Six states and slightly more than 14 million people, all crammed into a space barely larger than Washington state. Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Vermont comprise the region of our nation known as New England. Did you know that Maine has more coastline than California? That eight United States Presidents were born in New England? That the fastest wind speed on record was observed in New Hampshire? That the first synagogue in America was established in Rhode Island? That Dunkin Donuts was founded in Massachusetts? For such a small region, New England has been home to numerous firsts in our nation’s history (via
While I have spent a significant portion of my life in and around Boston, there is much of New England I have never explored. My wife created a special journey to visit some of northern New England, and on a long weekend we departed New Jersey to take a grand tour through one of the most beautiful, historic sections of our nation.
So come along then, as we chow down on some lobster, explore lighthouses along the rugged coastline, watch maple syrup go from tree sap to bottle, stop by the homes of two US Presidents, hike a river gorge, and visit all six states of New England in five days.
The New England Grand Tour:
Our New England grand tour: 1,000 miles in 5 days. On it! NJ-NY-CT-RI
On a beautiful Thursday afternoon, we departed New Jersey and headed north. Our first state line: New York.
Next, we breezed through Connecticut, encountering mercifully little traffic as we headed along I-95.
The smallest state in the union, we crossed the entire length of Rhode Island in less than an hour. Fun fact: despite its small size, Rhode Island is the second-most densely populated state, behind only New Jersey. Massachusetts
I missed the “Welcome to Massachusetts” sign, but hopefully this makes up for it – we stopped for dinner in the seaside town of Plymouth.
We got dinner at Dillon’s Local, one of my favorite spots in Plymouth. Dillon’s has been serving gastropub comfort food since 2015.
The lettuce wrap appetizer (blackened mahi-mahi, corn and crabmeat salsa, and avocado ranch dressing) was superb. My wife enjoyed her California chicken sandwich, but I had the best meal of the night: a braised short rib grilled cheese on sourdough bread, with tater tots on the side. When passing through Plymouth, I’d consider Dillon’s Local a must-see (must-eat?) destination.
Sunsets at Plymouth never disappoint, either. The New Hampshire Coast
With only 13 miles of coastline, New Hampshire ranks dead last in the list of states that have any land meeting an ocean. However, we read several articles that strongly recommended visiting this tiny sliver of shoreline, so we thought we’d check it out.
We began our journey with a quick stop in the seaside town of Scituate, Massachusetts. First settled by colonists in 1630, Scituate was home to the Wampanoag people for centuries (via Wikipedia).
The purpose for our visit? A stop by Old Scituate Light. Built in 1811, the lighthouse is perhaps best known for the actions of Rebecca and Abigail Bates during the War of 1812 with Great Britain. One night in 1814, a British warship entered the harbor and sent a raiding party toward the shore. Rebecca and Abigail, ages 21 and 17, played a fife and drum. The British, thinking the Scituate militia was waiting to meet them in battle, retreated back to their ship. The sisters became known as the American Army of Two (via Wikipedia).
The rocky coastline of Scituate, combined with the area’s propensity for brutal winter storms, has caused at least 95 known shipwrecks. This plaque on the side of the lighthouse honors the wreck of the Italian freighter Etrusco, which was grounded during a storm, but all hands were safely evacuated from the vessel. Photos from 1956 show the Etrusco only yards away from the lighthouse when it ran aground.
After enjoying some time exploring the lighthouse on a beautiful March morning, we set off for New Hampshire.
Check out the sign on the left – we crossed into our sixth state in less than twenty-four hours!
Route 1A runs the length of the New Hampshire coastline. We stopped in Hampton Beach to stretch our legs and took a walk by the ocean. New England beaches are far rockier than those in New Jersey, giving them a rugged beauty.
With speed limits of 25-35 mph, Route 1A is not a road to drive on maximum attack. That’s okay, though… you don’t want to go fast when every turn brings up a new, gorgeous scene right before you.
New England’s rocky coastline, mostly comprised of granite, is a result of the formation of the region’s mountains millions of years ago (via National Science Foundation).
