New England/North-East US Fall vacation
July 31, 2012 6:26 AM   Subscribe

Need help planning a vacation in New England/North-East US are in fall. More details inside

Who - 2 adults and one 2 year old
When - Around September, October
How long - Plan is to take a week off from work and do the vacation from Saturday to Sunday (so 9 days) including flying time.

Flights from Kansas to DC seems to be significantly cheaper than flying to some where north like MA or CT. So current plan is to fly to DC and rent a car from there and drive up to Maine (going through Vermont) and come back on I-95. This would probably take around 4 days. After we are back in DC planning on covering the attractions around the town (mainly Smithsonian).

1. When would be the earliest we can go but still capture some good fall foliage? Since things start getting really expensive in peak foliage season (late October?), we would like to get an early start.
2. Considering the answer to the above question would it be a good time to visit Niagara falls too? (Must stay on US side, cannot go to Canada)
3. Any suggestions on routes to take? Scenic routes?
4. Where to stop/ stay? Cheap, clean places are fine. Not looking for anything fancy, just a place to crash for the night. But if you do have any other suggestions on good places that are worth the money, please do share.
5. Will it be too cold to relax or take a walk on the beach ?
6. We are foodies. Open to pretty much any type of food/drinks. What are your favorite restaurants along the way or in DC? Preferably like to keep the cost of a meal less than $15 per person, but open to suggestions.
7. Things to do/see in north? (ME, NH, VT, MA, CT, RI)
8. We might probably be staying with a friend (about an hour away from downtown) while in DC. Is there any free/cheap place to park the car and take the metro around the city?
9. Cape Cod looks nice. How expensive is that? Will it be too cold in Sep? Any other places?

If my current itinerary seems too ambitious I might drop DC and fly to some where in New England and stay there.

Any other advice welcomed :-)
posted by WizKid to Travel & Transportation (30 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
* pulls up chair, sits down *

I would STRONGLY recommend you NOT trying to drive up the coast from DC, because that will take you a lot longer than you think; especially if you want to try Niagara Falls in there as well, as that'd be about a day and a half detour. Also, there is a stretch of I-95 between New York City and New Haven, CT which is the absolute most crowded place to drive in the entire god-damn world. It doesn't matter what time of day you try it, you will lose an hours in that one stretch of highway just trying to get from one exit to the next. I'd actually try flying into New York and taking driving the length of Long Island to one of the ferries across Long Island Sound (they take you to points east of New Haven, so you can bypass the madness) or taking one of the parkways out of New York and into Connecticut. You can pick up the main highway fairly easily (Connecticut isn't that big), and you've bypassed the worst of I-95. It'll take you about an hour to get out of New York City and onto one of the Parkways, or two hours to get across Long Island and then onto one of the ferries, and once you've done that then you've got fairly smooth sailing. (I've driven from Brooklyn to Cape Cod and back a couple times, and it's taken me about 5 hours each time, even counting my stopping for lunch and getting lost somewhere in Westchester.)

If you are a foodie and you are going to be in Connecticut, you must visit Shady Glen in Manchester. They serve a cheeseburger which comes flanked with tailfins of fried cheese; it looks like a gimmick, but it makes for what is, in the opinions of those raised in Eastern Connecticut, the Platonian Ideal of a cheeseburger. They also sell ice cream they've churned themselves, and milkshakes made from that ice cream. (My mother used to bribe my brother and me with a lunch at Shady Glen to get us to behave when we went school shopping every year.)

A little further east you will find my hometown, which is also the home of a soda bottler which also has Proust's Madeline properties for those from that part of the world. They do sell to the public; stop in and get a half-case for the road or something. And a little further east of that is the main campus for the University of Connecticut, which has an agricultural program; through that, they also have their own ice cream parlor. They also have tours of the ice cream making plant and tours of the farms, which could make for a fun outing for the kid. (I grew up about a half hour away from UConn and remember several "hey let's go look at the sheep and the pigs at UConn" outings through my childhood, including one of the farmers once letting me hold a piglet.)

