10 Ways to Deal with February in New England

Estabrook Woods in Concord, MA is quintessentially New English.

Estabrook Woods in Concord, MA is quintessentially New English.

Generally, I hate February. I’m convinced the real reason that the month is so short is because some Roman emperor hated it too, and, one February 29th in a winter that had been particularly gray and bleak, decreed: “Oh, to hell with it. It’s March now. March 1st. Got that?” I’d probably move us on to March even sooner, but sadly I don’t have the same level of calendrical control.

Nevertheless, February is here and it must be dealt with. There are only 10 more days to go, so I’ve come up with 10 ways to deal.

1. Take a winter hike in the Blue Hills. At the beginning of the month, before the major nor’easter that dumped 30 inches of snow on Boston, I went for a vigorous three-hour hike in the Blue Hills, on the Skyline Trail. You’d probably need your snowshoes to make the same trek now (or you could snowshoe or ski one of the wider, flatter trails). It was much more serene than the Blue Hills are in the warmer months; just me, a handful of other blissed-out winter hikers, and some gently falling snowflakes making everything look magical. Dust off your trekking poles and your CamelBak, and bundle up in plenty of layers.

2. Take a walk somewhere pretty. If winter hiking sounds too strenuous, then throw on your Bean boots and do something easier. I’m a year-round visitor to Estabrook woods in Concord (here’s a map), but my favorite time of year to visit is the winter. Just something about the snow, the sunlight, and the bare trees. It’s a great place for dogs, who can run around off-leash — and also a great spot for those of us who like saying hi to other people’s dogs. For other options, check out the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation’s useful park finder.

Long Trail brewery is close to Okemo and Killington.

Long Trail brewery is close to Okemo and Killington.

3. Get thee to a brewery. There are enough great breweries in New England to fill a book. But a quick list of favorites would have to include: Long Trail in Bridgewater Corners, VT (cram in around the woodstove with apres skiiers and be sure to try the Coffee Stout and the Triple Bag); Harpoon in Boston (do the tour and enjoy 30 minutes of unlimited tasting; then take yourself tipsily over to the ICA); Night Shift in Everett, MA (a nano-brewery Ben has been raving about; I’ve yet to go); the Shipyard Brewery in Portland, ME (conveniently located in the historic waterfront district, not far from a charming narrow gauge railroad museum); and Moat Mountain in Conway, NH (sit in the bar and get some of their amazing BBQ nachos to go with your sampler). There’s also the delightful Portsmouth Brewery in Portsmouth, NH — I’m a sucker for their sampler and their pretzel rolls.

4. Eat brunch and ice skate. When was the last time you hit up your favorite Boston brunch place and then went skating on the Frog Pond? There’s a reason it’s a Boston tradition: it’s fun. Pick up some hot chocolate on Charles Street to keep yourself warm while you wait in line for skates.

5. Try nordic skiing. The weekend of the big blizzard, Ben and I were in Waterville Valley, NH taking a ski lesson. Ben’s already a good cross-country skier, but my skills were rather, uh, rusty. We took a skate skiing lesson and I’m hooked. Not only is it vastly cheaper than downhill, but it’s much, much more of a workout. After a couple of hours, your legs will be tired and your endorphins will be up; and unlike with alpine skiing, you won’t be cold. The trail system around Waterville is extensive and well-maintained, and it’s just about a 2-hour drive from Boston. There are also ski tracks closer to Boston, in Carlisle and Weston. Of course, if you have the gear, you don’t need to bother going to a groomed trail system; with all the snow we’ve gotten this month, you can just find an obliging patch of woods and get to it.

6. Go to a spa. Sometimes, you just need to get warm. Boston is replete with spas featuring hot tubs (like at Inman Oasis), Russian baths (like the old-time Dillon’s), Finnish baths, and chi-chi top-shelf spas (like the one at the Mandarin Oriental). Further out, I’ve been to both Essential Therapies Day Spa in Bolton and — way far out — Cranwell in Lenox. This last makes a great day trip if you combine it with a tour of The Mount (Edith Wharton’s estate) and dinner at Nudel (swoon).

