Exploring the Coast of Lake Champlain

By Laurie Kuntz
August 8, 2006
Vermont Coast of Lake Champlain
Shannon Tidwell / Dreamstime.com
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.

Lake Champlain is a picnicker's paradise, with lots of parks and tables to choose from. We ultimately decide on a beach near St. Anne's Shrine on Isle La Motte, the smallest and most geologically interesting of the islands. The southern third of the island is a fossil reef, believed to be the oldest in the world. There's loads of history here as well. Explorer Samuel de Champlain landed on the island way back in 1609, and it's the site of Fort St. Anne, Vermont's oldest settlement, founded by the French in 1666.

We booked a room atRuthcliffe Lodge, a lakefront inn owned by Mark and Kathy Infante. No sooner have we put our bags down than we're introduced (by way of a wet-nose kiss to the back of the knee) to the Infantes' sweet but slightly wild-eyed goldendoodle. Moira valiantly tries to photograph Bosco, but he's far more interested in convincing her to play fetch with his soggy stick. Mark sets us up with bikes, helmets, and a map. The roads are pretty flat and there's a slight breeze at our backs. We whiz down The Main Road, stopping briefly to buy McIntosh apples at the roadside stand of Hall's Orchard. We linger longer at Fisk Quarry Preserve, where we get a glimpse of the ancient reef's structure: round, white fossils (early relatives of sea sponges) in the quarry walls.

Any good we did with our bike ride is completely undone by a carb-tastic dinner at the Ruthcliffe. Mark's Italian specialties--chicken Parmesan, veal marsala, seafood Alfredo--are served with bread and butter, soup, salad, pasta, and a vegetable. Most everything is slathered in hot cheese, delicious but decadent.


  • Ruthcliffe Lodge1002 Quarry Rd., Isle La Motte, 800/769-8162, ruthcliffe.com, from $123


  • Lakes End Cheeses212 W. Shore Rd., Alburg, 802/796-3730, cheese from $3.50


  • Alburg Dunes State Park151 Coon Point Rd., Alburg, 800/252-2363 or 802/796-4170, $2.50

Day 3: Isle La Motte to Grand Isle

Breakfast is equally over-the-top: eggs, bacon, and a stack of buttermilk pancakes, which I literally drown in dark, thick maple syrup. A final stick throw for Bosco and we hit the road, heading to Grand Isle. North of the village of Grand Isle, we findHyde Log Cabin. Constructed of rough-hewn cedar logs around 1783 for Revolutionary-War-veteran-turned-surveyor Jedediah Hyde Jr., it's one of the oldest cabins the United States. There's a fire roaring in the fireplace and a collection of 18th-century housewares, including a spinning wheel and a cradle. Moira and I are used to tiny New York City apartments, but we're astounded when the caretaker tells us that Hyde and his wife raised 10 children in the 20-by-25-foot room.

It's only at this point in the trip that we realize we haven't actually gone out on the water yet, so we decide to take the car ferry from Grand Isle to Plattsburgh, N.Y., home to a state university. The ride lasts 12 minutes each way, just long enough to get out of the car and scramble up to the top deck. As I scan the surface of the water for Champ, Vermont's Loch Ness Monster, I get the full effect of the lake's size (435 square miles). It's so long that, looking south, I can actually see sailboats disappear over the horizon.

Adams Landing B&Bis a five-minute drive from the ferry. Sally Coppersmith and Jack Sartore moved from Burlington in 1999 and opened their lakefront home up to guests last year. There are three rooms in the main house and an attached apartment for longer stays. While chatting with us over wine and cheese on the covered porch, Jack mentions that he's planning to dry-dock his motorboat for the winter the following week. Perhaps because we're the only guests that night, he offers to take us out on a sunset cruise, one of the last of the season for him. We hug the north shore of the island and shoot straight through The Gut, a small bay that separates North Hero and Grand Isle. When Jack swings the boat around and sets a course for home, we're headed southwest, so we have an extraordinary view of the red-orange sun as it slips behind the Adirondacks.


