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North from NYC: Central and Northern Vermont


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Our Airbnb in Bridgewater, Vermont was one of the more unusual places we've stayed. There hadn't been anything available in Woodstock, the main town in the area, so I picked the closest house about ten miles east. The road the house was on turned out to be a steep and winding gravel drive that led up the mountainside directly off the highway. I was a little nervous about the weight of our car with its occupants but the minivan navigated the slope without any difficulty. The house was a lodge-style building whose bottom floor was being renovated, and we had the entire upper floor to ourselves. There wasn't another house in sight, only trees. The interior was decent except for the fact that electricity was only working on one side of the house. Apparently the contractors had done something to disrupt the power supply to the other side while doing the renovations below.
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After dropping off our bags, we headed straight for the Quechee Gorge. A receding glacier cut this canyon into the earth thirteen thousand years ago, and now it's one of the most impressive natural sights in New England. We parked outside the little cluster of tourist shops on the far side of the gorge that calls itself Quechee Gorge Village and walked back to the bridge on Route 4 for the views.
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We took a short walk down one of the trails to the bottom of the gorge, but decided not to overdo it considering we had a dinner reservation not too far off. The kids enjoyed the chance to stretch their legs and see some nature. Back at Quechee Gorge Village we checked out the souvenirs and tasted some liqueurs that were made locally from maple syrup and black currants.
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The next morning we had a classic New England breakfast at Mon Vert Cafe in Woodstock before heading over to the Vermont Institute of Natural Science. Despite its intimidating name, VINS is a very friendly outdoor raptor rehabilitation center with extensive nature trails. We had an hour to kill before the next raptor show so we explored one of the shorter trails, which was still a good workout for the kids. They made enough noise that we were guaranteed not to see any wildlife larger than a beetle.
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The kids weren't enthralled with the raptor show, although I enjoyed the rare opportunity to see these beautiful and powerful birds up close. The kids preferred the part at the end where they got to handle the disassembled parts of the birds that ultimately hadn't made it.
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In the afternoon we took the kids to Billings Farm, a working dairy farm with plenty of large animals as well as an impressive museum of American farming. Unsurprisingly, the kids were most impressed by the ongoing bodily functions of the cows and the corresponding odors.
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The next morning we stopped briefly at Simon Pearce, a boutique glassblowing studio and restaurant on the bank of the Ottauquechee River. The site was once a mill, and until recently the furnaces operated using hydroelectric power generated by the original dam and waterfall. The restaurant is perched over the waterfall with a view of a classic Vermont covered bridge.
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On the way out of the Quechee area we visited the Montshire Museum of Science, which had enough exhibits and activities to keep kids entertained for hours. We only planned a short stop but the kids were having so much fun that we ended up staying most of the afternoon.
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En route to Burlington we crossed the Lincoln Gap Road , which traverses the Green Mountain range. It has a reputation for being the most scenic of the roads that pass through the mountains, but honestly there wasn't much to see from the road itself although it was a pleasant winding drive. The best time to drive the road is probably in September and early October when the leaves are changing and before the road closes for the winter season. I was amazed by the number of houses on the gap and wondered how their inhabitants survive through the winter when the snow piles up and the road is closed. I learned later that the road is only closed to non-residents and is actually plowed regularly.

Burlington is a pretty small city but after the tiny towns we'd visited over the last few days it seemed positively cosmopolitan. We passed the attractive, sprawling campus of the University of Vermont and arrived in the Old North End. Our Airbnb was the upper level of a fairly nondescript two-story house with an outdoor staircase.
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It was Cleo's actual birthday and we decided to mark the occasion at Burlington's best known restaurant Hen of the Wood. We'd already had her birthday party in Miami before we left, but those kids' parties are so frenetic there was no opportunity for us to sit back and reflect on everything that had changed in the six years since she was born. We had a good meal in the cheerful bistro, although there wasn't anything on the menu that was particularly unique. It was nice to have a little time to focus on Cleo while her exasperating little brothers were at the Airbnb with their Grandma.

