Angela Wilkinson and Robin Glover visit Boston and New England to discover there is more to enjoy than the Fall and the skiing
For our first-ever visit to the USA we were invited to take a look at the far north-eastern states of Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire, collectively known as ‘New England’. Our knowledge of the US had, as for many others, been coloured by the images on cinema and television and we simply weren’t prepared for the treats we had in store.
The trip was organised by the region’s tourist board, ‘Discover New England’, to show how families with young children might enjoy the delights of the area. The journey included stays in Westerly RI, South Yarmouth MA, Kennebunkport ME and Boston MA, and was designed to provide an array of experiences along the way. What never changed, wherever we went, was the welcoming hospitality, with not a hint of insincerity, and an enthusiasm for sharing with tourists the local attractions. Eating was a particularly memorable experience – especially the amazing seafood, generous portions and reasonable prices. The quality of the locally-brewed ale was an unexpected bonus.
After an efficient and enjoyable flight experience from Heathrow with British Airways, we collected our car and embarked on the two hour drive south from Boston to Westerly, on the south coast of Rhode Island. Once we left the city, there was the first pleasant surprise, as we drove through beautiful unspoilt forest on quiet and orderly motorways, a totally new experience after the stress of the M3.
Our first destination was Westerly, in South County RI. This is a small, coastal town which boasts elegant Victorian architecture and beautiful clapboard houses, painted in pastel colours and with no two alike. Westerly has been described by the US National Trust for Historic Preservation as ‘one of the twelve most distinctive destinations in the USA’ and is named after its position at the south-western tip of the state, bordering Connecticut. It is one of South County’s seaside villages, which stretch out along 100 miles of breathtaking coastline.
We checked in at the Shelter Harbor Inn, on the outskirts of Westerly, a beautifully converted early-1800’s farmhouse in a secluded country setting, surrounded by beautiful gardens, even boasting an international-standard croquet court. Each room of this most welcoming hotel is tastefully decorated and furnished with antiques. The inn is renowned for its restaurant and we can understand why! Children are made most welcome and family rooms are available, with cribs and cots provided on request, and there is a play area and a special menu for the children.
The hotel’s private beach – Weekapaug Beach, stretching two miles along the shores of Quonochontaug Pond and the ocean – is a 10 min drive away. There is no restaurant on this beautiful and undeveloped beach, but the hotel will provide packed lunches if required.
An alternative would involve a short drive to Misquamicut Beach, open to the public and well supplied with cafes, restaurants and ‘facilities’ for families. This is Westerly’s largest beach, with lovely white sand and a gradual dropping off into the sea. There are plenty of attractions for children, including Water Wizz, a 35ft high giant waterslide.
We found that the best beach for families with small children is Watch Hill Beach, in the centre of Watch Hill and lying behind a restored flying-horse carousel (a National Historic Landmark and the oldest in the country, with hand-carved horses and real horse hair for tails and manes.)
The short picturesque walk out to Watch Hill Lighthouse winds past a cluster of beautiful houses overlooking the ocean. These are known as ‘cottages’ but are large and elegant buildings, more Sunningdale or Sandbanks than those familiar to us in our southern villages.
At the centre of Westerly is the delightful Wilcox Park with 14 acres of landscaped parkland, ideal for a picnic or feasting on some of the local ice cream – not just the usual suspects, either. Be prepared for concoctions including ‘Cowabunga Crunch’, ‘Purple Cow’ or ‘Moose Tracks’!
From the variety of attractive restaurants in the town, we dined at The Up River Café, 37 Main St, Westerly, which has deservedly won awards for its wines and food, and is strongly recommended. It is perfectly located overlooking the Pawcatuk River and features a riverside patio for the alfresco experience. The extensive menu includes : Grilled shrimp and charred Romaine £9; Grilled Flank Steak £8; Lamb T-Bone £10.
We drove across the Pawcatuk
River for about half-an-hour into Connecticut to visit the quaint town of Mystic, with its many boutiques and antique shops and the amazing Mystic Seaport, on the waterfront, just outside the town centre. Enjoy a stroll or a horse and carriage ride through this reconstructed 19th century seafaring village at Mystic Seaport. Around 30 old and weather-beaten houses and businesses have been moved from locations all over New England, and carefully restored, to form this lovely ‘living’ historic village.
