Being the designated driver on this little journey, I constantly felt the urge to pull over so that I could get out and appreciate the magnificent terrain we were driving through. What we were seeing was nothing short of magnificent even though the fall colours weren’t quite at their peak. The hills and mountains north of Woodstock were proving to be the most saturated in colour and the only things that make it better are the cute little villages that are nestled amongst it all.
Driving into this village was another one of those postcard moments. Blue sky overhead, dappled light filtering though multi-coloured leaves, red barns, flapping stars & stripes, even a covered bridge. The village itself is nothing more than residential homes, inns, a church and country store. Unless, of course, we were missing a part of town that was hiding in the forest somewhere.
The Warren Store is a nice little place to stop, refuel on coffee, stock up on booze, something from the bakery and deli or even add some local craft to the stuff-you-really-didn’t-need-to-buy pile. You’ve got to love the shaded deck on the side of the store that sits precariously over the jagged Freeman Brook.
About ten minutes up the road is the town of Waitsfield and thanks to being in the area on a Saturday, we got to spend some time checking out the farmers’ market. Nice spot for lunch, methinks! The sun was out, the locals were out enjoying it and we were lucky enough to be part of it. Running from mid May to mid October, the market not only covers the fabulous fresh produce that comes from these parts, but it’s a showcase for local jewellers, craft queens, artists, furniture makers and artisans to show off and sell their wares.
It may be a small market but there’s plenty to choose from when it comes to breakfast or lunch offerings. Baked items, Mexican, yak burgers & sausages, sandwiches, Pak-Afghani food and more. For me it was a slice of pepperoni pizza from Open Hearth Pizza, a nifty little wood-fired set-up on the back of a truck. The whole pizzas barely lasted a minute before there was demand for more.
It wasn’t long before we arrived at the Stowe Inn, just minutes walk from the centre of the village and home for the next couple of days. The winter months see this place as a bustling ski town; something I’d love to return for sometime. No snow in September, however, so we’d just have to make do with gorgeous mountains and a lovely old village complete with white church steeple.
I’d already sniffed out the coffee situation online and it seemed, according to many reviews, that Black Cap was the go-to. Pumpkins on the porch greeted us before we moseyed inside and dosed up on the good stuff. A beautiful noisette-style macchiato with beans roasted by Brave Coffee & Tea, former owners of the café. It’s a cute little place, a little artsy with an adjoining ceramic studio and gallery. Pre-made breakfast sandwiches sit in a cabinet in the mornings plus a variety of tempting pastries and donuts.
After a day of exploration, a little walk along the Recreation Path and several happy hour drinks at the Vermont Ale House, we took a strenuous walk across the road and gave the Bangkok Bistro a go for dinner.
I couldn’t help but sample The Grumpster (10) – a smashing cocktail that seemed rather popular with a few of the glassy-eyed diners around the restaurant. Svedka vodka, Absolut pepper vodka, olive juice and sriracha chilli. It’s very much a dirty martini that slaps you around a little more than normal. And after drinking two I was granted entry into the glassy-eyed club. Incredible cocktail.
As some lovely Kenny G muzak we nibbled on a couple of starters. Mildly-flavoured chicken satay (8) with cucumber and a skerrick of sauce. I liked the sound of the crab angel (7) – fried wontons of crab meat and cream cheese – but the crab seemed to have been playing peek-a-boo as I barely noticed it.
The “staff favourite” chicken Penang curry (17) was of the rather standard varieties you get in any Thai restaurant. Bits of chicken breast, basil, asparagus … yada yada.
The sam rod (25) sounded promising. Partially de-boned duck that’s slow-roasted and then flash-fried. What ruined it was the excessive drenching in basil-pineapple sauce. The beautiful meat was completely overpowered by the sweet and sour sauce; and man was it sickly sweet. Dessert duck, anyone? Excessive use of sugar in American-Thai restaurants was becoming the norm, no matter what part of the country we were in.
Each morning we awoke to a town enshrouded by fog. That time of the year, I guess, and being up really early meant we could see the town in a very different atmosphere and without the day-trippers. It was time to jump into the car, luggage-free and hit the roads and see what went on around the area.
First stop, and before the rest of Vermont’s visitors swarmed, was the Cold Hollow Cider Mill just outside of town. Tourist hotspots are usually a deterrent for us, but when roadside signage declares “Legendary cider donuts”, I find it requires further investigation. Research purposes, you know.
The set-up at the mill is well and truly for the tourists and also very kid friendly. It’s major drawcard is the apple cider (the non-alcoholic stuff); pressed onsite where it’s available cold, hot, mulled or even combined with cranberry juice. The smell of it fills the air and you can even sample some from a self-pour tasting vat.
And then there’s the gift shop. It’s an extravaganza of what Vermont has on offer. Local maple syrup and endless products that contain it, preserves, artisanal products, knick-knacks for the house, kiddies toys, treats for your pooch, even a live beehive.
