Category Archives: Vermont

Two Very Different Sides of Lake Champlain

Lake Champlain is America’s sixth largest freshwater lake, and was once a hot spot of colonial military activity. Amid bear carving shops, ski resorts, and cafes serving fluffy flapjacks with thick bacon are forts and other nods to the region’s colonial past. Could 18th century northeastern Americans settling here have predicted that the lake would one day divide neighbors? To the west of Lake Champlain is the Adirondack Mountains, with 6.1 million acres of protected, rugged landscape where barely anything consistently grows. To the east is Vermont, the very name itself conjuring up images of gentle, undulating shades of green, a pastoral Eden where so much is not just grown but grown thoughtfully and sustainably, that early 21st century buzzword. Both sides are abundantly beautiful, yet so different it’s surprising they share the same body of water.

Last week, we vacationed on both sides, canoeing and swimming in Saranac Lake, biking and strolling through giant sculptures in downtown Stowe. Through it all I read Bill McKibben’s book “Wandering Home” which talks about his three-week trek across the region. As a guy who owns houses on both sides, he offered probably one of the best points of view.

We fantasize about owning property on either side of the lake. New Yorkers often talk about their summer vacations in the context of how long it took them to wind down. We talk about our summer vacations in the context of re-entry and how difficult it always is. Since buying our charming, small house down the road from McMansion country in the frenetic Jersey burbs, we have lamented about sawing the house from its foundation, freeing it from Governor Chris Christie’s jurisdiction, and hoisting it on to a truck bound north to the Champlain Valley.

Do people know that point when a vacation becomes a calling? I’m not sure I do. We scanned real estate listings around Mirror Lake in the Adirondacks. The Adirondacks is where people tough out harsh, long winters and jagged roads. I’ve done that before. It’s where people hike, bike, and ski. I’ve done that, too. Being in the Adirondacks inspires you to strap on snowshoes and go for a 10-mile walk just to reconnect with the world. The Adirondacks is brawny, among the last areas in the northeastern United States, with some exceptions along coastal Maine, that still feel wild. We nearly ran out of gas along Route 3 in the mountains, assuming, the way suburban people do, that another town with a gas station lay just ahead. After 10 miles of waiting for that next gas station, we pulled over and were told by a postal worker we were 16 miles from any gas pump. What was between us and the next gas station? More hills leading to more mountains.

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Cross Lake Champlain and enter a different universe, small white churches connected to winding country roads. Green, rolling farmland. Horses grazing. Charm is law in Vermont. The mountains calm down on this side of the lake, and the land yields more to farmers. Entrepreneurship thrives here, with many living off the land because the land allows for so much more. It’s artisanal this and handcrafted that. Ice cream made with milk squeezed from cows gnawing on grass just up the street. Just being in Vermont makes you feel more civic-minded and greener. You feel compelled to buy an antique churn and start making your own butter. You feel more accountable about where and how you spend your money.

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Thankfully, no one impulsively put a deposit down on a vacation property last week, though sometimes I like to look at the bank account and contemplate crunching the math. Even if we didn’t get to visit as often as we’d like, just “owning” a little blue jagged chunk of the Adirondacks or a soft, fertile, green chunk of Vermont would result in a permanent smile on my face. I laugh easily, but knowing our rural oasis up north awaited, well, that would be bliss.

Get Sappy

Maple syrup making is a sticky business (that’s right…I went there). Just ask my neighbors to the north where there was an $18 million maple syrup heist–about 3,000 tons worth–in Quebec resulting in several arrests. Maple syrup cartels? Yeah, we got some of those here in our cold corner of the world. Maple syrup tourism is also big business, attracting outdoorsy types and city slickers interested in how the stillness of maple trees yields so much golden revenue or wanting to try new culinary dishes in which a splash or two of maple syrup complements or draws out the flavor of an entree.


Maple syrup is indigenous to North America, so for visitors coming to United States for the very first time, perhaps skip burgers and hot dogs and treat yourself to a true taste of the land. We’ve got plenty. My favorite state in the union, Vermont, is the biggest producer of maple syrup with 75,000 acres of Vermont forests churning out more than $32 million worth of maple syrup. Not surprisingly, it shares a border with Canada’s biggest maple syrup producer, Quebec province, which pumps from its trees between 70 and 80 percent of the world’s maple syrup. Thus, the maple leaf on the nation’s flag.

