Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Vermont Travel Stories


PHOTOS --

1. Norton Latourelle of Norton's Gallery (see "In the Middle of Leaf Season," below the first article.)

2. Exploring one of Vermont's many swimming holes. (See first article)


[These are old travel stories of mine that appeared in various Sunday newspaper travel sections around the U.S. I think they're mostly still accurate, but your mileage may vary.

Down by the Old Vermont Swimming Hole

WARREN, Vt. -- Vermont is better known for its frigid winters than its balmy summers.

But from early June through late September, the Green Mountain state is a summer playground. And what better place to play than down at the old swimming hole?

Thousands of streams have carved out the spectacular mountain countryside that typifies Vermont. These same streams, coursing coolly through from peaks to valleys, offer hundreds of easily accessible places to while away a hot summer day.

Point to any spot on the state map, and you're probably within a few miles of a respectable place to swim.

But few other places offer the combination of rural delights and sophisticated accommodations that can be found in the Sugarbush Valley villages of Warren and Waitsfield, and over the mountain spine in nearby Bristol.

A (mad) river runs through it

Route 100, the main north-south road through the middle of Vermont, follows the twisting course of the Mad River (so named, according to local lore, because it runs north rather than the usual southerly direction).

Not surprisingly, the region's best swimming holes are on the Mad River near this two-lane blacktop.

The Lareau swimming hole, named after the nearby Lareau Farm Country Inn, is among the best known spots for a dip. But even on the hottest days, a "crowd" constitutes eight people and a couple of dogs.

The most popular activity is diving off the eight-foot-high rock on the opposite side of the Mad River, which is here perhaps 30 feet wide and from two feet to 10 feet deep.

The second-most popular activity seems to be throwing dogs off the diving rock. And it must be said that the dogs appear to enjoy it.

Guests at the Lareau Inn and the Featherbed Inn just up the road can walk to the swimming hole. Others will have to bike there or drive to the turnoff on the east side of the road, about a mile south of Waitsfield.

Six miles south of Waitsfield lies Warren and the charming Warren Store.

The falls there are popular for a quick dip and a picnic of comestibles from the store's excellent deli.

Bristol Falls, another fine swimming hole, lies over the top of the Green Mountains and down into Bristol. It's well worth the drive for the swimming at the end, the deep greeny silence of the woods along the way, and a meal at Mary's, which many rate as among the best restaurants in New England.

There are two ways to get to Bristol Falls. The longer route (about 15 miles) is over Appalachian Gap on Route 17. Where Route 17 meets Route 116, turn left on 116 toward Bristol, then about two miles down, turn left again onto New Haven River Road. The falls lie a few hundred yards upstream, accessed from several turnouts.

The shorter, steeper and altogether more satisfying route (about 10 miles) is to go from Warren up the Lincoln Gap Road. From the gap, drive down through the lovely high-country town of Lincoln and along the New Haven River Road to just before the junction with Route 116.
Bristol Falls offers gentle paddling areas for kids, a long stretch of river to swim in, and the challenge of swimming upstream against the current near the falls.

Again there are two daredevil options: diving off from the top of the falls (near the remnants of old water wheels that once supplied mill power) or walking up into the long, cave-like area behind the falls. For the latter activity, river sandals or sneakers are recommended on the slippery rock.

Whatever option you choose, make sure to allow time to stop at Mary's at Baldwin Creek, just north of the intersection of Route 17 and Route 116.

The menu features innovatively prepared meals, often with Vermont touches such as maple syrup seasoning, along with vegetarian cuisine.

The current form of the establishment represents what is, in Vermont terms, a startling break from tradition: The restaurant moved out of Bristol village some years ago to its present, larger location.

Unchanged except for the slow wearing away of the rock, however, are the old swimming holes that make this part of Vermont so appealing in the heat of a New England summer.


IF YOU GO...

The Featherbed Inn, near the Lareau swimming hole on Route 100, is a nicely restored, centrally located farmhouse with attractive rooms.

