An Advanced Degree in the Splendors of Autumn

At Yale's campus in New Haven, visitors to Connecticut can enjoy the sights of the fall season. For those seeking more nature and less civilization, the rugged Thimble Islands are nearby.
At Yale's campus in New Haven, visitors to Connecticut can enjoy the sights of the fall season. For those seeking more nature and less civilization, the rugged Thimble Islands are nearby. (Michael Marsland)
By Cindy Loose
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 12, 2008; Page P01

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.

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