Provincetown, which sits at the very tip of the Cape Cod peninsula, was the first landing point for the Pilgrim Fathers before they moved on to establish their colony a little further up the coast at what was to become Plymouth. It was also the final holiday destination for our three week New England trip. The town has a special feel about it; as the local fishing and whaling industries started to fade away towards the end of the 19th Century so the area drew in artists who were attracted by the gentle scenery and the soft light which, rather like some of the western tips of the British Isles, has a particular quality about it. Hard on the heels of the artists came sculptors, glass workers, writers and poets, and with them the gradual establishment of a small, close knit, bohemian society which eventually, and perhaps inevitably, became a focus for America’s gay community as they ‘came out’ in the final decades of the last century. By all accounts the summer months also bring vast numbers of tourists, but by the dying days of October most visitors have departed and we were able to stroll through what is effectively a one street town with mainly locals for company.
Whether as a result of strict planning laws or the application of good taste most towns on the Cape seem to have avoided the out-of-town shopping developments and commercial ‘strips’ which, in my opinion, have blighted some of the towns we’ve visited over the past three weeks. Perhaps as a result of land in Provincetown being at such a premium most of the residences in the town are modest in size and those that nestle along the sea shore are universally picturesque.
The Pilgrims’ Monument which dominates the Provincetown skyline is incongruous in the extreme. Built by local subscription in the early nineteen hundreds to remind the rest of New England of the town’s importance as the Mayflower’s first landing point, it rises 252 feet above the town with a design based on the Torre del Mangia in Sienna. As one Boston architect said at the time ‘ if all they want is an architectural curiosity why not select the Leaning Tower of Pisa and be done with it?’
Outside town the land consists mainly of dunes which, having been largely de-forested over the past three hundred years, are now closely protected from development. As you walk along the foreshore the sea looks pretty much as it does in other parts of the world, though the iconic Cap Cod lighthouses add something special to the landscape and inevitably, therefore, feature in everyone’s holiday snaps.
Fortunately the weather was kind to us for this final stopover. After a spectacular sunset on day one we were rewarded by a bright but cool day, which was perfect for exploration, and a ‘hunters moon’ to round off a great holiday.
When sociologist Thorstein Veblen visited Newport at the turn of the twentieth century he coined the phrase ‘conspicuous consumption’ to describe the actions of some of America’s new entrepreneurial millionaires in flaunting their newly acquired wealth.
The evidence of their excesses can be seen in the many opulent mansions, known to the locals as’ cottages’, which were created by families such as the Vanderbilts and Astors who were determined to out-do one another, and whose creations today still line Newport’s famous Bellevue Avenue and Ocean Drive to draw tourists from far and wide. Fascinating viewing, but more than a little incongruous to find a French chateau sitting alongside an English country mansion and with a Chinese Teahouse at the bottom of the garden!
A number of the properties are open to the public, but rather than add to the tourist footfall we saved our pennies and completed the seven mile ‘Ocean Walk’ which provides plenty of opportunities for peering over hedges into the back gardens of the rich and famous.
It seems that Hartford isn’t noted for its natural beauty or abundant culture. In fact we’ve been asked a couple of times why we chose the Connecticut capital city for a stopover and the simple answer is that we looked for a location roughly halfway between Brattleboro and Rhode Island and Hartford fitted the bill. Entering the city from the north off the Interstate the outskirts are a little run down and you get an impression of industrial decline and relative poverty – relative that is to many of the wealthy towns and villages that we’d passed through earlier in the day and elsewhere in New England. However, as you get further into the city the skyline is dominated by numerous large, mainly ugly, office buildings, most of which it transpires are occupied by the headquarters of America’s insurance industry – in fact Hartford is widely known as the ‘Insurance Capital of the World’. So Hartford isn’t a poor city, it just has the misfortune to be dominated by an industry that isn’t noted for its good taste or appreciation of beauty.
Fortunately there are one or two historic gems to found in this concrete wasteland (perhaps a bit of an overstatement!) and by good chance we happened upon the State Capitol Building where we enjoyed an hour wandering around the marbled halls and corridors on a self-guided tour. It seems that following the Civil War, when it came to accommodating their legislatures, each of the States made a particular effort to out-shine their neighbours and Connecticut certainly didn’t hold back when it came to marble and gilding. The highlight of the visit was an unexpected invitation by a kind member of staff to visit the Senate Chamber and pose for photos in the Charter Oak Chair. Delusions of power or what!
Next morning we walked the half mile of so from our accommodation to visit Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher-Stowe’s houses but on arrival decided that UK has quite enough gloomy Victorian buildings to satisfy our needs, so we passed up the opportunity and spent the rest of the morning on a drive out to the west of the city and through a new development of ‘mansions’ which are clearly home to the city’s rich and famous. The afternoon was spent wandering through US aviation history at New England’s Air Museum and being given a personal tour of their well conserved collection of US aircraft, which includes a B29 ‘Superfortress’ – the ultimate icon of America in the Nuclear Age. Boys’ toys at their best!
