A leaf less ordinary – Vermont (The Independent)

There’s a missing persons notice on the door of an ice cream parlour in Woodstock. It’s been smartly designed, in a fine bookish font, with a portrait of its teenage subject, Dylan. There’s something peculiar about it though. On inspection, the wording reveals that the aforementioned male teen has been missing since… the night before. Picture the scene: ‘If you’re not back before midnight young man, we’re calling the police! Again!’

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On first sight, Woodstock looks like rock and roll never happened, never mind punk.  It’s almost too pretty, too perfect – row upon row of whitewashed New England wood beam homes, storefronts and steeples. A row of Star Spangled Banners billow from flagpoles all along the main shopping thoroughfare. The current week’s events are chalked up on the noticeboard outside of the church hall. The facade of the general store, F.H. Gillingham, still looks much as it must have done when it opened in 1886, while bonnets and 20s lace dresses hang in the window of the Who is Sylvia? boutique. One of the few forms of teenage rebellion probably involves upping sticks and sodding off to nearby Boston or New York City.

It’s not just State-central Woodstock – not to be confused with the New York town of the same name, which Joni sang about but didn’t make it to – but Vermont as a whole: If there was a place for which the word ‘twee’ was invented, it’s Vermont. Not that it cares. It relishes its photogenic, insular, different-kind-of-21st century nature so much that the movement for a Second Vermont Republic, with autonomy from the US government, has the support of over a tenth of the population. Who can blame them? Vermont’s towns may look like all-American Disney projects – shiny, scrubbed, healthy and wealthy, but they’re populated by the kind of current affairs savvy, cultured, left of centre types who clutch their pearls at the rest of the nation’s obesity, poor literacy standards and political ignorance.

Vermont hates corporate America. McDonalds may wearily lay claim to ‘billions served’ but none of them have been Supersized in the Vermont capital of Montpelier, which continues to refuse the golden arches permission to set up shop. This is a State big on craft, fine food and independent farm produce.

The ceramics and glassware of Simon Pearce, in Quechee Gorge, are wedding listed across the country while even the most low key corner shop stocks a variety of locally produced sausages and maple syrups. Okay, so the end-of-tour Flavoroom, with its free scoops of Cherry Garcia, at the Ben and Jerry’s Factory in Waterbury remains a stellar tourist draw, but it’s a mixture of State-pride and guilty pleasure: The first store opened here in Burlington in 1978 and it’s still seen as a local-boys-done-good success story. The factory is a place of pilgrimage for ice cream aficonados, as much for the Flavor Graveyard (there really are tombstones) as anything. Though there’ve undeniably been some terrible judgements in taste which have quite rightly been shelved, shame on them for discontinuing Oh My! Apple Pie!, one of the best things to come out of Vermont since Bob Newhart’s inventively titled 80s sitcom, Newhart.

At Twin Farms (www.twinfarms.com) in Barnard, one of the most luxe resorts in North America, fine dining is at 8pm sharp, nightly, and the kitchen is obsessed with local produce, from heirloom tomatoes to the full dairy spectrum of small scale production cheeses. When the waiter explains each dish, it’s like the Marks & Spencer adverts: ‘This isn’t just an amuse bouche, this is…’ etc.  Though there’s a vaguely set menu, every guest has been grilled about likes, dislikes and allergies before even getting near the discreet unmarked gates of the property. It’s an all inclusive, open-bar, fill-your-boots country retreat fantasy for wealthy urbanites who like their Fortnum’s-style picnics laid out for them next to the private boating lake that’s so pretty, one doubts there could be a millimetre for improvement. ‘If you’d like some champagne sent to your room, just call. Any time. Any time at all’, they promise. Twenty minutes after a shameless post-post-post-cocktails call, sometime after midnight, they deliver: A basket with Veuve, several bottles of San Pellegrino and a plate of elaborately arranged cheddars appears through the woods, on the back of a golf cart, at the doors of the Hugh Hefner grotto meets Frank Lloyd Wright mid century modern Aviary suite; just what you need to get the best from its candlelit hot tub. The whole experience is a little like going to stay at a particularly wealthy and hedonistic aunt’s country estate, with particularly nice cheese.

