Sure, we were excited when our boy from Beacon Hill won his first surprising victory in the Iowa caucuses so many months ago. But now that those same prescient Iowans are coming to town for the Democratic National Convention this summer, along with delegates from every other state, not all of us are so thrilled. The roads are clogged, good luck trying to get a dinner reservation, and what's this? North Station will be closed. Oh, yeah, and I-93.
If you want to stick around and show the out-of-towners good old Yankee hospitality, by all means break out the welcome mat. Everyone else will want to flee to a spot where the sounds of political rhetoric are replaced by the echoes of a laughing loon across still waters. You could exchange places with those nice folks from Iowa-say, canoe the Upper Iowa River through the cliff-lined gorges of Decorah. Or you can simply stay within driving distance and get away from it all by venturing to one of these placid retreats in our own backyard.
Ipswich River, Topsfield
Paddlers don't have to travel all the way to Maine to get a quick dose of tranquility. Snaking through the largest wildlife sanctuary operated by the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the Ipswich River is a bird lover's delight. Foote Brothers Canoe Rentals will drive you to the Salem Road put-in to begin a 7-mile trip back to the rental outpost.
The Ipswich is one of those narrow, serpentine rivers that seems to be designed with a canoe in mind. The glassy waters are interrupted only by the occasional tree limb jutting above the surface. Snowy egrets stand tall in the marsh while the iridescent blue-green heads of common grackles search for food on the banks.
After paddling, you've earned the right to indulge in lobster and steamers at nearby Woodman's of Essex, celebrating its 90th anniversary this year.
Great Island Trail, Wellfleet
Not far from the crowds at Marconi Beach in Wellfleet is the Cape Cod National Seashore's longest trail, the eight-mile Great Island Trail. The route circumnavigates Great Island, a former whaling center and now one of the Cape's remotest places.
Stroll down the hill from the parking lot and take a right, skirting the marsh. This small strip of sand is called the Gut. At the fork, take a left toward Smith Tavern. Just before you reach the easternmost tip of the island, where people often fish for striper and blues, the trail traverses the dunes, then winds through a pine forest to the site where a whaling tavern once stood.
When the Tavern Trail catches up with the main trail, take a left. Continue out of the woods to a marsh where sand dunes tower on your right and Wellfleet Harbor comes into view on your left. Five minutes later, you reach another marsh and a sand spit known as Jeremy Flats. At low tide, you can walk out to the tip, but save your energy: You have a 2.2-mile walk down the beach in order to get back to the Gut. If you start to feel like Lawrence of Arabia lost in the desert, look out at 10 o'clock to see Provincetown's Pilgrim Monument. It will be the only sign of civilization.
Block Island, Rhode Island
Most people associate Rhode Island with the palatial estates in a little place called Newport. Block Island is the antithesis of that materialism, a wild sliver of land 12 miles south of the mainland that has taken advantage of its remote setting to preserve its natural beauty. Strict zoning laws have so far blocked modernity from creeping into the charm and luster of its bygone era. The half-hour ferry ride from Galilee deposits you on a pork chop-shaped island where weathered hilltop houses bordered by old stone walls and blue-green ponds brave the ocean's wrath. Add a rugged coastline, and you have a scene more Scottish Highlands than New England coast.
Most visitors circle the island on a 13-mile bike ride. On a hot summer day, the throngs of bikers and the ubiquitous lemonade stands make it feel like you're in the Tour de France. So exchange two wheels for two legs on Cooneymus Road and instead walk the little-trafficked Greenway trails, a network of paths that crisscross the island from the middle to the southern shore.
Ramble away on a soft spongy carpet that leads north to Nathan Mott Park. Circle around Turnip Farm to view a wide-open field of bushy rockrose, northern blazing star, and other more prosaic wildflowers. You might also see bright yellow goldfinches, graceful northern harriers, and brown and yellow butterflies, distinctively Block Island.
