Over the years, Jim and I have done a lot of adventurous travel to some weird, somewhat sketchy locations – we’ve had experiences that we can truly look back on and say, “What the heck were we thinking?” Even as a family, with our daughter, Yao Yao, we mostly eschew the whole Disney World style of travel for more off-the-beaten-path destinations – and truth be told, we feel just a wee bit smug about it. But in one respect, we’re just like everybody else who we get all judge-y about – we love to go leaf-peeping.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with this venerable Rite of Autumn in the Northeast region of the United States and Canada, leaf-peeping is just what it says: You pack up the car, drive to where the leaves are “peaking” (usually north, where they’re at the height of their color), and peep at them. Leaf-peeping turns everyone in the car into Great Aunt Hilda, saying things like, “What a cacophony of color,” and, “Nature has really outdone herself,” and, “Don’t the colors seem more vibrant this year? I bet it’s all the rain we got in September.” Mind you, we have no earthly idea why the colors are better or worse from one year to the next, but that doesn’t stop us from offering an opinion – just like Great Aunt Hilda would.
Anyway, every autumn, we make our annual pilgrimage up to the hills, hamlets, and country byways of Litchfield County to see the spectacular display of changing colors. Yao Yao told me her friends had never heard of leaf-peeping, and when she explained the concept, they were incredulous: “You mean, you just drive around looking at the leaves? I can’t even. . .”
Jim and I had a good chuckle because, well, leaf-peeping could be thought of as sort of dull. But I want to dispel the notion right here and now that it’s a sedentary pastime. No: First, you need to gas up the car. Then you need to stop halfway there and fortify yourself for the rest of the drive with steamy cups of coffee and pumpkin-spice muffins. Then you need to constantly poke those passengers who are “just resting their eyes” to point out a particularly stunning stand of maples or an especially lovely hillside vista. Then you need to stretch your legs. And then it’s lunchtime. See? Leaf-peeping is not for the faint of heart!
And there are all sorts of other activities that you can fill the time with when you’re not doing color commentary on the colors. For instance, every visit to Litchfield is a reason to visit White Flower Farms, just down the road from Litchfield proper in the little burg of Morris. It’s hands-down the best bulb resource in the known universe and has lovely gardens that are a real pleasure stroll in nearly every season. And their gardening staff is fantastic and incredibly helpful, bursting with great garden design ideas and really interesting hints and tips: How do you keep deer away from your tulips? Glad you asked! Just hang little bits of Irish Spring soap in net bags around the garden – deer abhor the smell of Irish Spring (as do I). But if you’re a Dove soap user, you could perhaps get your husband to “mark” the territory instead, the same way a tomcat would. . . . yes, really. . . .
Anyway, I’m a bit of a “bulbophile” and can easily spend hours picking through the miniature daffodils or the thousands of other specialty bulbs. (They stock 84 different kinds of amaryllis alone!) In winter, I love to force bulbs, so I put them in our extra refrigerator in the basement and then after eight weeks pull out my first batch to force. (For those of you not familiar with forcing, refrigerating the bulbs “tricks” them into “thinking” it’s deepest, darkest winter outside instead of late fall, and when you take them out in January, pretty soon it’s like springtime all over the house. But to be totally honest, I tend to kind of forget about them in the fridge, and end up with an expensive science project that gets tossed in June, about the same time we begin berry picking.)
After Jim and Yao Yao pulled me away from the bulb selection, we headed into Litchfield where we walked around, dropped big bucks on expensive tweedy winter togs at R. Derwin clothiers in town, and lolled around window shopping and enjoying the quintessential New England ambiance.
We usually lunch at the West Street Grill on the main drag, but this year we strayed a bit and ate at Arethusa al Tavolo, the latest in farm-to-table fare, in nearby Bantam. What a treat! I wanted to sit outside, but given the chill in the air, we opted for inside. We started with local corn fritters for the table and kabocha squash soup with apple fritters, candied chestnuts, pumpkin-seed brittle, and pine-cone syrup, if you can believe it. Yao Yao opted for the crème-anglaise-soaked brioche French toast with toasted almonds, Myers’s rum berry compote, and Chantilly cream. Jim ordered the prime burger deluxe on a homemade sesame bun, with crisp speck, a trio of cheeses from the Arethusa Dairy & Farm, and buttermilk dressing, with hand-cut fries and homemade ketchup. I had the tartare of yellowfin tuna with cucumber radish, tobiko wasabi, and soy yuzu dressing. Yao Yao managed to convince Jim to share his burger, and she portioned out miniscule bites of her French toast to him. Lunch was wonderful, and we sat for about two hours enjoying the food, each other’s company, and the spectacular color of autumn leaves outside.
We then made the arduous journey to the Arethusa Farm & Dairy to try the ice cream we had heard so much about. (It’s about 100 feet from the restaurant.) They produce sinfully good ice cream (best enjoyed in a warm, yummy homemade waffle cone) and amazing cheeses, too, all sourced from their farm in Litchfield. Yao Yao enjoyed the view of the ice cream- and cheese-making kitchen, open and visible from the shop floor.
We waddled out of the ice cream store and headed back to the farm, so we could walk off our lunch and ice cream. (It’s on the same road to White Flower Farms, so we were backtracking a little – but the trees were so beautiful along that stretch of road that we didn’t mind.) The farm has specific visiting hours, so we respected the rules while wandering about, still able to take in many of its features, including the livestock. I can tell you, it’s the cleanest farm I have ever seen – and I imagine the horses would be well shod, too, seeing that the farm belongs to the design executives in the Manolo Blahnik shoe empire!
We stopped for some farm-stand produce as we headed home, and proclaimed the day a resounding success. Yao was asleep in about three minutes. Jim said it took me five – what can I say, leaf-peeping is exhausting.
Home to approximately 350 dairy cows, including some Grand Champion show cows, Arethusa Farm could be the tidiest little spread I’ve ever seen – very tastefully done, as you’d expect from these gentleman farmer/shoe executives! The milk, cream, yogurt, ice cream, butter, and cheese from these cows are put to excellent use at Arethusa al Tavolo restaurant and Arethusa Farm & Dairy in Bantam.
828 Bantam Road, Bantam, CT 860.567.0043
Excellent farm to table food. Reservations suggested
Arethusa Ice Cream
Amazing ice cream, made on the premises. Don’t forget to try the cheese!
82 South St., Litchfield, CT
In 1773, Judge Tapping Reeve enrolled his first student, Aaron Burr, in what became the first law school in the country. This school trained many notable students over the years, including three U.S. Supreme Court justices. The tiny schoolhouse and buildings are lovely, very much a centerpiece of Litchfield’s atmospheric historic center.
White Flower Farm
Address: 167 Litchfield Rd, Morris, CT 06763
The doors opened in 1950 and has been going strong ever since. This farm/nursery is a real treasure for plants, bulbs, and just wandering the lovely property. They have a great mail order business.
80 Whitehall Rd., Litchfield, CT
This 4,000-acre nature preserve houses topnotch natural-history exhibits, 30 bird-watching platforms, two self-guided nature trails, a couple of boardwalks, some boating facilities, and 35 miles of hiking, cross-country skiing, and horseback-riding trails.
Get a list of the best places to leaf-peep in Connecticut, as well as a wealth of other information.
Five Secret Fall Foliage Getaways
Good reads on fall foliage in other states.