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The Cure for the Winter Blues? Planning a New England Road Trip

These are the towns you shouldn’t miss.

Living room at The Study at Yale hotel

February is not a good time to take a road trip through New England. That’s not my opinion, it’s objective fact. Unless you’re a skier or a sadist—and New England skiers, braving bitter cold and vicious winds, are sometimes both—New England is better visited in spring, summer or fall, all of which showcase New England’s virtues.

That said, New England road trips are inherently a good thing to do, as there’s such an array of diverse culture and geography within relatively short driving times. And as you look forward to longer days and warmer weather, this is a good time to plan a New England sojourn. I took one such trip last August, trying to combine some off-the-beaten-path places with some summer classics. If, like me, you’re a restless traveler and start to get antsy after a couple of nights without moving, this could be the trip—or parts of a trip—for you.

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I started in New Haven, Conn., which once dubbed itself “the Gateway to New England” but is mostly just known as the home of Yale University. I’m fond of New Haven, and not just because I went to school at Yale; New Haven was a pretty tough town when I was in college. It’s still saddled with a bad reputation, but in the decades since, the city has improved dramatically. It’s a fine food town with some fantastic museums that’s well worth a visit. I stayed at one of my favorite hotels anywhere, The Study at Yale, which is one of those hotels that has an appropriate vision—a sophisticated but unpretentious hotel, primarily for people visiting the university—and succeeds at it entirely. It has an inviting lobby where people actually hang out, modern and comfortable rooms with views of some of the prettiest of Yale’s colleges, and a terrific restaurant, Heirloom, featuring “farm and coastal cooking.” Within walking distance of mostly everything in New Haven, the Study at Yale is a perfect place for excursions to the impressive Yale Center for British Art, the stunning Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library or the Peabody Museum of Natural History (a must if you’re traveling with kids). There are numerous good ethnic joints to eat at in New Haven—you’ll have heard of the famous Sally’s and Pepe’s—and of course college staples like Claire’s Corner Copia and special occasion places like the Union League Cafe. But I was impressed by New Haven’s Taste of China, a Chinese restaurant I visited on the spur of the moment that, to my surprise, would have felt quite at home in the Chinatowns of New York and San Francisco.

Leaving New Haven, head to another college town, Providence, R.I. Although it’s not really fair to limit Providence with that label, as it’s perfectly possible to visit the city and not interact with its universities at all. I like the neighborhoods there, and the shopping, and the restaurants—Providence is a melting pot of people and cuisines. On this visit I stayed at The Dean, a 52-room boutique hotel that is way hipper than I am but which I enjoyed immensely. It’s housed within what its website labels a “historic building” that, I’m told, used to include a whorehouse. So it’s got the authenticity thing going. The Dean is seriously minimalist; its lobby is basically a check-in desk, a coffee counter and an elevator. But all of this is well done; in the morning, the Bolt coffee shop was patronized by a number of locals who were clearly regulars, and there was a welcoming community vibe to the place. The rooms are small, but cleverly designed and cozy. Another hipster touch: rooms with bunk beds, starting at $109. Somehow The Dean even packs in a restaurant, a bar and a karaoke lounge.

My favorite excursions in Providence typically involve walks through downtown or some of the city’s historic neighborhoods, making sure to plan some restaurant visits. But I also love the excellent Providence Children’s Museum. And if you’re visiting Providence between May and October, try to align your stay with one of the city’s renowned Waterfire events, which take place at night on the Providence river. They’re a little hard to explain, but I like to think of Waterfire as a cross between performance art and a boat ride from Game of Thrones.

 

  • Forge & Vine at the Groton Inn

 

Since this is a meandering journey, I’ll suggest a stopover in the cozy Massachusetts town of Groton, which is a lovely place, particularly during the summer, from which to explore some of the towns, countryside and museums west of Boston. (Groton is also home to two boarding schools, Lawrence Academy and Groton School, so parents of aspiring and current students have a reason to visit.) There’s a small hotel there that I like, the Groton Inn, which feels like a country inn combined with the amenities of a hotel somewhere bigger and chicer. (The population of Groton is about 11,000.) Dating all the way back to 1678, the Inn was once the oldest operating inn in the country; Paul Revere reportedly stayed there. Then, in 2011, it burned down. It’s now been rebuilt with classic New England touches: a street-facing porch with rocking chairs, a wood-burning fireplace in the lobby. The rooms have a similar feel; imagine quilts and wallpaper. It’s the right aesthetic for this location, and it works. But perhaps the inn’s biggest attraction is its restaurant, Forge & Vine, which is the kind of place that’s so good, it’s a wonderful surprise to find it in such an off-the-beaten-path location. The restaurant is anchored around an eight-foot wood-fired grill and has an open kitchen, which speaks to a well-deserved confidence in its regionally-inspired cooking; try the Berkshire pork chop with wilted kale and sweet potato, or the Novia Scotia salmon with braised fennel, or the New England charcuterie, or the…well, you get the point. Forge & Vine is outstanding.

