I couldn’t help but notice how chilly it was beginning to get on leaving Nantucket first thing in the morning. The tree-lined streets of the town may not have been a riot of colours but the air temperature was indication enough that the fall season was progressing.
The main reason we were doing this road trip was to see New England at its best – in a full blaze of autumnal colour, and we were quietly hoping that the rest of America didn’t have the same plan.
Our first overnighter was at the gorgeous seaside city of Newport, Rhode Island. With the weather at its absolute best, the city’s colourful 18th century buildings, homes and manicured streets shone beneath a brilliant blue sky.
We stayed a few blocks from the waterfront up on Historic Hill at the Yankee Peddler Inn – a lovely old Victorian home that was built for a mariner and naval officer in the 1830’s. Today it contains 15 guest rooms nestled over its three floors; and for us, we got a room in the ivy-covered Carriage House out in the garden. A nice little bonus is the roof terrace on the main house; strewn with flowering pot plants with views over the neighbourhood – a perfect possie for G&T hour.
Staying in town for a mere 24 hours meant we had a little cramming to do. We didn’t need to see the entire city so skimming across town had to do. First stop involved coffee and our immediate choice was Jonathan’s Café, a small place that overlooks Eisenhower Park. Neither of us was all that hungry so a beautiful ginger snap cookie provided a spicy bite to the double espresso and rather fluffy macchiato we ordered.
When it was time to find a lunch venue we settled on the pub-like Red Parrot. We’re ushered upstairs and presented with a lengthy menu that would rival some of those you see at many Chinese restaurants. American, Tex-Mex, Italian, Caribbean; these guys want to offer just about everything across about 20 pages of food choices.
The food may have taken quite some time to arrive but it was worth the 45 minute wait. A French dip (10.95) comes loaded with thin slices of Boar’s Head roast beef, some fries and decent quantity of jus. I couldn’t pass on the famous baby back ribs (19.95) – rather enormous in proportions and damn generous considering the price. With more than enough meat, this was one lip-smackingly delicious slab of bones. The beans that came with the ribs, however, were so loaded with sugar that I left them uneaten. Sweet beans, sweet potato and sweet bbq sauce. My head was spinning. I kept the corn bread as a dessert. A lemon icing would have done nicely considering how sweet is was.
A post-lunch coffee was in order when we stumbled upon this place down on the harbour. Coffee Grinder is a cute little cafe with chirpy service, a counter brimming with homemade baked treats and some coveted Adirondack chairs on the deck. Pity the coffee had an over-roasted flavour.
Along the eastern shore of Newport is the Cliff Walk – a very popular activity that takes in some stunning scenery and views of some seriously impressive mansions from the city’s gilded age. Starting at the top of Easton’s Beach I couldn’t help but be amazed by the colour of the water as it broke over the sand; thanks to red seaweed.
Built in 1892, Ochre Court (1st below) is one of the first mansions you walk past on the trail. Not too shabby, hey? It’s also the second largest in the area; second to The Breakers (2nd below) – the 70-room summer home to Cornelius Vanderbilt II.
Sadly, as we continued past The Breakers the trail was blocked off due to reconstruction – so no more mansions for us that day.
As the day wound down we found ourselves back on the waterfront sipping on drinks at the Black Pearl, watching the sun set over the harbour. At that point it actually felt like we’d been in town for more than a day already but as much as I could have stayed a little longer, it was back to the highway early the following morning.
Not before a spot of local seafood at Clarke Cooke House down on Bannisters Wharf, however. This three storey 18th century house is layered with a bunch of dining spaces – The Porch, The Candy Store, The Club Room and The Bistro. Not to mention the bars. We were actually lucky to get a table as walk-ins as the place was pumping.
Downing some oysters (2.5) was a given and having a decent choice of varieties was a bonus. I thought I’d keep it local and go with the ones from Jamestown, an island several kilometres away. Tasty little fella’s, they were. Both of us order fish, the first being a native cod (27.75). A niçoise vegetable “salad” props up the fish with a chickpea fritter and on top is white anchovy and caramelised fennel. Whilst the fish was very good, the balsamic vinaigrette overpowered everything in the bowl.
The other dish, a sautéed fillet of salmon (23.75) is served very much like the cod. Sitting on kipflers with king trumpet mushrooms, peas and a delicious green peppercorn & prosciutto infused broth. Pity the fish was overdone and the surprise clump of caramelised onion beneath it was excessively sweetened.
An early morning rise the following day was set by pangs of excitement. Open highway, cities, towns and (hopefully) good eating ahead of us. Hopping from Aquidneck Island to Conanicut Island to Highway 1, I took a spontaneous turn when I spotted a sign for Carpenters Beach. I had no idea what was down there but we soon discovered a small coastal hamlet called Matunuck; a sleepy little place complete with colourful trailer park. Someone loves their flamingoes!
Crossing the state line into Connecticut and arriving at the small village of Mystic was where we had our first glimpse of fall colours. A working drawbridge over the Mystic River leads you down West Main Street which is lined with gift shops, cafés and local services. Many visitors come here to see the Seaport, Aquarium and Olde Mystick Village but we just needed a caffeine top-up and a few minutes to stretch our legs.
In the middle of town is Bartleby’s Café, a friendly spot that’s popular with regular locals and anyone that’s visiting town. It was espresso for this pair of blow-ins, a quick free wifi reconnect to social media and further exploration of the town.
