What to see when visiting east coast colleges, esp. scenic driving route
August 6, 2021 10:14 AM   Subscribe

My daughter and I are visiting colleges on the east coast — an area I know nothing about but am super excited to visit. We'll be there the first week in October (covid willing) and I've rented a comfortable car so we can enjoy the drives between colleges. Can you suggest certain routes, or special places to see? We won't have a lot of time between campuses, but we do want to see more than just the interstates.

My daughter races sailboats and is looking for sailing programs, and is also very interested in women's colleges (not a lot of overlap there). Her list is a bit longer than the schools listed below, but we can't visit every school, so this is what seems reasonable for a nine-day trip. Schools we're missing include Hobart and William Smith, Bryn Mawr, Swarthmore, Georgetown, GW. (Yes, we're fully vaccinated, and we're scheduling visits with the schools not just showing up, and we're pro-mask and being careful.)

Our basic itinerary is:

1. Boston (Wellesley, Tufts)
2. Bowdoin and Bates
3. Dartmouth
4. Smith and Mount Holyoke
5. Connecticut College
6. Brown
7. Boston (sailing venues)

Comments on anything would be most welcome - which routes to drive, which towns to stay in, what to make time to see, colleges themselves, college sailing. Seriously, we love advice :) Thanks!
posted by Capri to Travel & Transportation around United States (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I just checked the Google-recommended route between Bates and Dartmouth, and, don't do that. It's all gross highway (95S to 89N? What the heck?). Instead, find a route that takes the Kancamagus Highway across New Hampshire. One of the most beautiful drives in all of New England.
posted by General Malaise at 10:27 AM on August 6, 2021 [10 favorites]

Best answer: From Lewiston to Dartmouth I too recommend you detour from the Google Maps route and either take the Kancamangus (Route 112) or Route 302 through the White Mountains in New Hampshire. Try to time this drive for daytime on a nice weekday because on the weekends it can be crazy with leaf peepers (just, like, stopping in the middle of the road - 302 is less bad than the Kanc in this respect, because it's wider, but the Kanc is more scenic, with switchbacks and stuff). It might be worth stopping for a night in the Whites (North Conway is outlet malls and motels; Jackson is more inn-based).

I-91 from Lebanon to Northampton/South Hadley/Pioneer Valley is actually quite gorgeous, IMO, so unless you're feeling a strong urge to explore Vermont, feel free to take that. If you want to stop on the way, Brattleboro (VT) and Turners Falls (MA) are nice.
posted by mskyle at 10:44 AM on August 6, 2021 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, yeah, I-91 is a nice drive south, but I also really like taking Route 5. It's right along the Connecticut River for most of the way, and goes through some really neat little towns.
posted by General Malaise at 10:54 AM on August 6, 2021 [3 favorites]

Suggestion: If you haven't already, consider touring several local-to-you schools to get a sense of whether your daughter has a strong preference for liberal arts colleges vs major universities or schools located in urban vs suburban vs rural areas. If your daughter realizes she doesn't want to go to school in the middle of nowhere... well it is better to figure this out before your trip, so you can adjust your itinerary accordingly. :)
posted by oceano at 11:12 AM on August 6, 2021 [7 favorites]

Best answer: With Bates and Bowdoin, you'll be close enough to Freeport that you can stop at the flagship LL Bean, if that sort of thing interests you. I enjoy it. Freeport has a lot of other shopping and some good places to eat.

Lots of nice beach towns on the way up there from Boston: Newburyport, York, Ogunquit, Kennebunkport. (And those are just the ones I've been to!) Obviously too cold to actually go to the beach, but all of them have waterfront restaurants that, since it'll be out of season, will be almost completely empty.

Portsmouth and Portland are both pretty nice little places if you'd prefer not to stay near a campus. Lots of good shopping and food in both. The Friendly Toast in Portsmouth is pretty famous if you're a breakfast person.

If you really don't mind taking some time in between schools, the Lewiston-to-Hanover route suggested by others will take you near Mt. Washington, and you can take the Mt. Washington Cog Railway, which is a lot of fun. You'll be too early for peak foliage, but it'll still be quite pleasant.

On preview:

"If your daughter realizes she doesn't want to go to school in the middle of nowhere"

Then don't look at Dartmouth haha.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:12 AM on August 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Hey, you're coming through my neck of the woods! Excellent. For that itinerary with a nine-day trip, it doesn't look like you'll have much time for sightseeing; so I'll concentrate on routes & places to eat/stay to & from my current locale.

