Grafton, Vermont, offers cozy inn comfort, fine dining, and the quiet beauty of a quintessential New England village in winter.
By Aimee Tucker
Jan 08 2020
For many New Englanders, winter weekends are ripe for outdoor athletics like skiing, snowshoeing, sledding and (on occasion) snow shoveling, but for others (myself included) they’re perfect for quiet activities like relaxing, reading, eating, and playing fiercely competitive games of Scrabble. But just because most of my favorite winter activities take place indoors doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy getting out of the house — quite the contrary, in fact. For me (and maybe you), winter is the ideal time to hit the road for a night or two in one of New England’s many top-notch historic inns or charming winter towns — preferably simultaneously. I did just that last weekend, when John and I packed our warmest socks and a bottle of wine and headed to quiet and cozy Grafton in southeastern Vermont.
And like any journey through Vermont, it included sightings of the VT Holy Trinity — Bridges, Barns, and Fancy Cheese.
After heading west from our home in Manchester, NH, to Keene, we hopped on Route 12 north and then passed into Vermont at Bellow’s Falls to take Route 121 west to Grafton. Soon after leaving NH, we had our first sighting — a beautiful red barn surrounded by a blanket of fresh snow.
Soon after we came across another — this time a covered bridge. Known as Hall Bridge in the town of Rockingham, it was one lane and open to traffic with a weight limit. The original dated back to 1870, but was rebuilt in 1982 after a truck ignored the weight limit and broke the old one. Can you imagine being the guy that “breaks” a historic Vermont covered bridge with your truck?! Oof!
The bridge is a covered town lattice truss, and on this cold winter’s day, crossed over a very icy Saxtons River.
Soon enough, we found ourselves just miles away from the quintessential small Vermont town of Grafton — hailed by USA Weekend as “One of America’s Top Ten Most Beautiful Destinations” in 2003 with a special nod to its autumnal glory.
We might have arrived a few months later, after the brilliant reds and golds had faded to gray skies and bare branches, but a fresh coat of snow the night before helped infuse a bit of winter beauty into our visit.
So what makes Grafton so special? The town’s history stretches back to a 1830s heyday, when the region bustled with woolen mills, gristmills, and factories producing sleighs, butter churns, and cheese. After the Civil War, however, Grafton and its fellow Windham and Windsor County towns fell on hard times when the wool market bottomed out and the region was hit by a devastating flood in 1869. Relief came to Grafton roughly one hundred years later in the form of the Windham Foundation, established in 1963 by New Jersey banker and philanthropist Dean Mathey. Headquartered right in town, the foundation is credited with supporting and growing Grafton back to tranquil, yet thriving, small-town New England greatness through a series of restorations and holdings that work together to make Grafton and its surrounding rural communities a beautiful, delicious, and interesting place to visit. There’s careful attention to preservation and detail in Grafton that’s subtle, but with an overall effect that’s hard to ignore. Yes, the town is small and quiet, but it’s also successful, and it’s that combination that makes Grafton, and the Windham Foundation, so special.
We’d be staying, of course, at one of the foundation’s showiest arms — the beautiful and historic Grafton Inn (formerly the Old Tavern at Grafton), one of the oldest operating inns in America. It’s hard to miss, smack dab in the center of town where Townshend Road meets Main Street.
Originally a stagecoach inn dating back to 1801, the Grafton Inn experienced the normal ebb and flow of a small-town inn until the mid-20th-century, when it was woefully in need of repairs and nearly forced to close for good. Fortunately, the foundation was established in the nick of time for the inn, which was subsequently renovated and grew into the elegant and comfortable establishment it is today. Famous guests at the inn have included Ulysses S. Grant, Daniel Webster, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and it’s easy to imagine them there today. Throughout the inn, an appreciation for historic detail is abundant and appreciated.
With an emphasis on “unplugging,” none of the 45 cozy rooms have televisions or phones, but free wi-fi is available throughout the property to keep guests connected as much as they choose.
I’d booked a corner room on the second floor with a view of the white church, and was delighted with the setup. Look at those cheerful colors!
On the dresser was also another thoughtful touch — a welcome box of water crackers and 4 oz. of delicious Grafton Village 1 year cheddar. Those weren’t going to last long…
Handy maps available at the inn point out all of Grafton’s “attractions.”