7. Ski hut-to-hut at Maine Huts and Trails. Drive north — waaaay north — and take advantage of this ever-growing network of trails and rustic huts in the woods of Maine. Friendly staff will have hot meals waiting for you when you arrive, and they’ll even move your gear along for you so you can schuss unencumbered.

8. Go antiquing. From Cape Ann to Maine’s Route 1 to Connecticut’s Route 7, New England is full of neat old stuff. Find some of it near you.

9. Try a new museum. So you’re bored with the MFA, the Science Museum, the Isabella Stewart Gardner. So what? New England is full of other great options: the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, the RISD museum in Providence, Fruitlands in Harvard, the Currier Museum in Manchester, the Worcester Art Museum, the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton (really — it’s stunning). Pick one and go find out what it is.

10. Make a hot toddy and read a good book. There’s no better time in New England to finally read that novel (or, if you’re like me, pore over your trail guides and make plans for spring). So get off the Internet already and pick up that paperback. For the toddy, I prefer simple recipes. My current favorite is Meyer’s rum, hot water, and lime juice. Lather, rinse, and repeat until spring.

New England’s Best Road Food: A Guide

On our many travels around New England, Ben and I have often found ourselves wishing for an app that would somehow merge Google Maps with Yelp to help us find great food along the major highways, not just at isolated junctures between points A and B. Alas, we are writers, and not coders, and while we can’t build what would surely be a million-dollar app, we can at least make a list of the great road food we know about so that during a weekend jaunt or a holiday trek, you can better plan your pit-stops. Goodbye, McCracker King Donuts Barrel! Hello, excellent local eats!

Special thanks to all the friends who offered their suggestions. Please leave any places we missed in the comments.

I-95 (North to South)
Seadog Brewing Co., Brunswick ME. The beer is good, the food is fine, and the service is efficient. Overlooks the river. What more do you want?

Various Places in Portland ME. Portland is a great place to stop for a bite; there are more restaurants and bars per capita than in any other city in America. Somehow, we always find ourselves back at Duckfat, where the selection of savory panini, great Maine microbrews, and of course their twice-fried-in-duckfat fries make you feel like you might die of heart failure at any moment and it would still be worth it. Other options: pizza at Flatbread or Otto, a big brunch (served from 7-2pm every day) at Bintliff’s, or some obscure beer affordable food at Novare Res (which, in the warmer months, has a truly delightful beer garden). I’ve also heard good things about The Holy Donut, but I’ve never been. Bard Coffee is where I get my kicks.

Bob’s Clam Hut, Kittery ME. All the juicy, tiny, fried Maine shrimp you could want. And all the fried clams you could want. Also, anything that comes from the sea and is also fried, that you could want. A little bite of New England, right off the highway.

Portsmouth Brewery, Portsmouth NH. When we’re driving down 95, Ben and I find it almost impossible not to stop here and have a beer (or a beer sampler!) and a few of their pretzel rolls.

Roundabout Diner, Portsmouth NH. After hearing such strong recommendations for this place from Laura and Brian, perhaps we’ll have to tear ourselves away from the brewery and give it a shot. While we’ve never eaten here, multiple friends extol its virtues, and say its location on the Portsmouth traffic circle makes it an easy trip from the highway.

Venda makes me feel like a kid in a candy store, except that instead of being a kid I’m an adult and instead of being candy it’s insanely good Italian food.

Venda Ravioli, Providence RI. This eye-popping Italian grocery is a great stop for a cheap (but huge) deli sandwich (named after your favorite Rat-Packer) and for picking up a hostess gift for wherever you’re headed. Or a plate of hors d’oeuvres. Or some digestivi from the old country. Or a mini stove-stop espresso maker. Or some handmade lobster ravioli. Or some real, actually-from-Italy-and-therefore-not-the-sugary-crap-they-export-to-America Nutella. While there is lots of great food in Providence, we recommend Venda (and all of Federal Hill) for road eats because it’s not only Providence’s mouth-watering Little Italy, it’s an easy off/on from the highway — just exit and turn up Atwells Avenue. You’re there.

