The swamp trees are already bare-limbed in northern New England, where winter tends to come early and linger late. But the first half of October is unparalleled for hillside leaf-peeping, and where better to do it than amid the lush, maple-clad hills of Vermont?
An excursion into the aptly named Green Mountains takes you into the heart of fall, where nature unfolds before you in a timeless landscape of scarlet leaves, cow pastures and colonial villages. You can drive out of New York after work, pick up Interstate 91 in Hartford, and follow it straight into Vermont by evening. Traffic becomes sparser and forestry becomes denser with every passing mile. Once you step out of the car, the cool mountain air and starry black sky make you feel like you’re in another country.
If you’re looking for escape, Vermont has it in spades. I am always amazed, after the congestion of the urban Northeast, how much pure, vast space there is in Vermont — hours and hours of endless rolling hills, grain silos, and picturesque red barns. At every turn, you can see placidly grazing cows that look just like the drawings on organic milk containers.
Leaf-watching alone is enough to justify a swing through the Green Mountains. But this is also the season for harvest festivals, a last chance for Vermonters to gather outdoors before freezing weather sets in, celebrating small-town bounty and New England culture.
There are no big cities in Vermont. Burlington, near the Canadian border, is austere and compact, and the capital, Montpelier, has a sleepy red-brick charm. How you navigate the rural landscape — small villages or bigger towns, biking or driving, highways or backroads — depends on your time and your style.
Just past the Vermont border, you can exit I-91 and drive west into the mountains to Bennington. Route 7, between Bennington and Manchester, is a lovely drive, and Route 100, which jogs northeast of Manchester and east of Rutland, is a longtime favorite among country-road connoisseurs. Biking, either independently or with a tour, is an increasingly popular way to see rural Vermont, whose best sights are frequently the winding roads themselves.
A distinctive local culture thrives in these small towns, with their proud rectilinear hedges and lost-in-time antiques shops. In places like Woodstock, Bennington and Manchester, the sophisticated sensibility of urban weekenders infuses a welcome dose of vitality into a historic ambiance. You can feel it in the farmstands and country inn restaurants, where the traditional fare is likely to be organic and homegrown these days, or in the free Wi-Fi that quietly blankets rural-but-plugged-in Woodstock.
Small, haimish Jewish communities are growing amid the white church steeples, fueled by a continuous influx of urban refugees from Boston and New York. Jewish practice, which tends to be relaxed and reticent in typical Yankee fashion, thrives in places like Manchester, Burlington and Woodstock; more than two decades ago, they built a Reform congregation out of a Shabbat-dinner potluck beginning.
In Bennington, a venerable Orthodox synagogue died in the 1980s, a victim of changing demographics, and came back to life as a vibrant Reconstructionist congregation. And farther north, the egalitarian Rutland Jewish Center is celebrating its centennial, and has published “Kosher Yankee Centennial: 100 Years of Jewish Cooking in Vermont” to commemorate that heritage (call  773-3455 to buy a copy).
Vermont does indeed boast singular flavors that sing of fall. Fresh-picked apples are so crisp and fresh they remind you what an apple ought to taste like; farm stands are piled high this time of year with everything from Macintosh to Ginger Gold.
And the pumpkin patches — fields strewn with orange orbs of every size, are open just in time for Halloween. When I was a child, there was no sight more magical, no wonder more marvelous than a truly gigantic pumpkin, big enough to crawl on top of or hide behind. Hay truck rides and scarecrow contests are standard on weekends, often accompanied by a taste of homemade apple cider.
Maple syrup is a magical elixir I can’t get enough of — not to speak of maple cream, maple sugar candies and the like. Homemade varieties are on sale all over, but look for kosher-certified maple products in the local stores: with an increasing number of farms opting for organic certification, many are going kosher while they’re at it.
Much of the action this month is in Woodstock, where the 38th Annual Apples & Crafts Fair takes place this weekend; also this weekend, the Billings Farm & Museum (off Route 12) hosts a Harvest Weekend with a barn dance, homemade cider and doughnuts, and other rustic activities.
And this weekend too, Rutland sponsors the Art in the Park Foliage Festival, featuring arts and crafts, live music and food at Main Street Park. And Stratton, a hotspot for skiing later in the winter, hosts its Harvest Festival the same weekend.
The weekend of Oct. 16-17 is Wagon Ride at Billings Farm in Woodstock, with guided tours of the farm and fields on a horse-drawn wagon.
Woodstock holds its last open-air market on the town green on the 6th, while weekly farmer’s markets continue at Mt. Tom Market on Route 12 North through the end of the month. But for those who are still hungry, on the 16th, the town of Cabot — yes, like the home of the cheese — holds its Apple Pie Festival, featuring homemade pie contests, live music, a silent auction and a craft fair.