Most of the routes from the "Five Colleges" area to New London are what I would describe as "mildly scenic". You basically have to take I-91 south to Hartford; from there, you can continue further along I-91, take CT-9 down to Old Saybrook, and then I-95 over; or you can take CT-2 from Hartford to Norwich and then I-395 & CT-32 south to New London. The CT-9 route gets you in spitting distance of Gillette Castle, which is a must-see if you like mansions built by wealthy eccentrics. But it's also longer and it involves more traffic.

Going to Providence from New London, I would again just recommend the major highways; the scenery along the back roads is nice, but probably not nice enough to justify the extra time. You have two major routes: one straight along I-95 (nice enough) and one up I-395 and then over on US-6. The second one is longer, but there's probably less traffic and it's marginally more scenic. Check traffic reports before you leave, as I-95 can get snarled up pretty quick.

If you're New England newbies and you like seafood, I would recommend visiting a "clam shack" at some point when you're along the coast. The two that I'm familiar with (and can recommend) are Captain Scott's Lobster Dock in New London, and Iggy's Doughboys & Chowder House in Warwick, RI (the greater Providence area.) Iggy's has a nice seating area looking out over a beach.

Finally, I should point out that if your daughter is big on sailing, she might appreciate a pilgrimage to Newport. They were the home of America's Cup for many years (though not so much recently), and sailing is still a Big Deal there. I don't know what sorts of sailing-related activities there might be that would fit into your schedule, but it'd be worth investigating.
posted by Johnny Assay at 12:09 PM on August 6, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Bowdoin '68 here. I hope you can visit the sailing teams site. I've not been there myself, but I think its pretty well equipped. If daughter is into the physical fitness side of the sport, the college is well-equipped.

From what i read, the on-campus museums are operating in a Covid-compliant fashion, not as "open" as otherwise might be.

Although the college is only about 7 miles from open water, its pretty far from touristy points of interest other than the college. If you want to experience the Maine Lobster pound and beach thing, Ogunquit, or Kennebunk, or Old Orchard Beach would be better and a convenient detour from the Maine Tpke on the way to or from Boston.
posted by SemiSalt at 1:38 PM on August 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I also spent two years at Brown in grad school. Providence, like Boston, is one of the great matriarchal cities of New England. It practically abuts the RISD (Rhode Island School of Design). Any university pretty much defeats the "middle of nowhere" problem since there is always a lot going on: drama, concerts, clubs of all kinds.

Transportation is of interest to a student. Boston, Providence, and New London are all on Amtrak. Swarthmore is a short local train ride from Philadelphia which is also on Amtrak. Philly is also the east coast node for trains running west, to Pittsburgh and (God help us all) Chicago. Of these, Boston and Philly have a major airport. The last I knew, the Thomas Greene airport near Providence had been relegated to regional status so most any air trip to anywhere would require a connection. Of course, buses run everywhere, even Brunswick, ME and Hanover, NH, and are comparatively cheap.
posted by SemiSalt at 2:19 PM on August 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Diners !!! Iconic East Coast sources of chowder, corned beef hash, coffee and pie.
I did field work all over New England in the early 80s and minored in meatloaf.
Ask [aged] locals for the nearest Worcester Lunch Car. You have to eat somewhere.
4 Aces, West Lebanon NH is 7 miles down river from Dartmouth.
Apologies if you are vegetarian!
posted by BobTheScientist at 2:26 PM on August 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I did Dartmouth undergrad (and grew up nearby), my spouse was at Bates, and got their PhD at Umass Amherst (pioneer valley) so I lived there for 5 years.

Definitely drive through northern NH on the way from Bates to Dartmouth. Unfortunately moosilaike lodge is closed to visitors right now or that could be a good place to stay.

I lived across the road from 4 Aces for a year or two, fun early bird crowd.

The sailing program at Dartmouth is based at Mascoma lake, a few miles from campus, if you are able to check out the facilities. Rowing and canoe rentals are on campus on the Connecticut river.

Whately Diner is a classic 24 hour truck stop diner worth checking out in Pioneer Valley if you are into that kind of thing. Blue Heron in Sunderland is a surprisingly fancy restaurant. Right near the buttonball tree, which is a cool giant tree. Smiarowski Farmstand and Creamery for Polish food on a paper plate and good ice cream. Sugarloaf frostie for soft serve and fried food. Drive or hike up mt. Sugarloaf for an easy view of the valley. All of these are right off of 91 on the way to Amherst, we lived in Sunderland so that was our scene.

Dobra tea in Northampton if you want some fancy tea (full disclosure I am good friends with one of the owners, would recommend even if I wasn’t though 🍵).

