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Jaunts Leaf-peeping time

September 24, 2018

It’s that time of year in Connecticut again! Grab your friends or family and jump into your car to maneuver the roadways while attempting to savor a landscape bursting with what this year is expected to be some of the most vibrant fall colors in recent history.

Exactly how do you keep your eyes on the road and enjoy those reds, yellows and oranges to their fullest? You don’t.

So here’s a thought. This year, let someone else do the driving and turn that leaf peeping excursion into an adventure by boat or balloon or train. Take advantage of Mother Nature’s once-a-year show with a front-row seat that can’t be beat.

Balloon It

“What do you see when you drive to look at the foliage?” asks Robert Zirpolo, who owns Berkshire Balloon in Plainville. “You see the trunks of trees and leaves on the ground because you have to pay attention to driving on a road that goes by the trees.”

Instead, let go of the wheel, step into a hot air balloon basket and go up, up and away where he promises a foliage diorama that mere mortals rarely see.

“When you get up a few hundred feet and look down it’s like ‘wow!’” said Zirpolo, a hot air balloon veteran. “It’s a fairy world of color and countryside,” he explains. “It’s like that line from the movie ‘Out of Africa’ when Robert Redford takes Meryl Streep on her first airplane flight,” he continues. “It’s a view of the world from God’s eyes.”

The ride, which lasts an hour to an hour and a half and costs $350, follows one of two routes, based on that day’s air currents.

“We let the wind decide where we are going,” said Zirpolo. “Sometimes it’s the Farmington Valley, New Hartford, Barkhamsted, Western Simsbury and Granby, and other times, it’s Litchfield and towns around there like Bethlehem and that area.”

Zirpolo said well-known landmarks are always a surprise to people who never seen them from a bird’s-eye perspective.

“Places they have driven by dozens of times suddenly look new because they are seeing them from a different point of view,” he said. “And the foliage, from the air you are seeing as much of the trees as possible. The color is always so much more incredible and bigger. The tree tops look like big broccoli bunches in all kinds of colors. “

With peak leaf season scheduled to last well into October, Zirpolo said his foliage balloon rides are always popular, this year even more so because of the cool spring and wet summer that nudges ideal foliage colors.

“Everyone should do it once,” said Zirpolo who offers rides through Thanksgiving, weather permitting. “The joke is the first ride might cost you a few bucks but the second one will cost you $20,000,” he said. That’s because after you do it once, the next thing you know you are taking lessons and buying your own balloon and enjoying the view as often as you can.”

Visit berkshireballoons.com or Berkshire Balloons on Facebook or call 1-203-250-8441.

Ride the Rails

Remember that saying, “it’s not the destination but the journey.” Well “all aboard” at the Railroad Museum of New England’s stable of trains, raring to host the museum’s annual fall foliage trips. The promise from the Thomaston landmark? A natural respite from the stress of the day as well as some family fun, a little bit of Hollywood (think “Orient Express” or “Some Like It Hot”) and a side of education.

“You get a look at the landscape that isn’t possible from a car and along with the ride and a quick class on anything you want to know about trains,” explains museum board member Steve Casey.

Trains, which include engines that once called Grand Central Station home, another once owned by the Providence and Worcester Railroad and another once owned by Taconic and Berkshire Rail Technologies, take you from yesterday to today as you rumble along a rail line that includes stops at the Thomaston Dam and along the Naugatuck River to Waterville. The colorful ride is enhanced by conductors who are more than happy (and proud) to answer any questions about the history of the rails.

There is also a cider and doughnut snack, and for the youngsters, a stop at the museum’s pumpkin patch, enhancing the rest of the train ride’s Mother Nature-given autumn accoutrements.

“It’s a two-for-one experience,” said Casey about the ride that also includes railcar views of landmarks including the Thomaston Clock Tower. “Every year the ride becomes more and more popular and we have been advised the colors are going to be really great this year.”

“It’s a nice way to see the foliage for adults, or parents with children or even grandparents and their grandchildren,” added Casey. “It’s a great ride.”

Train rides are about an hour and 20 minutes and range in price from $1 to $15, depending on age. Visit rmne.org or Railroad Museum of New England on Facebook or call 860-283-7245.

Rolling on the River

Is there anything more soothing than a leisurely boat ride? How about a cruise surrounded by color, and spiked with the assorted wildlife that call the Connecticut River home?

“It’s a wonderful way to enjoy the foliage,” said Mark Yuknat, captain at the Haddam-based RiverQuest cruises at Eagle Landing State Park. Well known for knowing every nook and cranny of the lower river, Yuknat teams up with on-board naturalists who together provide an experience that is more than just an eyeful.

“You don’t just see beautiful colors along the banks on our cruises but there’s the wildlife,” said Yuknat referring to the egrets, great blue heron, bald eagles and other wildlife that are part of the ride. “It’s a different perspective of the season.”

Be prepared for jaw-dropping postcard-like scenes featuring Gillette Castle, the harbor and the Goodspeed Opera House that stand out against the nautical autumn backdrop.

“There is nothing like a river view,” insists Yuknat. “It’s a different perspective from the water and with the hills way off in the background, well it is just gorgeous!” Both one hour and two hour cruises are available.

The river cruise welcomes picnic baskets for passengers who enjoy eating al fresco. A bottle of wine and snacks of your choice are also welcome on board. And don’t forget binoculars, a jacket and a camera.

“It’s about enjoying the day,” said Yuknat. “Just plan to sit back and relax and let someone else do the driving.”

Prices vary. Visit ctriverquest.com or RiverQuest on Facebook or call 860-662-0577.

MaryEllen Fillo is a freelance writer based in Connecticut.

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