail remains the easiest way to orient yourself downtown, and is especially useful if you’ll only be in Boston for a short time, as it does take in many “must-see” sights.
Detailed National Park Service maps of the trail can be picked up from the visitor centre. Thrifty travellers take note: most stops on the trail are either free or inexpensive to enter.
Cape Cod, Massachusetts
THE STATE OF MASSACHUSETTS
A mere 48 miles long by 37 miles wide, RHODE ISLAND is the smallest state in the Union, yet it had a disproportionately large influence on national life: in 1652 it enacted the first law against slavery in North America, and just over ten years later it was the first to guarantee religious freedom – in the eighteenth century it also saw the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in America.
Today, Rhode Island is a prime tourist destination, boasting nearly four dozen National Historic Landmarks and four hundred miles of spectacular coastline.
More than thirty tiny islands make up the state, including Hope, Despair and the bay’s largest, Rhode Island (also known by its Native American name “Aquidneck”), which gives the state its name. Narragansett Bayhas long been a determining factor in Rhode Island’s economic development and strategic military importance, as the Ocean State developed through sea trade, whaling and smuggling before shifting to manufacturing in the nineteenth century. Today, the state’s principal destinations are its two original ports: the colonial college town of Providence, and well-heeled Newport, home to extravagant mansions that once belonged to America’s most prominent families, and still a major yachting centre.
There’s always something afoot in Newport, particularly in August for the Newport Folk Festival (where Bob Dylan got his start in 1963; 401 848 5055, newportfolkfest.net) as well as the high-profile Jazz Festival (newportjazzfest.net). The Newport Music Festival (401 849 0700, newportmusic.org) in July boasts classical music performed at the mansions, while the Waterfront Irish Festival in September is one of the region’s biggest Irish events (newportwaterfrontevents.com).
With its white churches and red barns, covered bridges and clapboard houses, snowy woods and maple syrup, VERMONT comes closer than any other New England state to fulfilling the quintessential image of small-town Yankee America. Much of the state is smothered by verdant, mountainous forests; indeed, the name Vermont supposedly comes from the French vert mont, or green mountain.
This was the last area of New England to be settled, early in the eighteenth century.
The leader of the New Hampshire settlers, the now-legendary Ethan Allen, formed his Green Mountain Boys in 1770, and during the Revolutionary War, this all-but-autonomous force helped to win the decisive Battle of Bennington. In 1777, Vermont declared itself an independent republic, with the first constitution in the world explicitly forbidding slavery and granting universal (male) suffrage; in 1791 it became the first state admitted to the Union after the original thirteen colonies. A more recent example of Vermont’s progressive attitude occurred in 2000, when former governor Howard Dean signed the civil union bill into law, making the state the first in the USA to sanction marital rights for same-sex couples. Today, Vermont remains liberal when it comes to politics: the state continually attracts a mix of hippies, environmentalists and professionals escaping the rat race, most of them aspiring to an eco-friendly philosophy best epitomized by Ben & Jerry’s additive-free, locally produced ice cream.
With the occasional exception, such as the extraordinary assortment of Americana at the Shelburne Museum near Burlington (a lively city worth visiting in any case), there are few specific sights. Tourism here is more activity-oriented, and though the state’s rural charms can be enjoyed year-round, most visitors come during two well-defined seasons: to see the spectacular autumn foliage in the first two weeks of October, and to ski in the depths of winter, when resorts such as Killington and Stowe spring to life.
Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts
THE STATE OF VERMONT
With its gorgeous location on Aquidneck Island, fleets of polished yachts, rose-coloured sunsets and long-standing association with America’s fine and fabulous, NEWPORT is straight out of a fairy tale. The Kennedys were married here (Jackie was a local girl); and though F. Scott Fitzgerald set his novel The Great Gatsby in Long Island, it’s no surprise that the iconic 1974 movie version was filmed in Newport.
Indeed, many of the town’s opulent fin-de-siècle mansions – former summer homes of the likes of the Astors and Vanderbilts – are still owned by America’s current crop of mega-wealthy.
Stroll beyond the extravagant facades, though, and you’ll find much more. The streets are laden with history, and sights commemorate everything from the town’s pioneering role in religious freedom in America to the landing of French forces during the Revolutionary War. Newport’s prime seaside location also means that the views are often, if not always, free – a short drive and you’re greeted by unrivalled shores, with rugged seascapes and long swaths of sand.