In the town of Rye, we stopped to have a picnic lunch on this bench… it wasn’t a bad view for a meal!
Although tiny, the New Hampshire coastline is well worth the visit if you are in New England. Route 1A is one of the most memorable seaside drives I’ve ever taken. Two thumbs up – highly recommended!
Before departing New Hampshire, on a friend’s recommendation we stopped by Fort Constitution in New Castle, where we were able to check out Portsmouth Harbor Light. The current lighthouse, built in 1878, shines a light that is visible up to twelve miles away (via Wikipedia). Maine
Crossing the Piscataqua Bridge, we entered Maine, the seventh state of our trip.
Our ultimate destination was Portland, the largest city in Maine. First, however, we engaged in some serious lighthouse hunting. We were in search of Portland Head Light, one of the oldest and most iconic American lighthouses.
Through a minor planning error, we mistook Cape Elizabeth Light for the more famous Portland Head Light. Built in 1828, Cape Elizabeth is also known as Two Lights, as the existing tower was once part of a pair. Privately owned, the lighthouse is not open to the public, but I was at least able to grab a photo from the grounds of Two Lights State Park.
The rocky shore of Two Lights State Park was fascinating. The ledge is comprised of metamorphic rock – deep sea sand and mud was transformed by pressure and heat into rock, and then the rocks were further shaped by the pressures of the ocean. To the naked eye, the rock looked like wood. You can read more about this fascinating geological formation in this article by the Maine Geological Survey.
Similar to my much-loved Sandy Hook National Park in New Jersey, Two Lights was also once a coastal fort, in this case built to defend the approaches to Portland’s harbor. In April 1945, the USS Eagle, a US Navy patrol boat, was sunk off the coast – a victim of a German U-Boat attack. Eagle was one of 311 (!) Allied ships hit by U-Boats off the United States coast during World War II (via Wikipedia and Uboat.net).
After some quick research, we were on our way to Fort Williams Park for our major destination: Portland Head Light.
Built in 1791 by order of George Washington, Portland Head Light is the oldest lighthouse in Maine. Although a historic site, it is still an active lighthouse, managed by the US Coast Guard. Its light can be seen up to 24 nautical miles away (via Wikipedia). Portland
I should really title this segment “Eating Our Way Through Portland.” The city is known for its vibrant restaurant scene, and we filled our time (and our tummies) in Portland with lots of delicious food! We started with a snack at Eventide Oyster Co.
An oyster bar, Eventide also serves an amazing lobster roll. You can order it regular or fully gluten-free. Both choices are served on steamed buns (and the gluten-free bun is almost indistinguishable from the non-gluten free bun, which is quite an accomplishment). It was one of the best lobster rolls I’ve ever eaten.
Our next stop was to the Cellardoor Winery tasting room. Located in the Old Port section of Portland (a historic part of the city that was once a major center of maritime trade), Cellardoor offers tastings of wines from their vineyard in Lincolnville, Maine.
That’ll be a Blanc de Blancs sparkling white wine (right) for my wife and a glass of the Unoaked Chardonnay (left) for me. How was it? Delicious!
Walking along Long Wharf at the harbor, we came across this section of the Berlin Wall. Built in 1961 to stop citizens of Soviet-controlled East Berlin from fleeing for the safe haven of West Berlin, the wall was torn down in 1989. When the wall fell, sections were taken as souvenirs, and a Portland family that owns a restaurant in the harbor created this installation (via WBLM 102.9).
Dinner was from Empire Chinese Kitchen. One of their specialties is dumplings and buns, a number of which are certified as gluten-free. We decided to sample three (clockwise from top right): pork dumplings, har gow (shrimp dumplings), and chive shiitake dumplings. Add to it wonton soup, hot and sour soup (gluten free), and an order of orange beef (also gluten free), and we had an excellent meal. Sometimes gluten-free food has a different texture or taste than its non-gluten-free counterpart, but the dumplings were excellent. The orange beef was the only item where I could discern a difference because of the gluten-free ingredients. It was still excellent, but the texture was a bit different than what I expected. That said, if you are looking to enjoy Chinese food in Portland, I’d highly recommend Empire!