  • Lake Champlain Transportation Company802/864-9804, ferries.com, $15.50 round trip for a car and passenger


  • Adams Landing B&B1 Adams Landing Rd. Ext., Grand Isle, 802/372-4830, adamslandingvt.com, from $110


  • Hyde Log Cabin228 Rte. 2, Grand Isle, 802/828-3051, open Thurs.-Mon., $1

Day 4: Grand Isle to Burlington

Sally prepares a breakfast of Western omelets, hash browns, and buttery croissants and serves it on the screened-in porch. We leave Adams Landing reluctantly and drive south toAllenholm Farm, Vermont's oldest working orchard. In business since 1870 and run now by the fourth, fifth, and sixth generations of the Allen family, the 300-acre farm has a gift shop, tractor rides, and a small petting zoo. Moira and I join a bunch of families on a wagon ride to the orchard. Five minutes later, we're filling our bags with Northern Spy, one of my favorite varieties of red apple. At one point, we turn a corner and come face-to-face with a grazing donkey.

Grapes tend to thrive in South Hero, too. Nine-year-oldSnow Farm Vineyardis Vermont's first commercial winery, and it's still the only one in the islands. The varietals, including seyval blanc, Riesling, and vignoles, are similar to those grown near the Finger Lakes. We taste four of the wines for free, and then I pony up $2.50 to try the ice wine. I'm skeptical: Vermont cheddar, Vermont maple syrup, even Vermont salsa--but Vermont wine? It's a nice surprise, sweet and fruity, with a hint of honey. In other words, a beautiful addition to tomorrow's picnic.


  • Allenholm Farm111 South St., South Hero, 802/372-5566, peck of apples $4
  • Snow Farm Vineyard190 W. Shore Rd., South Hero, 802/372-9463

Finding your way

This trip is not about great distances: Burlington International Airport (served by JetBlue, US Airways, and Continental Express, among others) is less than an hour from the Sandbar causeway that leads to Grand Isle, and it takes mere minutes to get from one island to another. The islands are connected by small bridges, and there are no tolls. While it's difficult to get lost, you'll still want a good map. The Chamber of Commerce in North Hero, next door to Hero's Welcome, gives out free maps of the area (802/372-8400, champlainislands.com). To time the trip right, you might check out Vermont Tourism's Foliage Fore-caster at vermontvacation.com.

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Jamaica: 'We'll Have to Relax on the Next Trip to the Islands'

