WEATHERSFIELD, Vt. — Skies are leaden and snows will soon fall and ponds will freeze as innkeepers prepare for another old-fashioned holiday season in Vermont.
With the approach of winter, autumn winds scatter leaves and frosted windows glow in the gathering darkness. Already, in Stowe, the warmth of the season is sensed at the lodge owned by the Von Trapp family, whose forebears were the inspiration for the musical "The Sound of Music."
This year, dozens of lighted trees will sparkle in the Trapp Family Lodge, and carols will be sung on Christmas Eve. On New Year's Eve, guests will dance to Viennese waltzes and fireworks will brighten the chill night.
The setting in Stowe brings to mind the Von Trapp family's native Salzburg, with rolling hills that break away to a village where skiers gather in snug cafes and logs burn and snow gathers at the door.
Meanwhile, south of Stowe at the Inn at Sawmill Farm, visitors discover a setting that fulfills every traveler's holiday fantasy. At Sawmill Farm, guests are greeted in a converted barn with a huge Christmas tree, and there's caroling at the Congregational church in West Dover, a storybook village with country stores, whitened hills and covered bridges.
At Sawmill Farm, icicles glisten and guests will settle in chintz sofas and chairs while awaiting the arrival on Christmas Eve of Old Whiskers himself.
It is a scene that will be repeated at scores of inns across Vermont.
For the second consecutive year, country-style festivities will be celebrated at 33 inns in Vermont's Mad River Valley, where on moonlit nights, cross-country skiers will search the heavens for the North Star; there will be eggnog parties, sleigh rides, candlelight masses and inn-to-inn caroling.
A favored retreat in the Mad River Valley is The Inn at the Round Barn, which gets its name from a marvelous old barn where plays and concerts are staged.
Ex-New Jersey florists Jack and Doreen Simko bought the 85-acre farm in 1985, shored up the barn and spiffed up the old house. This is one of those warm New England inns that travelers search for. Notes of Vivaldi and Mozart flow through the farmhouse, with its four-posters and canopied and brass beds.
On Christmas Day, dinner is served in a setting that harks back to 18th-Century New England. And no matter what the season, the Simko's daughter, AnneMarie, prepares gourmet breakfasts--cinnamon-raisin Belgian waffles with maple whipped cream, cottage cheese pancakes with raspberry-maple syrup, baked apples, homemade muffins and other delights.
Nearby at Susan and Dan Easley's Lareau Farm Country Inn (circa 1832), an ironing board serves as a coffee table, empire sofas are scattered throughout the public rooms and horse-drawn sleighs call for guests at the door.
With four dogs, three cats, a couple of horses, three chickens and an occasional deer, Lareau Farm is particularly appealing to children. The Mad River flows past its door and guest rooms are furnished with brass and antique beds, and on Christmas Eve, the Easleys prepare for a traditional holiday dinner.
Beyond the Mad River Valley, in the picture-post-card village of Woodstock, locals turn out for the lighting of a yule log on the green, carolers sing door-to-door and bell ringers join a parade with horse-drawn carriages.
Renowned as one of America's prettiest towns, Woodstock during the holidays is pure magic. It is an anachronism, a wistful dream, a flashback to an era when America was young and life was uncomplicated. At Woodstock, the tone and freshness of 19th-Century America unfolds in a sequence of stately homes, leafy elms and concerts on the green.
The postman still pedals about on a bicycle and the spires of New England churches poke out of groves of elms. With the 21st Century approaching, Woodstock seems to have avoided the stresses related to other villages in small-town America. Covered bridges span the Ottauquechee River, and a town crier announces daily events that are later posted on a blackboard on the village green.
Woodstock appears more fiction than fact, more false than real. Little changes--not the graceful buildings nor the country back roads nor, at this time of year, the lighted Christmas trees.
Church bells cast by Paul Revere echo in the foothills and yellow light shines from frosted window panes at the Prince & Pauper, a snug restaurant off Elm Street. A holiday mood prevails as well at Bentley's Restaurant, with its Victorian bar and sofas and a menu featuring maple mustard chicken, Long Island duckling and steak flamed in whiskey with crushed pepper corn.
Shoppers crowd F. H. Gillingham & Sons' gourmet grocery, where shelves groan with maple sugar candy, maple syrup, crab-apple jelly, blueberry preserves, raspberry and rhubarb jams, spiced peaches, tins of biscuits and jars of rock candy.