Cape Cod in September will indeed still be warm; not sunbathing weather, maybe, but definitely still warm enough for a walk on the beach. Hell, even winter is okay for a walk on the beach (my family is based in Cape Cod now and we did that one Christmas). It may be breezy, so bring a long-sleeve something along, but otherwise you'll be fine. The water is usually on the chilly side, but not "I'm an idiot for trying to swim in this and it isn't fun" chilly, but "we all do those really silly 'eek it's cold' flaily gestures until we get used to it" chilly. September may also be wise in terms of accomodations on Cape Cod - usually the people who are there "for the summer" decamp around Labor Day, so things clear out considerably.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:50 AM on July 31, 2012

September/October is nice in New England. I would fly there, though, because if you drive from DC you will spend all of your time in a car and you won't have time to really explore New England.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:52 AM on July 31, 2012

If you're driving and want some scenery, I will suggest following Rte. 2 from Albany to Boston. The Berkshires should be wonderful that time of year. The road passes through Williamstown (Williams College), North Adams (Mass MoCa art museum), Shelburne (Shelburne Falls), plus some quintessentially New England scenery. It turns more urban right about where it intersects I-91, so you can stop there and head north if you want to see New Hampshire or Vermont.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:54 AM on July 31, 2012

This site might be useful for #1. As a southern New England dweller: Usually by Columbus Day there's something, but it can vary considerably from year to year.

Niagara Falls is, at best, a 7+ hour drive northwest from NYC. Given the rest of the trip you are describing, it's probably not a practical stop on your itinerary.

On preview: I have to agree with those who are saying that if DC is not your priority, consider basing yourself out of New England instead. "I-95," "scenic," and "expressway" are three words that should never be used in the same sentence. And did I mention the tolls?
posted by gnomeloaf at 6:56 AM on July 31, 2012

Cape Cod in September is a bit dicey --- we sometimes get what they call "Indian summer" for the first couple weeks of the month, where it's like high 70s, but not always. And if you're talking end of the month it'll definitely be cooler.

If you want to go leaf-peeping, then your itinerary's a little sketchy as well --- there's some variables in play, but basically the leaves start to turn the colder and darker it gets. The further north you are the earlier they begin to change. So like, Cape Cod in early September --- particularly if it's still warm --- will likely not really have begun to change yet. Maine probably would, though.

As for covering DC to Maine and back in four days --- to me it seems very ambitious, yes. I-95 is nothing I'd call scenic in-between DC and New Hanpshire, and doing as anything other than a straight shot seems like it'd be impossible, time wise. But up here in the tiny states we consider two hours a long drive, so YMMV.

If you do want to fly to NE straightaway, you might look into flights into Providence, RI --- they're pretty cheap on some routes. Also the Children's Museum in Boston or the aquarium might be fun for your little one.
posted by Diablevert at 6:59 AM on July 31, 2012

Seconding the Empress, if you do end up driving through CT towards Boston, I'd say take the Mystic Parkway. (CT-15) It closely parallels I95 but is narrower, windier road through woodsy hills for the most part, quite scenic. You don't really lose any time either because of the terribleness of I95 near New Haven.
posted by Diablevert at 7:05 AM on July 31, 2012

I highly recommend flying into either Providence, RI or Manchester, NH. Kansas City to Manchester looks to be about $350/person, and really, DC to Northern New England and back is a long drive that is not fun to make.

Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire will likely have nice leaves. You'll want to do the Kancamagus highway and the Molly Stark scenic byway in NH and Vermont respectively; I don't know much about Maine. Take the Mount Washington on Lake Winnipesaukee and the Cog Railway up Mount Washington. In Massachusetts, there will probably not be so much foliage, but it's definitely worth a trip to Minuteman National Park, in Concord MA near Walden Pond, which is probably as likely as anything to have nice foliage, too. Otherwise, Boston is great, the Maine coast is beautiful, and the further up the Maine coast you go, I'd imagine the better the leaves will be. We used to stay in Pemaquid Point and even without the leaves it's glorious.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:17 AM on July 31, 2012 [3 favorites]

I should also say that Manchester is a nice base to start from - Manchester is about an hour north of Boston, an hour east of VT, an hour west of ME, and an hour south of the really foliage-full places in NH.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:20 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

ChuraChura has a GREAT itinerary for a couple with a little kiddo - all that stuff is for the most part really cheap or free and not stressful to take a kid to. And Manchester is a way more calm, serene airport to fly into as compared to Logan or DC. It's also, as has been said, central to a lot of New England sightseeing, so it's nice.