We had a full slate of activities for our day in Burlington. After a classic Vermont blueberry pancake brunch we drove half an hour to Waterbury for the semi-obligatory Ben and Jerry's tour. As I expected, it was underwhelming although the kids had fun. The highlight for me was making the tour guide squirm by asking if there were any plans for a Donald Trump-themed flavor. Perhaps Orange Cheesecake?
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Next up was Shelburne Farms, our second farm in three days. The visit began with a wagon ride across a surreal landscape of tightly cropped grass dotted with cylindrical hay bales. The main building looked more like a Gothic castle than a farm.
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There was a lot more hands on activity for the kids at Shelburne Farms than at the farm in Woodstock. There were donkeys to brush, chickens to feed, and plenty of old farm equipment in the spacious barn.
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We had to rush back to Burlington to drop off Spenser with Grandma, as he was too young for our afternoon sailboat cruise on Lake Champlain. The Friend Ship was operated by the Whistling Man Schooner Company, although technically it was a sloop rather than a schooner because it had only one mast. The friendly captain gave Ian a quizzical look and asked us how old he was. I couldn't remember what the minimum age had been when I'd booked, so I quickly said he was five before Cleo could answer, even though he was still a couple of months short of his fifth birthday. Cleo gave me a quizzical glance and I looked daggers at her, and fortunately she had the presence of mind to keep her mouth closed. The captain said something to the effect of Ian just making the age limit and we set off.

We spent the next two hours enjoying a peaceful sail on Lake Champlain, enjoying the banter and interesting stories of our captain. I learned that rather than flowing south into the Hudson River, Lake Champlain actually drains into the St. Lawrence river which takes an unusual northerly course to the Atlantic. The kids clambered up onto the roof of the cabin and I watched them nervously expecting them to be chucked into the ocean by a sudden swing of the boom, but fortunately they kept their heads down and made it back to the dock with us. Sad to say, there were no sightings of Champ, Lake Champlain's answer to the Loch Ness monster.
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We went straight to dinner at a surprisingly good Moroccan restaurant at the southern end of pedestrianized Church Street. After dinner we slowly walked the four blocks north to the Unitarian church that gives the street its name, taking in a colorful array of street performers, local characters, and sculpture.
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We couldn't bring Grandma into Canada because of visa issues so we'd arranged a hotel for her in Plattsburgh, NY for the three days the rest of us would be in Montreal. The Plattsburgh stop gave us a reason to cross Lake Champlain via South Hero island, the most heavily settled of the three populated Lake Champlain islands. Most Americans aren't aware of the existence of these unusual, remote lake islands but aside from their rural charm they also have great historical importance as Revolutionary War battlegrounds. We had a very enjoyable drive over the causeway to the island and then through empty country roads to Snow Farm, a vineyard and winery at the southwestern corner of the island. Just before we reached the island, we noticed colorful birdhouses starting to appear on the trees on the inland side of the road. More and more appeared and eventually we passed a thicket where it seemed like there was a birdhouse attached to every single tree. We stopped the car for a closer inspection and saw the little wood was also populated with very lifelike dinosaur models. We drove on further and eventually found a sign explaining the reason for the birdhouses, along with an array of birdhouses for sale via an honor system. We didn't get a good picture of the birdhouse forest, so I scraped one from the New York Times.
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We were the only visitors at the winery, but we were attended to very pleasantly and enjoyed a tasting flight. I was a little confused as the grape varietals listed for the red wines had completely unfamiliar names such as Baco Noir and Catawba. Later I learned that they are hybrids which are grown to make wine pretty much exclusively in the northeastern US and Canada. The splendid isolation of the little winery and vineyard on that overcast day in the Lake Champlain islands is one of my best memories from the trip.
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We took the car ferry from South Hero to Plattsburgh and dropped Grandma off at her hotel with three days of food supplies. We didn't have much in the way of expectations for lunch in Plattsburgh, but TripAdvisor led us to Anthony's, a surprisingly upscale and authentic French bistro where we had one of the best restaurant meals of the trip. During our lunch, Cleo asked me why I'd told the boat captain that Ian was five when he was still only four. That led to a very frank discussion about how sometimes people do lie when they're sure that no one will be hurt because of it. I used the example of when your friend asks you if you like her new dress, and you say that you do even though you think it's ugly. As we were finishing our lunch, an elderly lady came over to the table and told us she overheard our conversation with Cleo. Here we go, I thought, preparing myself for a stern New England lecture on child-rearing. But as it turned out, the woman wanted to tell us she was a retired schoolteacher and strongly approved of the way we taught Cleo about life's little realities. Go figure.

