Sometimes you can't fly. Sometimes the train is too expensive and the bus is too, well, the bus. Sometimes, all you can do is get in the car, grit your teeth and hit the nearest on-ramp. If you've done it even once, you know: Driving I-95 for any length of time between Boston and Washington can make even the most avid road-tripper wish to never leave home, ever again. It's crowded, everyone's in a rush, the scenery is generally far from enticing and the speed limits never, ever stop changing.
Good news! The trip doesn't have to be terrible – next time, clear some room in your super-busy schedule for one (or all) of the following eight stops, each sure to return at least some of that spring to your step. Who knows – you might end up having fun.
1. Check out Providence's Increasingly Cool Downtown
Physically one of the country's most charming old city centers but for years lacking in reasons to visit if you weren't an architecture or urban planning buff, things are looking up in Downcity. (That's what they call downtown around here.) Start your quick walking tour at Bolt Coffee inside the hip, budget Dean Hotel – this is easily one of the best coffee shops in New England right now. Next, walk over to Westminster Street, where Craftland – which sells the work of local artists and makers – is one of a number of cool shops on this increasingly lively retail strip. Hungry? A couple of blocks over on Washington Street, Ellie's Bakery is the casual arm of local fine-dining favorite Gracie's. The pastries are terrific. If you're ready for a proper meal, Ken's Ramen next door does a damn fine bowl of noodles.
2. Chill on Connecticut's Sandiest Beach
Amtrak riders know Rocky Neck as that really pretty beach before you get to Rhode Island. Locals know it as Connecticut's sandiest and perhaps best bit of shoreline. On a gorgeous summer day, it's nearly as appealing as the Cape, without the long drive. Fees start at $9.
3. Eat Pizza in New Haven
Just seconds from the highway, New Haven's Wooster Square neighborhood is home to two of the best old school pizza parlors in the hemisphere – Frank Pepe's and Sally's. We could sit around and debate which is better, or if there aren't other pizzerias in the area that top them both – the best way to figure that out, really, is to try them all yourself. Saturdays from May to December, there's a lively farmers market to browse while you wait for your take-out pies, which you ordered to go because you're going to drive over to Yale and eat them on the quad in front of Old Main.
4. Stroll through a Slice of Napa
It requires a short detour, but if you were ever going to go off course, Westchester County's Stone Barns Center would be the time to do so. Just a short drive from New York City, it feels more like California wine country than something that's minutes from the Bronx. That's because this educational farm, home to one of the East Coast's best restaurants, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, is old Rockefeller land – the barns, built of stone, aren't just any barns. They're very nearly works of architectural art. There's a rarified but relaxed air to the experience of being here, and there's a whole lot to do, from fueling up at the farm café to exploring the actual farm (organized activities such as egg collecting are, predictably, a hit with the kids). Busy day? Venture into the adjacent forestlands of Rockefeller State Park for a stroll around idyllic Swan Lake. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays are when to stop by – weekends get so insane nowadays, they've been selling tickets ($20, book online at stonebarnscenter.org).
5. Hike the Meadowlands (No, Seriously, It's a Thing)
It's easy to give oneself over to anti-New Jersey sentiment – the Garden State is crowded, it's often unsightly and when it stops being monstrously ugly, the endless Turnpike drive just gets plain old boring. But when you get off the highway and start to appreciate places like the Meadowlands, you might start feeling pretty dumb. Just because man has spent seemingly forever polluting them doesn't mean it's not fairly impressive that we still have these vast, often beautiful wetlands just minutes (tunnel traffic permitting) from the largest city in the United States. Hop off at Route 3 and drive down Disposal Road (because of course it's called that) to the Meadowlands Environment Center. A welcome center of sorts for the region, it's also where to hook into a series of trails that quickly deliver you to the water. People who are into that whole "nature" thing might end up spending the better part of a day here.
6. Explore Wilmington's Riverfront
Speaking of misunderstood places, let's talk about Delaware's big city. There's a lot there, if only people would slow down long enough to see it. You're probably in a hurry, which is okay, because it only takes about half an hour to walk the city's redeveloped Riverfront. Pleasant pathways bring you from the happening public market (that's where you start, just seconds from I-95) past a variety of worthy attractions, on down to the 212-acre Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge. Here, a welcome center operated by the Delaware Nature Society will get you introduced and informed if you're interested in a longer walk. Which you might be – it's pretty nice down here.
7. Do an Epic Walk (and Get Crabs) along Baltimore's Inner Harbor
Stretching out for approximately eight very compelling miles, the route along Charm City's appealing waterfront is one of the best urban walks in North America and as underrated as the city where you'll find it. It's easy for casual and time-starved visitors to explore, too – the walking route officially begins at Canton Waterfront Park, just two easy miles from the highway. Already had enough leg stretching for the day? A city-sponsored, complimentary Harbor Connector water taxi service runs to Tide Point every 30 minutes during the day; from there it's an easy walk to L.P. Steamers, a local favorite for (can you guess?) crabs.
8. Disappear into the Woods at Patuxent Research Refuge
Of all the stretches of highway on the Boston-Washington corridor, few are more reliably congested than the section between Baltimore and Our Nation's Capital. Off the highway, however, things are actually pretty mellow, at least until you get to the famously even-more-crowded Beltway. Don't run with the herd – not when you can quickly disappear on to more than 25 miles (miles!) of trails (short and long) and peaceful forest roads at Patuxent, a national refuge dedicated to wildlife research. Founded in the 1930s by FDR, Patuxent is so large, it comes in two phases – you might get lost – if you're lucky. A few miles into the woods, you'll find it difficult to believe you're in one of the most congested metropolitan areas on the continent.