Oh, to be in New England, now that autumn's here

The mountains angle down to the doorstep of the stately Woodstock Inn, surely one of the most gracious hostelries in America. And from the town square out front, in the cool air of a late September morning, you can look around at the colors of autumn: vivid reds, deep oranges, bright yellows, deep greens, crisp browns.

But these colors aren't in the leaves; not yet. They are on license plates -- out-of-state license plates. The annual pilgrimage to see the fall foliage in New England is under way.

In the next four weeks hundreds of thousands of out-of-state cars, campers, and buses will roll across the highways of Vermont and New Hampshire alone. Their passengers will fill the motels and restaurants, buy up much of the gasoline, knock on the doors of farmhouses and ask for directions, and even drop in on the local church suppers for a $5 plate of turkey, salads, and pumpkin pie.

This year there is some concern that the foliage may peak early or might not be as brilliant as usual because of low rainfall and the devastation wreaked on New England forests by gypsy moths in the spring. The fact is, none of that matters; the tourists are coming anyway.

They'll be back next year, too, and the year after that. Indeed, fall foliage is big business here and getting bigger. That four-week period is worht hundreds of millions of dollars to the regional economy.

And much of the credit is traceable to a simple wall calendar.

Stan's Plumbing & Heating, the First National Bank, Model Hardware: Who hasn't seen the calendars that businesses like these across the country hand out to customers? At the top, more oftern than not, is a large full-color picture of some anonymous New England village dressed in autumnal splendor, white church steeple gleaming against the local hillsides.

"Fall in New England," Dick Hamilton says, "is easy to sell." He should know. as executive vice-president of White Mountains Attractions Assiciation in North Woodstock, N.H., Mr. Hamilton oversees the printing and distribution of 900,000 fall vacation guides to outlets all over the world. His work for this fall is long since finished. And by all indications it will not have been in vain.

"If you're coming to the White Mountains and you don't have a reservation, it's already too late," he says. "You should have reserved a month to a month and a half ago. The 82 bookings are coming in already. And 2 had a representative of a Seattle tour operator in here yesterday wanting photos to put into his brochures for '83."

The New Hampshire Office of Vacation and Travel places the value of foliage traffic to the state at $150 million a year, not counting the sale of gasoline. In Vermont last October, according to the state Information and Travel Division, 800,000 people visited, staying an average of three days and leaving behind $40 million to $50 million.

Maine, says Peter Damborg of the state Publicity Bureau, "isn't as sophisticated" as its neighbors when it comes to calculating revenues from foliage traffic. But according to a spokesman for the Massachusetts Bureau of Vacation and Travel, the season generates about $230 million in revenues from tourists. Massachusetts lacks the spectacular mountain scenery and quaint villages of its northern neighbors, but has the happy distinction of being directly in their path for most tourists coming from the south.

Fall tourists -- or "leaf peepers," in the vernacular of many Vermont and New Hampshire residents -- tend to be of three varieties: those who come by bus; those who come by car from great distances; and those who drive up for the day from Boston or Hartford, Conn., or like places. But there is one rule of thumb, appreciated by nearly all in the tourist business: The farther they have to come , the more money they are likely to spend and the greater they are likely to appreciate whay they see.

The main reason is that the long-distance foliage visitor tends to be older than this midsummer or ski-season brethen and in less of a hurry. The leaves needn't even be at their peak to satisfy him.

"I'm constantly amazed at the number of people who show up here and don't have the slightest idea where they're going or what they're going to do," Hamilton says. "You pay 20 cents more a gallon for gasoline here than anywhere else, but they don't care about that. They buy it anyway."

It is also the older tourists who send the most post cards and tell their friends back home about the beautiful mountains, quaint villages and covered bridges, and, most of all, the color. (One never says colors, even though there are so many hues that they nearly span the spectrum.) Result: a whole new wave of people with a craving to see for themselves. Many of them show up at their local travel agents wanting to book space on next year's bus tours.

Maupintours of Lawrence, Kan., alone has scheduled 28 tours of New England between Sept. 14 and Oct. 14. Passengers gather in Boston for a 10-day swing through Maine. New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts, and, according to escorted-tour coordinator Steve Clark, every tour is fully booked. Over and above their air fare, passengers pay $868 (double occupancy rate) for the privilege. It costs the single traveler even more -- $1,078.

A high point for many of the tours is North Conway, N.H. At the eastern end of the Kancamagus Highway, perhaps the most popular foliage route in the region, it is sometimes called the "Hyannis of northern New England" for its imposing five-mile strip of inns, restaurants, shops, and factory outlets which resembles Cape Cod's largest town.

"It's kind of frightening" when entire busloads of tourists come into her store, says Judy Fuller, floor manager of Carroll Reed's in North Conway, a nationally known merchandiser of good-quality men's and women's sportswear. "But their time is short; they're kind of programmed. They buy mostly sweaters."

The foliage season, she says, is one of her busiest because Carroll Reed's sends out 1.5 million catalogs to all 50 states, Canada, and overseas, and many people, used to receiving the colorful catalogs, want to stop in and see the store. In fact, at 8:45 on a recent Friday morning, the Carroll Reed parking lot was filling up with cars bearing Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Florida, Wisconsin, Maryland, and New York license plates, their owners waiting for the store to open at 9.

Conversely, Woody Darken, the Woodstock, Vt., Chamber of Commerce president and owner of a sportswear shop, says that while the foliage traffic is good for business in his town generally, it brings him little direct benefit. His lines of ski wear and other outdoor clothing are aimed mainly at younger buyers.

The huge white-brick Woodstock Inn, centerpiece of this lovely old village, however, is more than happy to see the older visitors. The inn, resident manager David Drooker says, is usually booked for the foliage season a year in advance, because many guests re-register for the following year as soon as they arrive. Although it has 121 rooms and daily rates range from $59 to $83, Mr. Drooker says, "We could probably fill another inn of this size if we had the space."

The Woodstock Inn has the luxury of not depending on bus tours to fill its rooms. Its guests, Drooker says, tend to come mainly from the Northeast but also include "what I call displaced New Englanders, who, for one reason of another, left for the South or California and get nostalgic at this time of year."

Across the state from Woodstock, at tiny Danby Four Corners, Gerald Corey has no direct stake in the foliage business by indirectly helps to generate it. He is an official (but unpaid) "color spotter," one of several people whose twice-weekly reports the Information and Travel Division uses to keep visitors posted on foliage conditions in Vermont.

Mr. Corey's zone is about 30 miles square, much of which he surveys by taking the long way to work at a warehouse in nearby Rutland. There has been ample rainfall in the area and, from his years of experience, he thinks the color this fall will be as bright as ever.

As much as he enjoys the foliage season, however, Corey finds it limiting. So many weekend "leaf peepers" find their way up the unnumbered mountain road past his house that he says: "You can't go out. Somebody's always knocking on the door wanting to know how to get to Rutland. They even come on bicylces."

It is, in fact, the weekend "day trippers" who tend to cause the greatest stir. They are generally younger, often bring small children, and spend less money because they know exactly where they want to go and how long it takes to get there.

"Past a given point during the week, 20 percent of the cars will be from Massachusetts," Dick Hamilton says. "On weekends, it's 40 percent."

What if the foliage should peak early and many of the visitors miss it? Says Gregory Gerdell, manager of travel development for the State of Vermont: "We have increas" ingly tried to stay away from the use of the work 'peak.' Foliage viewing is usually quite good for a period of five to six weeks."

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