Damn, I am suddenly very very homesick for the pioneer valley.
posted by soy bean at 3:54 PM on August 6, 2021 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: You are all so wonderful! We're now even more excited about the trip.
posted by Capri at 4:07 PM on August 6, 2021

Best answer: Historic sailing: Mystic Seaport in CT and the USS Constitution in Boston.
posted by Gotanda at 4:09 PM on August 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: People have given you good advice and I don't have much to add except that Yelp is good at finding diners. I am also a big fan of Four Aces. If you're doing good for time as you head up to Dartmouth you can also take a side route on to Route 5 (which basically parallels 91 through a lot of the state) which means you will also drive right past the Windsor Diner. That said, if you like breweries Windsor also has the Harpoon Brewery which has good food, great beer and outdoor seating.
posted by jessamyn at 5:07 PM on August 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You might want to add Yale which has both coed and women's sailing teams.
posted by mareli at 5:15 PM on August 6, 2021

Best answer: The good news — your trip should coincide with the peak of autumn color in a good chunk of New England, and since you’re basically circumnavigating the region you should be guaranteed some spectacular views at some points on the journey. In addition to the Kancamagus Highway I would detour a bit west into Vermont on the way down to central MA from Dartmouth if you have the time.

Also if you have time and you’re from a very different part of the country I would maybe take a detour to see a bit of the RI coast and ocean beaches on the way to Brown from CT. Newport is spectacular and is definitely worth a visit even regardless of its relevance to sailing. It would add a few hours on to that leg of the trip, though.

The bad news — if the trip is basically the first week in October and you are following the order you laid out (i.e. you’re going counterclockwise), you’ll probably not be able to be in Providence for either of the two lightings of WaterFire happening around that time — Oct 2 and Oct 16. If you can arrange being in Providence on one of those dates at nightfall it’s quite something to see.

As is the rest of Providence, as mentioned above. I was at Brown a generation ago; very little is probably even remotely as I remember it. But for local color and to get a feel for the place I would wander Benefit St (and stop into the RISD art museum) as well as the Wickenden St / Fox Point area a little ways south of campus.
posted by sesquipedalia at 8:00 PM on August 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Definitely leave at least a little time to wander around downtown Northampton (Smith College's home) - so many cute shops like in Thorne's Market with its creaky wood floors and quiet din! Atkins Market is a great source of cider donuts that time of year. If the leaves are popping at the time of your visit, a drive up Mount Tom is really pretty (just be careful of wet leaves on the road), or if you can spare the time to go to Sugarloaf as someone suggested above, it's also a beautiful option. Also seconding the above suggestions of the LL Bean flagship store and stopping in Brattleboro, a super cute town in Vermont. Now I'm homesick for New England autumn, and I hope that you get to go and thoroughly enjoy your trip!!!
posted by carlypennylane at 8:26 PM on August 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Lots of great suggestion. I don't have too much to add except that New England is _small_ compared to other places - the distance east-to-west in Massachusetts, for example, is about the same as Tallahassee to Jacksonville in Florida, which is only half of the width of the northern part of the state. So you will probably make great time.

I want to add a _general_ comment: if you use Google Maps Directions feature, you can choose 'Options' and there are checkboxes for avoiding Highways, Tolls, or Ferries. If you choose to avoid highways, it will no longer default to using the Interstates, overcoming its bias toward 'quickest route'.
posted by TimHare at 8:29 PM on August 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't know how much old regionalisms have been homogenized by Radio/TV/Movies, but it's amusing to keep your eye out for them. For example, you may hear different names for things as frappe for milk shake and tonic for soda. Also different habits with how to order your coffee. In RI, french fries were served with vinegar, not catsup. Grocery store doughnuts tend more to the cakey, less to the puffy.

Fried clams are the seaside specialty in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. There may be differences in style. We have an oyster fishery here in western Connecticut, so if you have never had oysters and want to try, this is an opportunity, but I can't advise on a specific restaurant from New London north.

Another comment about Providence. The culture is pretty much Italian dominated, but there is a big community of Cape Verdeans and Portuguese. If you go a little south from the Brown campus, you may some evidence of that.
posted by SemiSalt at 8:27 AM on August 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Lots of good examples above, and following up on the recommendation above to use the "avoid highways" feature on Google Maps.

I've lived in New England my whole life, and I will use this when I have some time to spare and am in the exploring mood. It's a little amazing how many sights and entire towns are "disappeared" by the highways.

Just don't forget to turn it back on when you need to!
posted by jeremias at 11:49 AM on August 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

Newport has IYRS!!

What about Holy Cross?
posted by wenestvedt at 9:44 PM on August 7, 2021

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