Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, a Prime Geotourism Destination

By Steve Dryden
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 10, 2009

There's a saying in Vermont that the Green Mountain State is what New England used to be. And that the Northeast Kingdom is what Vermont used to be.

My family and I didn't know New England or Vermont in those good old times, so today's Northeast Kingdom -- the three-county northeastern corner of the state, bordering Canada -- is good enough for us. Every summer, we go there for a week or two of retro-relaxation. The weather is almost always perfect, the scenery superb, and there are no crowds. Best of all, we meet interesting, friendly people who often are involved in the creative arts or the stewardship of nature.

The 1,500-square-mile Kingdom was so named by the state's long-serving U.S. senator, the late George Aiken, because of its distinctiveness. When Aiken coined that term back in 1949, it referred to the isolation, independence and conservatism of the population. Those characteristics extend beyond human culture, since northern Vermont is on the edge of the vast boreal forest that stretches across Canada and supports flora and fauna (moose, white birch, gray jay, to name a few) that we residents of the mid-Atlantic states don't see in our back yards and parks.

Recently, with the flowering of a quirky counterculture and a finely honed 21st-century marketing strategy, the Kingdom was crowned one of the United States' first "geotourism" sites by the National Geographic Society. It's a concept that merges the more familiar idea of ecotourism (respecting and supporting the natural resources of a remote destination) with appreciation for the culture and concern for the well-being of a place and its people.

During our family's first visit to the Kingdom a decade ago, we stayed at the cozy Highland Lodge in Greensboro over Christmas. Outside, the snow was more than a foot deep, and temperatures stayed around 10 degrees. Yellow grosbeaks decorated the trees like living ornaments. Inside, my family and I had the place almost to ourselves. The Smith family, which owns the inn, celebrated with a few friends over breakfast on Christmas morning as carols played softly on the radio. My kids took over the table-tennis room; my wife and I read by the fireplace.

After two winter vacations at the lodge, we decided to try the Kingdom in summer. Renting a house by Greensboro's Caspian Lake in August, we discovered the perfect anti-Washington: The thermometer rarely rose above 80 degrees in the daytime (the nights require a blanket), and there were no mosquitoes to speak of. Now it's our default vacation destination.

A typical day begins with a trip to Willey's general store for newspapers, then we return to sit on the deck, read the paper and watch the sailboats. A bike ride to the organic produce stand (meats, breads and cheeses are also available) in the afternoon fixes us up for dinner. If we're up for it, a drive to St. Johnsbury, a small town about 20 miles to the southeast, can provide an evening's entertainment of film or music at the Catamount arts center. There's also the town's Athenaeum, with its Victorian reading rooms and the original Yosemite panoramic painting by Albert Bierstadt.

Greensboro itself has regular classical musical concerts, featuring visiting artists from Juilliard and other top schools. Twelve miles north off Route 16 is the home of the Bread and Puppet Theater, the anti-establishment drama troupe that holds free performances in a natural amphitheater on Sunday afternoons. Closer to Greensboro is the camp of Circus Smirkus, a group that trains aspiring clowns and acrobats; it also has regular shows in the summer.

Many of the attractions are on the handsome National Geographic map of the three Kingdom counties, Essex, Orleans and Caledonia. Including a few spots just outside the Kingdom boundaries, there are numerous ways to "engage with the place," to quote the geotourism philosophy. An all-season to-do list might include the Craftsbury cross-country-skiing tour in January and an early-spring visit to a sugarhouse to see how maple syrup is made. In summer, there's trout fishing along the new Northern Forest Canoe Trail, which follows the Clyde River, and mountain biking along the 100-mile-plus Kingdom Trails network. The Cabot Apple Pie Festival takes place during the glorious Vermont autumns. The main manufacturing plant of the venerable Cabot Cheese cooperative is just over the Kingdom border in Washington County.

Every Saturday, there's a farmers market in Craftsbury Common, a few miles northwest of Greensboro. I've gotten to know some of the regulars: Carole Rosalinde Drury, an artist and baker who jocularly advertises herself as the French Tart. She and her boyfriend are restoring by hand a small, 150-year-old house in Greensboro. Another familiar face belongs to Neil Urie, a fourth-generation farmer who raises sheep and makes feta, blue and other cheeses from their milk.

I'm also likely to bump into Eric and Anne Hanson. Anne works at the Highland Lodge and is a political activist, while Eric is the state's loon specialist, monitoring the recovering population of the black-and-white diving birds that mark New England nights with their strange yodel-like calls. As someone accustomed to doom-and-gloom stories about the environment, I'm encouraged to hear every year about the progress being made in bringing the loons, which suffered from mercury and lead poisoning, back to prominence in the region.

My vacation is never complete without dropping by the Perennial Pleasures Nursery in East Hardwick, which specializes in wildflowers from the American past. Owner Rachel Kane and her mother, Judith, have grown more than 900 varieties of flowers and herbs, many of which are on display in the series of outdoor "rooms" designed for strolling. In one enclosure are roses, lilacs and statuary, bordered by densely planted evergreens. In late summer, a variety of fragrances and butterflies fills the space. There's a gift shop with antique women's country hats and clothing that could costume actresses in a film adaptation of a Thomas Hardy novel. Tea and scones with cream are served at tables on a grassy plot in the back of the shop.

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