Don’t die wondering, man.
-Duncan, The Way Way Back
New England spans the six northernmost states on the US’s east coast: Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. With the Atlantic Ocean to the east and New York and Canada to the north and west, the region is probably best known for its beautiful fall foliage, bountiful and delicious seafood, harsh winters, and one of the most distinctive regional accents in the country.
But new Batman aside, I’ve always wanted to explore New England. The southernmost part of New England, Connecticut, is only a brief one and a half to two hour drive from north Jersey. As an avid seafood lover, the variety and freshness of New England’s daily catches have always allured me. And as a cold weather fan, I’m practically built not only to handle, but to thoroughly enjoy, their biting winters.
I don’t know why, then, it took me until just these past two weeks, and for work reasons, that I finally took the time to head north and visit this beautiful, scenic, fascinating landscape of people, places, and provisions. There’s something timeless to New England. It has somehow managed to avoid being tainted all these years. Often times the moment a place is hailed for having an ‘untouched charm’ is the moment it dies. Floods of tourists, opportunistic businesses, and hordes of would-be travel writers and bloggers and vloggers and every other thing wanting to be the first to ‘discover’ the place or the first to declare it officially ‘passé’ ruin everything these places stand for by trying too hard to define it. So to protect the magic of New England, I’m not going to sit here and try to wax poetic and figure out some way to capture it like no one else has. The truth is New England is one of those places you need to discover on your own, and you have to realize and respect that even in its tiny little geographical area, there are enough differences and variations to keep one interested, curious, and conscious.
The Scenery, and Getting There
I’ve already let you all know how inspired I was by some of the most beautiful stretches of driving roads I’ve ever seen all nestled and tucked into thin ribbons spread across mountains in New England. Aside from the guaranteed headache of dealing with either the George Washington Bridge on I-95 or the Tappan Zee Bridge on I-87, driving to and through New England is pretty much smooth sailing. Word of warning, get your ass out of Connecticut as quickly as possible. Sweet people. But god damn if they aren’t the worst drivers in the country. Every single one of them either wants to kill or be killed on the road, and I don’t know which is worse. Pardon the Connecticutians for they know not how they drive.
Other than that though, if you’ve got the time, get off those major interstates and soulless highways to discover the real charm of New England without even having to get out of your car. The local roads are much more peaceful, more more scenic. My second week in New England in the area around Wareham, MA the manager I was working with was nice enough to give me a quick tour of the area. When I told her I had never actually made the trek to New England before and so was ignorant of the charm of say, Cape Cod, after lunch she took me on a quick drive through the area. The effect was almost immediate, and you could feel it even from the passenger side window. New England is gorgeous. Landscape and architecture, it’s all just wonderful and timeless and charming. There are vast sprawling acres of unspoiled woods. Driving in the summer I felt like I was entering into an untouched magical forest, to be spit out into a land of fairies and sprites. The trees are allowed to grow tall and wide and lean over the road and create leafy canopies, with sunbeams peeking through random pockets. In fall I can only imagine how beautiful it must be to drive through bright flashes of red and orange, to walk among crinkled fallen leaves and listen to the crunch. In winter I envision these large plains blanketed in pure blinding white. I’ve no doubt in any season, New England must have been made for aimless wanderers and roving lovers. I’ve never been one for beaches or sunscapes. My heart doesn’t jump at the sight of tropic plants or white sand beaches. I don’t have much to say about concrete jungles or crashing waves. But give me dense forests, calm clear lakes and swiftly running river waters, wooded mountain peaks, and I can feel it all in my very bones.
What man has touched in New England though is still as pure, as historic, as connected to the region’s history and traditions. Even their cities feel like towns at best. Separating Boston and the Greater Boston area (New England’s largest metropolitan center) most of New England feels like a collection of villages. For the most part, what you think of when you think of New England are old colonial style houses, historic wood buildings, and Main Streets, the arteries of these towns, dotted with local mom and pop shops, bars, and restaurants. Unlike other areas, New Englanders are attached to their buildings. When new roads threaten to throttle business life or cities move to match populations, so do the buildings go with them. During my little cross-the-Cape tour my tour guide pointed out just how many buildings in the area were originally from other, smaller towns sometimes even miles away. Propped up, picked up, or floated along the river to live on in new areas. Even their bridges, like the one I have here meant for trains to cross the river, look like medieval castles, contributing to that fantasy-land aesthetic.
The People and the Food
Do you know when I can tell the food is going to be good? When I see the locals making it and eating it. Oh sure, I’m no stranger to the fine dining establishments. All bougie and hoity-toity and all that. But when my heart and soul are hungry, I want those local, hole in the wall, favored treasures. So when I am in an area where I can tell the people are involved with their food, I know I’m in a good place. New Englanders are passionate about the food they serve. They make no great presumptions, they just state what they know is true and real. Like they know that New England clam chowder is the best clam chowder. Rich and hearty and creamy with ridiculous amounts of sweet fresh clams in each spoonful. They know that clam chowder should be thick enough to stick to your spoon but not so thick as to stick to your gut. They know all that, but they also know that you could go to five different restaurants on the same stretch of road and each one’s chowder will taste completely different, yet all so wonderful.