We couldn’t leave without sampling the cider donuts, so it was a bag of 6 to go. They were barely an hour out of the fryer which meant they retained a little of the external crust. It’s an un-risen and rather cakey and crumbly texture with a mildly spiced apple cider flavour. I’m still unsure as to what makes them legendary.
The plan was to head west and check out Burlington on the east shore of Lake Champlain. Quietly I was wishing we could just drive for another two hours and have lunch in Quebec, Canada, but that would be a little more complicated.
With views of New York State across the lake, the small city of Burlington is the largest city in Vermont. It’s a laid-back kind of place, vibrant and youthful thanks to Vermont Uni being based in town. The four-block Church Street Marketplace pedestrian mall was the busiest area in town; lined with chain stores, independent retailers and places to grab a bite or coffee.
Did someone say coffee?
A bunch of coffee shops dot the length of Church Street but in the middle of the mall is one that buzzed a little more than any other. This was as good a sign as any. Uncommon Grounds roasts its own beans and, I must say, does a pretty good macchiato. Noisette-style, that is. As you elbow your way along the line of I-just-want-to-order-my-coffee punters, there are plenty of sugary treats in the glass cabinet that just may be tempting enough to pair with your coffee. And those that like old coffee machinery may get a thrill from the vintage bits and pieces dotted around the café.
Lunch ended up being at American Flatbread, a place that seems quite the magnet for students with a budget for wood-fired pizza. The sunny rear courtyard was the place to be but sitting inside isn’t too shabby either. And the bonus of having the Zero Gravity Craft Brewery onsite means you can get stuck into their beers in the Tap Room as you sink your teeth into pizza straight from the fire.
Both of us initially ordered a small pizza each but the waitress suggested we get a large and do half-half as it was better value. You’ve gotta love the honesty. Dancing heart (11.5/7.25) on one side – Italian grana padano, toasted sesame, garlic oil – and on the other was the New Vermont sausage (19.75/11.5). Homemade pork & fennel sausage, sun dried tomato, mushrooms, cheese, herbs and caramelised onion. It’s a very thin base – just as we like it – with a beautifully chewy and crispy crust.
Prior to our Burlington departure – as brief as our visit was – we needed another dose of caffeine to keep our hearts pumping at our preferred rate. On Main Street is another little place that’s seemingly as jumping as Uncommon Grounds. Walking into Muddy Waters is like entering a dimly-lit barn-like space. Roughly hewn beams and wooden walls, stained glass and floorboards kind of made me want to get up and do-si-do up to the counter to place our orders. Don’t think that would have gone down too well.
Detouring our way back to Stowe took us through the mountains on Route 108 where we stopped on the hairpin turns at a very popular hiking area. The Sterling Pond trek is virtually uphill all the way; up stone steps and then onto an eroded trail that’s rocky and a bit muddy thanks to trickling run-off from the mountain. A good chunk of the hike takes you through stunning deciduous forest with the occasional glimpse through the canopy and over neighbouring ridges and sweeping valleys. Towards the top the forest becomes more subalpine; a sign that the rippling Sterling Pond isn’t too far away. A one-hour ascent was more than enough for my unfit body, but it was kind of worth it.
Back in Stowe it was dinner at Mr Pickwick’s, a gastropub inside the Tudor-esque Ye Olde England Inne. Our last night in town before the next leg of our journey.
The atmosphere has that unmistakable fabricated old English vibe with its interior design. Beer steins hang from the rafters, stone arches partition the rooms, lanterns illuminate the walls and wooden pews provide much of the seating. It’s all rather cosy, really.
The American-English menu has enough to satisfy just about anybody; especially the game-lovers amongst us. Venison, boar, rabbit or elk, anyone?
We loved the duck confit & charred frisée (12) – a salad that also had some pickled beet, beans, apple, cranberries and Stilton going on. Really good honey citrus vinaigrette that held it all together.
Rabbit is a difficult one for either of us to ignore so it was a given that I sample the Vermont rabbit confit risotto (23). I was a little horrified to see that it had been slapped into a bowl and moulded onto the plate. The local rabbit was supposedly slow braised and sautéed with wild mushrooms, leeks, apples, scallions and tarragon. Everything was there except the rabbit and strangely the only flavour in the overcooked rice was salt, with the exception of the pickled beet on top.
The cocoa and espresso-rubbed venison flank steak (26) was a little more palatable; served up with roasted corn polenta and “braised greens”. The meat alone was perfectly cooked and quite delicious. And then came the additions. The polenta had a sourness that tasted of white vinegar – something I queried but was told there was no vinegar in it. Braised greens came in the form of sweet & sour red cabbage and another sweet & sour element came with the plum, eggplant and onion chutney that covered much of the venison.
Snaps to whoever made the frisée salad. Definitely a memorable meal, but not for the right reasons.