I'm no stranger to hairy driving situations being from the Boston area, but last year when we road tripped it down to southern VA via 95, stopping in DC on the way, I was white knuckling it through a lot of NY/CT. It's just congested, full o angry commuters, construction, and bad vibes. It's just not pleasant, especially with a kid when you might want to stop off at an exit for food, diaper changes, and stretches and you're just sitting there waiting for the masses to move. I love road trips but for that length of time, it'll just eat into half of your vacation days with stress.
posted by takoukla at 7:38 AM on July 31, 2012

Mystic Parkway = Merritt Parkway
But really, listen to what everyone is saying and avoid the DC to Maine drive at all costs. Its not a nice drive, and you really will pass through some of the worst traffic situations in the entire country.
Scratch Niagara as well... I think that's a 7 hour drive from where I am in central CT, and it will likely be longer from other parts of NE. And unless something has changed in the last ten years, it's not worth it if you can't go Canada side.
posted by smalls at 7:48 AM on July 31, 2012

Yeah I think you should fly into NYC and drive from there or drive through long island to orient point and take the ferry from there into conneticut. Long island has a ton of things to do on the way from NYC to the orient ferry like wineries, an awesome aquarium , outlet shopping, quaint new england style villages (with old merry go round). Farm stands and everything.

Maybe fly into boston instead. It can be a 6 hour+ drive from dc to NYC if you run into traffic.
posted by majortom1981 at 8:08 AM on July 31, 2012

The big thing to remember about traveling during this time is that a lot of other people will be traveling too so things like driving will take even longer than the usual "driving with kids" estimates. I live in Central Vermont and have to build in basically twice as long to get anywhere for the last week of September through the first or second week of October which is about when leaves are nice here for the most part. This will happen later the further south you go. Most New England states will have a foliage forecast that you can refer to. Here is Vermont's.

1. See above. If you start north and head south you will have better luck.

2. I would not do this unless you want basically a road trip. Niagara is great, but it's nowhere near the other places you want to go.

3. People have this sorted. I prefer the Kancamagus but it can get really backed up during peak foliage but it's still fun. You sort of can't go wrong with New England in the autumn as long as you are happy looking at trees.

4. AirBnB is often a good way to find little places you might not find otherwise and sometimes you can get whole apartments or MiLs that would be good for the family. Regular BnBs tend to jack their prices so it's worth finding more out of the way hotels much of the time.

5. Possibly? Weather has been so weird here lately. But really I'd say too cold for swimming but likely just fine for a walk on teh beach.

[skipping middle questions]

9. The Cape is lovely but it's its own traffic hassle. If you guys are really happy about the "Let's get up early and see six places in eight hours" sort of travel then I'd try to tag in at the Cape, otherwise you might want to check out something that is not over the bridge that is historical like Plymouth or Gloucester which will be easier to get in to and out of.

If you wind up with Vermont specific questions, feel free to contact me directly. I would also suggest Manchester as a possible "fly to NE" suggestion. You can fly there from Baltimore on SWA for fairly cheap if you want to do a hop from visiting your friends.
posted by jessamyn at 8:19 AM on July 31, 2012

Have you also taken in to consideration that gas is likely to be more expensive in the northeast than you may be used to paying? Check it out.
posted by inertia at 8:32 AM on July 31, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for all the replies so far.
So the general consensus seems to be avoid I-95 from DC to NYC.
What about a route like this->

I don't know if I would get bored by NE and fall foliage for 9 days. That's why I thought of adding DC to the itinerary.
posted by WizKid at 9:34 AM on July 31, 2012

You avoid the major roads, but that map still looks really ambitious for a trip with a two-year-old. If you're dead-set on Washington DC as a starting point, why not just go around Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:39 AM on July 31, 2012

Don't go to DC as part of a New England trip. If you want to put a big city in there because you're afraid you'll get bored looking at trees, Montreal and Boston are both great places to visit - especially for foodies. Nthing flying into Manchester airport, it is so much smaller and easier to deal with than Logan.
posted by Daily Alice at 10:22 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you want to see New England, I agree with the others who recommend starting from Manchester, not DC. You can get all around NE from there very easily, and if you get bored with leaves you can always go to Boston. It seems like that would be more fun than spending 4 days in a car with a toddler.

