Vermont: A leaf less ordinary
The autumn colour is astonishing – and the ice-cream isn't bad either. Mark C O'Flaherty visits the small but perfectly formed state of Vermont
Saturday 06 September 2008
There's a missing-persons notice on the door of an ice-cream parlour in Woodstock, Vermont. It's been smartly designed, in a fine bookish font, with a portrait of its teenage subject, a young man called Dylan. There's something peculiar about it though. On inspection, the wording reveals that the aforementioned male teen has been missing since... the night before. Picture the scene: "If you're not back before midnight young man, we're calling the police! Again!"
On first sight, Woodstock looks like rock'n'roll never happened, never mind punk. It's almost too pretty, too perfect – row upon row of whitewashed New England wood-beam homes, storefronts and steeples. A line of Star Spangled Banners billow from flagpoles along the main shopping thoroughfare. The week's events are chalked up on a notice-board outside the church hall. The façade of the general store, FH Gillingham, still looks much as it must have done when it opened in 1886, while bonnets and Twenties-style lace dresses hang in the window of the local boutique. One of the few forms of teenage rebellion involves upping sticks and heading off to nearby Boston or New York City.
It isn't just state-central Woodstock – not to be confused with the New York festival town of the same name – but Vermont as a whole. If there was a place for which the word "twee" was invented, it's Vermont. Not that it cares. The state relishes its photogenic, insular, different-kind-of-21st century nature so much that the movement for a Second Vermont Republic, with autonomy from the US government, has the support of one in 10 people. And who can blame them? Vermont's towns may look all-American – shiny, scrubbed, healthy and wealthy – but they're populated by the kind of current affairs-savvy, cultured, left-of-centre types who clutch their pearls at the rest of the nation's obesity, its poor literacy standards and its political ignorance.
Vermont despises corporate America. McDonald's may wearily lay claim to "billions served" but none of them have been Supersized in the Vermont capital of Montpelier, which continues to refuse the golden arches permission to set up shop. This is a state big on craft, fine food and independent farm produce.
The ceramics and glassware of Simon Pearce, in Quechee Gorge, are wedding-listed across the country, while even the most low-key corner shop stocks a variety of locally produced sausages and maple syrups. OK, the end-of-tour Flavoroom at the Ben and Jerry's Factory in Waterbury, with its free scoops of Cherry Garcia, remains a stellar tourist draw, but that's due to a mixture of state pride and guilty pleasure. The factory remains a place of pilgrimage for ice-cream aficionados, for the Flavor Graveyard (tomb-stones to ditched varieties) as much as anything.
At Twin Farms in Barnard, one of the most luxurious resorts in North America, fine dining is at 8pm sharp, nightly. The kitchen delivers local produce, from heirloom tomatoes to the full dairy spectrum of small-scale production cheeses. When the waiter explains each dish, it sounds like the Marks & Spencer adverts: "This isn't just an amuse bouche, this is..." Though there's a vaguely set menu, every guest has been grilled about likes, dislikes and allergies before getting near the discreet unmarked gates of the property. It's an all-inclusive, open-bar, fill-your-boots country-retreat fantasy for wealthy urbanites who like their Fortnum's-style picnics laid out for them next to the pretty private boating lake.
"If you'd like some champagne sent to your room, just call. Any time. Any time at all," they promise. Twenty minutes after a shameless post-post-post-cocktails call, sometime after midnight, they deliver: a basket with Veuve, several bottles of San Pellegrino and a plate of elaborately arranged cheddars. It comes through the woods, on the back of a golf cart and its arrival is announced by a knock at the door of the detached glass-fronted Aviary suite, which looks Frank Lloyd Wright mid-century modern from the outside, and Seventies Hugh Hefner grotto inside, complete with candlelit stone-clad hot tub.
At the other end of the food and lodgings spectrum, there's the lovely Lareau Farm Inn in Waitsfield, which has smart and homely rooms called, amongst other single-name attributes, Respect, Beauty and Kindness. A night in Forgiveness will cost you around $115 (£61), and if you eat at the American Flatbread rustic-cool pizza restaurant on-site, you should experience Love and Wonder too – it's as good as breadstuffs with topping can be.
Most of the places to stay in Vermont are petite, button-cute inns. Jaded New Yorkers often talk of decamping here for new lives. And they would be in exalted company: the Von Trapps (of Sound of Music fame) opened a guest house here in 1950, and the surviving members still have an interest in the Trapp Family Lodge, which expanded in the Eighties in Stowe. The liberal political climate aside, there's a decidedly Alpine quality to Vermont, particularly in winter when the ski season starts.
The slopes are a big draw, but not as big as the autumn leaves before them, which are this state's Feature Presentation. "Leaf peeping" is what the locals call the recreational pursuit of touring around the blazing gold, orange, yellow, purple and brown branches of the mountain forests. It's not just the plethora of flora in the state that makes it such a beauty spot during the weeks of mists and mellow fruitfulness, it's the way the forests seem to form tiered waves across to the horizon, as if landscaped for your viewing pleasure.
The best way to do Vermont in the autumn is as a road trip. It's one of the most manageable areas of the US to drive around; the state is only 159 miles long. You can make it from the southern end of the Green Mountain National Forest to the northern tip of Lake Champlain in a day. It's also easy to get to its southern borders from New York City or Boston, and once within them, the interstate highways are replaced by scenic routes.
Driving upstate, you wind through valleys and vistas and past barns-aplenty, many with American flags hung over their fronts. You stop off to peruse the contents of the second-hand bookstores of Jamaica, and the Colby Cheese at the Crowley dairy in Healdville, and you start thinking how very American it all is, and yet how totally different it is from the US that's been built by Starbucks and its kind. This is the America the pilgrims probably dreamt would some day exist.
As for Dylan, it turns out that he had, indeed, just skipped town for some big-city stimulation. The police report that he phoned home a week later to say he was doing fine. Chances are he'll be back one day, once he's tired of Republican politics and corporate latte. He might even be pleased to be a natural-born Vermontian and passport holder, once those borders close.
State lines: Vermont
Area approximately the size of Wales
Date in Union 4 March 1791
Flower Red Clover
Motto "Freedom and unity"
Nickname Green Mountain State
The writer travelled as a guest of Black Tomato (020-7610 9008; www.blacktomato.co.uk), which offers a seven-day driving tour of Vermont from £1,999 per person. The price is based on two sharing and includes flights with Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; www.virginatlantic.com) to New York's JFK airport, car hire, three nights all inclusive at Twin Farms in Barnard, and four nights B&B in selected properties around the state.
To reduce the impact on the environment you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (www.reducemyfootprint.travel).
Twin Farms, PO Box 115, Barnard, Vermont (001 802 234 9999; www.twinfarms.com). Doubles start at $1,200 (£632) all inclusive.
Laureau Farm Inn, 48 Lareau Road, Waitsfield, Vermont (001 802 496 4949; www.laureaufarminn.com). Doubles start at $115 (£61) including breakfast.
Trapp Family Lodge, 700 Trapp Hill Road, PO Box 1428, Stowe, Vermont (001 802 253 8511; www.trappfamily.com). Doubles start at $275 (£145) excluding breakfast.
Ben and Jerry's Factory, Rte 100, Waterbury (001 802 882 1240; www.benjerry.com). Admission $3 (£1.60).
Crowley Cheese, 14 Crowley Lane, Healdville (001 802 259 2340; www.crowleycheese-vermont.com).
Simon Pearce, 1760 Main Street, Quechee (001 802 295 2711; www.simonpearce.com).
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