Southern Vermont

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Why Southern Vermont:

My brother-in-law Alex works for a ski company and got me a pass to ski their mountains for free. Last year, the two of us skied in the Mad River Valley in Central Vermont, which I enjoyed a lot despite the near general disdain for New England skiing compared to the Western US. This winter, I decided to spend a weekend at Stratton in Southern Vermont. Additionally, I knew there was a high likelihood that could be my last winter in the Northeast, so I wanted to take advantage of everything the region has to offer. 

Alex couldn´t make the trip so I was flying solo. Lodging near Stratton was wildly expensive, so for cost savings purposes, I stayed in the town of Whitehall, New York about 70 minutes northwest of the mountain. 

March 25, 2023: Stratton Mountain

Stratton Mountain is the 9th highest peak in Vermont. Stratton Mountain Resort covers the northern slopes of the mountain. It is best known for two things: catering to upscale Bostonians and for being the birthplace of snowboarding. It was on Stratton that Jake Burton Carpenter, the creator of snowboarding and founder of Burton, convinced leadership to make Stratton the first mountain to allow snowboarders on the mountain. 

The base of the ski resort is set next to the village of Stratton. Due to my connection with Alex, a member of the mountain leadership team was able to give me a quick tour…and dish some gossip on my brother-in-law!

In a unique set-up, the village is 70% owned by a real estate company that is separate from the mountain ownership. Despite the dual ownership, their goals are aligned. In fact, the mountain´s offices are actually in a building owned by the real estate company. Among the shops in the village is the original Burton snowboards. 

It just so happened that I had arrived on a special weekend. To celebrate being the birthplace of snowboarding, the mountain was hosting a weekend of competitions for professional snowboarder of the past and present called Homesick, named in honor of Stratton´s snowboarding history. Many snowboarding legends including Shaun White and Zeb Powell were set to compete today on the half-pipe. 

I spent most of the morning skiing laps off the gondola, which had a decent vertical rise of 2,000 feet. However, the weather turned, and it closed due to wind, which funneled the crowds to the other lifts. 

After lunch, I watched the half-pipe competition. Well, it wasn’t so much of a competition, but rather a showcase of snowboarders taking laps on the half pipe. It was amazing to see Shaun White who somehow managed to jump noticeably higher than everybody else. 

After the competition, the lines were so long that I decided to call it a day and head back to Whitehall for dinner and to sleep. 

March 26, 2023: Maple Sugar Overload 

After waking up in Whitehall, I drove into the town of Manchester, considered one of the prettiest towns in Vermont. The town is separated into two sections. The first section is Manchester Center, which is a shopping destination. I stopped in Northshire Bookstore, a 3-story independent bookstore where I purchased a Lonely Planet guide to New England. I also got breakfast at Up For Breakfast. Vermont is known for maple syrup and there is no better way to try it then on a pancake. 

The second section of Manchester is the historic town. All the buildings seem to be painted white. The most notable building here is the Equinox Hotel. Not to be confused with the Equinox chain of upscale gyms, the Equinox Hotel was built in 1853 and is named for the nearby Mount Equinox. 

Just south of town is Hildene, the Lincoln family home. The home was built by Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of Abraham Lincoln. Robert Todd and his mother Mary Todd Lincoln stayed at the Equinox Hotel for a summer during the Civil War to escape the heat and intensity of Washington DC. Robert Todd loved the area. 

Years later, Robert Todd became not only a successful statesman but also the president of the Pullman Company (which made luxury train cars) and became fabulously wealthy. So, he decided to build a Georgian revival style mansion just a couple miles down the road from Equinox. 

The house was passed through the generations until 1975 when the final Lincoln, Peggy Beckwith died and left no heir. 

The house operates as a museum run by a non-profit foundation and is a treasure trove of Lincoln family artifacts. 95% of all the artifacts are genuine and include treasures such as Abraham Lincoln´s stovepipe hat and the mirror he looked in while getting ready for the Ford´s Theater. 

Having been on many house tours, this one is one of the most impressive. 

The property is expansive and contains more than just the house. As Robert Todd was the president of the Pullman Company, there is a real Pullman car on site. The particular car was used as a mobile residence for the ultra-wealthy and was used by two US Presidents and their families. 

Hildene also has a goat farm. The Lincolns kept farm animals but not goats. The foundation felt that goats were easier to manage and could be used for educational programs. The goats´ milk is also used for various products sold in the gift shop. Because it was still the winter, the goats were kept in a heated barn. 

While waiting for Hildene to open, I read the Vermont pages in the Lonely Planet guide. The guide mentioned that the Vermont Maple Sugar Association´s open house weekend occurs in late March. I opened the website and learned that every maple syrup producer in Vermont was open to the public this weekend. The map of participating producers showed 3 on my way back to New York.

The first sugar house (as they are called) is part of a larger complex including a gift shop/Norman Rockwell museum. The small wooden shack had a steady stream of steam pluming out the chimney. Even outside, I could smell the maple syrup. 

Inside was a maze of pipes, vats, and boiling liquids. While the contraptions look complex, the process to obtain maple syrup is simple. 

Maple sap comes from the maple tree. The sap is removed via a contraption called a tap, which is a glorified straw that goes into the tree. Maple tree “tapping” is seasonal and only occurs during a few weeks from January to March. 

That sap is boiled in a series of metal trays. As impurities are removed, the liquid becomes less dense and a lighter color. At this point it is considered syrup. The hot syrup is then pumped into kegs for shipment and sale. While the sugar house was small, this seemed to be larger-scale commercial operation. 

Because this was the open house weekend, the maple sugarers were offering free shots of the hot syrup straight from the tap. I do not say this lightly, but the hot freshly made syrup is one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted. 

The second maple sugar house was 5 minutes down the road. This sugar house was located next to a large house. It turns out that the couple who lives in the house does this as a hobby. They create the syrup from maple trees in their backyard! 

Their maple syrup boiler was powered by firewood and had a silver door emblazoned with a maple leaf. While most maple syrup is pure, this couple also creates varieties imbued with flavors such as fruit, liquorish or bourbon. They also make the most decadent of all maple products: maple cream, which is pure maple syrup but cooled in such a way that it forms a texture like peanut butter. 

The third maple sugar house was located on a working farm in small red barn structure. The house is run by a farmer who learned the process of creating maple sugar as a kid. He enlists his friends to help and says he gives away much more than he sells. 

The farmer said that one of his childhood snacks was eating a maple dog, which is a hot dog cooked in the boiling maple syrup. He had some for sale, although these dogs were cooked in a separate batch of syrup so not to contaminate his crop. I ate one and it was actually really good!

Having seen all the maple producers in the area, I grabbed a quick lunch in the town of Bennington and drove back to New York. 

Final Thoughts:

Southern Vermont has so much to offer. It has the natural beauty of the mountains and plenty of ways to enjoy them in all seasons such as skiing and hiking. There are cute historic towns such as Manchester and Bennington. There is also so much culture, which is rare for rural areas. Hildene is one of the best historic home tours I have ever taken. The maple production was unique and local. I felt like I really got a feeling for the people as well as their craft. 

In short, Vermont once again proved itself as one of the best destinations to visit in the United States. 


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