The well-worn joke about the climate in northern New England is that it has just two seasons — winter and August. Though this bromide might have originated as a ploy to keep outsiders from moving up here (and it worked, partly), there’s also a kernel of truth to it. But don’t worry. The ever-shifting seasons here are precisely what make northern New England so distinctive, and three of the four are genuinely enjoyable. The fourth (which is not the one you might have guessed) is, well, tolerable.
The peak summer season in northern New England runs from the 4th of July weekend until Labor Day weekend. That’s a pretty slim stretch, only about 8 1/2 weeks. But, my gosh, does the population of each of these states ever swell between the starting line and summer’s checkered flag!
Summers here are exquisite, particularly since the daylight lasts so long — until 9 or 9:30pm in late June and early July. Forests are verdant and lush; the sky is a deep blue, the cumulus clouds puffy and almost painfully bright white. In the mountains, warm days are the rule, followed by cool nights. On the coast, ocean breezes keep temperatures down even when it’s triple-digit steaming in the big cities. (Of course, these sea breezes sometimes also produce thick, soupy fogs that linger for days.) In general, expect moderation: In Portland, the thermometer tops 90°F (32°C) for only 4 or 5 days each year, at most.
Rain is rarely far away in summer — some days it’s in the form of an afternoon thunderstorm, sometimes a steady drizzle that brings a 3- or 4-day soaking. On average, about 1 day in 3 here will bring some rain. But, hey, that’s what keeps the Green Mountains green.
For most of this region (we’ll get to Vermont in a moment), midsummer is prime time. Expect to pay premium prices at hotels and restaurants. (The exception is around the empty ski resorts, where you can often find bargains.) Also be aware that early summer brings out scads of biting black flies and mosquitoes, which has spoiled many North Country camping trips. Come prepared for these guys. They’ve been up here a lot longer than we have, and they seem to like it just fine.
Don’t be surprised to smell the tang of fall approaching even as early as mid-August, when you’ll also begin to notice a few leaves turning blaze-orange on the maples at the edges of wetlands or highways. Fall comes early to northern New England and stays for some time. The foliage season begins in earnest in the northern part of the region by the third week in September; in the southern portions, it reaches its peak by mid-October. But it’s beautiful everywhere.
Fall in New England is one of the great natural spectacles in the world. When its rolling hills tart up in brilliant reds and stunning oranges, grown men pull to the sides of roads and fall to their knees weeping; the scenery is garish in a way that seems deviously designed to tease and embarrass shy, understated New England. Keep in mind, however, that this is the most popular time of year to travel here — bus tours flock like migrating geese to New England in early October. Reservations are essential. Don’t be surprised if you’re assessed a foliage surcharge of $10 or $50 or more per room at your inn or hotel; deal with it. You can’t buy scenery like this.
New England winters are like wine — some years are good, some are lousy. During a good season, mounds of light, fluffy snow blanket the deep woods and fill the ski slopes. A “good” winter offers a profound peace and tranquility as the fresh snow muffles all noise and brings such a thunderous silence to the entire region that the hiss and pop of a wood fire at a country inn can seem noisome. During these good winters, exploring the forest on snowshoes or cross-country skis is an experience bordering on the magical.
During the other winters, though — the yucky ones — the weather fairies instead bring a nasty mélange of rain, freezing rain, and sleet (um, frozen rain). The woods become filled with crusty snow, the cold is damp and bone-numbing, and it’s bleak, bleak, bleak, as gunpowder-gray clouds lower and linger for weeks.
There are some cures for this malaise. The higher-elevation you go into the mountains of northern New England, or the farther north you head (to such places as Jay, Vermont), the better your odds of finding snow.
On the other hand, meteorologically speaking, the coast in winter is a crapshoot at best, more likely to yield rain (or sticky, heavy “snowball” snow) than powdery snow. Yes, winter vacations on the ocean can be spectacular — think Winslow Homerian waves crashing onto and obliterating some poor little beach — but after a day or two of trying to navigate your car around big gray-slush snow banks, you too will soon be heading for Stowe.
I’m not going to lie to you: After the long, long winters, spring in northern New England is a tease. Oh, she promises a lot, and she does come dressed in some finery (see the delicate purple lilacs, which blossom for a week). But in many years, spring only lasts for a week, and sometimes even less than that (I’m not kidding); it’s often around mid-May but sometimes as late as June. There’s a reason northern New Englanders hardly ever use the word “spring” in conversation with peers. They just call this time of year “mud season.” Next time you’re here, listen carefully; you’ll see what I mean.
It happens so quickly. One morning the ground is muddier than muddy, the trees barren, and gritty snow is still collected in shady hollows. The next day, it’s in the 80s Fahrenheit and humid, maple trees are blooming with little red clover-like buds, kids are swimming in the lakes where the docks have just been put in, and somewhere in New Hampshire, as we speak, a blue cover is being ripped off an aboveground pool.
Travelers need to be awfully crafty to experience spring in northern New England — and once they get here, they often have trouble finding a room. That’s because a good number of innkeepers and restaurateurs close up for a few weeks for repairs or to venture someplace warm. The upside? Rates are never cheaper than they are in spring. It’s simply jaw-dropping how little you can pay in March for the same exact room that would cost 3 to 10 times more in the middle of summer or October.
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