From its early abolitionist roots and prized dairy, to its stunning foliage and Olympic-class ski runs, Vermont is an American ideal. It is a land of striking color and expression, one which birthed Presidents Arthur and Coolidge, adopted poet Robert Frost and continues to produce iconoclasts like Ben & Jerry's, Phish and Burton Snowboards. Vermonters are farmers and artisans, and above all, wanderers — all of them stewards of this singularly green space. No surprise, then, that Vermont has been christened "the West Coast of New England."
Tiny as it is, the state is a bona fide superstar. Bereft of billboards (outlawed in the '60s) and blessed by the tranquil waters of Lake Champlain, it's comfortably distant from the congested Northeast Corridor. But it's also near enough for weekend jaunts to Boston, Montreal and New York City. Best of all, Vermont is an organic paradise. There's much to do in this northern playground without feeling like a tourist. Whether your agenda is relaxation or adventure, the Green Mountain State can accommodate. Summers are spectacular and winters generous (or notorious, perhaps) at the 44th parallel, but Vermont owes its blue ribbon status to the fleeting days between late September and mid-October. Autumn is truly Vermont's legacy to the world, drawing "flatlanders" to its hills just as they begin to burn bright with crimson and gold.
Picturesque Montpelier is the state capital (America's smallest), but Burlington is undeniably Vermont's hub. Tucked in the northwest, on the shores of Champlain, this surprisingly cosmopolitan city acts twice its size and marks the cornerstone of your fall tour. Consistently named one of America's top towns, Burlington's modest population (roughly 39,000) belies an abundance of activity. From the South End art hop to weekly farmers markets and a lakeside Latin festival, the tapestry of events is considerable. Bewitched by sunny afternoons and cool evenings, there's a palpable skip in everyone's step, so book accommodations downtown. Burlington is flush with B&Bs, like the storybook Willard Street Inn, with its French solarium and iron canopy beds. Each room features a private bath, with many offering Adirondack vistas from the Inn's perch high on the hill. For unbeatable location and Yankee hospitality, stay at the Sunset House near the bottom of Main Street. Only steps from Church Street Marketplace and the bustling waterfront, this Queen Anne-style charmer puts guests close to the action.
There’s also a waterfront Hilton Burlington with stunning westerly views, and the usual smattering of chain hotels a few minutes from town, but Vermont defies convention, and so should you. A little adventure will pay dividends.
VERMONT DAY 1: Lake Champlain, Church Street Marketplace and Magic Hat Brewery
Topped by the University of Vermont's gothic Victorian spires, Burlington slopes precipitously into the sapphire waters of Lake Champlain. Named after 17th-century French explorer Samuel de Champlain, America's "sixth great lake" runs 110 miles from Canada to New York. Once a lumber and textile state, this freshwater corridor served for generations as Vermont's conduit to the outside world — and Burlington's coveted port was its Grand Central station. Twentieth-century stewards have since transformed this resource from transportation hub to urban jewel; Lake Champlain is a panoramic backdrop during your stay in the Queen City.
Among its many trophies, Burlington boasts Church Street Marketplace, an outdoor pedestrian mall that marks the city center. Start your morning over tangerine juice and warm banana bread at Penny Cluse Café. Only seconds from Church Street, locals line up daily for the freshly baked biscuits, lathered with herb cream gravy. Satisfied, it's time to explore Vermont's famous promenade. Laden with cafés, boutiques and street vendors, Church Street is a cornucopia of local color, all nestled within a four-block stretch. Stop by Spellbound, a locally-owned boutique carrying the latest women's and men's fashion along with jewelry and gifts. Shoppers will love browsing, but half the fun of Church Street is the surprising characters. One never knows what lurks ahead; perhaps a parade of nude cyclists, or a tightrope walker wowing the crowd.
Between buskers and breakdancers, you can duck into Lake Champlain Chocolates for a mug of their rapturous Aztec cocoa. But save room for lunch, as some of New England's best Chinese food is plated daily at A Single Pebble. Just steps from the shopping lanes, Pebble’s wafting aromas are impossible to miss. Armed with authentic dishes like double garlic eggplant and Beijing street noodles, this is Szechuan with a twist.
Work off those dumplings with a stroll down to verdant Waterfront Park, where sweeping lake and Adirondack views await. Families will love the ECHO Center, a state-of-the-art aquarium perched right on the pier, which showcases some of the Basin's local wildlife. Watch indigenous sturgeon and turtles in lively, natural exhibits, while learning about the history of this amazing watershed. If you're tempted to leave terra firma, now is the time to book passage on one of Burlington's flagship vessels, like the Spirit of Ethan Allen III, a 140-foot luxury liner which tours the lake daily. Or, sail the intimate Friend Ship — a classic schooner that's ideal for tacking through cool waters while hunting for signs of "Champ," Vermont's amiable lake monster. Intrepid travelers can get even closer to the action by slipping into kayaks at Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center. Paddle out to Lone Rock, where you'll explore hidden coves, then leave the boat for a hike under the Point's internationally famous thrust fault. Nothing parches like a good paddle, and with more breweries per capita than anywhere in the country, Vermont is perfect for slaking that thirst.
Head over to the Magic Hat Brewery in South Burlington for tours and spores (their word, not ours). While it sounds a bit dodgy, the hops here are of the highest order, and these self-proclaimed alchemists know how to mix a batch. Nothing satisfies like a cold pint of their apricot-flavored #9. Keep your eyes peeled west for an Adirondack sunset, while pondering the evening's meal.
Gourmands will swoon over Burlington's eclectic restaurant scene — one of New England's finest, for its size. Dip into L'Amante for smoky slices of grilled quail, truffled mashed potatoes and a heady collection of Italian wines.
to Day 2