The Newport Mansions
The state of Massachusetts was established with a lofty aim: to become, in the words of seventeenth-century governor John Winthrop, a utopian “City upon a hill”. This Puritan clarity of thought and forcefulness of purpose can be traced from the foundation of Harvard College in 1636, through the intellectual impetus behind the Revolutionary War and the crusade against slavery, to the nineteenth-century achievements of writers such as Melville, Emerson, Hawthorne and Thoreau.
Spending a few days in Boston is strongly recommended.
Perhaps America’s most historic city, and certainly one of its most elegant, it offers a great deal of modern life as well, thanks in part to the presence of Cambridge, the home of Harvard University and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), just across the river. Several historic towns are within easy reach – Salem to the north, known for its “witch” sights,Concord and Lexington, just inland, richly imbued with Revolutionary War history, and Plymouth, to the south, the site of the Pilgrims’ first settlement (1620).
One of the most celebrated slices of real estate in America, Cape Cod boasts a dazzling, three-hundred-mile coastline with some of the best beaches in New England. A slender, crooked peninsula, it’s easily accessed from the region’s snug villages, many of which have been preserved as they were a hundred or more years ago. Today, much of the land on the Cape, from its salt marshes to its ever-eroding dunes, is considered a fragile and endangered ecosystem, and once you head north to the Outer Cape, past the spectacular dunes of Cape Cod National Seashore, you get a feeling for why this narrow spit of land still has a reputation as a seaside wilderness. Provincetown, at the very tip of Cape Cod, is a popular gay resort and summer destination for bohemians, artists and fun-seekers lured by the excellent beaches, art galleries and welcoming atmosphere.
Just off the south coast of Cape Cod, the relatively unspoiled islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket have long been some of the most popular and prestigious vacation destinations in the USA. Both mingle an easy-going cosmopolitan atmosphere and some of the best restaurants and B&Bs on the East Coast. Nantucket is usually considered the more highfalutin’ of the pair, teased for its preppy fashions; Martha is more expansive and laidback, known for its elaborate gingerbread-style houses, wild moorlands and perfect beaches.
Western Massachusetts is best known for the beautiful Berkshires, which host the celebrated Tanglewood summer music festival and boast museum-filled towns such as North Adams and Williamstown – both in the far northwest corner of the state, at the end of the incredibly scenic Mohawk Trail. Amherst and Northampton are stimulating college towns in the verdant Pioneer Valley, with all the cafés, restaurants and bookstores you could want.
Beacon Hill, Boston
As you wander around Yale University's venerable campus, admiring the gorgeous faux-Gothic and Victorian architecture, it's hard to fathom New Haven's struggle to shake its reputation as a dangerous, decaying seaport.
Connecticut's second-largest city radiates out from pretty New Haven Green, laid by Puritan settlers in the 1600s. Around it, Yale's over-300-year-old accessible campus offers visitors a wealth of world-class attractions, from museums and galleries to a lively concert program and walking-tour tales of secret societies. As New Haven repositions herself as a thriving home for the arts, architecture and the human mind, the good news is tourism is on the up and crime is in decline.
While Yale may have put New Haven on the map, there’s much to savor beyond campus. Well-aged dive bars, ethnic restaurants, barbecue shacks and cocktail lounges make the area almost as lively as Cambridge's Harvard Square – but with better pizza and less ego.
Later I discovered the Hamptons, with its designer shops and sleek nightclubs. The Cape began to feel a bit "ye olde" by comparison; the fudge shops and five-and-dimes didn't have quite the same allure. But something funny happened in my absence: the Cape stayed the same. When I started coming back after years away, I fell in love with its unpretentious charms all over again. Granted, there's now a Marc Jacobs store in Provincetown, but my childhood shell shop remains tucked away behind the saltwater taffy store. And despite the influx of big money in Chatham, the town band still plays in the park on summer Friday nights and local fire trucks still lumber down Main Street in the annual Fourth of July parade.
Life hasn't changed much thanks in part to the locals: Cape Codders are a fiercely protective bunch—a reputation confirmed for me firsthand while I was eating day-boat scallops recently at Abba, a restaurant in Orleans. I made the mistake of telling some fellow diners that I was writing a story on the area. Suddenly they were all over me for my credentials. Did I have a place here?(Luckily, my parents bought a house in East Harwich a few years ago.) What was my favorite beach?Lobster roll?Hiking trail?It was quite an interrogation, but I passed. I guess I had earned my stripes—and the right to lead others to my favorite spots.