As we drove across from North Conway to Stowe up the Kancamagus Highway the colours of the foliage were spectacular. Although the sharp drop in temperatures over the previous couple of days had obviously kick-started the ‘fall’ there were still enough leaves on the trees to put on a good show for our journey west out of New Hampshire and into Vermont.
Stopping for our sandwich lunch gave us a great view back towards a snow covered Mount Washington which at 6,288 ft. is the highest peak between the Rockies and the sea. Scenery aside there isn’t a great deal of interest to see as you drive around this part of the world. Some of the smaller towns are quite pretty and there’s a fair number of well preserved older homes that merit the label ‘historical’ – though inevitably the majority are rather like the woodsman’s axe, having been rebuilt or repaired many times over the years.
Our stopover in Stowe was a little bit of a disappointment. Although our B&B (our only stop not booked through AirBnB) had plenty of ambiance, at 10ft square, and with barely enough room for two commendably slim adults with their modest suitcases, I thought that our bedroom was just a touch on the small side. No matter, it was only for the one night and the roaring fire and the great views from the lounge made up for much.
By the following morning the temperature had once again risen to a respectable level so we stopped briefly to take a few snaps of the Von Trappe family home just outside Stowe before we sang a rousing chorus of ‘…so long, farewell, we’re leaving you, goodbye …….’ and drove south to Brattleboro through the Green Mountains – well, more like the Green Hills really but very pretty nevertheless.
Our hosts for our next overnight stop were touring in Europe but had left their Brattleboro home in the capable hands of a very pleasant lady named Claudia and the family dog called Garbanzo, a very sociable ‘golden doodle’. Perhaps the best thing about AirBnB is that with some stays you get a chance to ‘meet the folks’ and learn a little more about the people and the place you’re visiting. Sitting on the western bank of the Connecticut River in the heart of the Pioneer Valley the old mill town of Brattleboro is pleasant but probably just a little too big to be quaint and a touch too small to be prosperous. The town’s main claim to fame is that Rudyard Kipling lived nearby for several years in the 1890s whilst writing, amongst other works, the Jungle Book – which should really be a cue for another song – Disney really has a lot to answer for!
As we drove west across Maine on Highway 2 we could see the outside temperatures start to drop. Apart for an occasional light rain shower as we left the coast the weather remained fine, with bright sunshine showing off the forest colours to great effect. Some of the leaves had started to drop in the stiff autumn breeze and as we approached New Hampshire we spotted trucks with snow ploughs fitted every few miles along the road, obviously ready for an abrupt change in the weather.
Our stopover in North Conway is interesting. For some unknown reason it’s developed as New England’s favourite ‘outlet centre’ with loads of out of town shopping providing what the Rough Guide describes as a ‘depressing’ introduction as you approach what would otherwise be quite a pretty town. As well as being a popular place for summer vacations this part of the Washington Valley and White Mountain National Park also has the advantage of being a well known ski centre which attracts large numbers of Bostonians during the season; in fact many of the residential properties are obviously weekend homes for those who drive up for their weekends in the mountains.
Yesterday we drove the 15 or so miles up towards Crawford’s Notch intending to put in a longish hike into the mountains but a flurry of sleet and temperatures approaching freezing persuaded us to set our sights a little lower, so instead we walked the short but steep trail up to Arethusa Falls – which at 43m has the distinction of being the second highest waterfall in New Hampshire.
The final challenge of the day took the form of our evening meal – the largest pizza that I have ever seen and with enough garlic to stop an entire family of vampires in their tracks (handy for Halloween). Looks like it will be pizza for lunch for the next few days.
Our trip up the Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine coastline was uneventful. After the disappointment of Salem we popped our noses briefly into Newburyport on our way up the coast to our overnight stop in Kennebunkport, which we later learned is the home of the Bush family. George ‘Dubya’ must have been out of town that evening because I’m certain that we didn’t spot him in the little seaside café where we enjoyed our evening meal. Note to self …. in future avoid the local scallop dish – rather like Mars Bars they’re not really improved by being deep-fried.
We stayed two nights in a lovely home near Sullivan just off the Schoodic Coast Road to the north of Desert Island. Although slightly off the beaten track (we ate out both nights at their ‘local’ pub which turned out to be some 18 miles down the road) it was a great location and well located for Thursday’s trip down to Bar Harbor. This particular part of Maine receives some 2.3 million visitors each year, mostly during the summer months, with many being literally shipped in by the many cruise liners which anchor in the well-protected bay on their way between New York and Halifax. As a result Bar Harbor seems to have set itself up almost exclusively for the tourist trade with numerous gift shops providing an extensive choice of knick-knacks and souvenirs. We resisted the temptation to invest in another Christmas decoration and settled for our usual coffees and a shared muffin – just call us the last of the big spenders.
Undoubtedly the best views of the island are to be had from the 1,500 ft summit of Mount Cadillac which can be reached either by car or by a 3.6 mile testing climb through some of the most beautiful countryside that Maine has to offer. Unfortunately bright blue skies and a fresh but comfortable temperature of 60F meant that we had no reasonable excuse for avoiding the walk. It was one of the highlights of the trip so far, with the added bonus of allowing us to feel especially smug at the end of the four hour round trip – despite our aching legs and feet.
