washingtonpost.com
Vermont's True Colors
To See the State At Its Best, Look Beyond the Leaves

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 9, 2000

It didn't take much more than an hour after pulling our dusty Ford behind the bright green John Deere tractor at Vermont's Liberty Hill Farm for my sister and me to settle in. She snuggled up on the living room couch with a mug of peppermint tea, swapping girlhood stories with Beth Kennett, the inn's co-owner. I ambled out to the cow barn, past the stalls where Pansy, Rosy and 56 other Holsteins were bracing for the evening milking, and stood for the longest time beholding Wisdom and her newborn calf taking a late-afternoon nap.

Never mind that we were half a continent away from Tulsa, Okla., and the two-story house where we'd grown up. Luck (and a good recommendation) had brought Lilla and me to a place that felt remarkably like home.

At first I thought it was the heavy resemblance to our grandparents' cotton and peanut plantation in Oklahoma that made this dairy farm-cum-guest house in the northern Vermont town of Rochester seem so familiar--right down to the lemon-colored chrysanthemums in the yard and the plowing tools rusting in front of the rickety shed.

But after a week of floating like an autumn leaf through Vermont--after a gray kitten scampered out of nowhere into my lap on a front porch in Burlington, a telephone operator called me by my first name in Bennington and a bed-and-breakfast hostess hugged Lilla good morning in Shelburne--I learned that Liberty Hill didn't have a monopoly on that down-home feeling. Vermont, especially in the fall, oozes with it.

Depicted to outsiders as mostly a destination for leaf-watching, skiing or observing farmers transform sap to maple syrup, the state offers much more than those hoary stereotypes. Its real charm is the way locals open their doors and arrange their tables to make a place for strangers. Fully expecting to encounter the stony-faced bunch of Vermonters Mark Twain lampooned, I instead met warm-hearted folks who were eager to while away their afternoons with a pair of travelers from "down South."

We rented a car and, in six days, zigzagged from Burlington in the northwest corner to Arlington in the south, to Woodstock near the eastern border with New Hampshire and back north to Shelburne--534 miles in all. Even though the beloved leaf season is scheduled to peak here by mid-October, there should be at another month to sample other prime attractions without having your eyelashes freeze together. Vermont's mitten- and heavy-coat-wearing season doesn't usually settle in until mid-November.

Our accommodations and dining choices ranged wide. One night at the intimate, nine-room Heart of the Village Inn in Shelburne, another at the palatial Woodstock Inn. Here we picnicked on fresh-baked wheat bread and goat cheese laced with salmon. There we tucked away lobster and shrimp bisque and grilled Chilean sea bass.

Belying their aloof, tight-lipped image, we met genuinely kind Vermonters at just about every corner we turned. When we drove up to Vermont Butter & Cheese Co., a small pea green factory in the hamlet of Websterville that churns out goat cheese so refined that French gourmands would swoon, co-owner Allison Hooper showed us around the place as if we were first cousins. "If people go through the trouble of finding us, they automatically become our guests of honor," she told me.

When I stopped in to admire the vast collection of patchwork quilts in the Shelburne Museum, 91-year-old Lucille Patrick, the guide, admonished me as only a grandmother could for taking in an unseasonably cool morning without a sweater.

"We get a lot of the kinds of visitors who check their laptops every 15 minutes for e-mail messages," said Paula Maynard, who fled the harried life of a Connecticut schoolteacher for a job as a publicist for Arlington's West Mountain Inn, where we stayed one night. Perched aside a mountain, it's a poetic place where chocolate chip cookies and cocoa are left out all day, rooms come equipped with fireplaces instead of televisions or clocks, and guests are encouraged to take home a memento of African violets. "We try to provide a space where they can feel comfortable catching their breath."

I began my journey in Burlington (Lilla joined me a bit later), which hugs the shore of Lake Champlain. Although the 45,000 inhabitants constitute the biggest concentration of Vermonters in one place, it has the distinct air of a village. One reason is the heavy presence of baseball-cap-wearing students attending the University of Vermont and Champlain College. Another is the Church Street mall, a pedestrian zone lined with boutiques and cafes that dominates the center of town. Every Burlingtonian seems to show up there at least once a day.