On the southern side of Cooneymus Road is Rodman's Hollow, a deep cleft in the land that goes right down to the sea. The white birches that once covered the island still grow here, sheltered from sharp winds and now a haven for deer and pheasant. A short loop atop a nearby knoll rewards you with panoramic vistas of the surrounding hills and all those bikers on the roads you left behind.
The Whites, New Hampshire
Contrary to what you might think, the higher you go in the White Mountains, the more people you'll come across. Maybe it's the allure of bagging New England's highest peak, Mount Washington, or strolling atop the 5,000-foot ridge between Mount Lincoln and Mount Lafayette. Either way, the Whites attract crowds, and the best way to avoid them is to stay away from the name peaks.
North of Route 2, the White Mountain National Forest has far less foot traffic than the Presidential Range. You can climb such peaks as 3,907-foot Mount Starr King and see Mounts Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison pierce the clouds overhead. The Starr King Trail climbs along an old brookside logging road. The trail ambles up the spruce- and fir-covered slopes, and you'll pass several small ponds on your left before a final push takes you to a clearing where the Presidentials stand tall in front of you.
On the westernmost part of the White Mountain National Forest rises Mount Moosilauke. This 4,802-foot peak has been a requisite climb for Dartmouth students and alumni since the 1920s, when the college ran a hotel called the Moosilauke Summit Camp that could accommodate 90 hikers. The Summit Camp burned down in 1942, but the school still maintains the Ravine Lodge at the base of the peak. From the lodge, the Gorge Brook Trail rises steadily on an old logging road. Soon it begins to switchback along the east shoulder. As you walk through twisted evergreens (above the treeline, the winds can be fierce), the trail begins to rise steeply along the rocky ledges of East Peak. At the bare summit, you can look at the foundation that once supported a former hiker's lodge or peer out at the panorama that includes Mount Lafayette.
Acadia National Park, Maine
This might seem like a ridiculous suggestion; after all, the Park Loop Road will certainly be congested and Bar Harbor will be overcrowded. But if you stick to the often overlooked western half of Mount Desert Island, you could very well have hiking paths and carriage path trails to yourself.
Just 681 feet high, the short peak of Acadia Mountain nonetheless rewards your moderate hike with stellar views. The trail weaves slowly through forests of birches and pines before crossing an abandoned road. The quick ascent to the summit begins here. A series of flat ledges overlook Echo Lake, each step offering a better view than the last. Before you can swat that annoying black fly-about an hour from the trailhead-you're on top of Acadia. Out to sea, the Cranberry Islands look like peas in a pod, while yachts are safely anchored over in Southwest Harbor. Proceed to the easternmost point of the summit for the finest view, where Norumbega Mountain practically collapses into Somes Sound, the only fjord in the contiguous 48 states. Bring a lunch and picnic on the rocks, and you might very well see a bald eagle swoop by.
Chesuncook Lake, Maine
Maine's Allagash River has attained legendary stature for the avid canoeist. Maybe it's the way the blue streak of water slips off the map of America's northern fringes, remote and isolated, hundreds of miles from the nearest metropolis. Or perhaps it's the legacy of writer, philosopher, and inveterate traveler Henry David Thoreau, who ventured down the waterway 158 years ago, waxing lyrical about the last great frontier in the East in his book The Maine Woods. But renown has its downside, as is now evidenced by the 10,000-plus paddlers who venture to the Allagash every summer. That's why you should opt for another of Thoreau's favorite northern Maine destinations, Chesuncook Lake.
There are only three ways to get to Chesuncook: via seaplane from Greenville or Millinocket, in a canoe from Lobster Lake, or by driving 30 to 40 miles on logging roads to Allagash Gateway Campsite, where the owners of Chesuncook Lake House inn will pick you up by boat for another 18-mile ride to Chesuncook Village. The Lake House sits on the shores of the lake against a backdrop of the mighty Mount Katahdin. This is the place to catch up on your reading, watch the hummingbirds fly in and out of the bird feeder, and enjoy hearty cooking, much of it with ingredients from the innkeeper's garden.
