Vermont offers a blissful no-foliage, no-ski, easy-going New England weekend
We went to Vermont to do nothing. Just putter, shop, eat cheese and sleep in. We got what we wanted.
The ride up from coastal Connecticut was a straight shot up I-91 in New Haven. Our mid-October weekend wasn’t a leaf-peeping tour, because the foliage had peaked a week earlier. And although Killington had just opened its slopes, we weren’t there to ski, either.
Like the ad slogan said, getting there is half the fun, especially when we got north of Bradley Airport. We kept my 9-year-old sedan at home and borrowed a Chevy Traverse SUV. They call it “mid-size,” but the trunk swallowed what had seemed like a lot of luggage.
Even though the drive was more than three hours, we felt we had really started the weekend at the drive’s mid-point, in Northampton, Mass., where we stopped for lunch.
The city, a college and cultural hub, was booming with pedestrians and unfamiliar to us. We drove around randomly until we found the Smithsonian Cafe and Chowder House, which was perfect for us. We were in and out in 10 minutes, nourished by the perfect road food: well-seasoned, creamy clam and seafood chowder, scooped immediately into our bowls and no waiting.
The downtown was classic New England, filled with unique and local shops, the kind that are disappearing most everywhere else. We made a mental note to visit again in the spring.
By then, I had adjusted to the Traverse, which was much larger than what I am used to driving. I have to thank the new-to-me technology for that. The video camera that guides me when backing out of tight spaces was a big help, as were the little flashing lights on the side mirrors, alerting me to drivers in my blind spot. The last time I bought a car, having a jack for your iPod was considered cutting edge. A lot has happened since.
Can a highway be beautiful? I-91 in Vermont is. We enjoyed miles and miles of unspoiled beauty, easier to view from an SUV than a sedan. On a Friday afternoon, there was very little traffic, and our stress had already melted away before we reached our destination.
When we pulled off the highway, the leafy state roads were charming. Not just occasionally, but constantly. Not a McMansion or strip mall in sight. When we got out of the car to fill our tank, we were apparently downwind from some farm animals. Talk about an authentic rural experience.
By the time we reached Woodstock, it was mid-afternoon, and downtown was packed with shoppers. We didn’t expect so many stores and historic homes, many stately enough to suggest a moneyed heritage. We learned later about Woodstock’s connection with one of America’s most famous wealthy families.
The next morning, the first visit on our itinerary filled us in on the city’s history. At the Billings Farm & Museum, a working farm run by a nonprofit educational institution founded by the late Laurance and Mary Rockefeller, has daily activities, including tours of its dairy barn and 1890 farm house. It’s the prettiest farm you’ve ever seen, and the farm house, built by a savvy Boston architect, could qualify as the area’s first “smart home,” even without the Internet. It has a team of knowledgeable guides who do a good job explaining life there in 19th and 20th century.
Another tour guide led us to the barn where about 30 Jersey cows are milked. The working ends of the cows are facing out of their stalls, and it’s not just milk that’s flowing. A strong stomach is recommended.
The small farm send batches of raw milk about an hour down the road, to the Grafton Village Cheese Co., which turns it into a three kinds of raw-milk cheddars. They range from a creamy Butter Cheddar to a sharp Woodstock Reserve, which is earthy and aged at least 15 months.
We were so taken with Billings, we would have stayed for lunch if they had a restaurant. But it was a quick drive to that charming downtown that we had driven through the day before.
It was Saturday afternoon and the village was packed. We browsed an expensive thrift store and an art gallery, and then decided to eat at the famous Woodstock Inn, a large resort on the green that is offset from the rest of the village by its opulence. Guess who founded it: Laurance and Mary Rockefeller, of course.
Lunch at the Red Rooster, off the lobby, was nice. The sunny restaurant is relaxed and informal, but definitely upscale. I had the “house-made pastrami” sandwich. My companion had jerk-pork tacos, a questionable choice so far from Mexico. The pastrami was better.
Back at the 506, meals in the restaurant were good, at times excellent. The menu only six entrees, so the omission of even one item was frustrating. On a Friday night, they were out of braised short ribs, and we were vigorously assured they’d be back on the menu if we returned the next night. But on Saturday, still no short ribs.
Fusilli and Porcini Mushrooms, with truffle oil and a light cream sauce, was excellent, as was the Country Fried Chicken, which had a perfectly seasoned buttermilk batter than didn’t once separate from the bird. But since you’re in Vermont, don’t miss the Farmhouse Board and enjoy the inn’s broad selection of local cheeses, pickles and jams. All the artisan edibles are a big part of a trip to Vermont. Even the Scotch is spiked with maple syrup.
The hotel is only a few years old, but is filled with antique bric-a-brac to warm it up. All 30 rooms face the river out back, with is one of the nicer elements of the establishment. Seating areas on its broad rear lawn were vestiges from what we imagined was a very festive summer, making us wonder if we should return to Vermont in warmer weather.
Lee Steele is the editor of Sunday Arts & Style. firstname.lastname@example.org;