Apple picking, corn mazes and fall foliage drives have their charms, but the crisp air and advent of winter beg you to do something more active. Don’t shelve the typical harvest rites of passage — just add to them from our picks for amazing autumn activities around the world.
Biking Acadia National Park’s Carriage Roads
Oil baron John D. Rockefeller Jr. was so enraptured by the beauty of the Maine island called Mount Desert that he commissioned the construction of 45 miles’ worth of carriage paths on it. Today, those paths make for some of the most phenomenal crushed-stone-trail biking in the United States — made even more gorgeous with a curtain of color from fall foliage.
Mount Desert Island is the second-largest island on the Eastern Seaboard (behind Long Island) and is connected to the mainland by a bridge. The carriage trails take bikers over rustic bridges, past secluded ponds and to scenic overlooks framed by white birch, beech and maple groves.
Swimming with Whale Sharks Off the Mexican Coast
Donning snorkeling gear and hopping into the ocean with a fish the size of a school bus is easily one of the coolest wildlife encounters you could ever have. Spotted like dominoes, with a 4.5-foot-wide mouth, whale sharks are docile and curious, allowing humans to swim alongside them and observe their unique filter-feeding habits.
Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is one of the best places in the world to swim with whale sharks, with the optimal time in the fall running from mid-September through late October. Water temperatures are in the upper 70’s Fahrenheit.
All outings must be done with a tour operator, most of whom run trips from Cancun, Holbox, the Maya Riviera and Isla Mujeres. Make sure to select an outfit with a solid environmental record.
Guzzling Beer at Oktoberfest in Germany
As synonymous with autumn as Thanksgiving and blisters from raking leaves, Oktoberfest is one of Germany’s biggest exports to the world. Every city has some version of it — Kitchener and Waterloo, Ontario, co-host the largest Oktoberfest outside of Germany — but the original in Munich remains the largest and most authentic.
Shouldn’t it be called Septemberfest? Back when it first started in the early 1800’s (to honor the Bavarian crown prince’s marriage), Oktoberfest did indeed happen in October. Subsequent celebrations started earlier, and organizers soon realized September weekends tended to be warmer and attract bigger crowds. Thus the majority of the event happens then.
This year, the first keg will be tapped during a ceremony at noon on September 22, and the festivities last until October 7. What do they involve? Smooshing yourself onto long benches at tables under tents and drinking beer from liter mugs bigger than your head. Prost!
Birding in the United States
Motivated by the need to eat and stay warm, birds migrate seasonally along important “flyways” around the world. The United States has many significant migratory paths, with refuges for birds to make vital pit stops each autumn en route to their wintering homes.
If you visit a key wildlife refuge during a peak period, you could potentially see dozens of species in one day. A few noteworthy ones include the Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri (best visited from early October through early November), Wisconsin’s Horicon National Wildlife Refuge (early October) and Cape May, New Jersey (October through early November). Some of the best early-fall bird watching is in early September at Sunrise Coast in Maine; flocks arrive as late as the end of November at Point Loma, California.
Must-haves for your packing list: good binoculars, foul-weather gear and reliable walking shoes.
Experiencing Fall Festival Season in Bhutan
Residents of the Land of the Thunder Dragon commemorate the saint who brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the eighth century by hosting three- to five-day ritual dance festivals called tsechus. They’re among the biggest social events of the year. While they’re held throughout the year in different districts, October and November see the most.
The festivals involve monks and locals donning masks and colorful costumes and performing mystical, ritual dances. It’s considered an important step in the obtainment of enlightenment to attend these events, so gussied-up Bhutanese families sporting coral and turquoise jewelry and toting bamboo picnic baskets flock to the capital city of Thimphu or to anywhere else the festivals are being held. While serious business is at work, there are also some moments of comic relief, usually provided by big-nosed clowns called atsara.
Taste Testing Truffles at Festivals in Italy
Italy has numerous fall festivals celebrating foodstuffs — chestnuts, wild mushrooms and wine among them — but none takes center stage like the tartufo bianco, or the white truffle. More than three dozen truffle fairs take place throughout northern and central Italy in October and November; you’ll find one happening every weekend — some big and touristy, others intimate and local.
Tuscany, Umbria, Piedmont, Emilia Romagna and Le Marche are regions that have especially popular ones, with Piedmont’s Alba White Truffle Festival the oldest and largest. The San Miniato Truffle Fair is in the namesake medieval Tuscan town midway between Pisa and Florence, and runs the last three weekends of November.
During the fall, truffles are the centerpiece of Italian restaurant menus and tastings. Other events at festivals include donkey races, prize ceremonies for the best-picked truffle, markets, wine tastings, theater performances and marching bands.
Grape Stomping in California
Lucille Ball was hilarious in 1956 when she hesitantly climbed into a barrel full of grapes and began stomping with reckless, slippery abandon, on one of the most beloved episodes of the TV comedy “I Love Lucy.”
Blessedly, the laws of wine-making states around the world prevent producers from creating the nectar of the gods by foot these days. That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t give it a try.
About a dozen wine-making regions in California host grape-stomping activities in September and October. Pick your own grapes, then mash them with your piggies in St. Helena. Watch experts juice the competition during the World Championship Grape Stomp during the Sonoma County Harvest Fair in Santa Rosa (October 5 – 7). Other locales feature Italian music accompaniments, bocce ball competitions, country buffet dinners and hayrides.
Whale Watching in South Africa
Technically, October is springtime in the Southern Hemisphere. But the whale watching off the southern coast of South Africa is so spectacular that it’s worth fudging the seasonal calendar for a closer look.
Southern right whales come to the shallow bays and secluded coves around Hermanus to mate and breed. They get so close to the shoreline that you can observe them from terra firma. Grab a prime seat along the cliffs edging Hermanus and you’ll likely see more than a few whales breaching.
Very few cruise boats are allowed in the water at this time, so as not to interfere with mating and breeding. If you want to take a whale watching expedition, look for outfits departing from Cape Town.