Our next stay was on Cape Cod, about three hours’ drive away and again through picturesque woodland, and en route we called in on Newport RI, a vibrant seaport, well-known for its sailing connections with the Americas Cup. Newport boasts a charming town centre steeped in history, even having the oldest pub in the US, The White Horse, dating from 1673 and a beautifully preserved (not restored) dockside, where inns and fishing businesses are in perfect harmony. You and your children will marvel at the giant lobsters in the fish tanks on Bowen’s Wharf, one of the many wharfs which line Newport’s historic waterfront.
Weather permitting, you should not miss a boat trip around the harbour, or past Goat Island out into the Narragansett Bay and listen to tales of pirates and scoundrels! If you fancy a trip to the beach, Third Beach is a favourite with families, situated next to Easton’s Beach. King Park has a large grassy area with picnic tables, a playground and fishing pier. Another stunning picnic destination would be the parkland at Fort Adams, a defensive feature which has stood guard over Newport Harbour since 1824 and whose many acres now include all the conveniences you may need.
We took a fascinating tour of Beechwood Mansion, one of Newport’s Gilded Age Mansions, built on the famed Bellevue Avenue in the mid-1800s, revealing spectacularly how the fabulously wealthy families such as the Astors and Vanderbilts spent their vacations in their ‘summer cottages’. For sports-lovers and those in search of 20th century history you can include a visit to the Tennis Hall of Fame or St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, where John F Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier were married in September 1953.
We were sad to leave Rhode Island, where there is so much to see and do, with its children’s farms, zoos, museums and adventure parks and many fabulous historic towns and beaches, but more was in store for us.
We drove on through unspoilt countryside into South Yarmouth, on Cape Cod, where we stayed at the Riviera Beach Resort, a typical clapboard hotel, only two storeys high, situated on a private beach of pristine white sand, with a west-facing setting overlooking the Nantucket Sound.
This popular hotel is perfect for families with young children. Children’s menus, children’s pool, supervised kids’ clubs offering activities such as designing and flying kites and magic workshops run throughout the summer months. There are also plenty of activities for the whole family.
The Cape comprises 15 beautiful towns, surrounded by many quaint villages with white-spired churches, traditional clapboard houses and 115 pristine beaches. Salt marshes, sand dunes and glorious beaches make up the 40 mile Cape Cod National Seashore, between Eastham and Provincetown on the outer Cape. Martha’s Vineyard, with its connection to the Kennedy family, and Nantucket Islands are a short boat trip away and harbour cruises from Hyannis will take you past local landmarks and beaches on your way to the historic Kennedy Compound.
A trip to Cape Cod would not be complete without a whale watching cruise, a favourite activity for families of all ages. Several species of whales arrive in May, from their breeding grounds in the Caribbean, to feed at the rich feeding ground of the Stellwagen Bank. On a 3-4 hour cruise (Provincetown is the nearest port to the Stellwagen Bank), you are virtually guaranteed to see whales, with some a complimentary second voyage if you should be unlucky!
We enjoyed visiting the oldest town on Cape Cod, Sandwich, dating from 1639, with its cobbled streets and a wide variety of gift shops selling unique crafts and goods. Nearby we discovered a favourite attraction, the Sandwich Heritage Museum and Gardens. This is elegantly described as a ‘celebration of the American spirit’, is set in 100 acres of award winning gardens and is a great day out for all the family. You can take your pick of wandering around the grounds or taking a trip on a ‘hop on hop off buggy’, taking in the carousel of hand-carved horses (a favourite for visitors of all ages), the vintage Auto Museum, where we had our photo taken behind the wheel of a 1913 Model T Ford.
There is lots of fun for children in the interactive Merry Pirates of New England Exhibition, including dressing up as pirates. Enjoy a picnic in the beautiful gardens or take a quiet break with little ones in the special toddlers’ activity room in the History Museum. Family Fun days take place throughout July and August.
In the town of Mashpee, we found the Cape Cod Children’s Museum, not impressive from the outside but inside it offered great interactive exhibits for toddlers and young children (also has a breast-feeding and nappy changing corner).
Unlike UK museums, this does not house ‘collections’ of things to look at but a variety of experiences to explore. Families can learn and play together, or mums and dads can sit back, relax and let the children enjoy!
We spent a pleasant evening on the very popular four-hour dinner-journey on the Cape Cod Central Railroad, with a five-course meal and a full commentary on the sights as they slip by.
This would be too much for children, but we found they also run Family Supper Trains throughout July and August, offering fun, food and interactive activities. Face painting, clowns, singing and dancing entertain the whole family on this two hour trip from Hyannis to Buzzard’s Bay.
