Irish Independent, November 3rd, 2012
Thomas Breathnach takes a walk on the wild side in the beautiful forests of Vermont
‘Here’s the padlock combination for your cabin,” my welcome leaflet read, “and there’s no electricity.” It was the ultimate green getaway. My blind date with Mother Nature, deep in the Appalachian mountains, was proving quite the ordeal.Equipped with nothing more than a rough map and my woodland survival guide, I branched off to the Green Mountain forests for a feast of wildlife spotting and tree-hugging.
My journey had begun earlier that week in the city of Newport. I arrived at dusk at “Little Gnesta“, a Nordic inspired B&B run by quirky Swedish-American Ruth “shoes at the door” Sproull. Ruth, along with her feisty maltese-mix, Philip, was busy making granola in the kitchen, as Melissa Etheridge soothed in the background. This was starting to feel “very Vermont” already.
After a super snooze in my five-star IKEA room and a brekkie of Quebec cheeses, goat-milk yoghurt and dollops of Ruth’s homemade jams, I was suitably fit to discover the hippy hallmarks of a quintessential Vermont town. Downtown, a community veggie garden was buzzing with local green fingers, while on Main Street, a single parking space had been dubbed “Park for a Day” as city officials played mini-golf within its tight perimeters. A lifejacket-touting teddy bear, canoeing towards me, was the cue for my first Vermont adventure: lake kayaking (€12; clyderiverrecreation.com).
I set off with Chris McFarland, who along with mascot Felix, runs bargain trips across border-straddling Lake Memphremagog. We paddled along tranquil waters, soon flanked by a wildlife refuge home to herons, loons and deer. “I’ll usually take about one buck a year,” Chris told me, referring to the approaching hunting season.”My wife makes a delicious venison meatloaf.” It was case in point of Vermonters fostering a tradition of Rachel Allen-esque self-sufficiency. This is a state, rumour has it, where even Democrats are known to hunt.
Back behind the wheel, my journey continued to the one-horse town of Jay, a quaint little drinking hole with a skiing problem. After settling into my bargain $99-a-night room at the Jay Peak Resort, I grabbed the gondola to the windswept summit of Jay Peak. It was my first vantage point of Vermont’s wilds, where raptors soared above a vast Appalachian blanket. And somewhere in the depths of the wildness below was tomorrow night’s cabin.
My onward journey was marked by a visit to a number of tasty eateries, all serving sizeable portions of Vermont whack. Paddie’s Snack Bar in North Troy was a cutesie road-side café run by a rather notorious old lesbian couple, complete with a singing lobster, and a talking-deer tannoy. Later, it was supper at Café Sweet Basil in Lyndonville, owned by an eclectic local trio including one-armed jam-maker Lars, who forages locally for his own ingredients. That evening, I sought refuge from the rains at Parker Pie in Glover, where I ate butternut squash soup as locals moshed out to jazz-rock in a converted gig-barn above me. Vermont sure does versatile.
The state’s Green Mountain Club owns two primitive cabins (no electricity or running water) nestled in the boreal beauty of Willoughby State Forest. Beyond the savvy of any GPS, a three-mile gravel track led me off the already isolated Route 5. Then, it was a case of abandon car, and a trepidatious forest stroll finally brought me to my charming cabin on the verges of a peaceful Wheeler Pond. “Now what?” The lone resident of the woods, there was little to do but sit on my wicker chair and take in the surround-sound of the forest: utter silence. But soon a family of beavers came out for a splash, a buck emerged from the rushes and a brace of mallards coasted by. Things didn’t feel so lonely after all.
As darkness set in, the heavens dramatically opened, and the animals soon went to ground (along with my mobile phone battery). As I settled into my bunk, the scurry of mice along the rafters was almost comforting, but the sudden crunch of gravel from outside my window, remarkably less so. My heart raced. I tried to rationalise what it could be; a bobcat; a bear; were either of these even nocturnal? I looked outside, it stopped; I lay down; it continued. I’d camped in the woods many times but this all seemed to have the air of some horror CBS reality series. After an hour of storm-induced insomnia, I decided I wasn’t sticking around to find out and in slickly orchestrated operation, swiftly unlocked my cabin door to make my great pyjama escape. Retracing my car seemed twice as long in the darkness, as my flashlight darted around the tree trunks like ‘The Blair Witch Project’. But after a few minutes and an obligatory key fumble later, I was back in the Chevy, and soon out of the woods. Exhale.
