By Randi Gollin
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 6, 2011; F06
On weekends when my husband and I feel the need to leave our urban lives behind for a spell, we drive about four hours from Brooklyn, N.Y., to southern Vermont, where we're greeted by my mother-in-law and her handsome golden-haired dog. Luckily for us, she owns a lovely vacation home in a rambling residential community called Chimney Hill, just a short drive from the quaint village of Wilmington. Come holiday weekends, when the guest ranks quadruple, we rent a house next door and enjoy the best of both worlds: family togetherness and a dose of privacy.
On a recent visit, after lolling in front of her wood-burning stove and taking a stroll through the woodsy, secluded Chimney Hill roads (eyes wide open for errant black bears), I joined the family pack and ventured, as tradition dictates, into town to bop around the inviting boutiques and galleries.
Winter, spring, summer and fall, the historic district on (and off) Wilmington's West Main Street never loses its magical aura. Beautifully preserved landmarks include the cedar-shingled Crafts Inn, which once welcomed such famous guests as President William Howard Taft, and adjacent Memorial Hall, where we saw folk singer Odetta perform a few years ago. Both built by architect Stanford White in 1902, they evoke a bygone era. When it snows, the white-blanketed streetscape feels like a Currier & Ives print sprung to life, and it's easy to imagine that the Yankees of yore still inhabit the late-Colonial and Colonial Revival buildings.
"There's a warm, classic New England feel to the downtown area," says Laura Sibilia, executive director of the Mount Snow Valley Chamber of Commerce, noting that village zoning has put the kibosh on big-box commercialization, so the town is historically intact. And it's not uncommon in the winter, she says, to see people snowshoeing or skating on the Deerfield River, which runs through town.
Another local sight: Dot's, a retro-perfect neon-signed diner in a former Wilmington post office building dating back to 1832. "Even on a cold January morning, there's a line out the door with people waiting for their Berry Berry pancakes - with good reason," says Sibilia. When we join the throngs, I order spicy Cajun scrambled eggs, with a pile of homemade sunflower cracked-wheat toast. That bread, manager Mitch Soskin tells me, is as popular as those mixed berry flapjacks and the blue-plate specials served at dinnertime.
Such affection for the reassuringly familiar also extends to the Anchor Seafood restaurant, which burned to the ground a year ago on Martin Luther King Day weekend. The new, historically correct incarnation, which opened on Oct. 21, mirrors the 1850s original and fits right in with its venerable neighbors. "When you look at it from the outside it's almost like it was never gone," says owner Susan Lawrence. She says that business has been brisk since it rose again, and the former menu remains unaltered. "Our customers would probably have our head if we changed things up on them," she explained.
Farther down the street, I poke into a restored and repurposed church that now houses the Young & Constantin Gallery. Proprietor Liz Wheeler features mostly local and regional artists, showcasing everything from wooden kaleidoscopes to New England landscapes in the airy two-story space. The work is arresting and the white clapboard setting equally so.
I detect a buoyancy in the air as I make my customary trek from the gallery to Manyu's, a fashionable women's boutique with a city edge, and Quaigh Design Centre, renowned for its Scottish capes, to the Incurable Romantic, a historic white house bursting with silk flowers, stylish women's wear, sparkly jewelry and intoxicating lotions, and to Bartleby's Books, teeming with browsers. "I think the downtown here, the village, is feeling reasonably vibrant," muses Lisa Sullivan, proprietor of Bartleby's, president of the Chamber of Commerce and owner of the Book Cellar in Brattleboro, about 20 miles away. "When the Anchor burned down it was 'Uh-oh, is that going to come back?' and it did. There are a number of restaurants to go to and a number of unique little shops. I think that travelers like that little piece of authenticity."
Sullivan says that she has seen a 15 percent uptick in business since moving into more prominent West Main Street quarters last year. With tables and chairs scattered about and shelves appealingly crammed with such bestsellers as David Sedaris's "Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk" and Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom," the low-ceilinged digs exude a cozy air that's catnip to book junkies like me. Lending local flavor: a wealth of titles from Vermont-based authors, including Archer Mayor, who pens a popular detective series, and books such as Jeremy K. Davis's newly released "The Lost Ski Areas of Southern Vermont," which appeal to the winter sports folks who swarm the town between alpine adventures.
The big-mountain pleasures of Mount Snow, about seven miles north in the Green Mountain National Forest, are of course close at hand. Skiers and snowboarders whoosh down what Vinnie Lewis, Mount Snow's events and public relations manager, calls "the best snow surface possible," the result of $10 million in fan guns - state-of-the-art snowmaking technology - installed over the past three years. Then there's Adams Family Farm in Wilmington, with traditional sleigh rides pulled by Belgian draft horses, and a skating rink at the handsome Hermitage Inn in nearby West Dover.
My snow sport of choice: tubing down the sloping hill in front of the White House Inn, a picturesque, amenity-laden 16-room property that sits right outside downtown. "We have the best tubing hill in southern Vermont," maintains owner Stacey Tabor. Though it's a bit of a nail-biter, I find the ride to the foot of the incline an exhilarating rush, and the hike back up a workout for the hamstrings.
Such exertion calls for a reward, and the recently renovated inn offers many, including rejuvenating spa treatments, cocktails at the cozy tavern's new mahogany bar beside the wood-burning fireplace and a just-launched game room.
Plenty more reasons for this city mouse to return to Wilmington - again and again.
Gollin is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her Web site is www.brooklyngal.com.