On another night, we chose The Skipper Restaurant, South Yarmouth, and it proved a most delightful place to eat. This is one of Cape Cod’s oldest and most popular restaurants, with a roof-top balcony affording ocean views.
You absolutely must try the multi-award winning clam chowder, served in a cup and accompanied by oyster crackers. It is simply delicious. The menu is extensive, offering a wide choice of meat, fresh fish and lobster dishes, at sensible prices.
Reluctantly, we left Cape Cod, with many happy memories, and set off northwards for Maine. En route, we visited Plymouth MA and particularly the Plimoth Plantation and Mayflower II. Plimoth Plantation is a living re-creation of America’s colonial past and is another great family day out. You can talk to the early colonists (played by actors) and see how they lived in this 1627 English village. Just as fascinating is the nearby Native American Indian homesite of Wampanoag, where you can talk to the original inhabitants (again played by actors) and discover the story of survival over 12,000 years and of integration with the early colonists. Included in the entry price to Plimoth Plantation is a visit to the Mayflower II , docked at State Pier on Plymouth’s waterfront (about a 5 min drive away). This full-scale replica of the ship that crossed the Atlantic in 1620 also has actors who tell visitors the story of life on that historic journey.
With expectation, after having our eyes and minds opened by Rhode Island and Cape Cod, we travelled on to Kennebunkport, Maine, staying at the Nonantum, a lovely up-market hotel, recently celebrating its 125th birthday and with an idyllic location on the banks of the Kennebunk River. This is a fine and historic hotel, and the rooms, restaurant and facilities are all you would expect, and more. They even offer family rooms, equipped with fridges and microwaves.
The Kennebunk River divides the pretty and welcoming towns of Kennebunk and Kennebunkport. Ex-president George Bush Snr has his summer residence here, on a rocky promontory, and the area certainly has a classy feel to it. The many beaches are completely unspoilt and Goose Rocks Beach with its wonderful views of Eastern Goose Rocks and Timber Island has beautiful soft, white sand.
The best beach for young children is Mother’s Beach which is a continuation of Gooch’s Beach. Lifeguards are on duty and public restrooms are open at both beaches from July to beginning of September.
It’s worth a little effort to find Cape Porpoise, and its quaint harbour, home to many of the lobster boats which are responsible for the many lobsters served in the Kennebunks. With its harbour-side restaurant to one side and great views to the ocean and Goat Island Lighthouse on the other, the Cape is a romantic spot to view the glorious sunsets.
We took full advantage of the Intown Trolly and it’s a firm favourite with children, too. A converted open-topped tramcar will memorably take you on an hourly, narrated, ’hop on – hop off’ sightseeing tour, with nine stopping places (including one at the Nonantum itself), through the Kennebunkport area and its village streets and the rocky coast, where you will get a good view of the Bush family’s summer residence. An amazing stroke of fortune, at one stop, was to discover the draught ale on sale at Federal Jack’s Brew Pub, brewed on site by, reportedly, an ex-employee of Adnam’s.
Another great way to view the former president’s pad is to take a scenic lobster boat ride along the Kennebunk and out to the ocean. We found out how the Maine lobsters are caught and saw seals in their natural habitat on Bumpkin Island. We took the ninety minute lobster boat trip with Kylie’s Chance of Western Avenue, Kennebunk.
If you fancy a complete change from the quiet and utterly charming village, and your children like amusement parks, then you might drive 20 minutes north from Kennebunkport to Old Orchard Beach where you’ll find the Palace Playland beachfront amusement park, with dozens of exciting rides, and activities suitable for all ages.
We ate in the highly-rated restaurant at the Nonantum and at Mabel’s Lobster Claw Restaurant, a short walk away on Ocean Avenue. This is a gem, an unpretentious and unstuffy, but top-quality, restaurant serving wonderful fresh fish, lobster, scallops, clams and chowder. The sole, stuffed with lobster in a Newburg sauce was to die for, as was the chowder! That night, we had no room for pudding, so had to return to following day to sample their famous fruit pies. The Maine wild blueberry pie is a speciality and if you have a sweet tooth, the pecan pie is not to be missed.
There is an excellent children’s menu including pasta and meatballs, grilled cheese hot dog, chicken and fresh dishes, for around £4.
Our all-too-short visit to New England finished where it started, in Boston, where we had a brief taste of what this great city has to offer. We only had one day to sample the many attractions and feel we only ‘scratched the surface’.