What New England road trip, especially in the summer, would be complete without a stay in Maine? None, of course. Perhaps because it is so fleeting, summer in Maine always feels special; the state is as beautiful in August as it is forbidding in January. I’ve visited the excellent Migis Lodge, which is inland, in years past, so this time I paid a visit to the coastline and stayed at a Migis sister property, the Higgins Beach Inn. It’s hard to think of a place that’s more classic Maine. Located about seven miles south of Portland, the inn looks like a sprawling New England home, simple and unpretentious. Inside, it has a well-populated bar, a surprisingly good restaurant called Shade with classic, fresh food—think salmon, chicken, burgers and lobster rolls—and rooms that are comfortable but far from fancy. That’s exactly what you want at a place like this, as the real star here is Higgins Beach, about two blocks away. It’s the kind of beach where generations of families cluster their beach chairs, kids spend all day building sand castles, and not so far offshore, wetsuited surfers catch surprisingly big waves. A few blocks in the other direction, there’s a little store that sells ice cream and Maine knick-knacks. You won’t need much more, but if you do, an excursion to Portland is easy, and there are plenty of good reasons (especially culinary ones) to visit. Or, if you have kids, visit the combination theme park-water park Funtown/Splashtown, which is just as epically cheesy as it sounds—think Coney Island, with more water—and shamelessly fun. I’d also recommend the short trip to nearby Cape Elizabeth to see the Portland Head Light, Maine’s oldest lighthouse, in the 90-acre Fort Williams Park. The lighthouse is beautiful, an outpost of civilization against a raw and wild backdrop of rocks and oceans, and the park is ideal for picnicking and hiking.

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After three nights in Maine, I turned south—even in August, you can feel the seasons starting to change in Maine, the need for a nighttime sweater, a blanket on the bed—and headed to Boston. There I stayed at another favorite, the Hotel Commonwealth. I’ve visited this recently renovated hotel several times in the last few years, and each time I’ve found it welcoming and, for Boston, surprisingly unstuffy. This time my sons and I stayed in the Rathskeller Suite, an homage to the late, great local music club affectionately known as “the Rat.” The hotel’s done a great job with this suite—it’s clever and fun, but still luxurious. (The Rat itself was, um…not so fancy.) The walls are decorated with signed memorabilia from groups that played at the Rat; my favorite was a contract for a booking of the Police on their first Stateside tour in 1978. A bass guitar once belonging to a member of Boston’s Dropkick Murphys rests in a stand near the TV, and there’s a record player and albums from bands that visited. Given that this is a suite in an upscale hotel, the whole effect is surprisingly authentic, largely because most of the memorabilia in the suite is authentic, to the point where you wonder if you should really pick up that guitar or just admire it from a modest distance. (Of course, you do, and even though you don’t play bass, you incessantly try to figure out the six-note bass line from Walking on the Moon.)

Hotel Commonwealth is located in the very busy Kenmore Square—great if you’re a Sox fan, as Fenway is right around the corner, but a little challenging in other ways. (Try to find a breakfast place in easy walking distance.)  It helps that the hotel has Eastern Standard, a really fine restaurant, attached to it on the site that used to house the Rat. I like pretty much everything about Eastern Standard, from the room (that bar! those banquettes!) to the menu (farm-to-table American bistro) to the cooking, which is consistently excellent. Hotel Commonwealth is the best kind of city hotel, one with convenient access to everything its hometown has to offer but which also serves as an invigorating escape from the hubbub.

 

  • Hotel Commonwealth

 

The final stop I’d recommend on this New England journey: Another small hotel, the Delamar, in an up-and-coming locale, West Hartford, Conn. There are three Delamars in Connecticut, the work of shipping magnate-turned-hotelier (and Greenwich resident) Charles Mallory. The Delamar West Hartford is the newest of the three, and if you have business in Hartford or are traveling up and down the East Coast, it’s well worth a visit. The 114-room Delamar is smartly decorated, has an engaging and attentive staff, a fine spa and includes a destination restaurant, Artisan, which highlights the food of New England with dishes based on, for example, Chatham (Mass.) cod and Stonington (Conn.) sea scallops. It’s worth noting that the Delamar is built to LEED Gold Standard and makes a point of saying so, as it should. Luxury hotels have a responsibility to be as sustainable as they can be, and that responsibility is something they should embrace and communicate.

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But perhaps my favorite thing about the Delamar West Hartford is its relationship with the nearby New Britain Museum of American Art. The NBMAA has an outstanding reputation in the art world, but it’s not very well-known outside the Hartford area. It should be: This 117-year-old institution is a gem. Its permanent collections include classic works ranging from colonial era portraits by John Trumbull and John Singleton Copley to pieces from the Hudson River School to post-Civil War work by Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent. During my visit, I particularly admired “Chairway to Heaven,” an exhibit of Shaker chairmaking—simple, yet miraculous—and the panels of Thomas Hart Benton’s Arts of Life in America, with its joyful celebration of human passion. The museum also features the work of new American artists, with an emphasis on diversity and inclusion. Throughout this year, the museum will offer 2020/20+, a series of seven exhibitions featuring women artists from Kara Walker to Yoko Ono and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith.

The museum lends some of its artwork to the Delamar, which is a singular benefit for hotel guests—it’s inspiring to be surrounded by pieces of that caliber. And you can hitch a ride to the NBMAA in one of the Delamar’s Teslas (they’ll pick you up when you’re finished). Along with other local sites such as the Harriet Beecher Stowe House and the Mark Twain House, the NBMAA provides more than enough reason to visit West Hartford.

After the Delamar, it’s an easy drive south to New York. But that New England road trip will remind you of how much New England has to offer, and how easy it is to find it.

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