At the other end of the food and lodgings spectrum, there’s the very lovely Lareau Farm Inn (www.lareaufarminn.com) which has smart and homely rooms called, amongst other single name attributes, ‘respect’, ‘beauty’ and ‘kindness’. A night in ‘forgiveness’ will cost you less than $100, and if you eat at the management’s American Flatbread rustic-cool pizza restaurant on-site, you should experience ‘love’ and ‘wonder’ too – it’s as good as breadstuffs with topping can be.

Most of the places to stay in Vermont are petite, button-cute inns, just like the one Bob Newhart ran in his sitcom back in the day. Jaded New Yorkers often talk of decamping here for new lives – half of gay civil-partnered-up Chelsea daydreams about opting out of the Manhattan rat race, retiring while it’s still looking buff from the gym, and opening up a B&B with a Jack Russell and a rose garden. Actually, if gay Chelsea reinvented New England’s Amish, the result might look something like Vermont: The pitchfork wielding farmer and wife of American Gothic, moisturised and all Kiehl’d up… twee, still, perhaps, but with a keen eye for interiors and patisserie to die for.

Those Émigré New Yorkers are in unique company: The Von Trapp’s (yes, those ones) opened a guest house here in 1950 and the surviving members still have an interest in the resort, the Trapp Family Lodge (www.trappfamily.com) that expanded in the 80s in Stowe. That the Von Trapp’s opted to live here is hardly surprising. The liberal political climate aside, there’s a decidedly Alpine quality to Vermont, particularly in the winter months when ski season starts.

The slopes are a big draw, but not as big as the autumn leaves before them, which are categorically the state’s big feature presentation. ‘Leaf peeping’ is what the locals call the recreational pursuit of touring around the blazing gold, orange, yellow, purple and brown branches of the mountain forests. It’s not just the plethora of flora in the State that makes it such a beauty spot during the weeks of mists and mellow fruitfulness, it’s the way the forests seems to form tiered waves across to the horizon, as if landscaped purposely for your viewing pleasure.

The best way to ‘do’ Vermont in the autumn is as a road trip –  in under a fortnight you’ve prett much done it all. It’s one of the most manageable areas of the US to drive around – the whole State is only 159 miles long. You can make it from the southern end of the Green Mountain National Forest to the northern tip of Lake Champlain in a day. It’s also easy to get to its southern borders from either New York City or Boston, and once within them, you replace the aggressive interstate highways with two-lane scenic routes.

Driving upstate, you wind through valleys and vistas and past barns-aplenty, many with humungous American flags hung over their fronts. You stop off to peruse the Robert Frost in the second hand bookstores of Jamaica, and the Colby Cheese at the Crowley dairy in Healdville, and you start thinking how very American it all is, and yet how totally different it is from the America that’s been built by Starbucks and its ilk. This is the America the pilgrims probably dreamt of existing one day when they first arrived. As for Dylan, it turns out that he had, indeed, just skipped town for some big city stimulation. The police report that he phoned home a week later to say he was doing fine. Chances are he’ll be back one day, once he’s tired of Republican politics and corporate latte. He might even be delighted to be a natural born Vermontian and passport holder, once the borders close.

State lines: Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Canada

Population: 608,827

Area: 9,250 square miles, around 1/15th the size of Greater London

Capital: Montpelier

Date in Union: 4 March 1971

Flower: Red clover

Motto: “Freedom and unity”

Nickname: The Green Mountain State

Getting and staying there

Mark C.O’Flaherty travelled as a guest of Black Tomato (020 7610 9008; http://www.blacktomato.co.uk) who offer a seven-day driving tour of Vermont from £1,999 per person. Price is based on two sharing and includes flights with Virgin Atlantic (www.virginatlantic.com), car hire, three nights all inclusive at Twin Farms in Barnard, two nights at The Lauren in Woodstock, and two nights at the Windham Hill Inn, Jamaica.

Visiting there

Ben and Jerry’s Factory, Rte 100, Waterbury (001 802 882 1240; http://www.benjerry.com). Daily October-June 10am-6pm; July-mid August 9am-9pm; mid August-late October 9am-7pm; $3 ($2 seniors; children free).

Crowley Cheese, 14 Crowley Lane, Healdville (001 802 259 2340; www.crowleycheese-vermont.com). Monday-Friday 8am-4pm.

Simon Pearce, 1760 Main Street, Quechee (001 802 295 2711; www.simonpearce.com). Daily 9am-9pm.

More information

http://www.1-800-vermont.com

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