It’s a cliché, but fall in New England is truly a magical time. There are the leaves, yes, in all of their flame-colored glory, but there are the bright blue skies with their whispy white clouds, and sweater-weather temperatures that might get cheeks a little rosy. Somehow, everywhere you go smells like burning leaves, apple cider or a combination of the two. Best of all, the good fruits, vegetables and shellfish are in their peak seasons.
If you’re city-dwelling, you might have visions of renting a cabin in the woods and crowding around a fireplace in your thickest flannel, eating apples. But the truth is, getting the full autumnal experience is as easy as getting on a train out of Grand Central. The vast, upscale suburban stretch along the MetroNorth’s New Haven Line makes it easy to hop off the train, get your leaf-peeping fix along with a cider doughnut or a proper, fancy meal and still be home by bedtime. Here are six stops to make. Pick one, or hit a few.
Hugging the Norwalk Harbor, this neighborhood is anchored by an aquarium and dotted with bars offering upscale pub food. SoNo, as a large, illuminated sign dubs it, has the tang of an urban renewal project, but it also has cute little Oyster Shell Park stretching out along the water and a handful of restaurants with seasonally flavored dishes that are worth seeking out. At SoNo Baking Company, all the bread and pastries are made in-house, and fall means pumpkin croissant bread pudding.
If you’re feeling parched and a little wild, head down the street to Killer B SoNo for a boozy candy corn bourbon milkshake and a rack of house-made pumpkin spice bacon.
There’s an old adage that months ending in “R” are peak for oysters, and you’re in what was once considered the oyster capital of the world (a series of storms in the 1950s slowed production, but not quality). Copps Island Oysters is a family-owned business that’s been around since the 1940s. Stop by their shop for a couple dozen oysters and a shucking knife to DIY, or call ahead to schedule a tour.
The train lets you off in Saugatuck, which has the feel of a quiet seaside town, along with some of the best restaurants in the state. At The Whelk, you’ll find chef Bill Taibe taking full advantage of the best produce season of the year, with small plates like Swiss chard bagna cauda and tender baby potatoes topped with charred tomatillos, plus a lot more oysters, this time, shucked for you. Down the street at Taibe’s other restaurant, Kawa-Ni, you’ll find the same creative, seasonal approach, but with a Japanese twist. If you’re lucky, tomatoes will still be around for the heirloom tomato with yuzu tartare, and a rhubarb and tequila cocktail brings a different dimension to fall flavors.
The other option is to pick up some sharp cheddar, apples and fresh cider doughnuts from Garelick & Herbs and make yourself a picnic along the canal. You’ll feel 100 miles away from it all, watching the sailboats bob and orange leaves rustle.
Cannondale (Danbury Branch)
The other stops listed here, however charming and delicious, have still felt, well, populated. At Cannondale, you’re in the country. This little village in the town of Wilton is all rolling hills, voluminous trees and Colonial-era buildings. Take a stroll for some fresh air and leaf-peeping, but the real reason to make the trek up here is for a meal at The Schoolhouse at Cannondale. Chef Tim LaBant does weekend lunch and brunch, and dinner Wednesday through Saturday, all using what’s fresh and best. At this time of year, expect dishes like chestnut soup with hazelnut oil and a citrusy glazed squab. The food and picturesque old schoolhouse setting channel fall without hitting you over the head with it.
New Canaan (New Canaan Branch)
Get your nature fix with a visit to the New Canaan Nature Center. This charming estate was left to the city and is complete with its own arboretum and sugar shack. For something a little more design-oriented, take a tour of the nearby Glass House (reservations are recommended). This 49-acre estate, combines picturesque vistas and exquisitely contemporary design.
Even if fall hasn’t meant back-to-school in quite some time, there’s something special about strolling around a college campus. Yale offers all the ivy-covered-building charm you could ever need. Enjoy watching freshmen navigate to class, and then go grab some pizza. It’s the local specialty — thin, crisp and wood-oven charred. While everyone is arguing about whether to go to 90-year-old Frank Pepe’s or 80-year-old Sally’s, make your way to Modern Apizza for the clams casino pie. It’s not particularly autumnal, but you’ll be glad you did, just the same.