Various Places in the Mystic CT Area. This quiet corner of Connecticut makes the perfect place to break up a long drive. There’s touristy Mystic Pizza (made famous by an early Julia Roberts flick), Abbott’s Lobster in the Rough (where the summer people go in Noank, open seasonally), Ford’s Lobster (where the locals go in Noank, open seasonally), Noah’s (somewhere between fine and family dining in Stonington), Paul’s Pasta (in Groton) and the relatively new Oyster Club in Mystic (farm-to-table fine dining). If you’re driving by early in the day, there’s the delightful Kitchen Little, also in Mystic, open from 6:30 to 1pm on weekends. It is hard to go wrong, unless you instead decide to press on and stop in New London. There’s nothing in New London.

Pepe’s Pizza, New Haven CT. I have yet to try the delights of Pepe’s, but it comes highly recommended by Paul. And they have a few other locations around Connecticut in case your travels take you further off the beaten path.

City Limits Diner, Stamford CT. Another spot that’s new to me, this recommendation came from Sue and was quickly seconded by Brian. If it’s really that good, it may be Stamford’s only redeeming quality.

Nudel, Lenox MA. This is not road food so much as a destination restaurant that will make any long car drive seem like a small price to pay for such gastronomic heights. Chef Bjorn could easily compete with the finest chefs in Boston or New York, but prefers to spend his time in the bucolic Berkshires. The result is simply amazing food that doesn’t cost a whole lot. (Ben and I had a $55 tasting menu there last fall that included almost everything on the menu and left me too stuffed to comfortably sit or lie down. The white chocolate risotto with mango curd dessert was probably overkill, but I could not resist. So I stood for three hours reading a book afterward until it felt safe to move.) Plan your departure time to arrive at 5:30, when they open (they don’t take reservations and are closed Sunday and Monday). The menu changes daily based on what local ingredients are available, but recent menu items include: Orecchiette with pork sausage and white beans (and bitter green pesto, and sunflower seeds) and bone marrow Welsh rarebit (with roasted kale salad, pickled peppers, fried egg, and spicy ketchup). I’m so hungry right now.

BT’s Smokehouse, Sturbridge MA. I have a confession to make. I actually read how great BT’s was on Yelp, made us get off the highway, find it, pull into the parking lot… and then I made us turn around and leave. No one else was there and the place seemed abandoned, and I was sketched out. Well, I’m kicking myself now. It turns out that people I actually know (not just crazy Yelpers, who’ve led me astray many times before) will in fact drive all the way to Sturbridge, get the barbecue they crave, then drive home. (Rafi, I am looking at you.) One thing is clear: I have egg on my face. But not BBQ sauce.

Rein’s Deli, Vernon CT. I remember I-84 as the wasteland of any long family drive. Barely had we left the Pike after the Charlton, Mass. rest stop than I’d start my litany of “Whenner we gonna get theeere?” That’s because my family didn’t know about Rein’s New York Style Deli. I thought it was just Ben’s secret pit stop, but as it turns out, it’s an open secret — without a doubt the most popular eatery in our informal poll. Sit down and let the bowls of pickles flow.

Treva, West Hartford, CT. Among the first things I learned when my cousin enrolled at Trinity is that West Hartford is very different from Hartford. And the second thing I learned is that Treva, in West Hartford, is a great way to break up any long drive. Their antipasto martini along is enough to take the edge off a “hangry” passenger (the olives are stuffed with blue cheese and wrapped in prosciutto). The rigatoni with sweet fennel sausage bolognese will more than keep body and soul together for the rest of your journey, and if you’re worried about slipping into a post-carbs coma, just wrap things up with their sweet-bitter-cold-hot affogato.

