Where to go leaf peeping, minus the crowds

Take in the foliage, not the masses.

The Dorset Inn in the quiet hamlet of Dorset, Vermont, is surrounded by beautiful foliage.. –Dorset Inn

It’s autumn, when throngs of tourists from around the world descend on our lovely region, consulting foliage hotlines, bottlenecking roads, and hogging well-known beauty spots. Who can blame them? Still. No one wants to jostle busloads of peepers for a view. Instead, head to one of these picturesque small towns boasting fall beauty without massive crowds.

Dorset, Vt.

Let the tour buses descend on nearby Manchester, Vt., with its outlet shopping, lineup of inns and resorts, and popular sights. Instead head to this quiet hamlet just up the road. Framed by the Green Mountains to the east and the Taconic Mountains to the west, this small village, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was once home to a thriving marble company; its quarry is now a local swimming hole. Marble sidewalks lead through town, and elegant Colonial and Federal-style homes line the roads. There are scenic views galore, and everything you need in town: a general store, a fine inn, a bookstore, a lively bar, and a Euro-style bakery.

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STAY We loved the Dorset Inn (802-867-5500, www.dorsetinn.com; fall rates start at $275, including full breakfast) from the moment we arrived, following marble steps to its gracious front door, overlooking the village green. The immaculately-maintained, rambling three-story building, framed by soaring white pillars, has had a commanding presence since it first opened in 1796. It’s Vermont’s oldest continuously operating inn, an elegant beauty that strikes a blissful balance between old and new. The inn’s historic integrity remains, particularly in the first-floor living room, with wide pine floors and woodwork, and in its cozy, restored tavern (where you’ll also find an impressive lineup of craft brews and an award-winning wine list). There are 25 comfy rooms and suites, which have been updated with classic furnishings, private baths, and plush linens; some have gas fireplaces.

EAT The hip Barrows House Restaurant (802-867-4455, www.barrowshouse.com) features upscale pub fare, with an emphasis on local ingredients. Start with appetizers like the tuna nachos or the Vermont cheese and charcuterie platter. Popular entrees include the Barrows burger with bacon jam, and the steak frites with house-cut shoestring fries. For fancier, more traditional dining, head to the Dorset Inn Dining Room, with its merlot-colored walls, gas fireplace, and white linen-topped tables. Starters include house-smoked duck pate and crispy crab cakes. The rosemary and garlic pork ribeye and the roasted duck breast are winning entrees. For breakfast or lunch, stop in the airy, French-inspired Dorset Rising Bakery & Café (802-867-7021, www.dorsetrising.com), with gourmet pastries and baked goods, and freshly-made salads and sandwiches.

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PLAY Sitting in a rocker on the front porch of the Dorset Inn is a fine way to spend a few hours. But bring your hiking boots, too. The nearby 3,162-acre Merck Forest and Farmland (802- 394-7836, www.merckforest.org, free) has more than 30 miles of trails through fall-tinged forests and meadows, with streams and ponds.

Bethlehem, N.H.

Fall is a spectacular time to visit this up-and-coming town in northern New Hampshire, when the surrounding mountain slopes and dense forests are ablaze with color. The town, bounded by the White Mountain National Forest and the Presidential Mountain Range, was once a popular tourist destination, when well-heeled travelers arrived by train from Boston and New York. Today, you’ll find a blessedly sleepier town, with a cluster of downtown shops and restaurants, and infinite photo ops.

STAY Guests entering the Great Room at the Bear Mountain Lodge have the same reaction: Wow, look at that view! Smack dab in your face is the Presidential Mountain Range and the looming summit of Mount Washington (on clear days). The handcrafted log cabin, set on 26 acres (603-869-2189, www.bearmountainlodge.net, fall rates start around $190), has 10 rooms and suites, with private baths, some with steam showers, whirlpool tubs, and gas fireplaces. There’s an outdoor deck (the views!) and a comfy downstairs rec room with a billiard table and sitting areas. Friendly and knowledgeable owners Michael and Carol tend to the little touches, too: homemade chocolate chip cookies and a small guest refrigerator stocked with complimentary soft drinks and local beers.