More than just incredible clam chowder, I can’t tell you how much lobster I’ve had these past two weeks. I made it my goal to have lobster practically every day I was up north and by god if I didn’t damn near accomplish that goal every day. In the most unapologetic, kitschiest, most ridiculously over the top decorated seafood shack (I’m talking fishing nets on the wall and portholes for windows) I had some fantastic fried lobster fingers. Sweet plump chunks of lobster claw meat lightly battered in cornmeal dipped in melted butter. Crunchy on the outside, sweet and chewy on the inside. Fresh and fried. And everyone, get this. Practically every place in New England serves lobster rolls. INCLUDING MCDONALD’S. I first discovered this on my walk back to my hotel after already having a full, satisfying meal. But at $8.99 for a lobster roll, who could resist? Maybe a stronger person, but not me. So yes, on various occasions and in between hotels and store visits and meals I was having McDonald’s lobster rolls. I gotta tell you though, they were great. In fact, between the McDonald’s lobster rolls and the lobster rolls at Panera (I told you they all did it in New England), I have to say the McDonald’s one wins. The Panera lobster was bland and tough and the bread soggy and falling apart. The McDonald’s lobster roll had the foresight to serve it on toasted thick baguette style bread that holds up to the lobster juices and mayo. Crisp romaine, generous amounts of large chunks of lobster, generous seasonings that didn’t overpower the rich sweetness of the lobster, and I think they did this on purpose, but the fact that there was a tiny bit of shell in my McDonald’s roll that I had to take out with my tongue kind of made it all feel…authentic? I can’t prove it, but if that was a marketing decision to convince customers of the authenticity, it worked. By the way, that Panera roll was $29!
Most of the best restaurants in the area have stories in and of themselves. When you’re entire existence relies on small town old world historic charm, it’s not surprising that the most successful restaurants have been in business for generations. The wood creaks with stories. In Wareham I ate at a family restaurant that’s been open since 1948. Inside you can still sit on the old-fashioned diner stools and booths and admire the trademark red checkered linoleum floor of small town diners of the time. Around the back though is an entire addition that almost triples the size of the restaurant, with murals on the wall depicting fishermen and cranberry farmers (there are tons of cranberry bogs in the area). In Merrimack, NH I ate at the Lobster Boat, opened in the 1980s. But perhaps the most interesting and fun place to eat for me was in Brattleboro, VT at the Top of the Hill Grill. It’s a tiny restaurant on the side of the road with open air seating overlooking woods and a lake. There are speakers playing music all night and the barbecue is simple, unassuming, but flavorful and plenty. There’s nothing like digging into some barbecue spareribs and brisket, sweet cornbread, licking barbecue sauce off your fingers as you look out into this gorgeous field.
I’m not the only one to notice the strange magic that flows through New England. You feel it when you see it in the scenery, smell it in the forest air, experience it when you walk through the towns. It’s more than just visit magic though. The charms of New England translate well to movie magic too. Some of my most favorite films have been set in different areas of New England, and I even got to visit some of those places! The Way Way Back is a coming of age story about a young boy whose family goes to Cape Cod for the summer holiday. Most of the movie takes place in water park where the boy ends up getting a job. This is a real location. Water Wizz is touted as ‘Cape Cod’s largest and only water park’ and is located in East Wareham, MA, where I had lunch with one of the managers and did my Cape Cod tour. This is one of the best most inspiring movies I’ve ever seen about courage, love, and independence. Wes Anderson’s Romeo and Juliet-esque Moonrise Kingdom takes place on the island of New Penzance off the coast of New England. In Brattleboro, VT, where I stayed for a few nights, they shot the goth-punk cute girl samurai acid dream Sucker Punch. A great movie for pure style over any discernible substance. The Town and The Departed of course made Boston the gang capital of New England, and Jaws made everyone, not just New Englanders, afraid to jump into the water. Clearly, filmmakers, yearly flocks of tourists, and a dedicated local population are onto something. In fact, I feel a New England movie marathon coming on. The list is endless and full of real gems. The magic of New England has not waned through the years, and honestly, I really do regret having waited so long to visit. Now I have a new area to explore and discover. In the fall I might want to take another drive up just for leisure, or in the winter I could take a cruise from New York through New England and into Canada to appreciate the winter scenery. The most important thing is, New England has always beckoned with its immeasurable charm, and if you’ve ever wondered if it was worth the trip, well I only have one thing to say.
Jerel says, ‘don’t die wondering, man’.