THE STATE OF CONNECTICUT
THE STATE OF RHODE ISLAND
The thirty-mile, two-hour sea crossing to NANTUCKET may not be an ocean odyssey, but it does set the “Little Gray Lady” apart from her larger, shore-hugging sister, Martha. Nantucket’s smaller size adds to its palpable sense of identity, as does the architecture; the “gray” epithet refers not only to the winter fogs, but to the austere grey clapboard and shingle applied uniformly to buildings across the island.
The tiny cobbled carriageways of Nantucket Town itself, once one of the largest cities in Massachusetts, were frozen in time by economic decline 150 years ago. Today, this area of delightful old restored houses – the town has more buildings on the National Register of Historic Places than Boston – is very much the island hub. Surrounding the ferry exit is a plethora of bike rental places and tour companies. Straight Wharf leads directly onto Main Street, with its shops and restaurants.
Just ninety miles long by 55 miles wide, CONNECTICUT is New England’s southernmost state and the most influenced by New York City; thousands of commuters make the trip each day, and many of the opulent mansions are owned by Wall Street bankers. As a result, tourism here is of a sophisticated sort, with art galleries, vineyards, historical houses, museums and increasingly eclectic cuisine on offer, while the state’s lesser-known natural offerings along the densely populated coast make for some pleasant surprises.
The coast is studded with enticing small towns, from the colonial charms of Mystic and Stonington to hip New London and intellectual New Haven, home of Yale University.
Further inland, the state capital at Hartford is a real surprise, with a gradually regenerating downtown and a trio of attractions.
My father used to say that you were guaranteed good weather if you spotted a boat as you drove across the Cape Cod Canal—the thin strip of water that separates the 70-mile-long peninsula from mainland Massachusetts. As our Ford Pinto station wagon rattled over the Sagamore Bridge, my brother and I would press our foreheads to the window and hope for a sighting. To this day, I religiously scan the water every time I hit the bridge. It's my signal to myself that I have left the real world behind—and it's just as reassuring as that first whiff of briny air or the sight of pine needles mixed with sand along the roadside.
When I was growing up, my family rented shingled cottages in Chatham or Dennis, or stayed with friends in a beachfront apartment in Provincetown or a Victorian house in Harwich. A vacation on Cape Cod was all about simple pleasures: fishing off the Chatham drawbridge with my grandfather, putt-putt golfing in Dennisport, watching movies at the Wellfleet Drive-In Theatre (I saw Jaws there and, like half the country, was terrified to go in the water for years afterward). On sunny mornings, we'd debate whether to make the trek to the wide, wild beaches of the National Seashore or head to one of the placid coves on nearby Nantucket Sound. Gray days meant decamping to Provincetown, where my brother and I would create spin-art masterpieces at a toy shop while our parents explored the galleries. No trip to the Cape was complete without a platter of fried clams from a roadside shack.
The largest offshore island in New England, twenty-mile-long MARTHA’S VINEYARD encompasses more physical variety than Nantucket, with hills and pastures providing scenic counterpoints to the beaches and wild, windswept moors on the separate island of Chappaquiddick.
Martha’s Vineyard’s most genteel town is Edgartown, all prim and proper with its freshly painted, white clapboard colonial homes, museums and manicured gardens.
The other main settlement, Vineyard Haven, is more commercial and one of the island’s ferry ports. Oak Bluffs, in between the two (and the other docking point for ferries), has an array of fanciful wooden gingerbread cottages and inviting restaurants. Be aware of island terminology: heading “Up-Island” takes you southwest to the cliffs at Aquinnah (formerly known as Gay Head); conversely, “Down-Island” refers to the triumvirate of easterly towns mentioned here.
A modern American city that proudly trades on its colonial past, Boston is about as close to the Old World as the New World gets. This is not to say it lacks contemporary attractions: its cafés, museums, neatly landscaped public spaces and diverse neighbourhoods are all as alluring as its historic sites.
Boston has grown up around Boston Common, a utilitarian chunk of green established for public use and “the feeding of cattell” in 1634. A good starting point for a tour of the city, it is also one of the links in the string of nine parks called the Emerald Necklace. Another piece is the lovely Public Garden, across Charles Street from the Common, where Boston’s iconic swan boats paddle the main pond. Grand boulevards such as Commonwealth Avenue lead west from the Public Garden into Back Bay, where Harvard Bridge crosses into Cambridge. The beloved North End, adjacent to the waterfront, is Boston’s Little Italy, its narrow streets chock-a-block with excellent bakeries and restaurants. Behind the Common rises the State House and lofty Beacon Hill, every bit as dignified as when writer Henry James called Mount Vernon Street “the most prestigious address in America”.