One of my to-do-someday wishes is to travel around northern New England without a car, just once, the way my great-great-grandparents did. It's amazing to think that, barely a hundred years ago, people could travel from seaboard cities to inland towns by trolley, for goodness' sake. I'd love to head for the White Mountains, Mount Desert Isle, or Lake Champlain in a horse and carriage, a fancy rail-car compartment, a steamship cabin, or even just Thoreau-style: on foot.
In northern New England, the best way -- often the only way -- to get around is by car. The major airports in northern New England all host national car-rental chains. Remember that if you're visiting from abroad and plan to rent a car in the United States, foreign driver's licenses are usually recognized -- but you should get an international one anyway if your home license is not in English.
New Englanders are famously caricatured saying, "You can't get there from here," but you may conclude it's no joke when you actually try to navigate through the region yourself. Travel can be convoluted and confusing, and it's a good idea to have someone who's skilled at map reading in the co-pilot's seat with a good map. North-and-south travel is relatively straightforward here, thanks to the four major interstates crisscrossing the region. But traveling east to west (or vice versa) across northern New England is a different proposition, usually involving a byzantine route stitching together various state, federal, and county roads.
On the other hand, northern New England is of a size that touring by car can usually be done pretty comfortably. You can drive from Portland to Hanover or even Burlington in a day. Maine is a lot bigger than the other two states, however; when making your travel plans, beware of two-sided maps that alter the scale from one side to the other. (Portland is actually closer to New York City than it is to the state's northernmost towns.)
Traffic here is generally light compared with that in urban and suburban areas along the East Coast, though there are exceptions; traffic on the interstates coming north from Boston can be heavy or even stopped-still on Friday afternoons and evenings in summer, for instance. A few choke points, such as on U.S. Route 1 on the Maine coast, can back up for a mile or three as tourists jockey to cross two-lane bridges. North Conway, New Hampshire, is famed for its congested traffic, especially during foliage season, but "congested" is a relative term -- this isn't midtown Manhattan.
To avoid the worst of the tourist traffic, travel smart. Try to avoid being on the road during big summer holidays or foliage weekends; if your schedule allows it, travel on weekdays rather than on weekends, and hit the road early or late in the day to avoid the midday crunch.
If you're a connoisseur of back roads and off-the-beaten-track exploring, you'll definitely want to have a DeLorme atlas of the region.
Moose X-ing Ahead: Watch Out! -- Driving across the northern tiers of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, you'll often see MOOSE CROSSING signs, complete with silhouettes of the shaggy, gangly herbivores. These are not here to amuse the tourists. In Maine, collisions between moose and cars are increasingly common; there have been more than 30,000 documented.
These encounters are a lot more dramatic than deer-car collisions. For starters, the big eyes of moose don't reflect in headlights like those of deer do, so late at night you often come upon them suddenly -- too suddenly to stop. Then there's this: Moose can weigh up to 1,000 pounds, with almost all of that weight placed high atop their spindly legs. When a car strikes a moose broadside in the road, it knocks the skinny legs out and sends a half-ton of hapless beast right down through the windshield.
Bad things ensue. Let's just take one year randomly: In 1998 alone, Maine recorded 859 car crashes involving moose, with 247 injuries . . . and five fatalities. When in moose country, if you see those signs, snicker if you like; but drive slowly and carefully thereabouts.
Express bus service into the region is quite good (from anywhere farther away than Boston, you'll almost certainly use Greyhound (tel. 800/231-2222; www.greyhound.com), but beware of trying to travel within the region by bus. Quirky schedules and routes may send you well out of your way, and what may seem a simple trip can take hours.
For quick information on travel schedules and fares within northern New England, call the two major players: Vermont Transit Lines (tel. 800/552-8737; www.vermonttransit.com) or Concord Coach (tel. 800/639-3317; www.concordcoachlines.com) for service in New Hampshire and Maine.
Getting to northern New England by plane is a lot easier than it used to be. But service between airports within the region is sketchy, at best; don't expect to make any inter-New England flights except for those originating in Boston.
Amtrak (tel. 800/872-7245; www.amtrak.com) provides limited rail travel within the region, confined to a few stops in Vermont, New Hampshire, and southern Maine. It's not really a valid option for getting around, only for getting here and then leaving.
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.