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An Advanced Degree in the Splendors of Autumn

By Cindy Loose
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 12, 2008

As the child of a rural valley in the Appalachians, I have what seems an inborn need to witness the glory of autumn in a place with enough trees to dominate the landscape. A setting with open fields and pumpkin patches and corn mazes and freshly pressed cider. But in past escapes from Washington for a dose of fall to feed that rural self, I've always found my city self dissatisfied. Within hours of a much-anticipated arrival, I always begin thinking: That was beautiful. Now what I am supposed to do?

This fall, I had an epiphany: college towns. Even the smallest of them tend to have more attractions, highbrow culture, restaurants and activities than other towns of comparable size. Find a leafy campus in or near a bucolic setting, and your foliage fix can be accentuated by good food, culture, shopping and night life.

After studying the options near enough to Washington for an easy weekend jaunt, I identified six top candidates. (See Page P5 for the other fall-friendly college towns.) Yale University in New Haven, Conn., made the initial list because of its well-known architectural beauty. It's also close to leafy towns and wide-open spaces with orchards and fields. When I stumbled over a lesser-known fact -- the campus has 10,000 trees -- Yale was bumped toward the top of the list. Further investigation provided the clincher: the nearby Thimble Islands.

Called the "beautiful sea rocks" by the Mattabeseck Indians, many of these islands in Long Island Sound are wooded, and most are uninhabited. Even as the temperature chills, two tour boats carry passengers out there, and visitors can take themselves in kayaks.

The sophistication of Yale and the unspoiled beauty of the Thimbles spoke to my two selves.

* * *

Maple trees with blazing red leaves partially frame the 216-foot-tall Harkness Tower. Multicolored leaves crackle underfoot. Along a pathway that cuts through the quadrangle of one of the residential areas on campus, I pause to sit on a low stone wall and take in the beauty of man-made structures surrounded by the majesty of trees preparing for winter.

When the leaves explode into gold, bronze, scarlet and sienna, Yale's Georgian- and Gothic-style buildings are even more striking than usual. Already the elms, beech, oak, maple and sweet gum trees there have begun to turn. In the next two weeks they will peak.

Visitors are free to wander around the campus unescorted. But without a guide, I would have left New Haven puzzled about how a campus founded in 1701 could look so similar to England's Oxford University, established in the 12th century. Instead, I take one of the daily student-led tours and discover the answer: acid.

My tour is led by a stylish and perky young woman with the kind of confidence and exuberant joy I've come to associate with beauty queens who grow up to run their local school board. Twenty other people and I follow her. Several sets of parents are accompanied by teens considering a bid for four glorious years in this Ivy of excellence.

A two-hour tour cannot cover all of Yale's 260 acres, but we do our school-spirited best. We pass by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, one of the world's largest such repositories (a Gutenberg Bible is among the treasures), the Peabody Museum of Natural History (more than 11 million specimens), the Yale University Art Gallery (home to Van Gogh's famous "The Night Cafe") and the Yale Center for British Art, the largest collection of Brit art outside the United Kingdom.

We also get a bit of history about the varied outdoor sculptures, which include a piece by Vietnam Veterans Memorial designer Maya Lin, and the architecture. The newer-looking, Georgian-style buildings are actually the oldest, built as early as 1750. The older-looking, Gothic-style buildings were constructed between 1917 and 1931. Architect James Gamble Rogers had the stone walls splashed with acid to simulate age.

I'm usually not an enthusiast of faux-old architecture, but at Yale it works. The building techniques and materials, including the thick, solid blocks of stone, were copied from the Middle Ages. The designer created niches for statues but didn't fill them, thus evoking the kind of loss that often accompanies the passage of time. He hired skilled craftsmen to make leaded-glass windows, then smash and repair them using the same methods medieval glaziers would have used.

I was as impressed as when I first saw Oxford. Perhaps even more so, since the builders of Yale had to resurrect centuries-old techniques.

* * *

The wealth of Yale mixes with the poverty of many residents in this small city of 124,000 people, and for a time decrepitude crept into areas near the campus. However, extensive urban renewal projects begun in the 1990s have made a notable difference. Today, upscale shops and restaurants line the streets, along with modern office buildings.

The city centers on the leafy New Haven Green, home to three beautiful, historic churches. The green, a privately owned national historic landmark just steps from the Yale campus, is worth a close look. I stroll toward City Hall and come upon the Amistad Memorial. The sculpture sits on the site where Africans who took over their slave ship were imprisoned in 1839 while it was decided whether they should be returned to Africa. Exhibits about rebellion leader Sengbe Pieh, who gained control of the ship but was tricked into sailing it into Long Island Sound, are displayed at the New Haven Museum and the New Haven Historical Society.

In the evenings, New Haven's drama scene comes alive. The university's Yale Repertory Theatre is among the best regional companies in the country, a training ground for the likes of Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline.

There's also the Long Wharf Theatre, which is now staging Eugene O'Neill's "Hughie" starring Brian Dennehy and next month will present the world premiere of Paula Vogel's "A Civil War Christmas." The Shubert Theater will present "Mamma Mia!" and "Footloose" before the end of the year.

New Haven County is home to 10 national historic sites as well as vineyards, wide-open spaces interspersed with charming towns, and orchards with pumpkins, cider, corn mazes and you-pick fruit trees.

For nature at its purest, I travel 12 miles from New Haven to the Thimble Islands. The hundreds of stony outcroppings within three miles of the mainland range from half an acre to 17.5 acres.

During the Revolutionary War, the islands were stripped of trees so the patriots could see British ships coming. Today, the successors to trees sacrificed to the fight for independence have grown as high as 50 feet.

Only 25 of the islands are inhabited, and those by only about 100 families, none of them year-round residents. The islands are rugged and yet elegant. Marble Island, for example, is made of rough pink granite.

Sometimes the endless views of rock, water and trees are interrupted by man-made structures, but in an interesting way. One island, for instance, has a 27-room Tudor-style mansion partially hidden behind formal gardens. The caretaker's house could be mistaken for the home of a wealthy New Englander.

On the ride back to shore, I soak in the full spectrum of fall and the fact that not once during my New Haven visit did I ask myself, "Now what?"

For more information, go to the Greater New Haven Convention and Visitors Bureau, http://www.visitnewhaven.com, 800-332-7829. For information on Yale University, http://www.yale.edu.

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