The Lareau Farm Country Inn is a bed-and-breakfast that also serves popular meals of flatbread pizza (about $10 per person including a beverage) in a converted barn on Friday and Saturday nights. Inn guests can access two semi-private swimming holes on the Mad River, including one for skinny-dipping.

Another good choice is Beaver Pond Farm Inn, in a converted farmhouse adjacent to the scenic and challenging Sugarbush Golf Course, with especially good breakfasts.



In the Middle of Leaf Season, in Middlebury, Vt.

By Gregory Dennis

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. -- A riotous display of changing leaves, which ignites Vermont every autumn, tempts travelers to wander the entire state.

But savvy visitors stake out a home base from which to discover the nooks and crannies of the Green Mountain State.

There's no better base for exploring Vermont than Middlebury. This lovely, lively town is, appropriately, in the Middle of Vermont, about four hours from Boston and six hours north of New York City.

The shire town of Addison County -- which bills itself "the land of milk and honey" -- Middlebury provides easy access to "leaf-peeping" in the nearby Green Mountains, or to splendid drives through the quilted patterns of farms and forests that make up the Champlain Valley.

Mid-September to mid-October is the classic time to visit Vermont, and for good reason. The intense reds and yellows of sugar maples shine forth with a luminescence that film cannot capture, and every last warm, sunny day seems like an extra gift from the gods before the onset of winter.

Vermonters celebrate the season with special fall events, which draw upon their rural heritage and a modern tradition of fine arts and crafts.

The agricultural way of life that has shaped Vermont's long history still flourishes around Middlebury. Side-by-side with the farms that preserve Vermont's open spaces live many people from "away," former flatlanders who have come to love the rural way of life -- and who have brought with them a taste for the arts and city-style sophistication.

The blending of these two cultures is what makes the Middlebury so special -- backcountry New England charm just around the bend from fine food and stylish accommodations.

The town has been shaped by an influx of people drawn by the presence of Middlebury College, one of the nation's best liberal-arts schools.

The college is one of several reasons why Middlebury is included in "The 100 Best Small Towns In America," published by Simon & Schuster.

The village grew up around the mills along Otter Creek, which cuts through the center of town, and daily life still revolves around the creek and the nearby green.

The Vermont State Craft Center is housed in the old Frog Hollow building, with an eye-catching view of the thundering falls that once turned mill wheels. There's excellent shopping for gifts, clothing and books, in restored mill buildings along the creek and on two sides of the village green. Walks from downtown lead to small parks or into neighborhoods with nicely restored 19th-century homes.

When you're tired of walking, you can retire to one of several restaurants along Otter Creek. The outdoor decks at Mr. Ups and Tully & Marie's are favorite haunts in fair weather, where lucky diners might even catch a glimpse of the otters that have returned to the creek in recent years

The town is the jumping off point for many activities that are easily accessible to visitors.
The nearby college golf course, for example, is open to the public.

Outlying villages such as Cornwall and Shoreham are favorite destinations for bicyclists who enjoy the moderate terrain, and for motorists looking for antique shops and galleries. In Shoreham, visit woodcarver norton Latourelle's marvelous studio in farmlands near Lake Champlain and the ferry to For Ticonderoga (www.nortonsgallery.com).

The poet Robert Frost spent many years in the Middlebury area. His land is the site of a lovely nature trail that has signs featuring excerpts from his poems. To get there via a lovely 25-minute drive, take Route 7 south from Middlebury and turn east on Route 125 up into the mountains.

For a taste of Vermont mountain charm, head from Middebury to the Sugarbush Valley towns of Warren and Waitsfield. It's about an hour's drive, through Bristol and then up over the spine of the Green Mountains. Most travelers ascend Appalachian Gap on Route 17.

The Warren Store near the little town's covered bridge sells stylish clothing and that day's edition of the New York Times, in a century-old building with creaky wood floors. A food case that would do a New York deli proud is located near a display of wool socks, hunting caps and other general-store items.