Route 2 (East to West)
Various Places in Concord MA. A new favorite of mine, and of the good people at Boston Magazine, is 80 Thoreau. Full disclosure: I went to school with some of the investors in this place. But I’d recommend it even if it were Karl Rove’s pet project. Locavore menu, well-balanced cocktails, blah blah delicious blah. There’s no reason road food has to be cheap, greasy crap. And anytime we’re in Concord, I always make the case that we should stop off here. If you’re looking for lunch, however, we love the Concord Cheese Shop for its hearty sandwiches. You can also pick up a block of, say, unpasteurized hard Sardinian cheese laced with crumbled black truffles. Finally, there’s La Provence. Their three-salad plate is fast, inexpensive, and healthy. I especially love their artichoke salad, beet salad, and lentil salad.

The Lady Killigrew’s sunny interior.

The Lady Killigrew Cafe, Montague MA. In the Book Mill, probably the best bookstore in the entire world, is the Lady Killigrew Cafe, where you can get good local beer and great food from 8am to 11pm. The warm brown rice salad is the perfect healthy vegetarian plate that somehow always makes me feel better about spending all that time in the car. But the grilled brie-and-apple sandwich is the one that makes me wish I weren’t lactose intolerant. Set in a faded red New England mill, overlooking a rushing stream, it’s the perfect spot in any weather.

I-91/Route 2
The People’s Pint, Greenfield MA. I have to credit Ania for introducing me to the simple joys of the People’s Pint, a microbrewery with hearty, delicious food conveniently located at the intersection of I/91 and Rt. 2 in Greenfield, MA. Fortunately, they sell growlers, so if you don’t need to worry about all the great beer you’re missing out on in the name of driving safely on to your final destination. They’re open daily for lunch, and serve dinner from 4 – 10. From 10 pm midnight, there’s a late night menu. Only caveat: they just take cash. Fortunately there is an ATM close by. This is a good pick for those traveling in a group of picky eaters, as the menu is an eclectic mix of traditional pub fare (a ploughman’s lunch, their house-made sausage, and so on), vegetarian hippy food (various salad and noodle dishes) and melting-pot food (green thai curry bowl, burritos, etc).

93 (South to North)
Republic Cafe, Manchester, NH. Late one Friday night, Ben and I were driving to the White Mountains when we (OK, I) grew so hungry that we just had to pull over. We pulled up Yelp, trying one restaurant, then another. We couldn’t get a table anywhere. Finally we wandered into Republic Cafe, I feeling as famished as a wagon train full of pioneers whose bison have all died from dysentery, and Ben looking as if I might go all Donner party on his ass. We collapsed in front of their antique marble bar, clutched a few intelligently made whiskey cocktails, and dove in to the hot, creative food in front of us. Ah, I thought, home at last. Now we make a point of checking in here when we’re headed north.

The Tilt’n Diner, Tilton, NH. I used to love coming here as a kid. There’s 50s kitsch everywhere, and bin after bin of vintage magazine advertisements. For my parents, this meant a brief respite from my whenner-we-gonna-get-theres. For me, it meant an hour of quiet entertainment before we got back into the car.

The Common Man, Ashland NH. There are several restaurants in the Common Man “family” (and actually, the Tilt’n Diner is part of it, too), but my favorite is the one in Ashland. It’s a big, homey, rambling old barn full of decent food, and Ashland is a very pretty northern New England town. I’d just stick to the sandwiches and basic fare; you’re not coming here for something fancy.

Mad River Coffee Roasters, Campton, NH. Great coffee, and their bagel breakfast sandwiches put to shame anything you’ll find at the Stardunkbuckonuts across the street. They do lunches, too.

Route 1 (North to South) — for those who love the scenic route

Cappy’s Chowder House, Camden ME. I know, I know; there are much foodier places in Camden. Somehow I just always go back to this comfortable old touristy cramped simple spot.

Moody’s Diner, Waldoboro ME. This spot comes highly recommended by Deb, but Ben and I have yet to dine here. Something that’s sure to be remedied on our next trip north to Acadia National Park.