But it is local personalities like Bob Conlon who really make Burlington folksy. For more than a decade, the churlish impresario has been manager, bartender and indeed the life of Luenig's Bistro, a popular restaurant on Church Street serving everything from tuna salad to trout almondine. When the announcement came a couple of weeks ago that the restaurant would no longer be offering breakfast, it was front-page news in the Burlington Free Press. "In this town, that's like saying there's not gonna be sunshine on a January morning," one regular said. "I'm staging a hunger strike to protest."

Lois Bodoky was another fixture I stumbled across in the Burlington village. For as long as anyone could remember, the matronly woman with tall white hair and dark cat-shape glasses has sold hot dogs with sauerkraut for $1 from her kiosk on the Church Street mall.

At Lang House, a restored 19th-century Victorian bed-and-breakfast, Diedre Coulter, the youthful manager, had a similarly engaging style. In the morning she acted as the breakfast hostess, offering gourmet corn cakes, maple sausage and bacon and eggs. In the afternoons, she dished out town gossip and sage tips for dinner reservations.

Burlington is a city of statuesque Victorian homes and manicured lawns whose ambiance is enhanced by an abundance of green spaces and the glimmering waters of Lake Champlain. After an afternoon hanging out among college kids and other motley locals in Borders and other Church Street mall shops, I took a sunset stroll along the boardwalk on the lakeshore. In-line skaters, bikers and other walkers taking advantage of the unusually sultry evening all stopped to take in the wonderful sunset over the soft blue lake. I ended the day with a tasty salmon dinner at Isabel's on the Waterfront, a casual upbeat place with a strong local following.

"There's where the milk comes in every morning . . . and those vats are where it's pasteurized," Tom Hart explained. "In all, we're producing 50,000 pounds of cheddar and other cheeses a week."

Hart was my guide through the Cabot Creamery, the cheesemaker whose cheddars and other brands are ranked among the best on the East Coast. Having scavenged their products for years from the shelves of Sutton Place Gourmet, I had just traced them back to the source.

What I found was a factory braving the tide of mega-corporations and conglomerations and maintaining a just-us-folks business spirit. I had a chat with one of the master cheese tasters, took a walk through the vast warehouse where some of the premier brands are aged and watched a video on the history and philosophy of the company. Owned by a group of Vermont dairy farmers who supply milk on a daily basis, the company, with 312 employees, is the biggest employer in the town of Cabot and the surrounding region.

"One of our reasons of existence is to keep the dairy industry in the state alive," explained Diana Meehan, who was working the register in the gift shop at the end of my tour. "Another is because we believe in making great cheese."

Throughout our Vermont sojourn, Lilla and I encountered that same combination of painstaking craftsmanship and small-is-beautiful spirit.

At the Simon Pearce Mill, which makes vases and other glassware in the village of Quechee on the shores of the Ottauquechee River, we watched a couple of glass blowers sweat and pound for 45 minutes until they had produced a perfectly shaped water pitcher. The mill, founded by Irish immigrants, is one of the country's leading boutique glassmakers.

In the nearby town of Woodstock, we stopped at the Billings Farm & Museum for a demonstration of how to churn butter. A showcase farm devoted to explaining farming techniques to the public, it hosts sessions daily on everything from how to milk a cow to how to care for sheep and chickens.

Jars of apple cider jelly lined one shelf and bins of rose hip jam another. Bottles of honey from wild bees were stacked in a corner next to honey from farm-raised ones. In between was everything imaginable made from maple, including enough candy to rot a set of false teeth. The Weston Village store seemed to be stocked with a vast array of food products made in Vermont. Across the street, the Weston Country store stocked handwoven baskets, potholders and other homey objects. Next door, the Weston Christmas Shop offered stockings to hang by the chimney with care, lights for the tree and the most charming supply of handmade ornaments I've seen in a while.

Although the whole of Vermont seemed like a trinket buyer's wonderland, no place made shopping more fun than the town of Weston. As we headed toward the West Mountain Inn, we stopped at a roadside stand selling apples and pumpkins and ended up staying for three hours. Usually the most reluctant of shoppers, I left with two bulging bags of knickknacks.

The first exhibit that caught my fancy at the Shelburne Museum was a miniature circus. Surveying the display of wood carvings of tigers and other circus creatures took an hour, and every minute enchanted me.

