Traditionally, people in New England lived off the land. They might have fished for cod, harvested timber, managed gravel pits, or worked in general stores. Or they labored in New England’s mills. But hardscrabble work is no longer the primary economic engine in the region.
Today, a New Englander might be a software developer who bounces between freelance gigs; a biotech researcher; a PR consultant who handles business online from home. You’ll also find many folks whose livelihood depends on tourism—the ski instructor, the family selling maple syrup by the side of a Vermont byway, the math teacher moonlighting as a motel owner, the high school kid working summers in a T-shirt shop, the entrepreneurial chef who sees possibility in a post-industrial downtown.
New England’s economy has shifted, from one that was chiefly “blue collar” to something that’s much more diverse. This is no longer the province of dairy farms and woolen mills, though those places still exist in pockets. It’s a place of light industry, technology, healthcare innovation, arts and entertainment, world-class cuisine—still all informed by a self-sufficiency, flexibility, and creativity rarely seen elsewhere. People tend to double up on jobs around here. And they all manage to deal with the fickle weather.
Once a region of distinctive villages, green commons, and prim courthouse squares, New England’s landscape has begun to resemble suburbs anywhere else—strip malls dotted with fast-food chains, big-box discount stores, and home-improvement emporia. While undeniably convenient to locals, it’s a mixed blessing, because this region has always taken pride in the independent spirit of local merchants.
In many smaller communities, town meetings are still the preferred form of government. Residents gather in public spaces to speak out—sometimes rather forcefully—on the issues of the day: funding for local schools, road repairs, fire trucks, and declarations that their towns are no place for landfills or police shooting ranges. “Use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without” still drives some frugal Yankees, but it’s the polar opposite of the artisanal-everything ethos favored by a new generation. And therein lies the rub: This region is trying to have it both ways, Norman Rockwell and Relais & Châteaux.
Development is a related issue. Many old-timers (and some blow-ins) believe development shouldn’t be ushered in regardless of the cultural cost. Others feel the natural landscape isn’t sacred, though, and the region has seen a surge of new townhouses of late, covering ski slopes and hillsides throughout these six states. Nobody’s happy about the rising property taxes and real estate values here—except those already landed in prime locations.
No, development hasn’t exploded here. Not yet. But if it ever does, many of the characteristics that make New England so unique—and attract those tourist dollars—could disappear. The brick mills and churches, cow pastures, big old maple trees, and whitewashed homes might slowly be replaced by a grayish blanket of condos, Banana Republics, outlet malls, and chain hotels. Would the Green Mountains and the Maine coast still draw tourists if they began to look like any other place in America? Yes, of course, but maybe not as many. It’s a tricky balance to maintain.
Then there’s the influence of new arrivals, including part-time New Englanders. The information age is drawing telecommuters and entrepreneurs to pristine villages: They can run entire businesses and move equities around the world from anywhere in a flash. These folks bring big-city sophistication (and gourmet dining appetites) with them. So how will affluent newcomers adapt to the ticky-tacky lawn ornaments on their neighbors’ property, to clear-cutting and moose hunting in the countryside nearby, and to increasing numbers of tour buses cruising past village greens? Here’s a best case: When Manolo Blahnik honchos George Malkemus and Tony Yurgaitis didn’t like the looks of the farm across the street from their Litchfield, CT, weekend home, they bought it . . . and transformed it into the state’s prettiest, most headline-grabbing dairying operation: Arethusa Farm.
Change has seldom come quickly in New England, and this one, too, will take time to play itself out. Most newcomers have a healthy respect for long-time institutions, and some are even investing in preserving the way of life that drew them to New England in the first place.
But you’re just visiting, right? So here’s what to expect when you get here: decades-old celebrations and towns that cling to their individuality; hardworking people who think fast, move faster, and still find time to lend a hand; antique buildings repurposed rather than demolished—there might be artists’ studios or microbreweries in that old factory or shoe mill. Be sure to visit these places and support the cool people who are revitalizing the region. But also set aside time to spend an afternoon rocking and reading on the broad porch of a country inn or old-time general store, or to wander around with no particular destination in mind on roads that follow paths blazed centuries ago.
Because if you crave luscious homemade pie, views of vibrant fall foliage unmatched in the world, exhilarating outdoor experiences, and deep slumber when you return to a 19th-century bed-and-breakfast inn, this is the place for you to visit. Yes, it’s thoroughly modern; you can sleep in luxury hotels, enjoy indigenous spa treatments, check email from a ski slope, and dine on gourmet fare—food that’s the equal of anything in Manhattan or San Francisco. The mix of new and old is working, so far, and that’s why visitors return season after season.
Finally, Mother Nature has the last word: This remains a sparsely populated place, enduringly quiet and lovely no matter whether it’s sparkling with white powdery snow, painted brilliant with autumn leaves, or shimmering with blue sky reflections on lake surfaces on a midsummer’s day. It’s the perfect backdrop for resetting your biorhythm and your priorities: for declaring independence from anything that limits your wellbeing.
MASSACHUSETTS -- The Bay State has always been the place in New England with the most drama and audacity. (Remember the Boston Tea Party and Paul Revere’s Ride?) And it still is. The place that brought you the Kennedys was the first U.S. state to issue same-sex marriage licenses. In 2018, it beat all other New England states to the punch in establishing a legal recreational marijuana market, with the aim of filling tax coffers and fueling tourism.
Boston’s technology economy is booming, and the ripple effect extends well beyond this city known for education and innovation. The fishing and farming economies, once the state’s mainstay, are something less than robust, though. Cape Cod and the Berkshires—the two glorious landscapes that bookend this state and do a good deal of its touristic trade—are creatively expanding visitor offerings in an effort to become year-round destinations.