I have driven part of that new route you propose (I-84 from Harrisburg to the Boston area), and it's pretty quiet, definitely a lot better than I-95 (avoid as everyone else said). But it's still a pretty long drive for your ultimate goal.

There are more than just leaves to look at in NE, too. We just got back from two days in the Franconia Notch State Park area in NH and I would definitely recommend it. There are lots of other interesting sites in the general White Mountains area that we didn't even get to.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 10:22 AM on July 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oops, on non-preview, missed the "stay in US" requirement.
posted by Daily Alice at 10:23 AM on July 31, 2012

Portland, ME is a foodie city. It's also manageably small, and there are lots of great things to do with kids - beaches, lighthouses, museums, island ferries. It has a regional airport (PWM) although it tends to be more expensive to fly into. If you decide to do your alternate route from DC I'd head up 87 to Albany and then east - 84 through Connecticut is dull (though not as crowded as 95), but Route 3 or even the roads through southern Vermont and New Hampshire are beautiful. Plus you could stop in Lenox/Williamstown/N. Adams, all of which are wonderful.

Foliage in southern Maine is end of September/early October. Beaches are touch and go at that time - you could get a nice day and be able to swim, or have it be too cold to be comfortable to be sitting still in a long sleeve shirt and pants. A lot of people like the first couple of weeks of September because the weather is still nice but the summer people have left and the leaf peepers haven't shown up yet.
posted by Sukey Says at 11:25 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Listen: DC is far from New England. The route you posted is better than 95 in that it is more scenic and avoids the worst big city traffic, but still: DC is far from New England. If you want to do that, you're basically blowing 3-4 days in the car, and if you want to spend a day or two in DC, there goes half your trip (or more). To make a comparison to your neck of the woods, it's like if someone told you that they want to go to Kansas and start by flying into St. Louis.

Really, I think hidden within your one big trip is two awesome, smaller trips. You can fly into a city in New England, spend four or five days roaming around the countryside, check out the foliage, mountains, historical sites, and coast, then do a few days in Boston (which is just as cool as DC).

Alternately, you can visit DC and stay with your friend, and then spend four or five days roaming around the countryside around there. Virginia has lots of cool stuff, like historical sites and Shennandoah [spelling?] National Park. Or, you could head north to Pennsylvania, check out Amish country and/or the Poconos, maybe spend a day in Philly.

I'd recommend avoiding flying into NYC unless you actually want to go to NYC. And, really, that's a whole other trip.
posted by breakin' the law at 11:57 AM on July 31, 2012

There is usually some sort of something going on at Hampton Beach. Also, no matter where you are up here in the fall, you're never far from apple picking. And therefore never far from apple cider donuts.
posted by Marit at 12:41 PM on July 31, 2012

Why don't you fly into Boston, head over to Portland, then take the kancamagus highway through VT to Burlington? Stop at little towns along the way. Portland and Burlington are decently-sized cities with some great restaurants. I'd skip Niagara falls because it's far and not much of a scenic ride to get there. Focus your traveling in Mass, Maine, NH and VT.
posted by pintapicasso at 3:09 PM on July 31, 2012

Eh. I managed to survive being a teenager in southern NH ... There's actually quite a bit to do in the area. Boston has a bunch of kid-friendly museums, including the Museum of Science, the Aquarium, the USS Constitution and Cassin Young, the Museum of Fine Art. Then there's the freedom trail, the garden, Boston Common, Chinatown, Faneuil Hall, the North End. Gloucester, Essex, Salem, and Ipswich are full of little beaches and ships and clam chowder. Salem, MA has museums and historic sites. Plymouth has Plimoth Plantation (which I love!) and the Mayflower II. There's also Battleship Cove in Fall river, MA, which has lots of older battleships that you can tour.

