BOSTON – New England's iconic autumns can be as much about brains as beauty.
Some of the region's most stunning foliage is within striking distance of America's most storied living museums: places like Old Sturbridge Village and Hancock Shaker Village in Massachusetts, Strawbery Banke in New Hampshire, and the Billings and Shelburne Farms in Vermont.
Here's how to hit them up before this fall's leaves are history:
Tourism promoters have already done some of the work: They've mapped out a 275-mile (442-kilometer) "living history and rural relaxation" tour that starts and finishes in Boston, which is convenient if you're flying in from outside New England. See a Google maps layout here: http://goo.gl/maps/z6QS .
This is an ambitious tour — it borders on odyssey class — so give yourself at least 10 days to make all the rounds. Alternatively, you can skip a leg here and there and adapt the route for a briefer escape. This route takes in Sturbridge, Massachusetts; Woodstock, Connecticut; Westerly and Bristol, Rhode Island; and Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Other ways to combine a little learning with some serious leaf-peeping:
OLD STURBRIDGE VILLAGE (Sturbridge, Massachusetts, https://www.osv.org/ )
First stop, and a must stop, is this famed outdoor museum, which recreates what daily rural life was like from 1790 to 1830. You'll find sooty-bearded blacksmiths banging out horseshoes on anvils and a working farm with draft horses pulling plows. The first two weeks of October, which usually coincide with peak color in south-central Massachusetts, feature an Apple Days festival. There's spectacular color at Sturbridge itself as well as on the leafy country lanes leading to it. Or stray off the beaten path with a short hike along part of the Mid-State Trail (www.midstatetrail.org ).
HANCOCK SHAKER VILLAGE (Pittsfield, Massachusetts, www.hancockshakervillage.org )
Nestled in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts — synonymous with drop-dead gorgeous foliage — this cluster of 20 authentic buildings and barns crafted by America's finest woodworkers makes a stunning autumn backdrop. Wander the adjacent meadows and herb and flower gardens framed by majestic trees. Along the way, engage the costumed weavers and carpenters and learn about the Shakers' faith and simple lifestyle. On Oct. 3, local photojournalist Ben Garver will teach a workshop designed to help you hone your digital photo skills.
STRAWBERY BANKE MUSEUM (Portsmouth, New Hampshire, www.strawberybanke.org )
Experience how people lived and worked in this typical American neighborhood through nearly four centuries of history — and marvel at the traffic-stopping autumn leaves in coastal Portsmouth. Strawbery Banke originally was settled in 1630 by Brits who couldn't spell but sure knew how to build homes with staying power: Most still stand on their original foundations, creating an elegant setting for foliage photography. The hamlet hosts the annual New Hampshire Fall Festival on Oct. 10; the leaves may be past peak by then, but the craft demonstrations are garden tours will be worth it.
SHELBURNE FARMS (Shelburne, Vermont, www.shelburnefarms.org )
Vermont's Lake Champlain shoreline is one of the most stunning places for calendar-caliber leaf peeping. It's also home to this 1,400-acre working farm, a National Historic Landmark beloved by foodies for its artisanal cheeses, organic market garden, maple sugaring and mushroom foraging. Shelburne's 37th annual harvest festival is Sept. 19, when the wash of color should be approaching optimal.
BILLINGS FARM & MUSEUM (Woodstock, Vermont, www.billingsfarm.org )
Holy cow, this place is pretty. It's a meticulously restored 1890 dairy farm that's still in operation, nestled in the verdant hills of Woodstock, whose sugar maples explode in a brilliant palette of oranges, yellows and reds. Through the milking of the herd and the churning of the butter, you'll get a glimpse into Vermont's 19th-century rural cultural heritage. Lactose intolerant? Come for the foliage, stay for Forest Festival Weekend, held this year Sept. 26-27; it features forest strolls, family woodcraft and other activities.
HISTORIC DEERFIELD (Deerfield, Massachusetts, www.historic-deerfield.org )
Back in western Massachusetts, this authentic 18th-century village in the Connecticut River valley is known for its well-appointed museum homes with period furnishings. There are guided and self-guided tours of a dozen antique houses built between 1730 and 1850. If you're into demonstrations, there's dressmaking, tinsmithing, gunsmithing, silversmithing, shoemaking, cabinetmaking and open-hearth cooking, all done as they were three centuries ago. Don't leave without the leaves: A stroll along the Channing Blake Footpath (http://bit.ly/1EDwhEO ) to the Deerfield River will reveal autumn vistas that will take your breath away.
If You Go ...
OFFICIAL TOURISM WEBSITE: Discover New England, http://www.discovernewengland.org/ . Predicting when and where the foliage will be peak isn't an exact science, but there are interactive maps that do a fair job of tracking the color in real time. Bookmark http://www.yankeefoliage.com/peak-foliage-forecast-map/ and check it often for updates.