On the next block is a place I’ve been all too familiar with since the movie was released in 1988. Mystic Pizza. One of Julia Roberts’ first movies and the first time Matt Damon appeared in one. Mind you, he only had one line. The movie may not have been filmed at the restaurant, but knowing it was based on the pizza restaurant and filmed around the area was enough for me.
Once back on the road we decided to take Route 156 rather than the interstate as we assumed it’d be more scenic. It was approaching lunch so we thought the town of Old Lyme would do. The town is so small that we actually drove straight through it without realising; turning back to see what we missed. The beautiful white steepled First Congressional Church, a couple of galleries and nothing much more. Google came to the rescue when I looked at the map and saw a place called Morning Glory Café by the Lieutenant River on the other side of the turnpike.
Once again the weather was absolute perfection and the setting for the café is ideal. I could have easily slumped into one of the Adirondack chairs for a midday nap but it was a leisurely lunch by the river before hitting the road again.
It seems that we stumbled upon a little gem, as well. The story behind the Morning Glory Café began when a family of Laotian refugees escaped the war-torn country in the late 1970’s; stowed away on a convoy bound for Vientiane then crossing the international border at night to Thailand on the Mekong River using inner tubes. Almost three years were spent in a Thai refugee camp before they made it to America in 1980. Four local churches sponsored the family of eight, helping them settle into Old Lyme.
The second youngest of the six boys of the family, Sichanh Patana was five when the family arrived in 1980. This café is his pride and joy and with the help of his brother Pon and the occasional help by their mother, they’ve got a nice little business going.
The menu is a mixed bag of American favourites like chicken wings, a Reuben sandwich and burgers, but there’s a good selection of Laotian/SE Asian specialties as well. Spring rolls, satay, even phở. Crunching into the luang prabang egg rolls (6) was an absolute delight. Little golden cigars of pork, carrot and glass noodles – one of mum’s recipes. I followed it with a non-Laotian bowl of New England clam chowder (4); creamy, rich and delicious.
My partner in crime settled on an old favourite – the roast beef sandwich (9) with Swiss cheese, jus dip and fries.
From Old Lyme it was very much a solid drive across Connecticut and into the southwest corner of Massachusetts, through state forest and bright green countryside. Stopping at Otis Poultry Farm was almost a requirement purely due to the effort these guys put into attracting visitors. Animated chickens and signs for eggs all over the place.
The farm has grown from a small Mom & Pop business selling eggs and chickens in 1904 to the next generation building things up with cheese, milk and bread. The current third generation added a store, offering visitors a whole bunch of stuff. Not all of the lights were on when we first walked into the door, but they quickly flickered and illuminated, revealing a low-ceilinged sprawling room packed with wine, novelty gifts, clothing, homemade pies and fudge, you name it. I couldn’t help myself in grabbing a couple of bottles of local vino.
Merely 20km from the farm is the gorgeous little town of Lenox, nestled in the Berkshire Hills in Western Massachusetts. It’s difficult to miss all of the greenery that makes it so beautiful. Manicured lawns, shaded woods and pops of colour here and there thanks to autumn making its mark on deciduous trees. And that air. So fresh!
The downtown area is tiny and comprises nothing more than a couple of blocks of municipal buildings, houses, shops and places to eat. Easily covered on foot, it wasn’t long before we’d done the ’rounds and found ourselves at the Olde Heritage Tavern for a couple of drinks before an early dinner.
Around the corner on Church Street is Alta, a lovely little restaurant that dishes up contemporary American food with a Mediterranean touch. With views over the quiet village street, we sat on the porch and enjoyed some local vino before tucking into some good, honest food that’s sourced from local farms and providores.
A very French baked Vermont goat cheese (13) took me back to a lunch I still remember having on the Canal du Midi. Except here at Alta the dish was a lot more refined. A couple of small discs of toasted brioche sit beneath beautifully warm and soft circles of goat cheese. An arugula and pear salad add the green element and a maple syrup and balsamic syrup dress it up.
The crisp tuna (14) took on a slight Asian slant thanks to its sesame and honey sauce. The piece of fish is wrapped in basil and brik pastry before being snap fried and served with a tangle of julienned cucumber salad.
A couple of tasty birds came our way for the main course. First a pan-seared free range chicken statler (24), served over spears of asparagus with crisp herbed polenta and pan jus. The statler basically refers to the breast and drumette cut that was served at Boston’s Statler Hotel early last century.
Something tells me that duck is a firm staple on the Alta menu, something to do with the restaurant’s French owners, methinks. I ordered the pan-seared duck breast (27) as I was curious about one of the elements that came with it. The duck is beautifully cooked and served with mash, asparagus and cherry tomatoes. A very bold move is made by bringing in a salted caramel sauce. On its own the sauce is just like the stuff you’d drizzle over ice cream or a cake. It’s incredibly sweet and salty, yet somehow it worked with the richness of the duck. Although towards the end my tongue was a tad over the sugar.
No need for dessert after that one.
The only coffee we had in Lenox was at Shots Café the following morning, just before we left town and drove north. Cute little place with sponged mustard-coloured walls and counter loaded with tiered stands displaying a variety of baked goodies. A macchiato, a double espresso and a little soft jazz as we dosed up before heading upstate.
The journey continues.