Exploring the Coast of Lake Champlain
Fall-foliage season can make much of Vermont less idyllic than you'd hope. All the more reason to head north, where you'll see more bikes than cars.
Day 1: Burlington To North Hero
I like to think I know Vermont pretty well. My parents have lived there for nearly 15 years, and my husband and I spend each winter crisscrossing the state looking for the best snow and the shortest lift lines. Lake Champlain, however, is a total mystery to me. I've heard that the Champlain Islands--Grand Isle, North Hero, and Isle La Motte--are still relatively undiscovered by leaf-peeping flatlanders. No wonder: I always thought they were part of Canada. I set off with my copilot Moira, a photographer, to find out what they're all about.
It's September, so we're prepared for traffic, but the only slowdown on Route 2, the main artery connecting the islands, comes when we're caught behind a tractor. Although we see splotches of gold here and there in the trees, the weather feels more like summer than fall. And that's what we were hoping for: Our plan was to come just a little early to avoid the prices and crowds of peak season.
The village of North Hero isn't much more than a handful of buildings along Route 2. The 1824 county courthouse in particular stands out. Its gilded belfry glints in the sun, and its walls are made of odd reddish-beige stones, sourced from a quarry on nearby Isle La Motte. In small-town Vermont, it's not uncommon for a building to serve more than one purpose, andHero's Welcome, sure enough, functions as a general store, gift shop, café, and bakery--and the post office is attached. Ignoring the displays of Vermont-made products (maple syrup, pancake mix, salsa, etc.), Moira and I make a beeline for jars of Swedish Fish, Tootsie Rolls, and jawbreakers. We also choose from a list of sandwiches that hangs above the counter. My heart is set on a Trackeur (hickory-smoked ham, Vermont cheddar, tomato, and honey-mustard) and Moira, who doesn't eat meat, orders the Vegetarian Princess (sprouts, cheddar, and hummus). I have to hold back from teasing her.
We plan to spend the night atShore Acres, a low-slung inn with 23 rooms, 19 of which are lakefront. There are tennis courts, a nine-hole golf course, and even a croquet set, but I have my eyes on one of the dozen white Adirondack chairs on the lawn. While Moira takes pictures, I plonk down with my book; next to me, a couple is quietly reading and sharing a bottle of wine, their dog at their feet. I learn they're from Massachusetts and they've been holed up at Shore Acres for a week, barely leaving the property. Looking east across the lake, I can see the jagged peaks of the Green Mountains in the distance. Boats sail past, birds dive for fish, and clouds create interesting shadows on the glassy water.
North Hero Houseis an inn and restaurant that often serves as a base for trips run by Bike Vermont and VBT Bicycling Vacations. When we arrive for dinner, the place is positively hopping. A local musician strums "Tiny Dancer" on his guitar in the bar area while a dozen farmer-tanned bikers sing along. As I savor pan-roasted chicken breast served in a rich pancetta-and-sage sauce, I overhear a group of 50-somethings crowing about the many miles they've ridden. Only then do I begin to feel pangs of guilt about my sedentary afternoon.
- Shore Acres237 Shore Acres Dr., North Hero, 802/372-8722, shoreacres.com, from $90
- Hero's Welcome3537 Rte. 2, North Hero, 802/372-4161, sandwich $5
- North Hero House3643 Rte. 2, North Hero, 888/525-3644, entrées $19
Day 2: North Hero to Isle La Motte
We wake up to a bluebird sky and warm sun. The conditions are perfect for a drive to the Alburg Peninsula--and a picnic. At Simply Country, a barn-like antiques shop with a fairly typical jumble of old books and rusty kitchen gadgets (now closed), we grab a bag of plump tomatoes for a dollar a pound; they'll go nicely with a baguette and a bottle of sauvignon blanc from Hero's Welcome.
We hear French everywhere, and now it makes sense: Alburg is a sliver of land that juts south 10 miles from the Canadian border, and many Quebecers vacation here. Because of its remoteness, the area was a haven for booze smugglers during Prohibition.
After a quick visit toAlburg Dunes State Park--which includes 628 acres of wetlands and a long crescent beach--we follow West Shore Road north along the water toLakes End Cheeses. Alburg native Joanne James makes some of the best chèvre I've tasted. It's tangy and creamy and flavored with herbs; I buy two small rounds to add to our picnic. Joanne started out making chocolates and later added cheese. "My neighbor kept bringing me goat's milk she wasn't using," she says. "I didn't have the heart to tell her I didn't need that much, so I began experimenting." Joanne now has 40 goats, but the black one named Boss is clearly her favorite. On a tour of the property, Boss head-butts the others out of the way to get closer to us, and then mugs (smiles, even) for Moira's camera.