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EAT Locals and visitors alike crowd the art-filled Cold Mountain Cafe (603-869-2500, www.coldmountaincafe.com) for its homemade soups and creative dishes, like lamb stew with Indian spices and bibimbap with fresh vegetables. Get your pasta cravings satisfied at bustling Rosa Flamingos, which serves traditional Italian fare (603-869-3111, www.rosaflamingos.com). For decent pub fare and relaxed conviviality, grab a table at Rek’•lis Brewing Company (360-852-1234, www.reklisbrewing.com).

PLAY Take a tour at The Rocks (603-444-6228, www.therocks.org), a sprawling 1,400-acre estate and Christmas tree farm, and then explore the scenic trails that crisscross the property. Local Works Marketplace at WREN (603-869-3100, www.wrenworks.org), features the work of local artists, including jewelry, ceramics, woodwork, and original art.

Georgetown, Maine

Leave busy Route 1, and the rest of the world behind, as you make your way over bridges and down the twisty road leading to Georgetown. This is coastal Maine at its finest, with its classic general store, sandy beaches (you read that right), quiet coves, one of the best lobster shacks in the state, and water views galore. We almost hate to mention it.

STAY If we were to design the perfect waterfront place, it would look a lot like Grey Havens Inn (207-371-2616, www.greyhavens.com; fall rates start at $190), with its huge wraparound porch overlooking the water. The large, light-filled living room has the same views, and a big fieldstone fireplace. There are 13 airy rooms and suites, most with beachy pastel hues and simple cottage furniture. Splurge on one of the four turret rooms with 270-degree ocean views, or the waterside Sunrise Suite with its own private deck.

EAT The views are stunning, the lobster is fresh, and come fall, the crowds finally thin at Five Islands Lobster Co. (207-371-2990, www.fiveislandslobster.com. For a more upscale dining experience, head to Blue, the waterfront restaurant and bar at Grey Havens Inn; seafood dishes, like oven roasted hake, pan-seared salmon, and grilled marinated shrimp, are specialties.

PLAY Do not miss Reid State Park, with two wide sandy beaches, trails, and picnic areas (207-371-2303, www.maine.gov/dacf/parks/). Want to get on the water? Ring’s Marine Service has kayaks, canoes, and SUPs for rent (207-865-6143, www.ringsmarineservice.com).

Ipswich

Founded in 1634, this North Shore seaside town is sliced by the Ipswich River and surrounded by scenic salt marshes and rolling farmlands. The small-town charmer is peppered with early Colonial, Georgian, and Federal architecture, including some 59 houses built between 1620-1720, the greatest concentration of First Period buildings in the country. It’s also home to one of the oldest cemeteries in North America, and one of the top beaches in New England.

STAY Sit on the porch of the Inn at Castle Hill (978-412-2555, www.thetrustees.org/the-inn-at-castle-hill) and you’ll have views across the rolling lawn and sinewy salt marshes to the open ocean. This former summer guesthouse on the expansive Crane Estate features 10 simple, modern rooms, with private baths and soothing pastel hues. Guests have nice perks, too: like access to Crane Beach and the grounds of the Crane Estate, beach chairs, umbrellas, iPads. and bikes to use.

EAT The Choate Bridge Pub (978-356-2931, www.choatebridgepub.com) is a local fave, serving BBQ, pizza and sandwiches, and Ithaki (978-356-0099, www.ithakicuisine.com) has great tasting Greek dishes. Treat yourself to ice cream at Zumi’s (978-356-1988, www.zumis.com).

PLAY Stroll picturesque Crane Beach, bounded by coastal dunes and marshlands and then take a tour of the Great House on Castle Hill (978-356-4354, www.thetrustees.org/places-to-visit/north-shore/castle-hill-crane.html). Russell Orchards (978-356-5366, www.russellorchards.com) has pick-your-own apples, a farm store, and winery. Ipswich Visitor Center (978-356-8540, www.ipswichvisitorcenter.org) has information on historic homes and the 1634 Old North Burying Ground.

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