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New England / Cue The Hues

From Boston, leaf peepers set out on a bus trip to see the region at its glorious best. The colors are on a roll; the tour hits a few bumps.

October 15, 2006|Rosemary McClure | Times Staff Writer

Boston — TWO pumpkins and a jolly scarecrow decorated the front porch of the house, a white clapboard Colonial in Farmington, Maine. A sugar maple tree in the frontyard had started to lose its leaves, and two boys were turning somersaults underneath it into a pile of scarlet and gold, a Dalmatian puppy yapping noisily as it tried to join in the fun.

A scene from a Norman Rockwell painting? No, a scene from a bus window as it rolled through town on a weeklong Trafalgar tour called Autumn Colors.

Several million people descend upon the rural back roads of New England every year in search of fall. They find it in small towns like Farmington, on shady trails through New York's Adirondack and New Hampshire's White mountains, along Maine's rugged coastline and in farming communities in Vermont and New Hampshire. They find it in a reflection of brilliantly colored trees in a quiet pond, in the scent of apples in an orchard, in a momentary glance at boys rolling in a hill of leaves.

I had joined the Trafalgar group to sample one of the company's tours, traveling anonymously as a consumer scout on an itinerary that covered 1,340 miles, from Boston to Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York and back to Massachusetts. Trafalgar, which calls itself "the world's favorite tour company," is one of the world's largest, moving about 90,000 travelers each year. Its rates are moderate -- my trip cost $1,535 per person, double occupancy, including most meals (air fare was an extra $357) -- and the company prides itself on offering first-class accommodations.

I planned to evaluate the trip, but I also wanted to take my first look at a New England fall. Would it -- and the tour -- meet expectations?

Disappearing whales

I could smell the ocean before I saw it. Salt and the tangy scent of seaweed drifted on the wind. We had left Boston around 8 a.m., driving north about 70 miles to York Beach, Maine. Clapboard houses and shops, a wide beach, a silvery sheet of sea glistening in the morning light. There were no trees in sight, but no one cared. The day was glorious.

"We're going to park, so everyone can get out and take a picture," said tour guide Beverly LaFlamboy. "We're going to stop and do this extra thing."

I smiled. I've been on bus tours where there were no photo stops, regardless of the wow factor of the scenery.

The driver pulled the bus to the side of the road and many of the tour's 51 participants clambered off, cameras at the ready. My fellow travelers hailed from North America and Australia; most were over 60 and from the Midwest.

"Ten minutes," LaFlamboy shouted as we piled out, "or as long as it takes you to take a picture or two."

We were back in the bus in a flash and off to our next stop, the Nubble Lighthouse at Cape Neddick Point, one of the most photographed on the East Coast. The sun was playing tag behind clouds, and we lingered on the cliffs overlooking the lighthouse, shooting pictures.

As LaFlamboy walked nearby, I stopped her to ask a few questions about our itinerary.

According to the Trafalgar brochure, the following day we would visit Acadia National Park, near Bar Harbor, Maine, and then have leisure time to take an optional whale-watching cruise. I wanted to make sure I didn't miss the whales, I told her.

"Well, that doesn't really work," she answered. "We wish they'd change the brochure. There's not enough time for that."

My next question was about another stop we were to make later in the week, at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

"That's wrong too," she said, shaking her head. "We get there after closing. But I'll try to call ahead and ask for the gift shop to be open. People are really disappointed about that. But they can always take a picture of it from the outside."

I tried not to look dismayed.

"What else is listed in the brochure that we don't do?" I asked.

"I think those are the main two," she answered.

When we were rumbling north on U.S. 1 again, LaFlamboy asked if we'd like to stop in Kennebunkport for lunch. Famous for its famous summer residents -- former President Bush and his wife, Barbara -- Kennebunkport drew a resounding yes from my bus-mates. The seaside town is a favorite of wealthy vacationers, with shops, restaurants, B&Bs and assorted mansions on hillsides overlooking the Atlantic.

"If the Bushes are home," LaFlamboy told us, "the Texas flag and the U.S. flag will be flying over their compound. They're often here this time of year. We run into Barbara in the pharmacy."

I peeked in the pharmacy door as soon as we stopped in town but saw only greeting cards and medicines. We had better luck at the Bush compound. Both flags were flying high when we drove along Ocean Avenue past Walker's Point, where the estate is clearly visible. My new friends raised a cheer.

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