“Aren’t leaves amazing?” The lady in the elevator enunciates each word forcefully in a sing-song voice. I realise that she’s talking to me, and I try to force a smile while mumbling a semi-positive: “Yes, aren’t they.” After all, I’m English: we don’t do talking to strangers in lifts. To be fair, though, she isn’t talking about just any old leaves.
New England in autumn is all about the maple tree. In late September and early October, the leaves cover thousands of square kilometres and change from green to the most fantastic russet browns, oranges, reds and yellows. Mother Nature takes out her paintbrush and goes loopy across a huge swathe of north-east America – nowhere more so than the small state of Vermont, a three-hour drive north of Boston.
Seventy-six per cent of Vermont is forested. The other 24 per cent seems to be made up of ex-members of ZZ Top: beards, plaid shirts and general quirkiness rule. It’s the home of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, a place where roadside billboards are illegal and the small capital, Montpelier – which has fewer than 8,000 inhabitants – proudly boasts of no Starbucks or McDonald’s.
A favourite local T-shirt for tourists, which makes fun of a more famous slogan for Las Vegas, is: “What happens here stays here. But nothing really happens in Vermont anyway.” It sums up the laid-back nature of the place: a state of clapboard houses, farms, uncluttered highways, picture-postcard barns with roofs that slant steeply to ward off winter snow, Stars and Stripes flags flyinf above porches and small-town diners where the waitresses really do call you “hun” when taking your order for a coffee refill with your pancakes. (Unsurprisingly, with all the maple trees, Vermont makes a third of America’s maple syrup, much of which is put to good use locally.)
Being America, a car is vital to get around, but during the autumn “leaf-peeping” season many visitors don’t do much more than lean out of their window to take a photograph and drive on – which is a shame, because getting up close and personal with the vibrant colours is easy and rewarding.
I stay at Stowe Mountain Lodge, a sprawling but cosy hotel that makes a good base for exploring, and is perhaps better known as a spot for winter skiing. I join a local guide, Greg Speer, on the gondola up Mount Mansfield, which sits next door, soaring above the riot of rosy-hued maples surrounded by swathes of breathtaking colour. Having cheated two-thirds to the top, we scramble the final part towards the 1,339-metre summit for impressive views towards the Worcester Mountain Range and, farther still, the White Mountains in New Hampshire. In the other direction lies Lake Champlain, glinting in the sun; on a clear day, you can see the Adirondack Mountains in New York, and sometimes even the lights of Montreal, which is only an hour-and-a-half drive away.
This is called the Cliff Trail, and links up to the appropriately named Long Trail, the oldest long-distance hiking path in the United States, stretching 430 kilometres to Massachusetts. With luck, you might spot moose, black bears and white-tailed deer. You’ll certainly be guaranteed a spectacular panorama.
The lodge is a 10-minute drive from the quaint town of Stowe itself, which couldn’t be more mom, pop n’ apple pie if it tried. There’s a good range of unfussy eateries stretched along Mountain Road, my favourite being the Crop Bistro (for the battered fried pickles alone, which were seriously addictive). But you wouldn’t go wrong if you tried Charlie B’s or Flannel, both nearby, and for a low-key breakfast there’s McCarthy’s.
In the opposite direction, I drive 15 minutes over the switchback ridge of hills to the ArborTrek Canopy Adventures (www.arbortrek.com) at Smugglers' Notch, a zip-wire course that didn't really sound appealing – until I actually tried it and spent one of the best afternoons that I can ever remember in the midst of, and at times above, the glorious glowing patchwork of leaves. There are nine zip-lines that range in length from 15 metres to more than 300 metres, high above the forest floor.
Farther north still into the backwoods, where the radio stations are dominated by French-language pop from across the border in Quebec, and tarmacked roads peter out, I arrive at the remote home of Jim Blair in Eden Mills (www.edendogsledding.com). "Whatever you do" warns Blair on the phone beforehand, "don't use your GPS or you'll never arrive". Luckily, he had emailed a map beforehand.
In winter, he races his pack of Alaskan huskies in Canada, but at this time of year he replaces skis with wheels so that visitors can leaf-peep while whizzing along in a dog-pulled cart in the woods. I meet Bear, Lucky, Lilly, Rose, Waffle, Flint, Amis, Jersey, Gretel and Buttercup, a very friendly, licky, tail-waggy bunch, in Blair’s front room. In total, he has 34 dogs. I help him hitch them into their harnesses, then we set off round the wooded pathways steering the agile hounds through the mud, crunching over leaves and sploshing in puddles. Blair stands at the back and steers, while I sit regally, enjoying the trip and views while soaking up fresh country air.
Halfway through the 45-minute tour, we pause, and the dogs are let off by a pond for a refreshing dip (then, comically, at an almost- imperceptible yappy signal by the alpha dog, they race round the small lake for several laps, frolicking and barking before stopping for doggy treats). Once the dogs are back in their harnesses, it’s my turn to take the controls, mastering the correct hollers for left and right, and, most importantly, applying the brakes as they sense the home stretch.
An hour's drive south, I pause to eat at the Von Trapp Family Lodge (www.trappfamily.com) – yes, the same Von Trapps of The Sound of Music fame, who settled here after fleeing Austria and whose hotel mixes the kitsch that you'd hope for with high American levels of service. Does anyone come here and not twirl endlessly in the garden like Julie Andrews did in the film's opening credits? Or was that just me? That, and the lengthy guided tour led by a member of the family, certainly work up my appetite for Wiener schnitzel with lingonberry jam followed by apple strudel.
I don't stay there on my final night, opting instead for a spectacular two-story tree house at Moose Meadow Lodge (www.moosemeadowlodge.com), near Waterbury, for the all-out leaf peeping experience, waking the next morning surrounded by a misty canopy of autumn colours.
Over a breakfast of French toast and waffles prepared by the affable owners Willie and Greg, I enthuse about my autumnal journey to a couple who have just arrived from Texas. “The leaves really are amazing,” I gush, like the convert I’ve become. They smile, unsure how to respond, and just chew their toast.