Near our hotel was The Holy Donut, which specializes in potato donuts. Established in 2010, it is now a chain of three locations in Maine. In addition to traditional donut ingredients, The Holy Donut also offers a range of vegan and gluten-free donuts. We had to check it out – we do this research solely to benefit you, dear readers!
So! Many! Donuts! We ordered an assortment of gluten-free donuts to try, including cinnamon sugar, chocolate sea salt, and vanilla. The gluten-free donuts are also kept in a separate case from the other baked goods, to avoid cross-contamination. How were the donuts? To quote Neil Diamond: “So good! So good! So good!”
There were so many restaurants and cool small businesses in the Old Port section that we barely scratched the surface. Portland made a great first impression on us, and both my wife and I are eager to come back and visit again… and keep eating our way through the city! After breakfast, however, it was time to depart and head to our next destination. New Hampshire
Our drive to New Hampshire was the least pleasant of any stretch of the trip. Winter Storm Quinlan brought snow, ice and strong winds to a large swathe of our nation. Fortunately, we only encountered fog and rain during our drive. We spent the afternoon meeting up with a good friend and his family – not a bad way to pass a winter storm!
The next morning, the sun returned and we set off for Parker’s Maple Barn in Mason, New Hampshire. Founded in the 1960s, Parker’s is both a restaurant and a working sugar house, where they produce their own maple syrup. Although we planned to tour the sugar house (tours are held on Saturdays and Sundays during maple syrup season), our first priority was breakfast!
I ordered two old-fashioned (buttermilk) pancakes, while my wife enjoyed the gluten-free Belgian waffle. Portions at Parker’s are huge – our waiter talked me out of ordering three pancakes. As it was, two pancakes left me not needing to eat lunch… or much for dinner. Each order comes with complimentary bottles of maple syrup (pictured), which you can take home at the end of the meal.
After breakfast, we walked across the parking lot to take a tour of the sugar house, where Parker’s makes its own maple syrup.
The heart of Parker’s operation is this wood-fired evaporator. The evaporator boils the sap until the water has been removed and only the syrup remains.
The most surprising fact I learned during the tour was just how much raw maple sap is required to make the maple syrup that goes on our tables. A two hundred and fifty gallon tank of raw maple sap is required to make eight half-gallon tins of food-grade maple syrup (such as the one on the top of the tank).
We also learned about the different grades and colors of maple syrup. Golden is syrup produced early in the season, and has a subtle flavor. Amber has a stronger taste, and is the classic “maple syrup” flavor. Dark has a stronger flavor, and Very Dark is mostly used for cooking and baking. Produced at the end of the season, Very Dark is best used when you want the maple flavor to shine through other ingredients in your cooking (via University of New Hampshire).
Parker’s collects their sap the traditional way, with a tap drilled into the tree, and the sap collecting in a bucket. At our next destination, we would learn about maple syrup production on a far larger scale.
Our next stop was Ben’s Sugar Shack in Temple, New Hampshire. A commercial operation that focuses solely on maple syrup production, Ben’s produces syrup on a far larger scale than Parker’s.
Frozen syrup! Due to its high water content, maple sap freezes almost as quickly as water. Ben’s Sugar Shack has a few maple trees with the traditional tap-and-bucket, but given the scale of their operation, they have a far more efficient system in place for most of their operation…
A series of plastic tubes criss-cross the woods of Ben’s. A hydraulic pump helps to pull sap from the trees into a large holding tank (center of image), where the sap is then collected and brought to the sugar house to become maple syrup.
One of the biggest hurdles to sap collection? Squirrels. This is a line that was chewed through by squirrels who were eager for a sugary snack. Workers at Ben’s have to inspect the lines periodically to look for holes and damage caused by the little critters.
Inside the sugar house we met Ben, the owner. He first became interested in maple syrup production when he was on a pre-school trip to a sugar house. His parents fostered the interest, and at age 16, Ben won the Carlisle Award, which honors the best maple syrup in New Hampshire. Now in his 30s, he has been running Ben’s Sugar Shack for over two decades. Ben’s oil-fired evaporator is capable of producing significantly more syrup than the unit at Parker’s, as befits a far larger operation. After stocking up on some syrup in the gift shop, we were off to our next destination.
