Holidays & Travel

Fall in love with New England - and discover spud pizza, Boston, Rhode Island and the magic of Mystic

Andrea McKernon takes a driving tour of New England to see autumn leaves and sample the best of the sights, tastes and experiences on the eastern seaboard of the United States

The striking skyline of Boston, Massachusetts
The striking skyline of Boston, Massachusetts (Sean Pavone/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The first thing that greats the Irish traveller arriving in Boston are ‘John F Kennedy Library’ signs. The echoes of this Irish-American president, assassinated just over 60 years ago, are all around as we arrive at the airport car rental desk.

The playlist has been curated for months – the whole of Supertramp’s Breakfast In America, Tom Petty, The Vaccines, a little ‘yacht rock’ with Boston, as well as Grateful Dead, Jackson Browne and Willie Nelson.

So we hit the road to Providence, Rhode Island. Our phones won’t switch data across and there’s no sat nav. Never fear, for I’m of a vintage when we managed just fine without it.

Connecticut Fall Foliage

We ask directions, get on the road directly, are amazed at the autumn colours on our journey and, unassisted by tech, arrive at Aloft Hotel.

We enter the quintessential New England city as the sun sets on a warm late October day. The old wooden panel houses are decked out in Halloween decorations. A canal runs through this once thriving industrial heartland, Brown University looms large where JFK studied and the Atlantic Ocean stretches out - next stop, Ireland.

The Aloft Hotel is on the intersection of the city with the old works quarter. The area has seen a renaissance with the building of a connecting bridge.

It all makes for a lovely walk across the bridge at night time to Otra Restaurant where we have a delicious dinner. Iberian Penninsula-inspired cuisine is a first for me and the clams, calamari and boozy puddings were fit for a president.

Next day we have a foodie tour of Providence with the Rhode Island Red Foodie Walking Tour– a tourism activity I’ve seen but never tried. It was well worth it and a great way to see, smell and taste an area.

Jack o' Lanterns at Roger Williams Park Zoo

The highlights included Charuma Tea Bar - with the best popcorn chicken street food to be had this side of Earth - and The Malted Barley, a craft beer and pretzel hostelry where they cooked the pretzels to order so they’re served fresh out of the oven.

The Boston Tea Party? Not such a big deal after all...

The Boston Tea Party, widely regarded as the first act of violence in the American War of Independence? Nope. Our foodie tour guide informs us the first major armed act of rebellion against the British Crown happened on Providence River and is known as the Gaspee Incident of 1772. But I guess the tea dumping into Boston Harbour was the act that captured the news.

We’re booked in to Pan E Vino on the historic Federal Hill where authentic Italian restaurants stretch along the street. But with dishes like wood grilled pork chop, spicy caramelised figs, house-made potato gnocchi, it was impossibe to resist.

Outstanding food, we later learn, is a hallmark of Providence where up to 95% of eateries are independently operated. It’s all down to courses offered through the local university. It means chain restaurants don’t last long in this city as home grown and long established restaurants have the population spoiled rotten with amazing food.

Brick oven pizza at Bar nightclub, New Haven

As it was Halloween, we took a short drive to the annual Jack-o-Lantern Spectacular at Roger Williams Park Zoo. Thousands of lanterns glow as you walk through displays with enchanting artsy masterpieces of pumpkin carvery.

We get on the road to Plymouth next day to visit Pilgrim Memorial State Park, Plimoth Patuxet Museums and get onboard the Mayflower II and view Plymouth Rock, framed by fabulous red and orange foliage.

We hear of the pilgrims visiting nearby Irish immigrant communities during disease outbreaks in the area.

New England is served by great highways, making everywhere a handy drive. We head to Boston for a wonderful stay in the Eliot Hotel where we watch Bostonians walk, cycle and jog below in glorious crisp autumn sunshine.

We have dinner at the exquisite UNI restaurant in Eliot’s, where I eat my first wagyu beef - an unforgettable experience alongside other delights from this high-end take on Asian street food.