Damariscotta River Grill, Damariscotta ME. An upscale dining experience (actually off of Business Rte 1). Worth the detour.

The Soda Fountain, Ocean Park ME. Ben’s sisters have worked here during the summer, which of course has nothing to do with it being on this list, or with our recommendation to leave large tips for the hardworking staff. Seriously, you could follow Route 1 all the way to the Florida Keys and you wouldn’t find a homier spot.

The Beach Plum, North Hampton NH. One visit to their website has convinced me that Scott is right: I must eat here. I want that lobster roll. I also want that crazy hand-carved wooden lobster holding an ice cream cone in each claw.

Aunt Carrie’s, Narragansett RI. Another untried by me, but vociferously supported by Kathleen, eatery. Specifically with regard to the “bag of clam cakes.” This must be tried.

What others would you add to the list?

A Quick Intro to Maine Huts and Trails

Enjoying hot coffee, eggs, potatoes, and, of course, granola in the hut’s main room.

Last weekend, we headed up to the wilds Maine to check out the new, growing system of Maine huts. Modeled after similar huts-and-trails systems in Europe and New Hampshire, the huts are wooden lodges spaced apart by a comfortable day’s hiking. Four huts have been built; eight more are planned.

There are four crucial differences from the AMC huts in the White Mountains: first, the Maine huts have showers. Second, the buildings and showers are also heated. Bonus. Third, the Maine huts are open during the winter for those who prefer to schuss from hut to hut. And, last but not least, Maine huts will sell you great local beer and not-too-shabby wine. That puts an excellent exclamation point on any day of hiking, skiing, kayaking, mountain biking, or fishing.

For rainy days or cozy nights, the hut’s loft is supplied with books, board games, and comfy chairs.

It’s not quite glamping, but it’s pretty luxe; the hut crew also whips you up a delicious, hot dinner and a hearty cooked breakfast, as well as packing you a bagged lunch to take on your trek (for an extra $10 charge). And it’s not too expensive; we paid $69/night/person for our recent excursion, and winter rates are just a bit more. For the savers out there, you can go midweek for a discount, or during “caretaker season” (late fall, early spring) for about $30/night, when you have to do your own cooking. The exception: Thanksgiving, when Poplar Hut is hosting a Thanksgiving dinner on November 22 (and post-Thanksgiving breakfast on the 23rd). If the idea of Old Uncle Ebenezer’s pro-Todd-Akin rant or Crazy Aunt Angelina’s post-dessert interpretive dance is too much for you this year, perhaps escaping to the piney air of the Maine woods is just the thing.

The summit of Avery Peak features stunning 360-degree views.

While it’s difficult to get to superior hiking from Poplar Stream without a car, the secret access road we used makes it easy enough to return to your vehicle and get to the trailhead. Behind the hut, a broad fire road leads back to a smallish parking area. It’s not the official way into the hut, but it does shorten the trek. It might have felt like cheating except for the hike we did — up into the 4,000-foot peaks of the Bigelows, Avery Peak and West Peak. It’s a decent out-and-back slog, but not too steep, and features winding streams, dramatic overlooks, and mossy boulders the size of Escalades before you break out onto the bare, rocky summit of Avery peak and its unimpeded views of the Maine wilderness.

All in all, it’s a lot of wholesome fun for all ages. Poplar Stream Falls Hut, where we stayed, is the most accessible of the huts; it’s the southern-most hut, closest to Boston. (It’s a 2.5-mile hike from road-to-hut if you take their recommended path, but about a mile on a secret path we discovered. Heh heh.) Flagstaff Hut sits on gorgeous Flagstaff Lake and is a short 1.8-mile hike in, while the most remote hut, Grand Falls Hut, is supposed to feature both incredible views and fantastic salmon fishing.* The newest hut, Stratton Brook, is scheduled to open this December. And if you’re hunting for Christmas presents, they do gift certificates.

*This means we will be visiting soon, no matter what I do or say.