We drove to Manchester, New Hampshire, to explore the Millyard Museum, an organization that details the history of the mills of Amoskeag Manufacturing Company. At one point, Amoskeag was a major producer of cotton textiles in the 19th century. Many of the buildings of the millyard are still standing, now repurposed as offices, residences, businesses, and museums.
Unfortunately, yours truly misread the hours of operation – we had arrived on a Sunday, when the museum is closed! However, in one of the lower levels of the building, there is a display of the history of Manchester’s mill town era, including access to this penstock – an enclosed pipe which brought water to a waterwheel in the mill. So massive is this pipe that I could could easily stand inside of it without touching the top. After a far shorter trip to Manchester than expected, we set off for the state capital: Concord.
Along I-93, we stopped at the Hooksett Welcome Center, perhaps the nicest and most extravagant roadside travel plaza I have ever seen. A major portion of the plaza is taken up by a state-run liquor outlet store. New Hampshire does not charge sales tax on liquor, and so the state-run liquor outlets are popular not just for New Hampshire residents, but also visitors from other states where the price of alcohol is much higher.
In New Jersey, roadside travel plazas are a place to get in and get out as quickly as possible. The Hooksett Welcome Center, on the other hand, bills itself as a location to stop, eat, shop, and relax. How many rest areas have you seen with a working waterfall?
Our first stop in New Hampshire was the State Building. Built in 1819, it is the oldest state capitol in which the legislature meets in its original chambers.
The grounds of the New Hampshire State Building features seven statues of historical figures from the state’s history, including local son Franklin Pierce, the 14th President of the United States.
We then headed across town to The Pierce Manse, home of Franklin Pierce for several years before he was elected President. Pierce was born in New Hampshire and is famous in the state as a local who ascended to the highest office in the land. However, as a President, his track record was less than stellar. In 2005, a group of historians listed Pierce as the third-worst US President (via the Wall Street Journal). Pierce was so eager to add territory to the United States, he was willing to allow new lands to become slave states. He signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which essentially repealed the Missouri Compromise and led the nation closer to the Civil War. His attempts at reforming the civil service brought mediocre results. He tried (and failed) to annex Cuba. So unpopular was his Presidency that his own party declined to nominate him as their candidate for another election (via Wikipedia). Perhaps the new blog challenge should be to visit all five homes of the list’s worst Presidents (Fillmore, Johnson, Pierce, Harding, Buchanan) and make that into a special post! Vermont
The next morning, we got on the road early and crossed into Vermont! It was my first time visiting The Green Mountain State.
Vermont looked exactly as I imagined it: snow-covered hills, winding roads, and pine trees. Lots of pine trees.
Our first planned stop was a notable geological site in eastern Vermont. However, we made an unscheduled pit stop at an enormous antique store, the Quechee Gorge Village. We had visited several antique stores during our trip, but only this one made the blog. The reason?
The second floor of the building included a sizable toy and train museum! While my wife explored the antique store, I gave the recommended $4 donation and spent an hour in toy heaven.
An enormous display case in the middle of the museum was devoted to vintage lunch boxes. During my elementary school years, I had both the Knight Rider (top left) and The Empire Strikes Back (center) lunch boxes.
Toys were displayed by decade, so of course most of my time was spent in the toys of the 1980s. Fortunately, there were no parents in the museum fist-fighting over Cabbage Patch Dolls (you can read more about the “Cabbage Patch Riots of 1983” in this article from ABC 7 New York).
I was in 80’s toy heaven. The Transformers, my favorite childhood toys, were well-represented. And I uttered a small squeal of nerd delight when I saw Sideswipe (the red robot at the bottom-left) in the case. Not only did Sideswipe change from a robot into a red Lamborghini, he was smart, cocky, and a great fighter – everything that makes for a hero to an 8-year old boy. Although I’m not an overly sentimental person, Sideswipe was the first Transformer my parents bought me, and it is the only toy from my childhood that I still own.