We paid our compliments to the chef and piled back into the car, excited for our next stop in Montréal.

Posted by zzlangerhans 06:32 Archived in USA Tagged vermont quechee_gorge woodstock burlington mad_river_valley Comments (0)

North from NYC: Central Massachusetts and Southern Vermont


View New England 2018 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

I've only written about our United States traveling when it was part of a round-the-world journey, but the fact is we enjoy taking road trips in the US and have done quite a number since we started having kids. Now that I've prioritized travel blogging a little more perhaps I'll go back and write up some of the road trips we've done in the Pacific Northwest, Upper Midwest, Deep South, and Texas. I'll start with the most recent because it's the freshest in my mind. The impetus here was our annual trip to New York City, our favorite destination in the world. When I thought about interesting places to combine with NYC, Vermont immediately came to mind. I hadn't been there since I was a kid, but the state is well-known for its beauty, great cuisine, and variety of activities. Once I started studying the map, I realized how close the northern part of Vermont was to Montreal and soon our trip expanded from one week to two and the NYC part of it shrunk to three days. There's just too much world out there to see to waste time in places we've already been, even the greatest city in the world.

Our arrival in New York was surprisingly painful, considering our flight was less than three hours. A choppy descent got everyone rattled, and then we had to take two shuttle buses to the rental car agency due to the neverending construction at La Guardia airport. The airport shuttle was particularly horrible, a stuttering and smoggy half hour to cover about three miles. Fortunately the minivan pickup went smoothly and we were on the road by seven. I'd decided to leave NYC for the final part of the trip, mainly due to the timing of things we wanted to do in Vermont but also to leave our most highly anticipated stop for the end. Finishing a trip with an anticlimax is no fun. Instead we decided to drive to Massachusetts from the airport to be ready to kick off our vacation in Old Sturbridge Village the next morning. I had high hopes of stopping for a good dinner somewhere in Connecticut but the family was exhausted and a little nauseous so we ended up snacking at a rest stop convenience store instead. The Airbnb in Massachusetts was a nice surprise, a cozy and beautifully-furnished colonial-style home on a quiet suburban street.
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After an ample breakfast at a diner in Southbridge, we drove a few miles to Old Sturbridge Village. I still had vague memories of a field trip there from my grade school years, and I figured it would be an original experience for the kids. If we were really lucky, they might actually learn something. We arrived early enough to be ahead of the summer camp groups, but it seemed like the little town hadn't really woken up yet. There weren't that many actors around, and some of the ones who were didn't seem ready to demonstrate their 19th century skills. I remembered it from my childhood as more of a bustling town, but I easily could have been thinking of Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia instead. It was still a pleasant place to walk around for a few hours, and the kids enjoyed the flintlock rifle demonstration.
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We stopped briefly at Dinosaur Footprints Reservation near Holyoke, Massachusetts. The small park is adjacent to Route 5 and it only takes a few minutes to reach the ancient tracks left there millions of years ago. We didn't build up the kids' expectations, otherwise they probably would have been disappointed by the shallow, weathered impressions in the rocks. Honestly, if I had walked through the area without knowing the footprints were there I probably would have missed them. Fortunately, the kids are still young enough that I can still excite them by leaping around and imitating a dinosaur tromping merrily across the landscape. Cleo was curious how the dinosaurs crossed the highway, and was flabbergasted when I explained that when these footprints were made there were no highways, no cars, and no people.
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The next stop on our northward route was the town of Shelburne Falls, which had a couple of unusual scenic attractions. The Bridge of Flowers was created all the way back in 1929, which is an amazing lifespan for a landscaping project. The peaceful path across the bridge lined on either side with beautiful plants and flowers is a testimony to humanity's endless power of creativity. It's unfortunate that we haven't found a way in this country to reclaim more of the industrial eyesores that dot the landscape.
