If you come only for fall foliage, this northern US state will leave you wanting more, writes Thomas Bywater.
If you tried to “build a wall” it would be a thankless task.
Vermont is an unruly American border state, but not quite as you’d expect. Hundreds of acres of woodland running north to south, a proliferation of Canadian sugar maple, the odd moose — Vermont’s surrounds often make it unclear as to what side of the boundary line you are on. In parts it’s almost indistinguishable from neighbouring Canada.
In recent years there has been talk of tightening up the crossing but this
doesn’t seem to have happened. In some places the only thing marking the meeting of countries is a row of potted plants. Compared with the southern border states of Texas and New Mexico, it is wide open. And green.
Vermont has always been a law to itself, although it has done a lot of mellowing since its wild pioneer days.
As you fly into the airport at Burlington, you’re greeted with a hanger with the lettering “Green Mountain Boys 1776”. Now housing the US National Guard, it’s named after the legendary group of smugglers and bandits who banded together during the wars for independence.
Above flies their flag. It’s a carpet of green with 13 stars haphazardly arranged, the poor cousin of today’s star-spangled banner.
Through perfect New England towns, hanging from the front of maple waffle shops, you’ll see the same flag. As you walk down Main St in Stowe you’ll see one outside Shaw’s General Store. The characterful wood-clad building is “one of the oldest shopfronts in the state” a Stowe local proudly explained, “complete with a bullet hole from an historic robbery”. To prove it, he scoured the wooden panels for this historic wound, although after not much searching, gave up, no longer remembering where it was, or what year it had happened.
Yes this was once frontier country but you get the feeling it has grown soft through one too many maple sugar candies and foliage tours.
Since the Republic of Vermont, the cabins in the woods have made way
for a more moneyed, more comfortable type of settler. The “flatlanders” — as
locals refer to them — are from out of state. They’ve made their fortunes in the nameless cities of the plains and moved out to their holiday homes in Vermont.
Perhaps the most illustrious of these were the Rockefellers, whose lasting legacy is the stately Manhattan monolith and, more importantly, the tiny Vermont town of Woodstock.
Their New York millions went into preservation and conservation projects like Billings Model Farm, although it would probably be unrecognisable to the Green Mountain Boys.
It’s a twee, imaginary Americana that existed nowhere else but the imaginations of this family of industrialists. And the result is fantastic.
Big ol’ barns painted a deep toy-farmyard shade of red. Verandas and arched roofs that could serve as a backdrop to Grant Wood’s American Gothic. Vermont’s buildings and wooded mountainside are so wholesome and Disney-fied, you feel it belongs on Kodachrome.
Pastimes here are also packed with outdoorsy schmaltz. It seems there’s not a family in Vermont that doesn’t go hiking, cycling, camping in the summers or do skiing, toboggan, ice-hockey trials in the winters.
For Audra Hughes, owner of Commodities Natural Markets in Stowe and Winooskie, that was part of the appeal.
“No one here seems to give as much importance to what you do for a living, as they do to what you do with your time off,” she says. Having moved to the state from New Jersey, she traded a high-rolling Manhattan media job for her store on Mountain Rd.
Although it may take more than three years and two delicatessen stores to be considered a local, the nicknames for reformed “townies” seem to be affectionate. Vermonters can’t get enough of the flatlanders.
The state recently started offering $10,000 to those willing to relocate to Vermont. (I wonder if this offer extends to New Zealand travel writers?)
If you needed any more reason to move to the Green Mountain State — if only for a week’s holiday — here are some others that might convince you.
The great outdoors
Vermonters rarely seem to step indoors.
Picking up a mountain bike or taking one of the many hiking trails, in hours you can head up into the Green Mountains. From Jay Peak you can look across into Canada, or from Mount Mansfield — when the spring snows have cleared — you can descend back down to Stowe Mountain Resort on an exhilarating three-part zipwire .
The idyllic stone pools of Warren Falls are almost as if nature pre-empted the needs of hikers on a hot summer evening. The woods are full of refreshing swimming spots. Or you can go with the flow and take a gentle paddle down the Boyden Valley River.
From curds and whey to barley, hops and “whehey!” — Vermont also has a burgeoning micro-brewery scene.
There are enough microbreweries in Burlington to service the famous university town, with some to spare. Zero Gravity and Switchback breweries craft niche tipples with names like “cone head” or “little wolf” to suit all tastes.
There’s plenty to see all year round but there’s a reason why Vermont is known for the colour of its leaves. From late September into October the Green Mountains turn shades of school-bus yellow through to alarming red, and it all goes a bit mad.
A tidal wave of tourists rolls south following the turning leaves. The whole thing happens in a couple weeks’ fall-fuelled frenzy. As busloads of visitors arrive in New England for the autumn colours what unfolds is a logistical miracle. There are even foliage reports on the local news.
As I made my way through the reserved and rural towns, it was a surprise to see how much of Vermont wears its politics on its sleeve.
The spectre of Bernie Sanders follows you around the state. Two years on from the fraught election that saw the eccentric senator become a surprise frontrunner and a national star, it’s not clear if the senator ever stopped campaigning.
In the shops you are greeted with a tub of “Bernie’s Yearning” icecream from one half of Ben & Jerry’s icecream, “Feel the Bern” jam still in sell-by date and many of the craft brews bear the senator’s name — including Zero Gravity’s Bernie Weisse, “a slightly sour and foreward-thinking weisse bier”. In spite of stringent labour laws and Sander’s proposed $15 minimum wage, the senator has become something of a celebrity with producers.
He’s helped put Vermont on the map in a way that it wasn’t before.
On the way to the departure lounge at Burlington Airport, it seemed only fitting that there was a Bernie look-a-like in the queue.
Through security screening, fellow passengers greeted him to calls of “Hi, Bernie.”
Finally the suspicions were confirmed after the security agent waved him though, saying “have a great flight, Mr Sanders.”
After a week of seeing his face on everything from jam jars to icecream lids, queuing patiently in the line, it was actually him. I felt a bit star-struck.
To think this man was a couple of twists of fate away from being president 45. And here he is still flying Economy Class to Washington. It says a lot about the state.
I doubt the Potus incumbent has ever seen the inside of an airport security line.
You get the feeling the country could have been very different.
America may now be a more open, outdoorsy place, with better cheese; the US could stand to be a bit more Vermont.
flies from Auckland to Boston, via San Francisco, with return Economy Class fares from $1705.
Burlington is three hours’ drive from Boston. Seven-day car hire from Boston Logan airport with Hertz costs from NZ$390, based on travel in September.
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