Tuesday 19 March 2019

Vibrant Vermont: From magical forests to maple syrup

From magical forests to maple syrup, this New England state is a case study in slow, romantic travel, says Nicola Brady

Early morning autumn in the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont
Early morning autumn in the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont
A selection of birch syrup at the farmers' market
A taste of craft beer at Drop-In Brewery
Arlington Inn
Moosalamoo State Park

Nicola Brady

It's breakfast time in Vermont and I'm pouring maple syrup onto my blueberry pancakes with abandon. There's a very good chance that my eyes are glazing over as I declare, "That's it. I'm having maple syrup every single day that I'm here".

It's a promise I keep. I'm at The Arlington Inn, an historic pile that's the embodiment of every Vermont fantasy you could have - a wide porch with rocking chairs, rooms stocked with piles of antique books and quilted throws on the beds. Hell, there's even a loping golden Labrador who plods around the chickens in the garden, reclining in the shade of the maple trees.

This is what you want from a trip to Vermont. A leafy state reaching the Canadian border in New England, it's a place where you want to amble at a slow pace, unencumbered by the flashiness usually associated with the US.

Vermont is different. There are no billboards. No towering golden arches. No chain restaurants clogging up endless strip malls.

Instead, you're met with mountains dressed in a heavy coat of trees, with meandering roads weaving through picture-perfect sleepy villages. The houses are that delicious style of old-school America, with broad wooden façades, pretty shutter boards and, often, an American flag undulating in the breeze.

The village of Grafton might just be the quintessential Vermont spot. With a population of just over 600, it's a languid portal into the past. There's one of those classic New England white steepled churches, along with covered bridges and umbrellas of maple trees. There's even a traditional village store, MKT (mktgrafton.com), where you can buy local raw milk cheddar, homemade cinnabuns and a glass of iced coffee. They have a small café too, doling out dishes like a gorgeous toast topped with whipped ricotta, chewy figs and local honey.

Moosalamoo State Park
Moosalamoo State Park

Around the corner, there's a tiny lake where you can head out on paddle-boats or rent bikes to explore the trails. Everywhere I go, I see signs of activity - Vermont is the kind of place where everyone is rosy-cheeked, fit and almost always in hiking boots.

And who can blame them?

Even the tiniest trails lead you to incredible views. Just a few minutes into a track in the Green Mountains National Park, I reach a lake with waters so still they act like a giant mirror. Lichen-covered tree roots line its edge, as the mountains rising to its side are reflected in the water's surface. Sights like this are 10-a-penny in Vermont, with ventures in the car taking you through picture-perfect mountains that seem to surround every road.

When you look at landscapes like this, you just want to dive straight into the middle of them. The state is over 75pc forested, and hiking trails are found throughout, whether it's the Vermont stretch of the 3,500km-long Appalachian Trail or a little footpath through the trees. And walks like these come to life in the autumn, when the Green Mountains morph into vibrant shades of red, gold and orange.

A taste of craft beer at Drop-In Brewery
A taste of craft beer at Drop-In Brewery

Clocking the Fall Foliage isn't the only autumn cliché you should fall prey to. As you pass through the state, you'll see signs for apple donuts, cider and maple creemees (a Mr Whippy style soft-serve). And it's tough not to stop at each and every one.

Vermont was organic, local and foodie before the term 'farm to fork' was even a thing. Most menus don't even bother to shout about their sustainability - it's just a given that the steak you're eating was raised in the field next door, or the honey on your bread was made from bees buzzing in the bushes nearby.

If you're really lucky (and you probably will be) then you'll pass a farmers' market, where you can play at being a Vermonter, picking up hunks of sheep's milk cheese and compostable glasses of homemade lemonade. The Mad River Taste Place (madrivertaste.com) is a brand new operation, where you can buy (and taste) food from all around the region.

During summer and autumn, the Waitsfield Farmers' Market (waitsfieldfarmersmarket.com) is held just next door, with stalls like Babette's Table, where you can pick up artisan charcuterie - the duck prosciutto is incredible, and the maple bacon sells out in seconds. It's only 9.30am when I visit, and as I prop myself up by the stand, nibbling on Tuscan salami, no fewer than five people rush up to the super-friendly owner Erika Lynch, panicked that they're too late to catch the last of it.

A selection of birch syrup at the farmers' market
A selection of birch syrup at the farmers' market

And it's not just food that the locals are passionate about. Vermont is a craft beer paradise, with microbreweries dotted all over the shop - there are actually more microbreweries here per capita than any other state. So it's not uncommon to drive past a dinky little brewery and see Vermonters pulling up with a few empty growlers, ready to fill with their favourite brew.

And folks will often hang around for a glass and a bite - at Hill Farmstead Brewery (hillfarmstead.com), for example, I arrive to find a crowd of people sitting in the sun and grabbing a taco from the food truck parked outside the taproom.

At the Drop-In Brewery (dropinbrewing.com) in Middlebury, I'm handed a flight of artisan beers, ranging from a pale, frothy ale to a deep red and bitter IPA. The tiny room is decked out with signed band posters, alongside miniature figurines of Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders (a US Senator for Vermont since 2007). Their flagship beer, Sunshine and Hoppiness, is a quintessential Vermont brew - an almost cheerful beer that begs to be sipped in the afternoon sun.

And so life will pass in Vermont.

So quickly you fall into the pattern of this unhurried existence - a hike, a beer, a sneaky cupful of maple syrup when you think no-one's looking.

I finish up my trip at Mt Philo Inn, spending the early mornings sitting on the porch overlooking Lake Champlain, the mist rising over the mountains of neighbouring New York state and a steaming mug of Vermont coffee in my hand. Throw a bit more maple syrup into the mix, and they'd never get me to leave.

What to pack

If you have a flannel shirt, bring it - you'll fit right in. Don't forget the hiking boots, either. The whole state is pretty casual, so don't worry about packing anything too fancy. It's also worth having some insect repellent for hikes and evenings spent dining al fresco.

Get there

Nicola was a guest of Vermont's tourism department (vermontvacation.com).

Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies direct to New York's JFK and Newark airports. You'll need a car in Vermont - rent one at the airport or take the scenic train from Penn Station to Albany (amtrak.com) and rent on arrival.

Eat & drink

Ferrisburgh's Starry Night Café (starrynightcafe.com) is a romantic dinner spot with killer cocktails. You'll find a near-perfect steak at The Publyk House (thepublykhouse.com) in Bennington, along with amazing mountain views. At Lost Nation Brewing (lostnationbrewing.com), it's all about beer and BBQ.

Fall foliage

Keep an eye on leaves via the foliage tracker on VermontVacation.com. Peak season is mid-September until the end of October - book far in advance if you plan to travel then.

More: Falling for New England: A local's guide to leaf-peeping

Check in

tty _173033111 Vermont.jpg
Arlington Inn
 

Rates at The Arlington Inn (arlingtoninn.com) start at $149/€128, and from $280/€241 at Mt Philo Inn (mtphiloinn.com) for suites, most with two bedrooms.

Take a hike

Moosalamoo State Park (moosalamoo.org) is a hiker's dream, with thick forests leading to quaint little lakes - The Blueberry Hill Inn (blueberryhillinn.com) is gorgeous.

Read more:

The US Bucket List: 30 things to do in America before you die

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