So off we went to do some sightseeing. First, just to complete the trinity, we headed next door to the Grafton Village Cheese Shop, which is just behind the Phelps Barn adjacent to the inn. (Note: The Grafton Village Cheese Shop closed in May, 2015 and reopened as MKT: Grafton.)
Harking back to Grafton’s former cheese-making days, the award-winning Grafton Village Cheese is a modern continuation of The Grafton Cooperative Cheese Company, which was founded in 1892 by local dairy farmers to make their surplus milk into cheese. The original factory was destroyed by a fire in 1912, but the operation was brought back by the Windham Foundation in the mid-1960s, and is thriving.
Inside the shop are two cheerful rooms brimming with cheese (naturally), wines, and other local and regional products that just happen to go great with cheese, wine, and cozy firesides. I was delighted to spot a few of our recent New England Food Awards winners on the shelves, as well!
After sampling a taste of Grafton Village’s many varieties, we settled on the 2-year cheddar and maplewood smoked to take home.
Now this is a beautiful display case…
Back outside we wandered a bit back “down the hill” where the post office and town clerk share space in an old brick building…
And then the town library.
Going the other way back up the hill we passed the Jud Hartmann Gallery (which was closed)…
and this cozy brick house complete with a cheerful vintage Chevy truck in the driveway before heading back to the room to relax.
Later, we made our way downstairs for a glass of wine in front of the fire before dinner. During the warmer months and from Thursday – Saturday during the winter, the inn has two dining options, both with a strong farm-to-table menu — the elegant Old Tavern Restaurant in the main dining room and the more casual Phelps Barn Pub next door. It being a Sunday in late January, the barn was closed, so candlelit dining it was. To start, we had the seared scallops with Brussels sprout slaw, hazelnuts, and pomegranate gastrique. This dish was fantastic — one of the best things I’ve eaten out in a long time — and the chef was kind enough to plate it as two servings for us. The service was also top-notch.
Then, for dinner, I had the Grafton cheddar gnocchi with roasted Brussels sprouts, butternut squash, and fire-roasted tomatoes, while John had the herb-crusted rainbow trout with asparagus, fingerling potatoes, and toasted hazelnut browned butter. Both were very good, and the setting was cozy and comfortable since there were just 3 couples in the dining room — how’s that for intimate? We ended the meal by splitting a warm banana chocolate chip bread pudding topped with rum raisin sauce and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Decadent? Yes. Diet-friendly? No. Worth it? Definitely yes.
The next morning, just after the sun came up, I decided to bundle up (the thermometer read 1 degree!) and stroll around a bit more in the village. The soft morning light was lovely as I made my way past the 1858 Grafton Church, also known as the White Church.
(Here’s the view of it looking back…)
A bit further up was the Grafton Village Cemetery, which offered a terrific view of the church beyond.
After wandering around for almost an hour my fingers were numb, which is why you can see a blurred and gloved thumb in the corner of this shot, but I can’t skip sharing the beautiful typography on the headstones.
Back inside, I warmed up in front of the fire in the lobby before heading to breakfast with John. The breakfast is included at the Grafton Inn, but my favorite part was the basket of warm, tender, buttery cranberry scones we were served with our coffee. We’d hoped to enjoy the Grafton Ponds Outdoor Center for some snowshoeing or snow tubing (passes are complimentary for inn guests) before heading home, but with the weather a good deal below freezing, and a blizzard on the way, we decided to just pack it up and call it a day.
Actually, that’s not quite right. I’d seen something called “The Windham Foundation Sheep Exhibit” on the map, and I was determined to see them before we left, so we headed off towards the barn where they were rumored to be.
The first barn was empty, but a sign pointed us up the hill and across the road to another barn, this one a promising Vermont red. It was closed up tight, and we thought maybe the sheep had been moved again because of the cold, but then a deep and hearty “BAAAA!” from inside confirmed that we’d arrived at the right spot.
A gap in the wooden plank wall offered the only peek inside, and we took it.
Hello and goodbye, Grafton sheep!
Satisfied and with a suitcase full of crackers, cheese, and chutney, we headed back to New Hampshire feeling rested and ready for the week ahead — blizzard and all. Thank you, Grafton!
Have you ever visited the village of Grafton, Vermont? Which cozy winter New England destination is your favorite?
This post was first published in 2016 and has been updated.