The Md River and Sugarbush Valley has enough antique shops and crafts stores to keep even the most avaricious shopper busy for several days. But the best pleasures are to be found outside.

The Sugarbush Golf Course, designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr. with tree-lined fairways and challenging water holes, is not far from the Sugarbush South ski resort. Reservations are recommended on autumn weekends.

Sailplanes soar aloft from the Warren Sugarbush Airport, weather permitting. A favorite soaring route passes over the top of Mt. Abraham, one of the state's highest peaks.

To reach the summit with your feet on the ground, take the Lincoln Gap Road from Warren to the Long Trail, which runs the length of the state. A moderate three-hour climb will get you to the top of Mt. Abe. The views from the top are especially breathtaking on a clear fall day.

IF YOU GO
For general information on the Middlebury area, contact the Addison County Chamber of Commerce, 2 Court St., Middlebury, Vt. 05753 (800) 733-8376. For information on the Sugarbush Valley, contact the Sugarbush Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 173, Waitsfield, Vt. 05673 (800)-82-VISIT (U.S. and Canada).

Dining:
Mary's Restaurant near Bristol is highly recommended. Dinner (reservations suggested) features seafood, game, and pastas, with a meal for two $25 to $50. Lunch offers crepes, vegetable entrees and salads and ranges from $15 to $30 for two. Mary's also has a full vegetarian menu, and the chocolate cheesecake dessert is worth the trip in itself. (802) 453-2432.


In Robert Frost's Footsteps:
Exploring Vermont's Northeast Kingdom

WESTMORE, Vt. -- As the autumn leaf-peeping season approaches, the Northeast Kingdom of the Green Mountain State is the best place to see what's left of old Vermont.

One early visitor to the Kingdom was the poet Robert Frost. In the summer of 1909, Frost and his family traveled north to spend the summer on the shores of a remote lake. An amateur botanist, Frost wanted to explore the untrammeled forests of northern Vermont and find some relief from his asthma.

An inn now occupies the property on Lake Willoughby where the Frost family spent that long ago summer in a tent.

If Frost were to return today, he would find much of the Lake Willoughby area to be as it was then. Lake steamers no long ply what Frost called Willoughby's "fair, pretty sheet of water." But the lake's fjord-like beauty, guarded by the towering heights of mounts Pisgah and Hor, continues to draw a small but dedicated coterie of visitors. Deep, untouched forests still line the edges of the five-mile-long lake, and the area has long inspired writers.

Though I had once lived for six years in Vermont, the Northeast Kingdom was largely unknown territory for me until several years ago, when my wife and I spent a few days there.
We decided to return again recently to revel in Lake Willoughby's lonely beauty. We also wanted to explore the wooded countryside of rivers, lakes, bogs, and hardscrabble dairy farms. The land is lined with valleys and villages that mix the state's rugged Yankee heritage with the gentrifying influences of flatlanders.

As on our first visit, we chose a lakefront cottage at the WilloughVale Inn for our base camp. It was on this property that Frost and his family had stayed, providing inspiration for "A Servant to Servants" and other poems.

We had ambitious plans to explore the countryside that Vermont novelist Howard Frank Mosher ("Where the Rivers Flow North") has called "one of the last best places."

On our list were all the things we never got to during that first visit, including the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium in St. Johnsbury, a museum filled with 19th-century treasures and more than 3,000 stuffed animals in glass cases. We also hoped to amble down to Waterbury and take a tour of the Ben and Jerry's ice cream factory, and we thought of crossing the border into French-speaking Canada for the day.

After seeing that cozy cottage on the lake with private dock, however, we grew immediately unambitious. We never did make it to any of those places, but we didn't regret it, either.

We had arrived on a warm day with a gentle breeze stirring Willoughby's fair sheet. Within minutes of unloading our bags, we were charging off the end of the dock and into the cool water.
Watching the light play across the twin peaks at the other end of the lake, we spent the rest of the afternoon sunbathing and settling in.

