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! Vast crowds surge into northern New England on each of these two holiday weekends, and a constant stream also moves northward daily in between them.
It's no wonder. 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.
Weather in this region is largely determined by the winds. Summer's southwesterly winds bring haze, heat, and humidity (to everywhere except the seashore); northwesterly winds bring cool bright weather and knife-sharp views. These systems tend to alternate during the summer, the heat and humidity building slowly and stealthily for a few days -- then swiftly getting kicked out on its ear by stiff, cool winds pressing down from Canada. Then the pattern repeats. 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.
What to do? Play some golf. Go hiking in the woods. Swim in the ocean. Catch a minor-league baseball game. Or, indulge in my favorite activity: rocking in a chair on a screened front or back porch, reading a book, playing guitar, or just listening intently to the sounds of loons or crickets and watching the night sky for stars you never knew existed.
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 (and snapping, and Handycamming); the scenery is garish in a way that seems deviously designed to tease and embarrass shy, understated New England. The best part? This spectacle is nearly regular as clockwork, with only a few years truly "bad" for foliage (due to oddly warm or wet weather).
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. As a result, hotels are invariably booked solid at that time. (Local radio stations have been known to put out calls for residents to open up their doors to stranded travelers who otherwise might have to sleep in their cars.) 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.
All three states maintain seasonal foliage hotlines and/or websites to let you know when the leaves are at their peak: Maine (tel. 888/624-6345; www.mainefoliage.com), New Hampshire (tel. 800/258-3608), or Vermont (tel. 800/VERMONT; www.travel-vermont.com/seasons/report.asp). The U.S. Forest Service also maintains a foliage hotline at tel. 800/354-4595, updating conditions within the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire.
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 tranquillity 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.
Naturally, ski areas get crowded during the winter months. Some of them get very crowded. Expect maximum pricing, so-so food, and a herd mentality; this is the price you pay for enjoying great skiing in the region. The resorts get especially packed during school vacations, which is just when many resorts choose to employ the rather mercenary tactic of jacking up rates at hotels and on the slopes.
By the way, if you visit a small town in this region during winter, there is another pleasure to enjoy during deepest winter: public ice skating and ice hockey. You'll find locals skating on town greens, lakes, ponds, rivers, and probably on top of swimming pools, for all I know -- anywhere that will hold a little water. How do you find these spots? Easy. Look for a clump of cars beside an iconic little warming hut with a wood- or oil-burning stove inside, sending up smoke puffs like a signal to the masses.
You call this rustic? Well, I call it heaven.
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.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.