‘Brick oven’ Connecticut pizza pie was new to me. Toppings include mashed potato - spud pizza we christened it. How has this not made it to Ireland?

Boston, à la Mode

A highlight is a private guided tour of folk Americana roots hall of fame at the Wang Theatre. We’re transported into a scene from The Gilded Age in this grand old theatre and get treated to artefacts of Boston rock including Aerosmith (shamefaced, we later added that to the playlist). There’s an excellent exhibition of Bruce Springsteen too, with busts of Woody Guthrie, Billie Holiday and Paul Robeson.

It’s a fitting introduction to music in Boston, because we’re booked to see Depeche Mode at TD Garden – home of the Boston Celtics.

We have dinner beforehand at the nearby Alcove Boston - a gorgeous restaurant with equally gorgeous food overlooking the river and TD Garden. Sore limbs abound next day when we head skywards to experience View Boston with its elevated 360-degree view of the city, do some shopping on Newbury Street, enjoy the Harborwalk, Charles River Esplanade and the famous Freedom Trail.

Next day we drive to Mystic - home of the 1980s rom-com film Mystic Pizza – in Connecticut to stay at the famous Whaler’s Inn. The state is doing a lot to attract the LGBT+ sector due to its historic liberalism and being a safe place in general. Nearby Hartford is recognised as one of the top gay-friendly cities in the US. We have lunch in a lovely spot called The Amalfi.

Aerial panorama of Providence, Rhode Island
Providence is the capital city of the US state of Rhode Island. Founded in 1636 is one of the oldest cities in the USA (Ultima_Gaina/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

There is an aquarium and a trip to Mystic Seaport Museum is a must where all things maritime are on display. It’s a little like the Ulster Folk Park, but with restoration of old ships with traditional building methods and tools. Mystic is a little like being on the set of Jaws. Whaling that has thankfully been outlawed from the 1970s. But we learn a day in the life of a whaler and it’s an epic, hard and dangerous life. Glorious lobster roll is the staple local cuisine as well as the famous chowder. The Ancient Mariner in Mystic serves the best lobster roll.

Our guide tells us a fascinating story of a group of Irish rebels with no sailing experience who stole a ship in this area of New England and sailed to Australia to rescue a comrade sent there as a convict by the British. One to research, reader.

Discovering spud pizza

One of the coolest highlights of the trip is a visit to The Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. This simple, little house ushered the International Style into residential American architecture. Designed and built by architect Philip Johnson in the 1940s, it attracted stars such as The Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol. A free self-guided tour takes place on Sundays that will save paying on a guided tour.

Though the autumn colours are all around, we take a drive to the Litchfield Hills to enjoy a fall foliage drive and are not disappointed at the spectacular colours.

We begin the end of our trip with a drive to New Haven and a tour of Yale University, guided by one of the students. We stay at Blake Hotel - modern and cool with a great bar and restaurant. It’s a lovely university town and there’s some underground cuisine. We’ve heard of Chicago pizza and New York pizza, but the ‘brick oven’ Connecticut pizza pie in Bar nightclub, New Haven was new to me.

Toppings include mashed potato - spud pizza we christened it. Whatever toppings, they’re served always square on a side table on a tray. There’s a choice between red (tomato) pie or white pie pizza. How has this not made it to Ireland?

The Glass House National Trust historic site in New Canaan, Connecticut

We finish our New England odyssey in Hartford, Connecticut where the big tourism hitter is the Mark Twain House and Museum where the author and his family lived from 1874 to 1891. We stay at the historic Goodwin Hotel and head out to the unforgettably fabulous Black Eyed Sally’s restaurant and live music venue for some 16-hour smoked beef and our first taste of southern corn bread.

We visit Johnny Vaughan’s Irish pub where the Dublin owner gives us drinks, hats and talks at length about Irish league soccer. He serves us a slice of Belfast from his warm, homely pub.

It’s an unplanned but mystical last stop on our winding New England journey and it heralds us back to Ireland and home.

Andrea’s trip was supported by Meet Boston, Discover New England and American Holidays