Incredible mansions, seafood and Pilgrim settlements brought to life make New England a must-see
‘Do thee hail from the old country?”, asks the ruddy-faced pilgrim wearing a Jacobean era hemp doublet, breeches and waistcoat, laying down a sword he just lunged at his opponent’s thigh. Luckily, the weapon is made from wood and not steel.
We have stepped back to 1627 at Plymoth Plantation, overlooking Cape Cod’s coast in Massachusetts, where costumed actors portray the original settlers so realistically that you almost pinch yourself to return to the present day.
The plantation authentically mirrors the Pilgrims’ first settlement and surroundings. A recreation of an indigenous home made from bark, wattles and skins — occupied by Hobbamock and his extended family of the Pokonoket tribe — spreads across a forest clearing. Everything in the living history museum including costumes, homesteads, farm plots, crops, implements and vocabulary is superbly recreated.
Survivors of misery and the furious Atlantic storms aboard the Mayflower, they were ill-equipped for their harsh new surroundings. More than half of the 100 Pilgrims fell ill and died that first winter, as a pandemic swept the new colony. Numerous diseases, including bubonic plague, influenza, smallpox and measles also wiped out local indigenous populations, who had little or no immunity from them.
Barely eking out an existence, the group feared the end of their quest to colonise the new world was imminent. Until a ship arrived from overseas, carrying food. Records at the Massachusetts Historical Society reveal that the wife of one of the prominent Plymoth brethren was the daughter of a Dublin merchant who chartered The Lyon, which had sailed from Ireland, landing in Massachusetts Bay on a freezing February morning in 1621.
At Mystic Seaport Museum further along the coast, we board a replica of the Mayflower, next to the Charles W Morgan — a whaling ship where visitors discover the appalling lives of crews, who were paid paltry wages for constantly risking their lives, cast into rough seas in small whaling boats equipped with harpoons. Whaling built immense fortunes for 19th century New England, financing some of the most opulent residences on Rhode Island.
Newport’s biggest attraction, apart from its fine harbour, pricey dockside seafood restaurants and racing yachts, are these jaw-dropping mansions that compete for extravagance and grandeur, demonstrating that money and taste are not always good bedfellows. Called ‘cottages’ by America’s richest of the rich, some mansions were only briefly used as an escape from the city and stifling summers on plantations in the Deep South.
Our trolley driver stops outside the 70-room Marble House, inspired by the palace of Versailles, built with 500,000ft3 of marble. A Vanderbilt (railroad dynasty) ‘cottage’, it was the last word in opulence and grand dame neighbours were driven into a frenzy upgrading their own residences.
This road trip to New England, which is filled with rich history at every turn, includes coastal Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Inland, we explore the pastoral Berkshires of western Massachusetts and rural Connecticut.
Picturesque Lenox and Stockbridge are short leg-stretch stop-offs on the drive to North Adams. The town’s proximity to the famous Appalachian Trail, which stretches over 2,000 miles from Maine to Georgia (we spend a couple of hours hiking a little of the terrain) is great for tourism, explains Philip Taylor, owner of Trail House Kitchen and Bar, a cosy restaurant.
The award-winning Tourists Welcome (touristswelcome.com) across the road, where we spend the night, is a sustainable getaway for city folk to commune with nature and hike, transformed from a former rundown motel.
Other standout New England attractions we briefly touch on include the Connecticut state capital Hartford for the wonderful Mark Twain House, where America’s greatest storyteller, traveller and humourist built a dream home complete with Tiffany interiors, for his family.
Rhode Island’s capital, Providence, is one of America’s oldest cities and the country’s creative capital, whose winding streets and canals are full of colonial-era charm and great multi-ethnic restaurants. Its restored downtown area, the Providence Place mall and Federal Hill — the city’s Little Italy —are among the highlights.
The John F Kennedy museum on Main Street in Hyannis, a favourite with visitors from Ireland, offers many insights into the life of the 35th president, and the idyllic summers the Kennedy family spent on Cape Cod — especially poignant now on the 60th anniversary of his assassination.
Any visit to New England should include a couple of days in one of America’s oldest cities, Boston, the birthplace of the American Revolution. Start your journey along the 4km Freedom Trail from Boston Common to the 18th century warship known as the USS Constitution.
The trail path, marked by red lines, is easily followed and passes 16 historically significant sites. You’ll stop in front of Paul Revere’s home in the heart of North End (today, atmosphere-laden Little Italy).
A hop-on, hop-off trolley bus tour is an easy introduction to this intensely Irish city, whose powerful famine (an Gorta Mór) memorial is a favourite downtown meeting place.
Afterwards, wander up the street to the Omni Parker House hotel to admire its glittering interior with a century and a half of history. Sit in the cubicle of table 40 where JFK proposed to Jackie Bouvier, and try out famous hot Parker lobster rolls and Boston cream pie.
Boston is celebrating the 250th anniversary of the Tea Party later this year, adding even more reason to visit the popular city.
New England is three times the size of Ireland, a year-round destination, featuring long glorious beachside summers and snowy winters with world-class skiing in Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire.
Fall is the most colourful season, a rainbow of reds, oranges and yellows. But if you are planning a fall visit, remember accommodation can be booked months in advance by keen foliage-viewing visitors.
NEW ENGLAND, USA See discovernewengland.org ■ ISABEL flew Aer Lingus into Bradley International Airport and out of Boston. ■ SHE stayed at The Inn at Yarmouth Port (theinnatyarmouthport.com); Homestead Inn (homesteadmadison.com); and the five-star Boston Harbor Hotel (bostonharborhotel.com). ■ FOR more information, see meetboston.com and visitrhodeisland.com.
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