Marney and John Jones are recent retirees living in Snellville, Ga., just outside Atlanta. Anything but novice travelers, they've visited Copenhagen, Paris, and Santa Barbara, Calif., in the past year. But a trip to Jamaica has Marney befuddled. "We're senior citizens, and I may be having a senior moment," she says. "But I just can't seem to figure out the best way to plan this trip." The problem is that John and Marney aren't heading off for a simple week at the beach. Their 26-year-old son, John Jr., the youngest of six, is engaged to Jamaica native Tarsha White. The wedding is to be held in February at the resort area of Ocho Rios, and all four of them want to see ahead of time where the ceremony and reception will take place. That's only one reason for the trip, however. Their visit coincides with a traditional two-day ceremony dedicated to Tarsha's grandmother, who passed away last year. Since the festivities are being held in a fishing village that's an hour east of capital city Kingston--and about three hours over winding mountain roads from Ocho Rios--the family is going to see a lot more of Jamaica than the average tourist does. Adding to the complexity, Marney and John plan to attend a family reunion in Daytona Beach, Fla., after their week in Jamaica. Flights from Jamaica to Daytona involve at least one stop, so we present the Joneses with a handful of options, including returning to a larger Florida hub or booking a standard round trip from Atlanta, followed by a cheap AirTran one-way to Daytona. Eventually, Marney and John go with a Delta ticket from Atlanta to Kingston, returning from Kingston to Fort Lauderdale, nonstop in both directions. "We want to make it as hassle-free as possible," says Marney. From Fort Lauderdale, they'll rent a car and drop it off in Daytona, where they'll meet family and later catch a ride back to Georgia. Tarsha will be able to serve as cultural guide, but she won't be with Marney and John all the time. We offer a few bits of knowledge that'll come in handy for any visitor to Jamaica. Skip over gypsy taxis in favor of government-sanctioned JUTA cabs, which have red license plates. Most taxis aren't metered, so it's smart to agree on a price in advance. Feel free to ask for a quote in American dollars. (U.S. currency is widely accepted, and US$1 equals about J$65.) Most Jamaicans are polite and friendly, and like to be acknowledged. Give a friendly hello or a nod of the head to anyone and everyone. "Good night!" is a typical Jamaican evening greeting; it doesn't necessarily mean good-bye. John and Marney will meet up with John Jr. and Tarsha (who are flying in from Washington, D.C.) in Kingston at midday on a Friday. The ceremony for Tarsha's grandmother begins the next day, and some of Tarsha's family is staying that night at Whispering Bamboo Cove Resort in Morant Bay. "What do you think about that for our hotel choice?" asks Marney. The resort is an affordable gem, with views of the ocean and the Blue Mountains, and access to a private beach. The nearby, candy-cane-striped Morant Point Lighthouse is the oldest in Jamaica, built in 1841 on the island's easternmost tip, and makes for a fine photo op. Marney has arthritis, so for Saturday morning we recommend a relaxing soak at the Bath Fountain Hotel & Spa, eight miles north of Morant Bay. The 127-degree waters have been sought out for their healing powers for more than 300 years. A 20-minute dip costs $10, and attendants generally expect a $1 to $2 tip. Tarsha's family is gathering in the village of Old Pera, where her late grandmother was a shopkeeper. John Jr. is looking forward to watching his fiancée go back to her roots. "I really love to hear Tarsha speak patois," says John Jr., referring to the Jamaican Creole islanders use. On Saturday evening, everyone takes part in the traditional rites of Cumina, a religion based on reverence for ancestors; it was brought to the island centuries ago by Africans. The term Cumina is derived from two words in the Twi language of Ghana: akom (possession) and Ana (ancestor). The event honoring the deceased, which includes singing, dancing, and playing the drums, is anything but a sad occasion. "Tarsha's Grandmom's funeral last year was unexpected and sad," says John Jr. "Now we're going to celebrate Grandmom's life, and enjoy the island as a family." On Sunday morning, the headstone will be placed on the grave, officially ending the ceremony. The Joneses then can spend the afternoon sightseeing in Kingston. John Jr. is interested in National Heroes Park, a former racetrack just north of downtown where Jamaican luminaries such as black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey and former premier Norman Manley are buried. "Marcus Garvey is one of my heroes, so I really look forward to seeing his monument," says John Jr. A colorful changing of the guard takes place on the hour. For tasty snacks, vendors sell boiled crabs and roast corn. Marney, who's Jewish, is curious about Shaare Shalom Synagogue. Jews from Portugal and Spain were among Jamaica's first colonial settlers. A few hundred Jews live on the island today, and the gorgeous building is the only synagogue still in use. We tell Marney to notice the floors: They're covered in sand, a tradition conceived in part to muffle