Setting the pattern for our stay, dinner on our cottage's screened-in porch consisted of red wine and steaks. We used the inn's canoe to paddle the calm lake as darkness fell. Bats swooped harmlessly nearby, their faint sonars charting our craft's unusual shape.
By the light of a warm white moon, we guided our craft home, then topped off the day with dessert and a drink in the inn's nicely appointed taproom, across the road from our cottage.

While sticking close to Lake Willoughby's simple charms, over the next few days we did manage to sample a bit of our surroundings.

I spent part of every day fly-fishing. The lake itself is known for its landlocked salmon, but I was out for different quarry: the small denizens of Mosher's "icy trout streams draining north toward Quebec." The trout proved small but hungry.

One afternoon, inspired by Mosher's writings featuring a fictionalized version of the actual Brownington, Vt., we drove 10 miles to visit what was, long ago, one of Vermont's busiest hill towns. Brownington now consists of a few old buildings on a dirt road.

One of those buildings, however, has a special place in American history.

The Old Stone House was built by Alexander Twilight, believed to be the first African-American graduate of an American college and the nation's first black member of a state legislature.

Working largely alone, Twilight built the four-story stone structure to resemble the buildings at Vermont's Middlebury College, his alma mater. He used the building as a grammar school, and it now houses a terrific collection run by the Orleans County Historical Society.

The walking tour of the quiet Brownington Village Historic District begins at the Old Stone House and includes the Congregational Church, an old hotel, and the windswept but strangely welcoming graveyard where Twilight and his wife now reside.

When it came time to leave the Northeast Kingdom, we stopped at the lake's end on our way south to climb Mt. Hor. The summit is reached by a trail past beaver ponds and up through a verdant forest known for its autumn colors.

Heavy rain chased us off the slopes as we reached the top. Rather than be discouraged, however, we took this to be one more sign that we needed to go back again soon, to see more of Vermont's glorious Kingdom.

IF YOU GO...

Events and attractions:

The Old Stone House Museum in Brownington (http://oldstonehousemuseum.org) is open daily in July and August, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Wednesday and Thursday in May, June, September and October. (802) 754-2022.

Ben & Jerry's 30-minute factory tours begin at 9 a.m. There's a $2 per person charge. Information: 866 BJ-TOURS, www.benjerry.com.com.

The Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium in St. Johnsbury is open daily year-round, with a $5 admission charge, $12 per family. The main hall housing the preserved animals features a 30-foot-high, barrel-vaulted ceiling. Info: (802) 748-2372 or www.fairbanksmuseum.org.

Accommodations:

For information on accommodations including various lakeside cottages, contact the Greater
Lake Willoughby Chamber of Commerce, Box 578, Barton, Vt. 05822, (802) 525-1137.

To learn more about accommodations and attractions throughout the area, including a number of bed and breakfast inns, contact the Northeast Kingdom Chamber of Commerce, 357 Western Ave., Suite 2, St. Johnsbury, Vt. 05819, tel. (800) 639-6379.

The WilloughVale Inn is in Westmore. It has four nicely decorated cottages, each with private dock and deck, perched on the lakeshore. The one- and two-bedroom cottages rent from $229 to $249 per weekend night, and from $1,398 to $1,478 per week.

The inn also has 10 comfortable rooms ($149-219 per weekend night, including an ample continental breakfast), a cozy bar, and a popular restaurant with good views of the lake and mountains. www.WilloughVale.com, R.R. 2, Box 403, Westmore, Vt. 05860, tel. (800) 594-9102.

Books and films:

"Willoughby Lake: Legends and Legacies" by Harriet F. Fisher tells the story of the lake's history and Robert Frost's visit. The book is published by the Orleans County Historical Society, tel. (802) 754-2022.

One of Howard Frank Mosher's novels, "Where the Rivers Flow North," was made into a movie, now available on video and starring Rip Torn, Michael J. Fox and Treat Williams. Mosher's other books include "A Stranger in the Kingdom," set in a fictionalized Brownington and inspired in part by Alexander Twilight's life. http://www.authorsontheweb.com/features/summer03/mosher_howard_frank.asp