Sports teams—the New England Patriots and the Boston Red Sox, Revolution, Bruins, and Celtics—are the single most unifying force in the six New England states. Two recent Super Bowl victories (in 2015 and 2017) for the first team in NFL history to reach 10 championship games brought unspeakable joy to the entire region. The Red Sox have three 21st-century World Series titles to their name after vanquishing the 86-years-long “Curse of the Bambino.” Don a jersey or ball cap, and you’ll fit right in.
CONNECTICUT -- For many years, the state of Connecticut was, quite frankly, basically one big plot of farmland with a strip of shipbuilders on its fringe of a coast. You can still find the odd tobacco barn, boatyard, naval base, or orchard, but otherwise those days are long gone. Today, the state has some interesting niches. The city of Hartford has long been the nation’s insurance powerhouse, for instance, while its suburb of Bristol has found a surprising second life as the world headquarters for ESPN, the planet’s largest sports broadcasting network.
Meanwhile, on the southwestern coast, such towns as Greenwich and Fairfield are now among the most expensive places in the entire country to purchase a home, thanks to their location within commuting distance of New York City. Hedge funds are particularly fond of setting up shop in these parts. Yale University continues to breathe erudite life into New Haven; Groton and New London are on the upswing thanks to submarine maker General Dynamics Electric Boat’s expansion plans; and the many quiet byways stretching into forested hills and still-agrarian realms continue to attract leaf-peepers, second-home buyers, and vacationers.
RHODE ISLAND -- Pretty little Rhode Island just goes about its business, staying out of the news and seemingly immune to all the barbs about its size. Quick, what’s the top industry in America’s smallest state? Tourism? No. Manufacturing? Not. Try “health services” (chain pharmacy CVS is based here, among other companies). There’s also a smattering of light industry and business and insurance services, plus tourism as visitors come to gawk at the lovely mansions of Newport or enjoy the capital city of Providence (home to Brown University). The state did hit the news briefly for all the wrong reasons when footage shot in Iceland appeared in a state-funded tourism promotion video. But otherwise, this state only shows up on Hollywood big screens when local sons make movies and TV shows about it.
VERMONT -- Change is afoot in the Green Mountains. Of course, this has always been a place of gorgeous hiking and ski trails, Robert Frostian walks, scenic back-road drives, and wonderful inns. It’s the maple syrup capital of the Western world and has more breweries and cheesemakers per capita than any other U.S. state. Yet something else is up: Hotshot chefs are pouring into these parts at what seems like a breakneck pace. Even quite small towns—Manchester, Essex, Waterbury, Quechee, and Vergennes, to name just a few—have road-trip-worthy restaurants. It’s somehow all appropriate for the U.S. state with the smallest capital (Montpelier, population 7,500) and the most-loved U.S. senator (Bernie Sanders). The Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream factory in Waterbury is a must-visit for the kids.
Meanwhile, Lake Champlain beckons with its lovely sunsets; and Burlington is slowly changing from a hippie town (though tie-dyed shirts are still ubiquitous) into a sophisticated, tech-forward community that supports independent businesses, restaurants, and thinkers. The state’s largest city regularly wins quality-of-life awards for its combination of fresh air, lake views, bike trails, a compact walkable downtown, and generous proportions of bookstores, bars, restaurants, and university students. In 2015, it became the first city in America to run entirely on renewable energy.
But life in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom isn’t changing. The region isn’t exactly a “kingdom” (or, if it is, black flies and cows are its subjects); instead, it is Vermont at its most primeval. You’ll find few fancy inns and restaurants up here; the place is rugged and unpolished as a stone, yet a treasure for mountain bikers, snowmobilers, and skiers.
NEW HAMPSHIRE -- Like Vermont, fiercely independent New Hampshire is also marching to a new beat—though it still stubbornly resists a state sales tax, which is a boon to visitors. Southern New Hampshire, in particular, is experiencing a sharp demographic shift as leftward-leaning Bostonians filter into the state and use it as a bedroom community. You see this most strongly in places such as Exeter and Portsmouth, but also in cities such as Nashua and Manchester, where tech and business enterprises are sprouting up.
Some things remain unchanged, thankfully: Portsmouth is still an odd amalgam of pierced baristas, costumed shop clerks, artists, folk musicians, and brazen chefs. Hanover still revolves around the tiniest Ivy-League school: Dartmouth College. Lake Winnipesaukee remains a huge, region-defining, active body of water ringed with attractive towns. Finally, the White Mountains will never change. New England’s best backcountry hiking and camping are still found here, and always will be.
MAINE -- In Maine, the air is clean and pine-tinged, and loons rule the night with their haunting calls. You will want to eat lobsters and fresh-caught fish, and photograph some of the world’s most famous lighthouses. The economy isn’t going great guns; attracting new, young residents is a struggle. Portland remains one of New England’s best places to visit and live, with recreation and restaurants that rival anywhere else, while the Kennebunks and the Yorks offer choice beaches for summer lazing and strolls, plus plenty of distinctive shops. Maine’s rocky coast is the stuff of legend, art, and poetry—a list of quaint towns and oceanside drives would fill an entire book and then some.
As you get upcountry, you can feel a difference between affluence (huge summer mansions on Mount Desert Island or around Penobscot Bay) and the hardworking locals who fish, lobster, or wait tables in summer, then tow cars or shovel and plow snow the rest of the year to get by. Land values have shot up in these picturesque regions that are home to tourist towns such as Freeport, Camden, and Rockport. So many people visit stunning Acadia National Park each summer, you may soon have to reserve a time if you want to drive the Park Loop Road past its natural wonders. Finally, Maine’s North Woods are a battleground for national park proponents and commercial interests, with millions of pristine acres at the center of the debate. Meanwhile, Mount Katahdin and Baxter State Park will always belong to everyone.
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.