Peak maple syrup season is happening now, when days get warmer but nights are still cold–that’s when the sap starts to rise inside the trees. Taps start tapping when maple trees reach a certain level of maturity, around 30 to 40 years. This is a great time to savor nature’s bounty, an act usually reserved for fall. Tour the sugar shacks or “cabane a sucre” in Quebec or book a weekend at a cozy inn in Vermont and enjoy homemade pancakes with fresh syrup or maple syrup fondue with fruit (one of my favorites). Anyone who reads this blog knows I could go on and on about Vermont and Quebec. I also gush about Vermont and Quebec for CheapOAir. That’s because both regions are beautiful and the food is sublime. One of my favorite places for maple fondue is Le Petit Chateau, a small restaurant next to the giant hotel Le Chateau Frontenac, an extremely classy place worth putting on the credit card. Here I am in downtown Quebec enjoying Le Petit Chateau’s maple fondue paired with a flute of hard apple cider. Both went down easily.


Talking about maple syrup has me thinking it’s time to book a weekend at a favorite Vermont hotel, TopNotch Resort and Spa or maybe we’ll return to Basin Harbor Club where we got married. I’ll let you know where we land.

Flying High Over the Adirondacks

My husband and I are frequently up by 6 am; he works out at 5:30 am. So why the hell would we wake up voluntarily at 5:45 am, fumble through the cold and pitch dark and drive 10 miles from our hotel? Here’s why:

The Adirondack Balloon Festival in Glen Falls, New York, was held over the fall equinox, and gave me the chance for a last summer swim in Lake George followed by a hot cup of coffee on a crisp newborn fall day. I thought it would be a fun, inexpensive weekend jaunt and maybe we’d catch a little fall color up north. On our drive up we spotted fall color and witnessed a meteor falling. That was a first.

I had never been to a balloon festival and the one time Mike and I tried to ride a balloon in Napa Valley 13 years ago, the flight was cancelled due to wind. Weather interfered again, as it often does, this time with rain. I was worried the weekend was going to be a total washout. We were upstate, wandering about, getting soaked, occasionally enjoying leaves and lake, but I really wanted balloons. We returned to Floyd Bennett Memorial Airport at 6:30 am Sunday morning, the final day of the festival, hoping weather and wind would oblige.

Nature delivered! We stood on a muddy field while pilots and crews dragged hot air balloons all around us. Balloons snored and panted while being pumped with air. They lay partially deflated on one side against the cool grass like giant, lazy, loyal dogs. Then suddenly, the balloons were nudged and completely vertical. Time to get up–literally. Pilots fired up, hopped into their baskets, and took off. And the whole process only took a few minutes for each balloon. Once afloat over the field, they glided across the Adirondacks while sun filled the sky. Now that’s worth getting out of bed ridiculously early.

The balloon festival lasts three days with music, games, crafts and other activities, so families can certainly make a full weekend out of it. This year marked the festival’s 40th anniversary. The balloon festival accounted for an hour of our weekend. We watched that glorious Sunday morning flight of the balloons until they were far adrift in the clouds, just a pattern of polka dots on a pink and gray feathery swath of sky.

So how else did we spend the time? We explored. We hiked. We walked around downtown. We checked out to see if there were any ghosts haunting Fort William Henry, where we overheard a cashier complaining of eerie footsteps and the sound of men moving about even though she was alone in the shop. I also mentioned my “where did summer go” plunge into Lake George where I actually grabbed a few short laps on a 56-degree day. The air was chilly, but the water was still warm from the summer sun.

