“Don’t play games that you don’t understand, even if you see lots of other people making money from them. ”
World-class downhill slopes and chillingly steep "front four" mountaintop runs have made Stowe, Vt., a favorite destination for skiers. On a jaunt in summer, however, I discovered that this historic New England village has far more to offer than skiing. I also realized how dramatically the Green State differs from anywhere else in the country.
Vermont is a 9,600-square-mile swath of mostly independent-minded folks. Indeed, there have been movements for the state to secede from the U.S. and create the Second Vermont Republic.
Vermont's contrarian legacy, dating back 200 years, is part of what makes the state-and Stowe in particular-so interesting. Transplants from all over the country have rooted here to escape the commotion of cities and the strictures of more traditional ways of life.
That means you'll find a former financier from New Jersey working at the Morrisville-Stowe State Airport (seven miles from downtown), garnering an eighth of his former salary but endowed with a Walden-like perspective on the merits of a modest lifestyle. Or you'll meet a waitress from Brooklyn who traded rows of brownstones for cedar trees.
Yet such people are only part of Stowe's intrigue. Unlike the winters, when thermometers can visit minus territory, summers are ideal here-dry and with temperatures in the mid 70s. Moreover, there's so much to do in Stowe's off-season that I was hard-pressed to complete my itinerary, even after five action-packed days.
How much could there be to see in a laid-back, mountain town where "Moose Crossing" signs decorate the landscape and the most prominent landmark is the Community Church's tall steeple? Plenty, it turns out. There are natural water holes to plunge into, rivers to kayak down and miles of trails to explore, even by dog cart. Descendents of the von Trapps of Sound of Music fame are here, and some of them run the enchanting Trapp Family Lodge (see "Where to Stay"). Downtown Stowe is bustling with shops, galleries and historic buildings, while neighboring Waterbury hosts Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream Factory (tours available, www.benjerry.com), the Vermont Ski Museum (
www.vermontskimuseum.org, 802-253-9911), Lake Champlain Chocolates (
www.lakechamplainchocolates.com, 802-241-4150) and the Cabot Creamery Annex (
What's more, the 30 or so restaurants in Stowe-many on par with some of the best in the country-are part of the Vermont Fresh Network. That means everything is organically grown or locally produced. The lamb chop I ordered at Michael's on the Hill came from a local farm, as did the vegetables and cheese. Indeed, dining is one of the top reasons to visit Stowe. Even the local pizza is great.
You'd think with such an arrestingly beautiful landscape and so much to offer, Stowe would be clogged with tourists. But in summer, it's quiet. The roads that cut through cornfields and bucolic valleys are often empty, as are the trails. The only time we saw a crowd was in the Trapp Lodge's concert meadow at the Vermont Mozart Festival (
www.vtmozart.org, 802-862-7352). Tourists and locals showed up in droves with picnic baskets and wine to listen to Beethoven under a starry canopy. (The festival was named for Vermont's similarity to Mozart's Austria, not for the composers it features.)
At Its Peak
When my husband, five-year-old daughter and I arrived, we checked into the Stowe Mountain Lodge- the first uber-luxury property of this size and caliber to go up in Stowe. It has generated a buzz among locals, who are curiously fathoming the breadth of amenities and services offered at the 139-room property for upwards of $450 a night. (A bellhop at another hotel sheepishly asked, "So what's it like to stay there?")
Staying at the lodge gives you proximity to the Gondola Skyride and mountains, an obvious advantage in winter (some lifts are out the door) but also in summer, when you can climb the 4,400-foot Mt. Mansfield, Vermont's highest peak. The reward? A view of three states, two countries and four mountain ranges. On a clear day, you'll spot New Hampshire's White Mountains, Vermont's Worcester Mountains, New York's Adirondacks and Quebec's Mt. Royale.
Several trails are at Mt. Mansfield's summit, which is shaped like an elongated human profile. One challenging trek takes you to the "chin," its highest point. There's also an excellent restaurant, the Cliff House, where we sampled local cheeses and a crepe stuffed with turkey from a nearby farm while gazing out floor-to-ceiling windows at the sprawling valley and silhouetted mountain ranges.
Our favorite aerial view, however, came from the 20-minute glider ride we took with Stowe Soaring (
www.stowesoaring.com, 802-888-7845). Our pilot, a nurse by trade, flies the two-passenger airplanes as a hobby on her days off. "Every time I go up, I feel so lucky to be doing this," she said as she circled over the Green Mountains. My intrepid daughter felt lucky to experience it, too, and loved the loops and dives more than my unsettled stomach did.
You can also explore the pine and maple forests via kayak on the Lamoille River. Bert's Boats (
www.bertsboats.com, 802-644-8189) rents the gear and the affable Ken "Bert" Roberts himself will guide you down the river, which courses through dairy farms and under a bridge. So smitten with Roberts was my daughter that she opted to canoe with him instead of her parents (probably wise, given our paddling acumen.) The tour began and ended at the Boyden Valley Winery (
www.boydenvalley.com, 802-644-8151), a family-run operation that produces everything from award-winning ice wines to Bordeaux-style reds and hosts tastings in its restored 1825 carriage barn.
