Home of the U.S. equestrian team as well as four beloved relatives, these quaint New England towns (pop. 7,000) are a mere nine hours away from Washington. At least it's been done in nine hours, but the last people to do so were not traveling with children. We decided to travel with children. That's right. All three of them.

Let me say right off, getting here was not half the fun.

Our travel plan called for us to leave Virginia at 9:30 Sunday morning. It has always been our family's aspiration to hit the road bright and early as they say, just one time.

By 9:30 Sunday morning, we were eating breakfast.

By 10 o'clock, we were loading the car. More precisely, my husband and the 14-year-old were loading the car while I was frantically packing. You might be thinking this is all very disorganized, and you would be perfectly correct, but all I can say is when was the last time you tried traveling with a teen-ager, a 4-year-old, and a baby?

By 11, the car was officially declared packed.The port-a-crib and fishing rod and men's suit carrier were lashed to the roof rack and covered with a tarpaulin in case we hit a hurricane. The cooler and suitcases and fishing tackle box and matchbox case and cameras and baseball gloves and pillows and baby stroller were stuffed into the back of the station wagon. The cat was let out of the house and the baby loaded into the car seat. We were ready to go.

Everything was in place, as they say, except our only set of car keys. A half hour later, after searching the house, unloading the car, ransacking the luggage, the keys were declared gone. Lost. We couldn't start the car.

"Do you think," inquired my husband darkly, "that maybe we are not supposed to make this trip?"

I slumped against the back of the car in despair, seeing our trip go up in smoke. I also saw our keys. On top of the tarpaulin. Things had gotten to such a point, though, that hollering "i found them!" at the top of my voice would have been poor from. I simply gave them to my husband and everyone got in the car. Softly.

By noon, we were off.

Having now done it both ways, I can say there is no such thing as too much food on a trip with three children. I can also say there is no such thing as successfully reliving your childhood through your children. When I was a child, the Baltimore Tunnel, then a new engineering wonder, was the highlight of our family trips between Washington New York which tells you, among other things, how long it has been since I was a child.

"You've got to wake up and see this tunnel," I said as we neared it. "It's a genuine phenomenon."

"It's the only wasy to see Baltimore," said my husband.

Modern children do not get turned on by long tunnels. They rarely get turned on by the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, although in my family, watching mother deal with vertigo on suspension bridges always gives the kids a thrill. Will she turn white? Will she fall apart? Will mother pass out?

We arrived on Long Island around five. Everyone was still speaking to each other, no one had gotten car sick, and no more than 10 percent of the fudge and cookies had been spilled in the car. We spent the night with friends before leaving the next morning for the Boston area.

No matter what the maps look like, New York is a lot closer to Washington than it is to Boston when you are traveling with threee children. We took our time leaving Long Island the following morning. As a matter of fact, we took a lot of our time leaving Long Island, since we ended up leaving it twice.

The first time was shortly after 11 a.m. The day was beautiful, and we found our way onto the Long Island Expressway with only one wrong turn and with hearty assurances from our hosts that our destination was a mere 4 1/2 hours away. Everyone was in a terrific mood.

Then, I glanced back at the 14-year-old who was mouthing something silently. I shot him a questioning look. I should have ignored him. What came out of his mouth was: "I FORGOT GRANDPA'S FISHING ROD."

Now there are certain things that mothers always end up doing.It is always up to mothers to give birth, for example. It is also always up to mothers to tell fathers that they have to turn the car around and go back to retrieve irreplaceable treasures children have left behind.

The second time we left Long Island, it as precisely noon, a mere three hours after we started packing the car in the morning. But leaving Long Island was nothing compared to leaving Connecticut. We took the Connecticut Turnpike north, which for some reason has tollgates every 10 miles. After the fourth 25-cent tol, my husband was telling Ella Grasso that her highway system didn't work.

Finally, we got to New Haven, gateway to New England, an oasis of culture among the smokestacks. I started in on my lecture about this being the home of one of the world's great universities, only to be interrupted by the 4-year-ld who hollered at the top of his lungs as we entered the town, "There's a McDonald's!"

After New Haven, the trop got worse. It became the kind of trip you think you will have when you travel with three children. If they ween't arguing, they were roughhousing. The 4-year-old was constantly thirsty. The 14-year-old who didn't need a nap would try to sleep while the 4-year-old, who did, refused, opting instead to stare at his sleeping brother or drop things on him. The baby, struggling in vain to escape from her car seat, cried. We found that New England highway signs that say rest area mean precisely that: All you can do is rest. By 5 p.m., the 4-year-old asked rather plaintively, "Are we ever going to be in Massachusetts?"

Of course we were. Minutes later, we hit the Boston Circumferential at the height of rush hour and discovered that Boston drivers think nothing of tailgating four feet behind you at 50 miles an hour. An hour later, nerves shattered, we finally got off and found our way to a marvelous, rambling old home high on a hill, surrounded by beautiful gardens, stately trees and guarded by a Great Pyrenees named Shadow.

This is horse country. We are far, far away from the land of subdivisions, from convention politics and from Washington. There is a different, less frantic rhythm of life up here. Climate is cool, and the living is easy, and while all this may sound terribly enviable to people trapped in Washington's record-setting heat wave, it is not. At least not completely.

Someday, we are going to have to drive home.