I also loved He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. I owned Castle Grayskull (the big monstrosity in the middle of the photo), Skeletor, Black Panther, and several other toys pictured. When I look back on all the money my parents spent on toys for me as a kid… well, they probably could have bought themselves a nice Mercedes-Benz (or at least a Honda Prelude).
Of course, before Transformers or He-Man, there was Star Wars. I was one of the countless children in the early 1980s whose families made Kenner (that produced the Star Wars toys) a very successful company.
An entire display was devoted to video games, such as the ground-breaking Atari 2600, the first successful home video game system. No longer did you need to go to an arcade and pump countless quarters into machines to play games – you could hook up the Atari to your TV and play at home. At least in theory. In reality, the games were far less sophisticated than their arcade counterpart. Bonus points to the museum for including the video game E.T. The Extra Terrestrial in the console. E.T. is considered one of the (if not the) worst video games of all time, and helped lead to the collapse of the video game market in 1983 (via Wikipedia).
The home video game market was resurrected in 1985 by the Nintendo Entertainment System, which truly brought arcade-quality games to the home. If you’ve ever played Super Mario Bros, Duck Hunt, The Legend of Zelda, Tecmo Bowl, or any of the other classic games for the NES, you know how revolutionary this system was.
Once I had exhausted the 1980s toy section, I wandered through the other decades. The home science kits of the of the 1950s are a constant source of wonder to me – these kits often contained dangerous chemicals and elements with which kids could play with their bare hands. The gold standard was the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which shipped with real radioactive elements. The World of Science kit (pictured) is, sadly, less dramatic, as it ships with what the box describes as non-toxic chemicals (although each jar contains compounds which, if ingested or exposed to skin, can cause side effects such as nausea, vomiting, blisters, and diarrhea). Fascinating.
The centerpiece of the museum, however, was this enormous model train platform (HO-gauge). The attention to detail in the platform was truly impressive, and if you insert a quarter into a slot in the platform’s base, the entire diorama springs to life. After fulfilling my inner-child, I met up with my wife and we headed to do a little hiking.
We were hiking Quechee (pronounced Kwee-chee) Gorge. At 165 feet deep, it is the deepest gorge in Vermont. It was formed approximately 13,000 years ago by glacial activity. It was the site of a wool mill in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but was converted into a public park in the 1960s after the mill closed (via Vermont State Parks).
According to the nice gentleman in the visitors center, hikers the day before had reported trails covered in soft snow, making for excellent conditions. He personally had not hiked the trails, so what he didn’t know was that the snow had partially melted the day before and then froze overnight, leaving the ground covered in a mixture of snow and ice. My wife and I had a good workout getting to the bottom of the trail (no falls, either!).
At the base of the gorge flows the Ottauquechee River, a popular white water rafting destination.
The Ottauquechee River is 41 miles long, and is a tributary of the Connecticut River. 3.7 miles of it pass through Quechee Gorge.
Although it was a fun hike, we never found the iconic river gorge view that we imagined while we were on the trails. Spotting the Route 4 Bridge that straddles the gorge, my wife suggested we walk across the bridge to see if the view was any better. Fighting off my fear of heights, I agreed.
Found it! Now THIS was more like what we were expecting. Palms slightly sweaty from the heights, I snapped away with my camera.
Ironically, instead of a lengthy hike along snow- and ice-covered trails, we could have parked at the visitors center, walked less than a quarter mile to the bridge, snapped some photos, and headed to our hotel. Ah, well, at least we had an adventure!
Before heading to our destination for the night, we made one more detour to Plymouth, Vermont, and the President Calvin Coolidge Historic Site. The 30th President of the United States, Coolidge was born here on July 4th, 1872 – he is the only President to be born on Independence Day (via Wikipedia). This was also where he was sworn into office after the unexpected death of President Warren G. Harding.