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Just a few blocks from the Bridge of Flowers is a geological formation known as Glacial Potholes. It's a big hunk of metamorphic rock filled with holes and depressions of various sizes that were formed thousands of years ago. Interestingly, the potholes aren't directly related to glacial activity but rather to erosion by water currents. We missed the turnoff to the overlook so we didn't see the potholes themselves, although there are lots of pictures in the link. Instead we found ourselves down at the riverbank with views of Salmon Falls, which descends into the pothole area, and the little hydroelectric plant that generates some of the electric power for the area.
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Not long after that we crossed the border into Vermont and rolled into Brattleboro. Usually we don't meet the hosts at our Airbnbs since we prefer the flexibility of checking in and out whenever we want, but this was one of those rare cases where we got a personal welcome. Our apartment was on the third floor, and our hosts lived below us on the second. On the first floor they ran an art gallery and a catering business. We settled in and then headed to dinner at Three Stones, a local restaurant that served highly-recommended traditional Mayan cuisine. Even at six PM, we had to have our dinner at the bar but the delicious food was well worth the minor inconvenience.
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We began the next day at the Brattleboro Farmers Market, which was our main reason for stopping in the town overnight. It was a good-sized farmers market with a wide variety of prepared dishes, artisanal foods, and crafts. It was our first experience with the wide variety of Vermont cheeses and the multiplicity of products that can be made from maple syrup, including liqueur. There was a huge sandbox as well to keep the kids out of our hair while we examined every stall.
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Just outside Brattleboro is the Robb Family Farm, which was established more than a hundred years ago and is currently operated by the fifth generation of descendants. The farm currently focuses almost exclusively on producing maple syrup without many of the recent technological advances that have spurred output but, in their opinion, at the expense of quality. The patriarch of the family guided us around the operation, from the tanks that receive the sap directly from taps in the maple trees to their shiny new evaporator.
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Next stop was Grafton Village Cheese, an enormous cheese store where they manufacture a large variety of their own cheddars. There's an observation deck for the cheesemaking operation but there wasn't much happening on a Saturday. The kids were fascinated by the free samples and I kept having to chase them around the store to make sure they were using the toothpicks instead of grabbing the cheese with their fingers. We bought some blue cheese and a couple of different kinds of cheddar. The shop felt like a temple dedicated to the worship of cheese.
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On the way out of Brattleboro for good we stopped at a casual restaurant where the West River flows into the larger Connecticut River. The food and mojitos were forgettable, but there was a nice view of the little lake created by the confluence. Someone had installed a sculpture of a sea monster in the middle of the lake that twisted slightly in the wind and appeared to be moving against the current, and for a while we had the kids thinking it was the real thing.
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A few miles north of Brattleboro we stopped in the famously quaint town of Newfane to admire the two hundred year old buildings in the village center. A lady saw me taking photographs in the green and handed me a pamphlet explaining the history of each building. Vermont is like that.
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Our last stopover of the day was the beloved tourist trap Vermont Country Store in Weston. Aside from the vast array of Vermont food products and locally made clothing and crafts, there was a large selection of old-fashioned games that fascinated the kids. They spent a good ten minutes just trying out the Whoopee Cushions.
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Thanks to our early start on the day it was still early in the evening when we reached Woodstock, our overnight destination in central Vermont.

Posted by zzlangerhans 06:56 Archived in USA Tagged vermont massachusetts weston brattleboro sturbridge newfane shelburne_falls Comments (0)

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