We dined twice at Flapjack Pete’s in downtown Lake George; the restaurant’s cinnamon-flavored butter and creative uses of antlers in its decor made it worth the second trip (plus the service was awesome, the bacon was sublime–and plentiful, too plentiful–and the flapjacks were spot-on!). The breakfasts are indeed colossal. To quote my daughter, “bacon is a sometimes food.” Just sometimes I eat too much of it. I strongly recommend following any time at Flapjack Pete’s with a brisk hike in the Adirondacks to undo the cardiovascular damage. Or kayak Lake George–the beaches and hotel grounds were littered with colorful kayaks resting on their sides, like tired hot air balloons.

Downtown Lake George is quite cute, and there are plenty of tchotchke shops, arcades, and fast food joints on the main drag. You can picture Polaroid shots of families spending their summers there. The downtown area and surrounding hotels and motels looked a bit frozen in the 1960s, faded signage still luring visitors. It’s like this beautiful, serene, heavenly slice of natural wonder–Lake George and the Adirondack Mountains–with a big plastic snow globe in the middle. I wasn’t expecting upscale and I’m not even sure what upscale means anymore since it’s a word that has been about as watered-down as ‘luxury,’ but I was surprised to encounter such a dated, plastic feel to a place. It felt like picking up an old toy, this artificiality tucked in the mountains.

I also noticed a dearth of nature’s influences on the restaurants there. When strolling the main street, we found plenty of eateries that would serve us fried cheese and the usual middle-America fare, but no one was dishing up any garden-to-table cuisine despite flyers for farmers’ markets everywhere.

This intrigued me, and in a way, struck me as very different from Vermont, which was spitting distance from the border. Vermont, who fights Wal-Mart; Vermont which is home to the one of the nation’s only Institute for Artisan Cheese (no fried cheese there!); Vermont, which makes it easier for its residents to live up to its agricultural war cry “Buy Local. Buy Vermont.” My husband’s response was that farm-to-table dining is considered upscale, but this isn’t true. Farm-to-table dining is common sense in the era of industrialized Big Food. Farm-to-table is a return to simply eating what was grown nearby; you grew it, you cleaned it, you cooked it, you ate it, and you canned, jellied, froze whatever leftover bounty the garden offered (yes, we had a garden growing up).

Again, this was only observational–lots of flyers promoting area farmers’ market, but farm fresh wasn’t anywhere on the menus where we tried to eat. We did visit the Glens Falls Farmers’ Market at the South Street Pavilion and I bought some organic zucchini I later shredded and baked into bread. I thought a farmers market would’ve been a great idea at the balloon festival. Watch dozens of hot air balloons of all shapes and colors take off, grab some fresh zucchini to go. Feel connected to sky and earth all in one place.

Taking it Easy at the Foot of Mount Mansfield

Next Sunday is All Species Day in the capital city of Vermont, a spring festival that sounds like it would be as old as the Green Mountains itself, but actually took off during the 1980s. Unfortunately, we missed the party in Montpelier by just a few weeks, but managed to enjoy an unseasonably warm day in northern Vermont and appreciated the species we did encounter along the trail and on our dinner plates.

I’m now convinced the time to enjoy Vermont is not October for its foliage or February for the slopes but in April when there are fewer people around. In the winter Mount Mansfield– just shy of 4,400 feet, Vermont’s tallest mountain–dominates scene and sky in Stowe, attracting hikers and skiers from all over. Traffic chokes the little downtown area. Winter gives way to spring, and the state flows with mud and maple syrup. That’s when you get Vermont to yourself. Because then vacationers trickle back for summertime swimming and hiking along Lake Champlain, about a half-hour drive from Stowe, and then the traffic peaks again for fall foliage. We visited at the perfect time–early April when the skiing season was over plus the lack of heavy winter snowfall meant a not-so-muddy-spring, so for 48 hours at Top Notch Resort and Spa we enjoyed Stowe mostly to ourselves.

Top Notch ended up being a centerpoint of our short time there and it was from Top Notch where we enjoyed Mount Mansfield. We took advantage of the outdoor heated pool, the outdoor hot tub, and then once our skin had puckered from so much time in the water and the sun had set, we bundled up in fleece from head to toe and sat by the fire, which is near the pool, and for about $8, roasted a bowl full of marshmallows and made S’mores. How many resorts claim S’mores among their amenities?