The unusual museum, a complex of structures (including a steamboat) spread over several acres of rolling hills in the town of Shelburne, just south of Burlington, is a captivating collection of odds and ends once owned by heiress Electra Havemeyer Webb. A collector of everything from needlework to French impressionist paintings, she left it all, spread out in 35 buildings, for the public to see.

Next, I found myself goggling over a cottage full of works by Degas, Renoir and other renowned artists, then moving through the Ticonderoga, a huge Lake Champlain steamboat dragged ashore and restored to its original grandeur.

It was at the museum's Hat & Fragrance Textile Gallery, which boasts one of the world's best collections of 18th- and 19th-century patchwork quilts, where I fell under the thrall of guide Lucille Patrick.

Petite, white-haired and bespectacled, the Vermont native could just as easily have been presiding over a class of second-graders. "Okay, let me tell you a few things about these quilts," she said, after regaling me with tales of her granddaughter's music lessons, her days as a schoolteacher and her 90th birthday celebration last year.

"But this is going to take time," she added. "Folks shouldn't come to Vermont if they're in a hurry."

DETAILS: Vermont Beyond the Foliage

GETTING THERE: US Airways flies direct from the Washington area to Burlington, Vt., for about $180 round trip, with restrictions. By bus, Greyhound offers service to Burlington for $118, with seven-day advance purchase; the trip takes anywhere from 12 1/2 to 18 hours. By train, Amtrak's Vermonter travels up the northeast corridor to the Green Mountain State for $88 on weekdays and $97 weekends each way. Reservations are required for the full-day train trip.

WHERE TO STAY: In Burlington, Lang House (360 Main St., 802-652-2500, www.langhouse.com), a stylishly decorated, 11-room Victorian B&B, is a good choice. Rates range from $125 to $185 for doubles, including a great breakfast.

In Rochester, Liberty Hill Farm (511 Liberty Hill Rd., 802-767-3926, www.libertyhillfarm.com), a working dairy farm, has eight rooms with a varying number of beds (all with shared baths) and encourages guests to partake in farming activities. Rates, including a wholesome breakfast and dinner, are $70 for adults and $30 for children.

In Arlington, the family-friendly West Mountain Inn (River Road and Route 313, 802-375-6516,www.westmountaininn.com) offers heavenly doubles in one of the most peaceful settings in the state; rates start at $155, including a buffet breakfast and dinner.

In Woodstock, the four-diamond Woodstock Inn & Resort (14 The Green, 802-457-1100, www.woodstockinn.com) has one of the best dining rooms around. Our sumptuous gourmet dinner, with wine and dessert, cost about $90 for two. Doubles start at $169 and climb upward, depending on the season.

In Shelburne, the nine-room Heart of the Village Inn (5347 Shelburne Rd., 802-985-2800, www.heartofthevillage.com) is full of quaint charms--the kind you'd imagine a Vermont B&B would have. Doubles, including private baths and a knock-your-socks-off gourmet breakfast, range from $95 to $205.

WHERE TO EAT: In Burlington, I had a succulent salmon dinner with a drink and dessert at Isabel's on the Waterfront (112 Lake St.) for $27. In Shelburne, the soups, breads and fish dishes at Pauline's (1834 Shelburne Rd.) are excellent. For two, dinner runs about $55. In Barre, the exquisite Chinese cuisine and superb service at the Single Pebble (135 Barre Montpelier Rd.) make it a pleasant choice for dinner. For two, a meal with wine goes for about $80.

WHAT TO DO:

* In Shelburne, the Shelburne Museum (5555 Shelburne Rd., 802-985-3346, www.shelburnemuseum.org) is a must, even though it's pricey at $17.50 a person (one-day pass, second day is free; May-October) and $8.75 after Oct. 15, when the museum is open only for limited hours (closed January to April).

* Guided tours of nearby Shelburne Farms (1611 Harbor Rd., 802-985-8686, www.shelburnefarms.org) cost $10 and offer stunning sunsets over Lake Champlain, or, for $5, check out the cheese-making operation and woodsy walking trails.

* In Woodstock, Billings Farm & Museum (Route 12 and River Road, 802-457-2355; www.billingsfarm.org) offers intriguing demonstrations of farm life and techniques. Admission is $8; visiting opportunities are limited after Oct. 31.

INFORMATION: Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing, 800-837-6668, www.1-800-vermont.com.

--Gary Lee

© 2000 The Washington Post Company