From the minute coffee shops put their "Pumpkin Latte" signage up, we all knew that autumn had arrived...and while some people mourn the shortening of days and incoming cold weather, most of us also anticipate fall’s many delights. Autumn brings grape-picking season at wineries, family holiday feasts and weekend harvest festivals. Simple luxuries, you could say—but the ten experiences in this roundup are things that every person should experience at least once in a lifetime.
By Lena Katz
Photo Credit: Albuquerque Balloon Festival
Albuquerque Balloon Festival
Hot air balloons are ever-present in the skies over Albuquerque, but it’s the annual International Balloon Fiesta that provides us with the iconic and fantastic images like the one above. Amazing helium-powered artworks float in the blue sky above the high desert for a week every autumn (October 6-14, 2012). From Dawn Patrol to the After Glow Fireworks, each day is a packed program, with many chances to join the party in the sky.
Photo Credit: Albuquerque Balloon Festival
It’s an Apple Picking Party!
Regardless of location, financial status or age, almost anyone can participate in one great harvest tradition that people have been enjoying for hundreds of years: Head out to the orchards and fill a bucket with crisp, sweet/tart and delicious apples, that you can then take home and make into pies, cider or all kinds of other fall treats. The Northeast has some great apple festivals, like the LaFayette Apple Festival, held in the rural center of New York State. It’s one of the biggest regional events of the year, with a carnival midway, 500 craft booths and a full food court.
Photo Credit: LaFayette Apple Festival
World Championships of Punkin’ Chunkin
Fall’s favorite decorative item also inspired the strangest spectator sport you may ever see. The World Championships of Punkin Chunkin in Bridgeville, Delaware bring together some of the most determined, ingenious and crazy hobbyists in the land, who arrive with various contraptions engineered to launch pumpkins thousands of feet. The competition started in 1986, and last year drew more than 200,000 people. The winning “chunk” in the Adult Air category flew 4,329 feet. Though the competition lists are closed, it’s only $10 per day to watch (free parking, free admission for children under 10), and ticket proceeds go to charitable causes. November 2-4, 2012. PunkinChunkin.com for more info.
Photo Credit: PunkinChunkin.com
Farmers Markets, Large and Small
Once frequented only by housewives, chefs and hippies, farmers’ markets have become the symbol of the local/sustainable food movement. Visiting one during harvest season is similar to going to church over the holidays. People do it even if they’re non-believers. There’s one in every town, but if you were to make a pilgrimage to the very best—as determined by the annual American Farmland Trust consumer poll-- you’d go to Arlington Farmers Market in Washington (popular vote winner in the “small market” category) or to Fayetteville Farmers Market in Arkansas (the voters’ choice among big markets). Find favorites in any region at farmersmarketcoalition.org.
Photo Credit: Fayetteville Farmers Market
Gourmet Market Tasting
For everyone who’s thinking, “Outdoor activities aren’t really my thing,” or “What if it rains?” we suggest you head in the direction of the best gourmet market in your town. Most of them lay out some kind of delicious spread for during fall weekends, and some throw a full-on party. These parties tend to be as child-friendly as their outdoor counterparts. Sickles Market in New Jersey, which is well known for its culinary events, hosts an annual Fall Festival (October 13-14, 2012) with free pumpkin painting, pumpkin sand art, face painting, and lots of yummy food samplings—plus a store-wide sale, in case all the nibbling inspires you to shop.
Photo Credit: Sickles Market
Follow a Tasting Trail
Why should wine drinkers have all the fun? Wherever there’s a region known for a specialty food or beverage with many artisan producers, there’s a tasting trail guiding foodies right to the producers’ doorsteps. Hudson Valley has an apple trail, Vermont and Wisconsin have state-wide cheese trails, and New Mexico has the Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail—which is not harvest-specific, but is probably one of the greatest road-trip themes a state has ever devised. Both Flagstaff, Arizona and Bend, Oregon have ale trails, and the Flagstaff breweries win a gold star for making theirs the walking kind.
Photo Credit: Shelburne Farms
Or a Scarecrow Trail
They’re folksy, they’re festive, they’re often creepy, and you usually only see one or two of them if you live in the city. Except in the cases where someone’s constructed a whole little straw world just for fall. It’s more common than one might imagine, with famous annual installations in small coastal towns (Cambria Scarecrow Festival, pictured), in the heartland (scarecrowfest.com in St. Charles, Illinois) and even in the south (Huntsville Botanical Garden’s Scarecrow Trail).
Photo Credit: Cambria Scarecrow Festival
Michigan Cider Mills
A delicious fall tradition in many regions, the cider industry is something bigger in Michigan. The state is working hard to earn a rep as "best cider producer in the nation," with a newly created Cider Makers’ Guild and a burgeoning craft cider industry. The larger cider mills offer much more than just juice: corn mazes, wagon rides, petting zoos and more. Food Network favorite Yates Cider Mill offers various activities and has its fudge and ice cream shops in addition to the cider house storefront.
Photo Credit: Yates Cider Mill
Winemaker for a Day
Many wine aficionados have the fantasy of ditching their day job and moving to a vineyard. But before you make the big wine country move, spend a day or two working in the cellar and see how it suits you. Long Island, NY and Sonoma, CA both have offered “boot camps” during harvest season for a few years. Now, Santa Barbara enters the field with a "Winemaker for a Day" program hosted by Margerum Wine Company and held Saturdays (October 5, 19, 19 in 2012) to coincide with the epicure.sb celebration.
Photo Credit: Margerum Wine Company
Dungeness Crabbing in Half Moon Bay
You’ve seen Deadliest Catch on Discovery…now, experience something only a fraction as frightening, but with equally delicious results. To start with, it’s not in frigid Alaska, but in one of the most gorgeous and unspoiled Northern California coastal regions. Kicking off in December, it’s Dungeness Crab Season in Half Moon Bay. Local fishing boat operators like Huli Cat Sportfishing (pictured) and Riptide Sportfishing will take people out to catch their own. If you’d prefer to stay dry, meet the incoming boats at Pillar Point Harbor and select live crabs from the daily catch.
Photo Credit: Huli Cat Sportfishing