Top Notch S’mores are affordable, but their breakfasts and dinners are on the pricey side, especially since we had blown through too much money in Quebec thanks to the lack of street meat for sale. Coming toward the end of our vacation as well as the end of our budget, we explored breakfast and dinner options in downtown Stowe. McCarthys delivers on inexpensive, wholesome, big old-fashioned American breakfasts. We filled up on eggs, bacon, toast, granola, home fries, orange juice and coffee for under $25 for three people. The best way to work off a big New England breakfast is with a contemplative walk through the woods. A few minutes down the road from Top Notch is Smugglers Notch State Park and a trail to Bingham Falls–a path that’s pretty family-friendly although there was some mud and kids need to be aware of, and I love how the sign stated this, “the unstable environment.” Basically, don’t veer from the path and roam toward the edges where it can be very muddy and people can slip and fall.

Continuing with our perfect Vermont day, our hike was followed by the famous Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory tour in nearby Waterbury, and a wonderful impromptu stop at the glass blowing studio of Glenn Ziemke who was demonstrating the craft he had mastered over 37 years to whomever walked in that day.

Peace, love and ice cream…

…followed by watching shards of glass melt into a tumbler. Rather mesmerizing, actually. Glenn uses old spaghetti sauce jars to store his supplies.

Learning about glass blowing (and purchasing some blown glass) was followed by more swimming to work up an appetite for Frida’s Taqueria and Grill in downtown Stowe. I was initially skeptical about Mexican cuisine in Vermont, but some tourists from Ohio who were unwinding in the hot tub the same time we were persuaded me to give Frida’s a go. Only in New England will you find a hopping cantina on the ground floor of an early 19th century Colonial that’s decorated with the work of a 20th century bisexual Communist Mexican artist of German heritage. The guacamole prepared tableside is truly delicious, and while I’ve been spoiled by some delicious cantinas here in metropolitan New York, the entrees at Frida’s were surprisingly good.

I wish we could party at Frida’s this Saturday to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, then we could grab a few zzz’s before heading to Montpelier for All Species Day on Sunday. Now that would be an awesome Vermont weekend.

Hiking along Bingham Falls

The guacamole at Frida’s was completely consumed shortly after this photo was taken.

And these S’mores disappeared shortly after this photo was taken.

Saying goodnight to Mount Mansfield…


If I wasn’t busy earning a paycheck to pay for the leak in our kitchen and vet care for a new kitten, our next road trip would be to here:

Grass-fed cows…Ben and Jerry’s…Ethan Allen’s ghost…maple syrup…civil unions…skiing…a politically progressive single payer healthcare system,…Magic Hat beer, and, of course, leaf peeping. What’s not to love?

Vermont needs tourists right now. Southern Vermont was flooded by several late-summer storms, including tropical storm Irene, and the state is in dire need of visitors with dollars to spend on said maple syrup and Magic Hat. Autumn is when Vermont really rocks it out, though I admit, I’m partial to the Lake Champlain region in mid-August (that’s where I married Mike). The fall foliage report indicates those golden autumnal colors are surfacing around the Lake Champlain-Burlington area with colors peaking in central Vermont. The temperatures in the Northeast are supposed to reach 80 this weekend; the perfect way to enjoy all those chilly, fall things we enjoy like sipping cider and picking out pumpkins–without actually getting cold! Vermont offers more than 9,600 square miles of rural beauty and, with only a half million people living there, you’re bound to getting a little elbow room and quiet to yourself to take in Green Mountain serenity.

Sadly, we won’t be coming this weekend or even this year, not because of motivation or figuring out where to go, but because the nest and its inhabitants require some upkeep and care, which costs money. I doubt the reality of my budget will ever live up to my travel bucket list, even the quickie getaways, but this is the worst recession since the Great Depression, and part of being a grown-up means prioritizing. Vermont will have to wait until next year for our return. In the meantime, if you’re not saddled with plumbing expenses and vet bills, support the local Vermont economy. Peep at the leaves, buy a jug of maple syrup and don’t forget to pick up a six-pack of Magic Hat. You’ll have an awesome time and probably find yourself scheduling a trip back before you leave state lines.