Dartmouth’s c. 1928 Baker-Berry Library, whose stately bell tower rises 200 feet above campus.Photo Credit : Oliver Parini
Even if you stopped marking time in semesters decades ago, a fall weekend in Hanover, New Hampshire, the home of 252-year-old Dartmouth College, will likely have you feeling misty for those salad days of frats and Frisbees.
I’ve lived in the town of 11,500 for nearly 30 years and I still get brought up short by the ephemeral beauty of it all—the campus sugar maples and old elms blazing crimson and yellow, the loosely choreographed college marching band tooting its pregame way across South Main Street, the library bell tower, luminous in the late-day light, chiming out the alma mater—and I’m not even an alum.
Besides nostalgia and a host of college-town cultural perks including world-class museums, film fests, and performers, along with the inevitable good coffee and highbrow Ivy League conversations ripe for eavesdropping, Hanover also offers a perfect base from which to explore the forests and farmland that surround it. You don’t have to go far to find your adventure. The rolling hills of Vermont are just across the Connecticut River to the west, the White Mountains rise to the northeast, and a section of the 2,190-mile, 14-state Appalachian Trail cuts right through the center of town.
Two especially big draws in mid-October are peak foliage and Dartmouth’s Homecoming weekend. Plan well in advance if you want to book a room at one of Hanover’s two in-town hotels. Sitting on a prime corner that’s been occupied by a lodge of some sort since 1780, the handsome brick 108-room Hanover Inn overlooks the Dartmouth Green, the grassy quad that serves as a meeting place for both the college and the community. Six South Street, two blocks away, is a relaxed, contemporary 69-room hotel just steps from shops and restaurants. Both are dog-friendly and offer valet parking.
After you get settled, plan on a pre-dinner stroll past Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center for the Arts, which every September hosts a popular capsule version of the Telluride Film Festival. Next door is the recently renovated Hood Museum, one of the country’s oldest and largest university art collections. (Both were closed during the pandemic; check their websites for ticket and schedule information.)
Make your way up to College Park, where just beyond a white-domed 19th-century observatory a startlingly lifelike bronze sculpture of Robert Frost sits pensively with pen in hand amid tall Norway spruces. (The poet attended Dartmouth in 1892 and was a regular lecturer starting in the 1940s.) Extend the outing if you like by heading northwest across the green to make the one-mile loop around peaceful Occom Pond, rimmed with stately homes.
Plan on dinner tonight at the Hanover Inn’s Pine restaurant, a hit with locals and visitors since it opened in 2013 as part of an extensive redo of the hotel. With its salvaged barn-board cladding, sleek black central fireplace, and stylish lounge seating, Pine manages to be both earthy and sophisticated—not unlike its cocktail and dinner menu.
Start perhaps with a Smoke and Flowers (tequila, mescal, lavender agave, lime, smoked salt) and move on to wild boar and poblano Bolognese or pan-seared hake with truffled corn puree, edamame, and fingerling potatoes.
In the morning, get in line at Lou’s Restaurant & Bakery, a center-of-town institution since 1947 that is as beloved for its corned beef hash and cruller French toast as its unapologetic, old-school diner vibe—sassy, super-efficient waitresses and all.
After breakfast, browse Still North Books & Bar, a cozy indie bookstore and café opened on a side street in 2019 by Dartmouth grad Allie Levy to help fill the void left by the much-lamented shuttering of the Dartmouth Bookstore.
Back on South Main, stop at Farmhouse Pottery, a natural-light-filled outpost of the noted Woodstock, Vermont–based maker of hand-thrown ceramics; potters are sometimes at the wheel in the in-house studio. Shop Indigo for on-trend apparel, plus cool-weather essentials like Patagonia jackets and Blundstone boots.
Cross the street to the century-old Dartmouth Co-op to pick up college hoodies and vintage-looking letter sweaters. Then head to the Red Kite Candy shop, opened early in 2021 to showcase the handcrafted treats—caramels, toffee, turtles, and sublime French Montélimar-style soft nougat—that founder Elaine McCabe started making as a hobby on her home stove in 2009. Post-pandemic plans include candy-making workshops in the store’s test kitchen.
If you’re traveling with kids, don’t miss the Montshire Museum of Science, in Norwich, Vermont, just across the Connecticut River. The bright, airy interactive museum has indoor and outside exhibits, as well as extensive riverside trails. Norwich is also home to the King Arthur Baking Company, a place of pilgrimage for home bakers who revere the 231-year-old retailer of kitchen equipment and hard-to-find ingredients.
The sprawling post-and-beam flagship store also has a baking school and a café selling pastries, soups, and sandwiches, plus fragrant loaves of just-baked bread. Just to the south on Route 5, the Norwich Farmers Market sets up every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. through the end of October; spend some time table-hopping for samples of local cheese, yogurt, and charcuterie before deciding what to buy.
Fortified, head 10 miles south on Route 12A past the big-box stores of West Lebanon to rural Plainfield’s Riverview Farm, which sits above a lovely, boulder-strewn stretch of the Connecticut. Walk or ride the horse-drawn wagon to pick apples in the 1,600-tree hillside orchard, or pick raspberries, blueberries, pumpkins, and sunflowers, in season. After you bring in your haul, head for the Mac’s Maple food truck parked most weekends near the cider-making barn to indulge in a maple creemee: rich soft-serve ice cream sweetened with real maple syrup and, if you want to go all out, rolled in dice-size chunks of maple sugar candy.
Back in Hanover, find a bench on South Main Street and enjoy the sidewalk parade of undergrads, alums, academics, and leaf-drunk bus-trippers. You’re also likely to see a handful of scruffy northbound Appalachian Trail through-hikers making their way to the post office to pick up packages and mail; Hanover is the last town they’ll hit on their way to Maine.
For dinner tonight, head to Candela Tapas Lounge, a side-street gem serving Caribbean/Spanish fare—sweet potato tostones, ginger-soy-marinated mahi-mahi tacos, chicken empanadas with spicy guava barbecue sauce, cinnamon-sugar-dusted churros—in an intimate persimmon-colored dining room or on a fairy-lit patio. Hands-on owner Jimmy Van Kirk grew up in Puerto Rico and will happily guide you through his list of aged sipping rums and Spanish reds.
Get fueled for a day outdoors by picking up a latteat the Dirt Cowboy Café or heading to The Nest, a cheery new café and deli on South Main Street serving inventive egg sandwiches and breakfast burritos, made with locally sourced ingredients. Next, you could rent canoes and kayaks from the Ledyard Canoe Club and spend an hour or two paddling the placid Connecticut. Or you might arrange for hill-busting electric bicycles to be delivered to your hotel by Vermont Bike & Brew, based in Thetford, Vermont. Owner Jonas Cole will make sure you’re comfortable operating the bikes and will help download suggested routes to your phone. (Handlebar mounts keep turn-by-turn instructions in view.)
Maybe, though, you are of the belief that peak foliage is best viewed from above. In that case, make the 40-minute drive east to Cardigan Mountain State Park for a moderate-effort/big-payoff hike. The 1½-mile West Ridge Trail ascends through hardwoods and conifers and delivers you to the broad, exposed-rock summit of 3,155-foot Mount Cardigan. If the day is clear, you’ll be able to see Mount Washington and the rest of the White Mountains’ Presidential Range, plus Vermont’s Camel’s Hump and Maine’s Pleasant Mountain, as well as an astonishing 360 degrees of high-voltage fall colors. Alas, as Robert Frost wrote, “Nothing gold can stay.” Linger awhile, then take a wistful last look before heading back down the trail and starting for home.