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Striking gold in Vermont

Blazing color, country inns and cheese along the back roads of New England's No. 1 autumnal show.

October 05, 2003|Beverly Beyette | Times Staff Writer

Bennington, Vt. — Bennington, Vt.

My favorite vignette from my recent trip to Vermont was watching the man on his hands and knees in the Vermont Country Store in Weston. He was wielding a long stick, in hot pursuit of a baby chipmunk that was making a dash for the candy counter. Earlier the little intruder had been spotted with a peppermint patty in its tiny jaws.

It was so Norman Rockwell, but that's not why I came here.

My mission was twofold: to write about the best routes to see Vermont's fall foliage and to visit some of the state's cheese makers. (See Page 12.) It was early September, and the green hills were already punctuated with great splotches of red, amber and gold.

Temperature and rainfall help dictate the best time for leaf-peeping -- and even then it's a guessing game -- but the show has usually started in the northern part of the state by now and in the south is just getting underway.

After flying into Burlington and staying overnight at the Willard Street Inn (a far happier choice than the Radisson downtown), I set off to find the cheese makers in the south. Starting at Brattleboro, I drove State Route 9, the Molly Stark Trail, a scenic two-lane highway that climbs over Hogback Mountain and through the Green Mountain National Forest, 40 miles to Bennington. It's named for the wife of Gen. John Stark, whose New Hampshire Militia defended against the Redcoats at Bennington in 1777. She was a spunky woman who nursed the wounded in a makeshift hospital in the family barn. I detoured through wooded Molly Stark State Park, prime leaf-peeping territory where leaves were already turning. The ranger told me to climb the fire tower, from which one can see 100 miles. "It looks like the whole woods is on fire," he said.

The pretty town of Wilmington, with its restored 18th and 19th century buildings, shops, restaurants and antiques stores, is a good midpoint stop.

Primitive charm

In Bennington, I headed for the Bennington Museum, where a whole room is devoted to the Martin car. There sits the only existing Martin Wasp 221, a sporty six-cylinder four-door 1920s touring car with red leather seats. Douglas Fairbanks Sr. paid $5,000 for one and had it shipped to Hollywood, but, alas, the Bennington-based car maker produced fewer than 20 Wasps before it foundered.

The museum's piece de resistance is its Grandma Moses Gallery. The late-blooming but prolific primitive artist lived nearby, and the museum has the largest public collection of her work.

I loved the legends posted with the paintings, such as: "Grandma did not allow geographical accuracy to hinder her creativity." While her winter scenes fetched big prices, Grandma once told Life magazine, "People would be better off buying chickens."

From Bennington, I drove the 7A north to Manchester, notable primarily for its upscale outlet stores. Here, roads come together in what locals call "malfunction junction," but I managed to find my way onto the 30S through Green Mountain National Forest, winding up on a dirt road. (Vermont has lots of dirt roads, many well maintained and not treacherous.) It led through a pretty glade into Newfane, a gem of a village with pristine white buildings. I would love to return.

In the morning I had time to poke around nearby Grafton before an appointment at Grafton Village Cheese Co. About half of its meticulously restored 19th century buildings are owned by the philanthropic Windham Foundation, which brought the village back to life. It may be a bit of a museum, but it's gorgeous. I poked my head into the Old Tavern, which opened in 1801, but lunch wasn't being served.

My next date with a cheese maker was two days later in Londonderry, so I had an afternoon to do more leaf-scouting on my way to West Townshend, where I had booked two nights at the Windham Hill Inn.

I'd been a little too ambitious and, poking around on minor roads after dark, managed to get quite nicely lost and limped in about 11 p.m. I was shown to the West room in the White Barn, the inn's delightful annex (and the only barn I know of with a brass chandelier). The upstairs room was cozy and bright, with a fireplace. The barn, whose main room serves as a lobby for the bedrooms, is a trove of farm antiques. It was great fun.

On principle, I'd decided I would not stay in Woodstock or Stowe, reasoning that there must be less-hyped pretty villages -- and there are. But I'll confess that I did drive to Woodstock for a peek. It is undeniably chic and cute, with its little stream and covered bridge, but I'd hate to be there when the tour buses descend.

I fell in a big way for Quechee, a village just east of Woodstock. I lunched at the Simon Pearce Restaurant, a stunning brick-walled room in a former woolen mill overlooking the Ottauquechee River. It's popular, but if there's a wait you're handed a beeper and are free to browse the Simon Pearce pottery and glass showrooms. You may even see glassblowers at work.

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