sounds during the Inquisition. All the Joneses are reggae fans and want to see the Bob Marley Museum. We break the news that it's closed on Sundays, but fortunately they should have time to visit later in the trip. Before heading back to their hotel, they simply must taste the chicken or pork at Chelsea Jerk Centre. A family friend will drive the foursome through the mountainous interior to Ocho Rios on Monday. John is dreading the drive. "He hates high mountain roads," says Marney. "I make him nervous whenever I say, 'Look at that view!' " Once in Ocho Rios, there are plenty of distractions to help John forget about the fact that they'll be back on the same roads in a few days. To cool off, they might swing by Dunns River Falls, where tourists can either climb the leveled falls as part of a human chain led by a guide or amble along a boardwalk bordering the falls. Dunns River is a very popular excursion for cruise ships, which dock at Ocho Rios on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. The cruise crowds usually clear out by 2 P.M., so an afternoon visit makes sense on those days. Otherwise, early morning is usually the least crowded time to cool off at the falls. Another way to have fun--and get wet--is a river excursion on bamboo rafts with Calypso Rafting. Marney thinks she'd enjoy rafting, but tells us that she faces an uphill battle. "My husband, the grouch, thought it was a lot of money, but I'm working on him," she says. Marney has been fascinated with dolphins since she was a child and says "swimming next to one would be the experience of a lifetime." We suggest Dolphin Cove, but seeing as John balked at the $50 rafting trip, he's not going to be thrilled to hear that 30 minutes of swimming with the dolphins costs $179. The group is staying three nights at the RIU Ocho Rios, where the wedding ceremony will take place, and will have lunch one day at the restaurant that's hosting the reception, The Ruins. "The sea at Ocho Rios is the most beautiful ice-blue water," says Tarsha, who's lived in the U.S. for 14 years but has always wanted to get married in Jamaica. "And the waterfall at The Ruins is breathtaking. What more perfect scene for a wedding?" The Joneses love coffee, so if their driver takes them through the Blue Mountains on the way back to Kingston they should stop at one of the many roadside coffee "factories." These are usually little more than simple stands where a couple of workers roast beans in what looks like a large frying pan over an open fire. Prices should be haggled over, but the beans are generally much cheaper than what you'd pay in tourist areas. Before flying home, the Joneses will finally get a chance to check out the Bob Marley Museum, in the building that was both the reggae legend's residence and his recording studio. To see the museum's collection, which includes platinum records, concert memorabilia, and the bullet holes in the room where Marley survived a 1976 assassination attempt, visitors must take a tour. The last one leaves at 4 P.M. "I bought one of the Wailers' albums in the '70s, and was an immediate fan," says John. "Going to the museum with Tarsha and John Jr., who are also Marley fans, will be meaningful. He was an artist whose music touched many generations." Surprise! Goldeneye, the one-time home of James Bond creator Ian Fleming and current exclusive resort owned by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, is letting our foursome have the run of the place for an afternoon, at no charge. They'll be welcomed with a tour of the 15-acre property, a buffet lunch of traditional Jamaican cuisine, access to a private beach and Jet Skis, and the resort's cool new adventure: snorkeling with stingrays. Lodging Whispering Bamboo Cove Resort Morant Bay, 876/982-2912, discoverjamaica.com/whisper.html, from $50 RIU Ocho Rios 888/666-8816, riu.com/ochorios, all-inclusive from $126 per person Food Chelsea Jerk Centre 7 Chelsea Ave., Kingston, 876/926-6322, quarter chicken $3 The Ruins 17 Da Costa Dr., Ocho Rios, 876/974-8888, lunch buffet $15 Activities Goldeneye Oracabessa, 800/688-7678, islandoutpost.com, Stingray City excursion $55 Bath Fountain Hotel & Spa 876/703-4345, $10 per couple Shaare Shalom Synagogue 31 Charles St., Kingston, 876/922-5931, video and tour $5 Dunns River Falls Ocho Rios, 876/974-5944, dunnsriverja.com, $15 Calypso Rafting Ocho Rios, 876/974-2527, calypsorafting.com, $50 per raft (two people) Dolphin Cove Ocho Rios, 876/974-5335, dolphincovejamaica.com, $179 Bob Marley Museum 56 Hope Rd., Kingston, 876/927-9152, bobmarley-foundation.com/museum.html, $10 How Was Your Trip? "It took us about two and a half weeks to get out to L.A.," says Lisa Levine, whom we coached on a cross-country drive from Boston with her boyfriend, John Craig. "We followed a lot of your suggestions and went out on our own, too. The trip was fantastic! We would have loved to spend more time in every place we saw. Some of our favorite moments include Ojo Caliente spa, listening to a jazz guitarist while eating beignets in New Orleans, and drinking yummy margaritas and shopping in Santa Fe. We also loved walking around Austin, camping just outside Sedona, and eating great food in Louisville and Memphis." (The photo was taken on famous Beale Street in Memphis.)