Although the buildings were closed for the season, the grounds were open to explore. As a President, Coolidge ranks somewhere in the middle of the rankings I referenced earlier. A small business conservative, some scholars see his “hands off” approach to business as one of the factors that led to the Great Depression. On the other hand, Coolidge’s views toward equality were noteworthy, especially for the time in which he lived. He appointed no known members of the Ku Klux Klan to federal office. He called for equal rights for African-Americans. He advocated for laws to criminalize lynching. He also signed into legislation laws that made all Native American peoples full US citizens, and established a commission to reform government agencies that work with Native peoples (via Wikipedia). When it comes to Presidential homes on this trip, it’s Vermont 1, New Hampshire 0. Sorry, Granite State.
Our diversion also let us experience the mud of Vermont. The state prides itself on its dirt roads, and attempts to pave roads are often met with fierce resistance by locals. Dirt roads are certainly pretty, especially in the fall with the trees in full color, but the downside is this – melting snow and thawing ground leads to mud. Lots and lots of mud. Fortunately, we have a Jeep!
For our last night on the road, we stayed in the picturesque town of Woodstock.
My wife had wanted to see a Vermont covered bridge, and in Woodstock we came across the Middle Covered Bridge. The 139-foot long bridge was built in 1969 to replace an 1877 steel bridge that was torn down.
Our last hotel for the trip was the 506 On The River Inn, an upscale hotel that my wife discovered as she was planning the trip. With views of the Ottauquechee River and the surrounding hills, it offers a comfortable and scenic place to rest and explore the area around Woodstock.
This was the view from our room – not a bad way to wrap up our trip!
Our dinner was from the hotel restaurant, the 506 Bistro. While my wife enjoyed an Impossible Burger on a gluten-free bun, I tried an item at the chef’s recommendation: pork schnitzel, cabbage, and mashed potatoes. I haven’t had schnitzel in years, and it was excellent!
Our final stop was the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Woodstock. The Marsh-Billings House, an example of Queen Anne-style architecture, was the childhood home of George Perkins Marsh (born 1801), one of the earliest environmentalists in United States history. The Marsh family was influential and powerful in Vermont, and the home reflects their prestige. The house later came into the possession of Frederick Billings, a railroad tycoon, who expanded the estate (via Wikipedia).
We hiked from the mansion to The Belvedere, a Swiss-style cottage built in the 1870s for Billings. This is the only park in the National Park Service in Vermont. Beyond just the buildings, the grounds themselves are important – over 600 acres are dedicated to conserving the wildlife, plants, trees, and flowers of this section of the nation.
After a stroll around the park, we were on the road, heading toward the Vermont-New York border. Along the way, my wife spotted this stone obelisk in the distance. It is the Bennington Battle Monument, built in 1877 to commemorate the Battle of Bennington, in which a force of New York, New Hampshire, and Vermont militiamen defeated the British army in August of 1777 (via Wikipedia). The 306-foot tall obelisk has an observation deck that promises a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside. The next time we’re in this section of the country, we’ll definitely need to take a look!
Goodbye, Vermont! We crossed into New York along Route 279, about forty-five minutes outside of the city of Troy.
After nearly a week on the road, we returned to our home state.
Throughout the entire drive, Grace, my wife’s 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee, was flawless, carrying all of our gear, soaking up countless potholes and bumps, handling snowy, icy, and muddy roads, and doing it all while keeping us comfortable. She crossed the 82,000 mile mark, too. Onward! Closing Thoughts
Total Miles Driven: 1,163
States: 8 (NJ, NY, CT, RI, MA, NH, ME, VT)
Number of gas fill-ups: 4
Amount spent on gas: $212.78
Number of memories created: Countless
Sometimes with road trips, you begin looking forward to returning home, settling back into a routine, and being surrounding by familiar sites. This was not one of those trips. Rather, this was a trip that neither my wife nor I wanted to end. With unlimited funds and no real-world responsibilities, I speak for both of us when I say we could have kept exploring what New England has to offer. Ah, that’s ok… it just means we can look forward to a return trip, perhaps including more of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts next time!
Thanks for coming along on this lengthy journey down the open road ahead!
‘Til next time.