In NH, there's all the foliage and mountains up north, the lakes region, and then the Seacoast. Portsmouth is a beautiful little town full of good food, Hampton and Rye have sandy and rocky beaches - my favorites are Wallis Sands and Odiorne State Park. In Manchester, there's a small history museum and science museum.

In Rhode Island, the Roger Williams Park Zoo is nice. There are beautiful mansions and Seacoast around Newport. Connecticut has Mystic Seaport and everything in Hartford and New Haven, etc.

If you really don't think New England will be enough, head to New York for a few days. But really, if you drive from Washington, DC back and forth, you cut your time down to seven days minus whatever time you'll have in DC. That seems like a lot of driving to tack on.
posted by ChuraChura at 3:10 PM on July 31, 2012

I just looked at your map and noticed that you won't see many mountains in New England. (And nothing looks super exciting from the highway.)

I'd highly recommend heading to the Berkshires in MA and driving up either through Vermont and across NH to Maine or across Route 2 from Williamstown, MA, to Boston and then up north to Maine. It is beautiful in late September/early October.
posted by LilBit at 6:27 PM on July 31, 2012

I agree with everyone who says don't start in DC if you want to see fall foliage. But you may not see much color even if you do start further north, especially in early or mid-September.

I'd pick an area and stay close to it. There's an enormous amount to see and do in the DC and there are some beautiful small towns and scenery in the Chesapeake Bay area.

If you're going to start somewhere further north then I'd explore Maine on your way to Bar Harbor.

It will probably be too cold to spend time on the beaches of Cape Code. There are other things to see and do there but I'd skip it and consider visiting other parts of the Boston area. If you do go to Cape Cod then make sure you visit Provincetown - it's a great place with lots of food and art.

Vermont is also great in the fall.

And skip Niagara Falls. They're impressive but you'll spend a very long boring day driving to them and they may not hold your interest for more than a few hours.
posted by 14580 at 5:14 AM on August 1, 2012

Response by poster: I'll try the Route 2 from Williamstown, MA
If you have anymore scenic routes please share.
posted by WizKid at 8:02 AM on August 1, 2012

I know others have said not to drive from DC, but let me add that driving through Connecticut is the worst thing ever. We recently drove straight from Orlando, FL back to RI, and my husband oh so kindly let me drive the worst part of the trip - Connecticut.

It's unfortunate that you can't go to Canada because Montreal is not that far a drive from New England and it is amazing, food wise.

Save the Smithsonian until the kiddo is old enough to appreciate it.

As a native New Englander, when I think of foliage, I think of Vermont.

Find an apple orchard along the way and get some apple cider donuts. Best thing on Earth.
posted by Ruki at 6:29 PM on August 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

A dissent to ruki's claim that driving through Connecticut is "the worst thing ever" - I think it depends on what road you take. I-95 is indeed awful; I-91 isn't that bad, but boring. (Well, let's be honest, much of Connecticut is a little dull, and I say this as someone who grew up there.)

Route 6 isn't bad, though - it's a smaller rural two-lane highway stretching from about Hartford through the northeast part of the state and continuing on into Rhode Island, Massachusetts and then going on the whole length of Cape Cod. The Connecticut bits are still a bit dull, but the scenery is pretty, and that's where you'll find the cute "New England-y" towns in Connecticut. The Hartford-to-Cape-Cod stretch is also very driveable (I think it only took me a couple hours, and except for a couple of busy-ish chunks near Providence there was little traffic, even on the day before Thanksgiving).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:48 AM on August 2, 2012

A few other very nice drives in my neck of the woods [MA/VT]

- Route 5 up the Connecticut River especially in the Nowich/Fairlee area
- Route 202 out to Western MA [you can take it to Route 2, Quabbin Reservoir is pretty great]
- Route 4 across Vermont [Rutland/Killington area] and from there, Route 107 to Route 12 to head northwards [107 was totally wiped out in Hurricane Irene and is all new now and we're all pretty happy with it]
- Route 100 N/S is the goto route in the state but it's often a little trafficky. Same is true for 108 further north. Super lovely but maybe a little too busy

Hope you have a great time.
posted by jessamyn at 6:08 AM on August 2, 2012

EmpressCallipygos is right - I was specifically talking about 95.
posted by Ruki at 3:15 PM on August 2, 2012

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