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New England is full of rugged and gorgeous coastlines, dotted with a number of charming towns that make for great vacation spots. We’ve chosen 7 below that have hosted everyone from George H.W. Bush to Taylor Swift—but fear not, you don’t have to be a celebrity to enjoy the abundant charm of these New England towns…

Kennebunkport, Maine

Kennebunkport-Maine-East-Coast-Beach-Towns

It took George H.W. Bush to make Kennebunkport known to most of the country, but New Englanders have enjoyed this quiet coastal Maine town for years. In hot weather, beaches are a major draw, but Kennebunkport’s many small boutiques, art galleries and restaurants make a visit fun at any time of year. Inveterate shoppers may want to combine a visit to Kennebunkport with a trip to nearby Kittery, where dozens of outlets and factory stores offer plenty of bargains.

Find a great place to stay in Kennebunkport

Gloucester, Massachusetts

With its sandy North Shore beaches, rocky outcrops, green parks, hemlock woods and wild estuaries full of shorebirds, it is no wonder that Gloucester has attracted such a rich and diverse artists’ community. Fitz Hugh Lane, Winslow Homer and John Sloan are just some of the artists who have taken inspiration from Gloucester’s beautiful surrounds. Still boasting dozens of galleries and boutiques, as well as museums, theaters and an artists’ colony, the city’s art scene clearly continues to thrive.

Find a great place to stay in Gloucester

Chatham, Massachusetts

This pleasant, walkable town right at the elbow of Cape Cod is a classic New England vacation spot. Bringing kids? Check out calm beaches like Cockle Cove Beach and Harding’s Beach. If you’re looking for stunning scenery, however, try Chatham Lighthouse Beach. Its tides can be strong (heed the posted warnings), but it’s one of the most beautiful beaches on the Cape.

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Mystic, Connecticut

Swab the decks, batten down the hatches and get ready to set sail for a weekend of adventure in Mystic, Connecticut’s seaside city devoted to all things maritime. From the popular Mystic Seaport, a recreated 19th-century seafaring village, to the newly updated Mystic Aquarium, where you can mingle with beluga whales, seals and dolphins, there is something nautical at every turn. The Colonial period buildings of Olde Mystick Village offer a few tasty seafood restaurants, historical atmosphere and a multitude of unique gift shops. While most of Mystic’s attractions have a marine theme, there are a couple of exceptions: landlubbers may want to check out the Mystic Art Association’s galleries and studios, which showcase the work of local and regional artists. Or have a lunch at Mystic Pizza, the eatery made famous by the Julia Roberts movie of the same name. From restaurants with plenty of crayons and kid’s menus to hotels with puppet shows and bedtime story hours, everything about Mystic is geared toward children, making it a fun and educational family getaway. And for adults, the nearby Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casino complexes are a sure bet for entertainment.

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Camden, Maine

Camden, Maine is proud to call itself the “Jewel of the Coast.” A beautiful seaport town with a harbor full of sail boats, Camden has been used as the setting for so many movies, from Carousel to Peyton Place, that it is what many people think of when they think of New England. With a series of annual festivals running all year round, including the US Toboggan Championships, the Summer HarborArts Juried Arts & Craft Show and Windjammer Weekend, there is always something to do in Camden.

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Newport, Rhode Island

Here in the heart of Rhode Island’s “Classic Coast,” you can choose your own adventure. Soak in miles of spectacular coastal scenery, study authentic Colonial and Gilded Age architecture, saunter along the wharves of the bustling waterfront, and sink your toes into the sand of stunning beaches. You can be inspired at the legendary mansions, be energized by the vibrant nightlife, and savor local flavor at our many celebrated restaurants, wineries and breweries.

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Browse tours and activities in Newport

Nantucket, Massachusetts

Windswept beaches, sand dunes, blinking lighthouses and a charming pace of life await on this 50-square mile island. The world’s former top whaling port is now designated a National Historic District. Leave the car and take the shuttle or bike around. Seaside cottages, old whaling captains’ mansions and historic harbors contain quaint inns, boutique stores, chowder shacks and upscale dining delights. Swim, surf or load up the tackle for Nantucket’s excellent striper, bluefish and bonito fishing.

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I’ve been experiencing and writing about the vibrant New England Fall Foliage for 30 years and not surprisingly the most common questions I get are related to what is the best time to visit and where is the best place to see the spectacular show? This is understandable as for many visitors a trip to New England in autumn is likely a once-in-a-lifetime trip and not an inexpensive one either. So planning dates and destinations to coincide with peak foliage is critical… or is it?  The fact is that there are ample opportunities to see brilliant color all around New England in during the autumn months, but you just have to be prepared to put some miles on your car.

Consider booking a rental to keep costs down during your trip. In addition to saving money, you’ll also enjoy all of the comforts of home: extra space, a full kitchen, clean linens, and more. Whether you’re road-tripping from destination to destination, or are planning to stay in one central location, FlipKey has over 300,000 rentals to choose from for the perfect stay.

Fall foliage at its best near the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vermont.

Fall foliage at its best near the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vermont.

Best Time to Visit

Understand that Mother Nature decides when fall colors begin to emerge in New England and not the Weather Channel scientists analyzing if a late spring or summer drought will herald an early or late fall with muted colors.Most people want to see peak foliage – this is the time when the leaves are their most brilliant colors of mixed yellow, orange and red. But the fact is that finding a peak viewing time is an inexact science dependent on a location at a particular moment. Colors can be brilliant two weeks before and after peak and even different from one mountain to another.