After leaving the winery, we spent some time exploring Stowe on foot. Several trails snake through the mountains, the most noted being the 5.5-mile Stowe Recreation Path that the first President Bush named one of America's "Thousand Points of Light."
We also took to the woods-by dog cart. Ken Haggett, a soft-spoken, long-haired carpenter, owns Peace Pups (
www.peacepupsdogsledding.com, 802-888-7733), a dog-carting and sledding business. The dogs are instinctive runners, and as they get hooked up to the pulling line, they jump all over each other and bark in cacophonous unison. Dog carting is a bit like sleigh riding, except bumpier.
Stowe's resorts feature some well-appointed spas, but the beauty of visiting the town in summer is that you can experience its natural spas, too-melted snow that cascades down the mountains and pools into mineral-rich swimming holes of numbingly cold water. To me, these spots epitomize the best of the village-unique, organically beautiful, serene yet wildly invigorating-and accessible only after the winter thaw.
Traveler Fast Facts
What it is: A small New England town that's widely recognized for its alpine skiing, but is teeming with options for those who make the trek in summer.
History: Stowe once thrived on lumber and agriculture and later butter and milk, much of which was shipped to Boston. The several working farms that remain in the area receive ardent support from local businesses and residents.
Ambiance: Anything goes in Stowe, where the overall vibe is casual and progressive.
Getting There: While airline passengers arrive at Burlington International Airport,
40 miles away, you can land at Morrisville-Stowe State Airport, which is just seven miles from downtown and has a 3,701-foot asphalt runway.
Traveler Report Card
Accommodations (A-): You'll find a variety of accommodations here, from simple inns to a new plush resort, all tastefully appointed (see "Where to Stay").
Food (A): Most restaurants are members of the Vermont Fresh Network, the Slow Food movement and/or the Local First Vermont network-all supporting sustainable agriculture in the state. Almost everything on your plate is local, organic or both. Better still, chefs execute the meals with creativity and flair. Make time for Michael's on the Hill (802-244-7476), housed in an 1820 farmhouse and specializing in European fare; Norma's (802-253-8585), a bustling bistro with open kitchen and outdoor patio with arresting mountain views; and the Cliff House (802-253-3558), atop Mt. Mansfield, with panoramic-view seating and floor-to-ceiling windows. For pizza, Pie in the Sky (802-253-5100) is first-rate. For picnic fare, Harvest Market (802-253-3800) has a wide assortment of gourmet salads, entrées, desserts and wine.
Activities (A+): There are so many things to do in Stowe-from glider rides to swimming holes to outdoor concerts to dog carting-that you'll be hard-pressed to pack it all in. Downtown Stowe features shops, galleries and the historic Stowe Mercantile building with "made-in-Vermont" goodies and an old-fashioned candy counter. A 15-minute drive to neighboring Waterbury, Vt., will open up even more options, including Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Factory and the Cabot Creamery Annex.
Quietude (A): Stowe is known as a ski mecca, but few have discovered the beauty beneath the powder. That's good news for summertime visitors looking for quiet trails, open roads and empty pastures.
Where to Stay
Trapp Family Lodge,
www.trappfamily.com, (802) 253-8511. Commanding some of the village's most stunning real estate, this 96-room hotel, founded by Captain and Maria von Trapp of Sound of Music fame, occupies a heavenly 2,400-acre property, with mountain views reminiscent of Austria. The tastefully decorated inn manages to give a nod to its legacy without being kitschy. Movie memorabilia and historic pictures of Maria and others line the walls. Deluxe yet homey accommodations are available in the inn, and also in fractional-ownership villas. Daily activities in summer range from Nordic walking and fly fishing to harp lessons and kids' nature hikes. You'll also find miles of biking and hiking trails and an outdoor pool next to a Highland cattle-studded knoll with sweeping views of the Green Mountains. In the evenings there are campfires, concerts in the meadow, singalongs and movies, including a fascinating documentary on Maria von Trapp.
Stowe Mountain Lodge,
www.stowemountainlodge.com, (802) 253-3560. This is the newest and swankiest of all lodging options in Stowe. The amenities are mountain chic and the restaurant, Solstice, is hip and lively. The 139 condo-like suites are well-appointed, with bamboo linens, stone fireplaces and flat-screen TVs. Accommodations and attractions are still being built, however, so be sure to ask for a room away from any construction. (Our balcony overlooked the pool, but also a massive crane.) Proximity to a Gondola Skyride and a mini theme park is a plus.
Topnotch Resort and Spa,
www.topnotchresort.com, (800) 451-8686. This 68-room hotel offers four-diamond luxury in a quiet setting with sweeping mountain views. An award-winning spa with vaulted ceiling and waterfall is a must, as is its top-rated restaurant, Norma's.