Monday was a bit of a rest day spent close to our temporary Cambridge residence. We started with an early morning walk around Fresh Lake accompanied by legions of joggers and dog walkers all of whom seemed happy to share with us the morning sunshine and vivid autumn colours – it being Columbus Day and a public holiday nobody seemed to be in too much of a hurry.
A short bus journey took us into Harvard Square, the hub of the world famous university; within the space of a few yards you get an interesting contrast between the leafy squares and elegant colleges and a high street that seems to have more in common with Watford than Oxford! Harvard must be a great place to study if you have the brains and the money – if you can put up with the continuous stream of tourists wandering around. Bit of a strange place really.
We walked home along Brattle Street which is one of Boston’s most desirable residential areas – not hard to see why when you look at some of the mansions, several of which pre-date the War of Independence. We ate our sandwiches in the garden of the former home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (which had also served for a while as George Washington’s headquarters in the opening days of the Revolutionary War) before taking a turn around Mount Auburn Cemetery which it seems was the first ‘landscaped’ burial ground in the US. Perhaps not something that you would normally think of as a tourist attraction but well worth a visit with lovely leafy lanes, impressive monuments and some great views of Boston.
After collecting our hire car on Tuesday morning we started our drive up the Massachusetts coast stopping off briefly at Salem – the focus for a series of notorious witch trials in the 1690’s. Perhaps it would have been better if we’d managed to avoid visiting during the build up to Halloween – the town was a little too commercialised for my tastes ……….. and if I never see another pumpkin or hear another ‘hideous witch-like cackle’ ever again, it will be too soon!
Our journey from New York to Boston on Saturday was pretty uneventful: rather than pick up another $60 taxi fare we used the subway to get out from Brooklyn to JFK , which delivered us to the airport in plenty of time for our 37 minute flight. Likewise, the relatively short trip from Logan International Airport through the centre of Boston and out to our AirBnB hosts in Cambridge (home of Harvard and MIT) was easy – public transport seems to be something that both New York and Boston have got right. We then managed to give ourselves a severe scare by struggling to find the key to our accommodation (our hosts were away for the weekend) and at one time I had visions of having to sleep in the garden whilst waiting for their return! All my fault – I hadn’t looked carefully enough and eventually managed to find the key exactly where they said it would be. Oops!
Yesterday was spent strolling around Boston , following the Freedom Trail, mixing with the crowds and enjoying the early autumn sunshine of the Columbus Day celebrations. The city is a little less frenetic than New York and its good that the residents are happy to celebrate their history, so we enjoyed our trip down their ‘Independence Memory Lane’. I was particularly struck by the hotel where former members of staff are claimed to include both Malcolm X and Ho Chi Minh (though not at the same time!) and by visiting the site of the Battle of Bunker Hill – which was neither an American victory nor actually on Bunker Hill (in the early morning mists of a June morning in 1775 the rebels managed to build their fortifications on the wrong mound!).
The Columbus Day Parade through the North End of the city was colourful fun. A chance for marching bands to march and play, for city politicians to wave and throw Hershey Bars to their electorate, and for portly city cops to sit astride their Harleys and gaze out inscrutably from behind police issue Raybans Only in America ………………
… it’s a wonderful town! The Bronx is up and The Battery’s down” ,,, Well, the song got it right, it is a great place to visit; and provided you’re prepared to do a bit of walking, and the weather’s reasonably kind, you can see most of the tourist bits in just a few days.
AirBnb has provided us with an excellent base in Park Slope in the heart of Brooklyn and after an initial struggle getting the hang of the subway system (which involved one short trip in completely the wrong direction) we’ve managed to find our way around pretty well. That said, the best way of getting to see and understand the city is unquestionably on foot; that’s if you’re prepared to wear out a little bit of shoe leather – the distances are deceptive and unfortunately the sidewalks aren’t paved with gold.
My initial impression is that New York is clean safe and welcoming. Yes, you see some pretty strange people out and about, but that’s certainly the same in London or any large European city and provided you can manage to avoid the ticket touts who seem to outnumber the tourists on Broadway and Fifth Avenue, wandering around is fairly relaxed.
You can’t help but be impressed by some of the architecture and, even though you rapidly get blasé about skyscrapers that are a mere 50 storeys high, the likes of the Empire State Building, The Chrysler Building and the new One World Trade Centre give you a real sense of what New York is all about … as well as a pain in the neck!
No disappointments so far – though from the distance of the Staten Island Ferry the Statue of Liberty seemed to be smaller than I’d imagined it to be. But then, American visitors to Stonehenge probably expect something a little more impressive than a rockery on steroids!
As today looks as though its going to be a little overcast the plan is to see what the museums, gardens and parks of Brooklyn have to offer.
….holiday blogs, motoring obsessions and a general account of life in the Ewbank household…..