We stayed at the Midtown Hotel in the historic Back Bay area, providing easy access to all of Boston. This is a comfortable and affordable hotel in a great downtown location. Although the city is quite compact and ‘walkable’, carparking is difficult in Boston, so it’s better to opt for public transport (or one of the many taxis) to get around. A ‘Charlie Ticket’ can be purchased at the tourist offices, offering unlimited travel on the subway, local bus and inner harbour ferry. Tickets cost £11 for seven days or £6 for 24 hours. The ‘T’ underground, Blue or Silver Line takes you to downtown Boston. Family-Friendly Value Passes, offering discounts on many attractions and restaurants in Boston and throughout Massachusetts, are available from the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau at 2 Copley Place, Boston.
One thing we enjoyed above all was the Boston Children’s Museum, 300 Congress St, Boston, an unmissable attraction for children of all ages. This brilliant place could keep them happily occupied all day. It was founded by science teachers from Boston Public Schools in 1913. It now prides itself on being a ‘green’ museum and exists to help children understand and enjoy the world in which they live. On entering the glass lobby of the museum, the first thing you see is a 3-storey secure climbing frame towering above you. Children love this safe 3D experience and mum and dad can follow their progress by climbing the stairs alongside the sculpture. The museum encourages and educates by experience and has more wonderful interactive exhibitions on its three floors than we have space to record. For example, they include the World of Arthur and Friends, based on the books by Marc Brown, a Construction Zone for building and tearing down!, Boston Black, where you can decorate a float for an Afro-Caribbean carnival, and, especially for 0-3s, the ‘PlaySpace’. In this safe, gated area young children can climb, slide, drive a car and explore a giant train or play in the Messy Sensory area. Throughout July and August there are lunchtime concerts. There is an excellent choice of nutritious food, and a kids’ menu, at the Au Bon Pain restaurant or you can eat your own food in the Museum Lunch Room.
Suitable for slightly older children is the ‘Boston by Little Feet’
walking tour of sites on the downtown Boston Freedom Trail. The history tour takes one hour and is aimed at children 6-12 years.
Another major attraction for families is the world-famous New England Aquarium, Central Wharf, Boston, featuring more than 700 species of animals from around the world. It boasts a giant four-story 200,000 gallon ocean tank with everything from sea turtles to sharks. It also has a fantastic replica Caribbean coral reef with hundreds of tropical fish.
We ate fabulously well at Legal Sea Foods, Long Wharf, Boston. It was very busy when we visited but the welcome, and the amazing seafood on offer, justified the effort. This family-owned and managed New England chain of 30 restaurants was recently rated by Parents Magazine as the No 1 Family Friendly Restaurant in the USA. It even has a special web site for children where youngsters can view the menu and play games online. They serve the freshest fish, use no trans fats and test all tuna and swordfish for mercury. They offer a wide choice of children’s menu and non-fish food is cooked on a separate grill to accommodate anyone with a sea-food allergy.
Our first visit to the USA will surely not be the last. There is so much to see and do that we feel we have to go back to New England again, and soon. The weather, the hotels, the dining, the wine (and the beer) and the attractions were all brilliant, and the driving standards put UK habits to shame.
Above all we will remember the politeness, courtesy, willingness to assist and the warmth of the genuine welcome of all the New Englanders, throughout our visit, inviting us to share the many and varied pleasures the region has to offer.
For further information about the six states of New England and for help planning your New England holiday, visit www.discovernewengland.co.uk or call 01271 336 195 for a free brochure and map pack.
HOW TO GET THERE
*BA Holidays offers a 7 night Fly-Drive to Boston from £436.80 per person departing until the end of June 2009. Includes return BA flights from Heathrow from £370.80 and Alamo inclusive car hire from £66 per person for the duration.
*Subject to availability, based on two sharing and includes all UK taxes.
To book visit ba.com or call British Airways on 0844 493 0787 (add £15pp surcharge for telephone bookings).
■ Discover New England
■ South County, RI:
■ Shelter Harbor Inn
■ The Up River Café
■ Mystic Seaport
■ Newport RI
■ Riviera Beach Resort
■ Sandwich Heritage Museum
■ Cape Cod Children’s Museum
■ Family Supper Trains
■ Skipper Restaurant, South Yarmouth www.skipper-restaurant.com.
■ Cape Cod
■ Plimoth Plantation
■ Nonantum Hotel
■ Midtown Hotel, Boston
■ Boston MA
■ Legal Sea Foods
The short picturesque walk out to Watch Hill Lighthouse winds past a cluster of beautiful houses overlooking the ocean.
The Cape comprises 15 beautiful towns, surrounded by many quaint villages with white-spired churches, traditional clapboard houses and 115