New England: Fall fever
Paul Wade's guide to one of the most spectacular displays of nature
Americans are often accused of bragging that things are 'bigger and better in the US'.
While that boast is arguable in many cases, when it comes to autumn colour, the New World wins hands down.
Photographs can't do justice to the startling scarlet, gold, purple and orange that blaze across hills and sweep into valleys.
The shimmering hues follow the Appalachian Mountains from eastern Canada down to North Carolina, but the must-see region is New England.
What makes it special are its russet-red barns and white farmhouses, steepled churches and village greens -- all photogenic props for nature's pageant.
The familiar red maple flaunts bright red leaves. Black maples turn gold, while sugar maples can be fiery vermilion, yellow or orange. Sumac and sourwood are crimson; dogwood turns purple and birch gold; hickory is gleaming bronze.
At ground level, blueberry barrens and cranberry bogs provide splashes of scarlet.
This annual phenomenon has its own language -- 'leaf peepers' arrive to see 'the color' in 'the foliage season'.
The spectacle is such an attraction that the US Forest Service website (fs.fed.us/fallcolors) has devoted pages to it.
When to go
In October, days are sunny and warm, but nights turn chilly. This drop in temperature triggers the change in leaves.
A cold snap can alter the landscape almost overnight. Chlorophyll production grinds to a halt, allowing the natural anthocyanins (reds and purples) and carotenoids (oranges and lemons) to show through the leaves.
Up in Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada, the transformation starts in mid-September, then moves south through the New England states.
Mother Nature disdains timetables, so forecasting the 'peak' is impossible. But even in years rated disappointing by locals, first-timers are usually impressed.
And finding the best spots is easy: radio and TV provide regular news, while the provinces and states post daily updates on websites and telephone hotlines.
How to leaf peep
The temptation is to drive through a region, searching for the perfect leafy vista. Aficionados prefer to find a base and take time to include other autumnal traditions, such as country fairs and harvest festivals, pumpkin-carving contests and excursions aboard old-fashioned trains (see foliagetrains.com).
New England's best-known scenic byways (byways.org) are very busy at weekends. Head, instead, for the backroads of the heavily wooded but lightly populated Northeast Kingdom (travelthekingdom.com), near St Johnsbury in northeastern Vermont.
From Gorham, New Hampshire, follow Route 16 north into the Great North Woods (gorhamnewhamp shire.com) for grand mountain views and the occasional moose.
In western Massachusetts, drive south along the Connecticut River from Greenfield to Amherst, stopping in beautifully conserved Deerfield (historic-deerfield.org).
For a panorama over the broad valley, take the road to the summit in Mount Sugarloaf State Reservation.
Another way to escape the crowds is to take a cable car to the top of a ski resort, where there are often easy strolls with majestic panoramas.
Near the Victorian village of Bethel, for example, ride the Chondola cable car at Sunday River resort (sundayriver.com) for vistas of the Mahoosuc Mountains.
In Vermont, take the Super Bravo Express Quad at Sugarbush Resort (sugarbush.com) to the 960m summit of Gadd Peak. Walk back down, or enjoy more gorgeous views on the return ride.
New Hampshire has 75 state parks, so even near popular villages you can be on your own. From North Conway, for example, head into Echo Lake State Park (nhstateparks.org) and hike up to Cathedral Ledge, with its 213m drop.
Trees by train
Travelling by rail in this region is surprisingly affordable. Amtrak's New England routes link some of the region's prettiest destinations.
A single fare, for example, from Boston to Portland, Maine, costs $20 (€15.50). If you are flying into New York, the fare to St Albans, Vermont, is $50 (€38.70).
Or, board the Maple Leaf train to Toronto. The run of 885km follows the lovely Hudson River Valley, then cuts past the vineyards of New York state and Ontario, with a stop at Niagara Falls.
It costs $115 (€89) but takes a leisurely 12 hours.
What to pack
Although autumn days are delightful, temperatures drop considerably at dusk. Take the usual layers, with a wind and waterproof jacket.
If you intend to walk, take sensible footwear for the forest paths and mountain trails.
Yankee Magazine (yankeemagazine. com) is devoted to New England travel and its 'Leaf Peepr' app (yankeefoliage.com) keeps you up to date with the hotspots in the US.
Individual states, such as New Hampshire (visitnh.gov), also have free foliage apps. And if you take a photo of a leaf, LeafSnap, a free app, cleverly identifies the tree.
WHAT TO AVOID
The best-known roads on weekends, such as Route 100 (in Vermont), the Kancamagus Highway (New Hampshire) and the Mohawk Trail (Massachusetts).
Columbus Day Weekend. On the second Monday of October, this popular three-day holiday in the US is synonymous with crowds of peepers.
Finding a quiet lunch spot can be difficult. Take sandwiches, buy apples from road-side stands and picnic in the woods on a back road.