But every rain-bursting darkened cloud has a silver-lining, and homeless in the wilds, I suddenly remembered that these were in fact the perfect conditions for elk spotting. Windscreen wipers in overdrive, I drove north, where soon the torrents were replaced by wisps of fog, blanketing the car with ghostly effect. From twilight to dawn, I drove along the marshes and swamps of the Kingdom State Forest in vain until, suddenly, two moose burst out of the waters next to me. It was spectacular. I ground to a halt as the antlered beasts stared me down through the reeds before bounding into the forest with a clumsy majesty. The Universe had finally answered me. But, slow down, boys. This exercise is purely futile without a Twitpic.
Revitalised from my wildlife sighting, I ended my trip in “the Aspen of the East Coast”: Stowe. My final check-in was the Stowe Mountain Lodge, known for its luxury Tyrolean chalets, celebrity guests and affluent aficionados of snowga (yes, yoga on the slopes). It was quite the upgrade: 12 hours after my cabin fever nightmare, here my greatest woes amounted to googling valet-parking tipping etiquette. With my hotel sitting on the foothills of the Green Mountains, I later drove the winding pass of mapled magnificence to state’s highest peak, Mt Mansfield. With the recent rains, the fall foliage in the valleys had now “popped” into dramatic rusts and ambers while 4,000ft high in the clouds, I stood plateaued by a rare micro-climate of polar tundra.
Keeping it chilled, I cherry-topped my Green Mountain trip with a visit to the state’s biggest tourist attraction and indeed the poster child for artisan-producer-turned-global-superstar: Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream factory ($4; benjerry.com). Our guide Wez ushered our factory tour past the vats where the milk arrives daily from local Vermont farmers, to the canisters of Irish cream liquor which goes into a Dublin Mudslide, all to a flurry of bovine gags. “What do you call a cow after it’s just given birth?” we were quizzed, upon entering the tasting room. “Decalfenated!” Oh dear, Vermont may have ended on a dodgy punchline but after perhaps my best ever American road-trip, I was still feeling like the proverbial who’d got the (ice)-cream.
“No laughs, no tasters,” Wez teased. Sure thing, man, just make mine a Dublin Mudslide.
For car hire, Hertz offers fly-drive discounts to Aer Lingus passengers: my rate came to €24 per day.
Tel: 01-870 5777; hertz.ie.
Vermont charm, Nordic cosiness and a quirky host with a smorgasbord of local tips, Little Gnesta makes a perfect gateway. $42pps (€32.48) B&B. Tel 001 802 334 3438; littlegnesta.com.
For the ultimate ‘Hansel and Gretel’ adventure in the Vermont wilderness, rustic cabins cost from $65 (€50), sleeping six. Don’t expect any amenities (just bumps in the night). Tel: 001 802 244 7037; greenmountainclub.org.
For a family ski-break or a budget resort break, Jay Peak has rooms from €45pps. Tel: 001 802 988 2611; jaypeakresort.com. Joining the glitterati at the Stowe Mountain Lodge costs from €75pps. Tel: 001 802 253 3560; stowemountainlodge.com.
Five great things to do
Amble the coffee shops, galleries and vintage stores of hipster hotbeds Burlington and Montpelier. Just don’t ask for McDonald’s; the latter is the only US state capital without a ‘Golden M’.
Get some good old-fashioned spooks at Great Vermont Corn Maze, one of Vermont’s largest Halloween attractions. Bring snacks to help you survive the corn-fusion. Entry: $9 (€7). See vermontcornmaze.com.
Make a splash at the Pump House — New England’s largest indoor waterpark at Jay Peak. Hold your breath (and your swimming trunks) for the 70kmph ‘la chute’ ride. From $12/$17 (€9.30/ €13). See jaypeakresort.com.
Get your act together for the Bread & Puppet museum in Glover. Said to be the epitome of VT-quirk, this not-for-profit museum, housed in an old hay barn, offers visitors free sourdough. Free admission. See breadandpuppet.org.
Mountain-bike your way across the challenging Alpine trails of the singing Von Trapp family’s Vermont resort in Stowe. It’s the ‘Sound of Music’ to the ears of any avid biker. Trail passes for non-guests from $10 (€7.73) per day. See trappfamily.com.
For more information, visit vermontvacation.com.
- Thomas Breathnach