It's enough to make an ice-cream lover weep. On the Ben & Jerry's Factory Tour in Vermont, visitors dutifully watch an educational video about the history of the left-leaning company before peering through glass windows to observe fair-trade chocolate and nuts swirl into lusciously creamy concoctions.
Well and good, but we all know what we're really here for – free samples. Stepping out of the vanillavator at the second-floor tasting room, our guide reveals today's complimentary ice-cream flavour: broccoli, from a new line of vegetable-based dessert treats Ben & Jerry's is trialling. Groans all round.
Just as well she's kidding, pulling from the freezer a tray of much more palatable Triple Caramel Chunk cups. After wolfing them down, we traipse up a hill on the factory's grounds to the "Flavor Graveyard", a resting place for all the flavours that didn't work out and have since been retired. Tombstones for each flavour display epitaphs as well as the ingredients of the deceased, some of which sound delicious. I vote for bringing back "Honey I'm Home", a honey vanilla ice-cream with fudge-covered honeycomb candy nuggets.
I'm here in Vermont as part of an eight-day Collette guided tour of New England, the region in the northeast of the US known for colourful autumn foliage, covered bridges and forested mountains. Beloved as the go-to region for some of the finest apples, cheese and seafood in North America, it's also home to fanatically loyal sports spectators. Tom Brady, the star quarterback from the New England Patriots NFL team, has deity status in these parts. Collette, a small group touring specialist, is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. It is one of the longest established travel companies in the world and remains a family-owned and operated business. Its tour directors and drivers are well-vetted, well-informed and well-looked after, and they in turn look after the passengers with a maturity and care that is sometimes lacking with other tour companies.
Our tour director, Amit, a former lieutenant in the Israeli army, cheerfully runs the tour with military precision, ensuring we stick to each day's schedule and driving route. There are no early morning departures, so breakfast can be enjoyed at leisure before setting off each day.
The tour starts in Boston, where we enjoy a two-night stay at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel and a seafood dinner at Union Oyster House, which claims to be the oldest restaurant in America.
My fellow passengers, mostly older American couples, are here to sit back, relax and enjoy the scenery. The Collette tour itinerary covers scenic spots in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, with stops to sample fresh-pressed apple cider and locally tapped maple syrup. Lobster feasts are on the menu in quaint little waterfront towns where the haul has come fresh off the boats that afternoon.
The region is a fertile food bowl of land and sea, a Rockwellian picture of bucolic farm life and sheltered harbours dotted with ageing sailboats. Driving trail maps are themed to showcase the best of each state's breweries, wineries, dairies and orchards. Diners and old-fashioned malt shops line the Main Streets of each small town we visit, serving up malted shakes and grilled cheese sandwiches along with a hearty dose of nostalgia.
Vermont is known for its food-producing co-ops and farmers' markets, and here we stock up on good wine, fruit and cheese at a multi-family-run co-operative. At the Rocks Estate in New Hampshire (state motto: "live free or die"), we learn where maple sugar and syrup come from. It takes 40 years for a maple tree to be ready for tapping, a process thought to have been discovered by the indigenous people in the area. At the Cold Hollow Cider Mill, we taste the freshest apple juice, a delightful pairing for hot and fluffy cider doughnuts.
In Maine it's all about the seafood. One night we feast on whole lobsters at a traditional lobster bake, willing to work hard to extract the succulent flesh and then dip it in melted butter. Given free time to wander in search of lunchtime fare, tour participants come back raving about clam chowder, buckets of shrimp and seafood platters piled high with tasty bites.
There's more to this tour than eating – we're also here to check out the scenery – and New England punches above its weight in terms of scenic beauty. Leaf-peeping, a pastime far more vanilla than its verb implies, is the name given to the activity of travelling to look at, admire and photograph the changing colours of autumn foliage. Northern New England is prime leaf-peeping territory during the US Fall months, awash with blazing hues of red, orange, yellow and green as vast forests of deciduous trees turn and change colour, in preparation for losing their leaves as winter approaches. Due to an unusually hot and long summer, our tour at the end of September is a few weeks too early for peak leaf-peeping, though we do catch some gorgeous colour. Driving along the Kancamagus Scenic Byway (known as "the Kanc"), we travel through White Mountain National Forest. With no gas stations, 7-Elevens, hotels or other man-made distractions, the focus is all on the brilliant New Hampshire foliage. On peak leaf-peeping days, more than 4000 vehicles drive this byway.
During a sightseeing cruise out of Boothbay Harbor, we gawk at the summer homes of Maine families, and wave to kids who are making the most of the extended hot spell by diving off jetties into the cool blue water.
In Vermont we stay at Stowe Mountain Resort, a luxury alpine lodge that is popular with skiers in winter and hikers in summer, prized for its location in the heart of a mountain range. Leaf-peeping takes on new highs when seen from above on a grand scale and with this in mind, most of us stump up the US$28 fee for a 12-minute ascent in the Gondola SkyRide. From the mountaintop Cliff House Restaurant we can see the nuanced hues of the forest and the trees, and watch as zipliners whoosh past, their speeding outlines becoming one with the fall foliage.
Kristie Kellahan travelled as a guest of Collette.
5 MORE THINGS TO DO AND SEE IN NEW ENGLAND
JOIN A LEAF-PEEPING CRUISE
During the northern hemisphere autumn (also known as fall) months, many cruise operators offer itineraries along the coast between Montreal and Boston where the foliage can be incredibly colourful. See hollandamerica.com
GO OFF GRID
Hike the Hundred-Mile Wilderness, a remote section of the Appalachian Trail in northern Maine. Hikers say it's challenging, unspoiled and beautiful. See 100milewilderness.info
New England is home to some of the prettiest coastal communities in the US. Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket are the gems of Cape Cod, while Rhode Island boasts a rich sailing culture and spectacular Gilded Age mansions. See massvacation.com and visitrhodeisland.com
BRUSH UP ON YOUR HISTORY
RAISE A GLASS
There are beer trails through Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont. The six states all host beer festivals and raucous Oktoberfest celebrations where you can sample the best under one roof. See discovernewengland.org
Collette operates in 58 countries, offering 176 fully escorted tours. Tour participants stay at top hotels, where available, and are treated to welcome and farewell dinners in restaurants showcasing the best local produce. A loyalty club rewards frequent guests. Collette's Colours of New England eight-day tour has 18 departures in September and October 2018. Tours begin and end in Boston. Fares from $3879 per person, based on double occupancy, not including airfare. See gocollette.com.au
There are no direct flights from Australia to Boston. Fly to LA, San Francisco or Dallas/Fort Worth from Australian cities, then connect on to Boston. All major US airlines offer flights to Boston Logan International Airport from within the US, and most Australian airlines code-share with a US carrier. See qantas.com.au
There's a paid option to extend the stay in Boston before or after the tour, with accommodation at The Boston Park Plaza Hotel. Well-located in the heart of Boston and adjacent to public transport, the hotel is luxurious and hip. See bostonparkplaza.com