Traditionally, Columbus Day weekend in October is considered the best time to visit for great foliage color. Columbus Day is the second Monday in October. I would not argue against this but then again it seems most of the world visits New England this weekend as well. And frankly depending on when Columbus Day actually falls it can be too early or late for many locations.My best advice is for you, is to plan to visit during the first three weeks of October and be prepared to drive and explore. Early to mid-October peak foliage will be focused in the northern New England states of Vermont and Maine while mid to late-October in the southern regions of Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Which brings us on to the next most popular question of where to go?

Best Destinations to Visit

An old barn sits in the countryside at peak leaf peeping season.

An old barn sits in the countryside at peak leaf peeping season.

One of the things that make New England so special is its coastline. But with rare exceptions, when it comes to fall foliage color these are not the best destinations for leaf peeping. The brilliant yellow, reds and oranges of fall are predominately reserved for inland locations and in the hilly and mountain regions of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.  The Maine Woods, Great Woods of North Hampshire and Northeast Kingdom in Vermont all hug the Canadian border and peak season comes in early October to these areas.

Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom is vast and full of surprises with villages, lakes, country stores and friendly folks willing to share why this is the best place on earth and not just in the fall. The northern woods in Maine and New Hampshire is remote and stunning and you’re more likely to be sharing space with an animal than another person. As the fall moves south to cover the White Mountains and Green Mountains the peak color seems to accelerate in time for Columbus Day weekend and the crowds of leaf peepers. Destinations such as Jackson and North Conway, NH are starting points for the drive across the awe inspiring Kancamagus Highway and the 100-mile White Mountains Trail.

Get lost exploring the endless roads that cut through beautiful fall foliage.

Get lost exploring the endless roads that cut through beautiful fall foliage.

Vermont is synonymous with vibrant fall colors and it never fails to inspire with the entire length of the Green Mountains seemingly peaking in unison. Stowe in the north and Rutland and Woodstock in the central region are crowd-pleasers with scenic drives and access to the National Forest trails and hikes to get the best views.After mid-October peak foliage has reached the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts and sneaks down to the Litchfield Hills in Northwestern Connecticut. A sunny fall day in the towns of Stockbridge or Lenox or spent walking along the Housatonic River trails are as good as it gets before the heavy snows of winter come to bury the remains of the best show on earth.

Until the same time next year when the crimson red, burnt orange, and subtle yellow of changing leaves resurfaces.

For more destinations ideas for a New England Fall Foliage trip and to get a free trip planner package to download visit Cliff Calderwood’s New England Vacations Guide website at www.new-england-vacations-guide.com.

Wellfleet Oysters on the Half ShellRenowned for its quaint New England seaside charm, the icy Atlantic that rarely breaks 60 degrees, the spectacular sunsets at First Encounter Beach in Eastham and the rolling dunes of Provincetown, Cape Cod’s beauty and allure can also be found on a platter of Wellfleet Oysters.

Though I cringe every time I wade into the Atlantic, those bracing Cape Cod waters produce some of the freshest seafood in the Northeast, from palm-sized quahogs to chubby clams to those world famous oysters.

It’s the Wellfleet Oyster, the crassostrea virginica, that’s the Cape’s crown jewel, a bivalve gem whose salty liquor and creamy flavors make it one of the Cape’s most recognizable harvests. With their long bodies and hard shells, Wellfleet Oysters taste the best because they bed down in tidal flats from the time they are just tiny seeds until they mature. Fast moving tides, with their cold, salty cleansing waves, bring the growing seedlings unique nutrients, adding to their legendary clean taste.

Most Cape restaurants offer oysters on the half shell, deep-fried or baked. However, to appreciate their true exquisite flavor, try them raw with a classic mignonette, a vinegary, slightly sweet sauce that accentuates the oyster’s salinity. Don’t use a fork, but cradle the knobby shell in your hand and gently tip it back into your mouth. It’s Cape Cod in a shell.

Wellfleet Oysters are available throughout the Cape, from Sandwich to Provincetown, but I seem to enjoy them best when I’m actually in Wellfleet, a rural, but delightfully artsy village with its share of great seafood restaurants and markets.

Both the Pearl Restaurant and Mac’s Seafood are located in the harbor, a small but bustling pier where you can find and enjoy those Wellfleet Oysters while watching fishing and leisure boats head out to sea. Mac’s is strictly take-out, with a small eating area right on the beach, while Pearl offers a rooftop dining area with fantastic views of the harbor.

In the center of Wellfleet, there’s Mac’s Shack. Not your typical seafood shanty, Mac’s Shack has a larger, more upscale menu with a wonderful raw bar. They don’t take reservations – it’s first come, first served – and the wait can be long if you arrive during peak dinner hours.

If you prefer to knock back oysters in the comfort of your vacation rental, head over to the Catch of the Day, a small fish market and restaurant that has not only oysters, but plenty of native seafood. Opening oysters can be a bit tricky at first, so ask the folks behind the counter for a demonstration. Make sure to buy an oyster knife and wear a heavy glove.

Once you master the art of opening up a Wellfleet Oyster, you’ll be able to set up your own raw bar in your own home, wherever you travel.

Karen Ellery Jones is a Cape Cod travel writer. She has lived on the Cape for over 20 years with her husband, two teens and three cats. You can read more of her writing on Cape Cod for Couples.