A highlight is the sunrise canoe jaunt to some of the lake's sheltered coves, where the sound of your stroke is interrupted only by the distinct call of the loons. White-tailed deer search for food at the water's edge, often joined by beavers, red foxes, and, of course, that great symbol of Maine, the moose.
Penobscot Bay Islands, Maine
New England's islands are ideal locales for biking. This is especially true when a ferry crossing is involved, limiting car traffic. When the ferry is small, like the one that makes the 20-minute crossing from Lincolnville to Islesboro, bicyclists and walkers usually outnumber drivers.
Of all the Penobscot Bay Islands that dot the waters of Maine, Islesboro is one of the best. The terrain is relatively flat, yet hilly enough to afford views of the bay and long enough to offer a 28-mile bike ride. From the ferry dock, turn right and pedal past the million-dollar mansions (so-called “summer cottages”) of Dark Harbor on the way south to Pendleton Point. Here, the long, striated rocks along the beach look like old tree trunks. It's a good place to picnic (buy your lunch at the lone general store in Dark Harbor) and watch the harbor seals lounging in the water.
Even less inhabited than Islesboro is North Haven. This island can be reached via an hour-and-ten-minute ferry ride from Rockland. A 20-mile loop starts at the docks, turning left onto Main Street past the post office. Ride uphill to get a panoramic view of this former sheep-grazing island. Fields of purple hyacinths bloom in early July. The small, gray-shingled barns seem lost in the countryside, like the Olson House in Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World. (The Olson House itself is just across Penobscot Bay in Cushing.) Pedal past lobster boats anchored at Pulpit Harbor and make a right into a forest of pines.
Lake Champlain, Vermont
America's largest freshwater lake outside the Great Lakes, Lake Champlain has been a major marine thoroughfare for centuries. Historic battles were fought during the French and Indian and Revolutionary wars, as well as the War of 1812, to control it. In the mid to late 19th century, commercial vessels replaced gunboats. Many of these ships never made it out of the lake, helped to the deep, dark bottom by cannonballs or gales.
Their historical misfortune is today's good luck to the scuba diver. While the surface of Champlain might churn with a mix of ferries, sailboats, and motorboats, below the depths the only sound is that of your own breathing. The cool waters of the lake contain one of the finest collections of wooden shipwrecks in North America. Two hundred wrecks have already been discovered, and that number could rise dramatically in the next decade when a complete inventory will be made. The Waterfront Diving Center in Burlington takes certified divers out to see several of the wrecks, including the General Butler, an 88-foot commercial vessel that sank on December 9, 1876.
Orange County, where Randolph is located, has more dirt roads than any other county in Vermont. Add flat valley floors, gentle rolling hills, and steep winding trails, and you have one of the region's premier mountain biking destinations, appropriate for riders of all levels. Start your tour at the 1,300-acre Three Stallion Inn at the Green Mountain Stock Farm, site of the original New England mountain bike festival. The Green Mountain Stock Farm, established in 1796, grew to prominence breeding horses during the Civil War, and many of its trails are former horse paths. There are more than 30 miles of fir- and maple-lined routes weaving through the woods here.
Once you've had your fair share of these woods, head from the center of town up Brigham Hill Road, climbing high above Randolph along a ridge where the spine of the Greens will be visible in the distance. You'll soon be pedaling on dirt roads passing small-town steeples and long-standing farmsteads where tractors and vintage pickups share front yards with lounging cows. Before you head back to the city, take your last deep breaths of crisp Vermont air. It's a symphony of scents ranging from the pungent smell of manure to the sweet-smelling maple leaves.
Travel writer Steve Jermanok's latest book is New England Seacoast Adventures (The Countryman Press).