An inn-to-inn walking adventure lets travelers discover a side of Vermont that you just can’t see by car.
By Annie Graves
May 26 2014
By car I’d have missed the haunting old Revolutionary War cemetery; on foot, it seems as inevitable as a bend in the road.
High on a hillside overlooking Echo Lake, the scene is pure Thornton Wilder. Here lie Israel P. Brown and his two wives. Scattered between them are the headstones of their daughters, Mary (age 23), Betsey (age 20), and Priscilla (age 16). Israel outlasted every one of them, and, as with all half-told tales, imagination finishes the story.
It ends in a scene of utter peace: still other weathered granite stones tilting down the hill, and a lake edged with water lilies. I have time to write the story because I have time to daydream, and I have time to daydream because I’m walking. The day stretches out ahead of me like the slowest magic-carpet ride on earth.
“Travelers, there is no path; paths are made by walking,” said Spanish poet Antonio Machado. I’m walking in southern Vermont, from inn-to-inn, making my own path, but in fact I’m also following a specific route carved out by four innkeepers. It’s a walk designed to deliver the full Vermont experience: red barns, sunlit fields, babbling brooks, old Capes, and a bit of backwoods funk. Not to mention a broad spectrum of dining experiences and four unique inns.
The “Vermont Inn-to-Inn Walking Tour” is a four-day, self-guided meander averaging 10 miles a day, mainly around the villages of Chester, Weston, Ludlow, and tiny Simonsville, near Andover. (As you walk, you can’t help but notice how resilient Vermonters are as they recover from last summer’s flooding in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene.) The four historic inns—Inn Victoria, Old Town Farm Inn, Combes Family Inn, and Rowell’s Inn—are linked by their owners’ shared love of Vermont and a commitment to their under-the-radar walking tour.
It’s simple and efficient. The innkeepers transport your bags inn-to-inn, Vermont sherpa-style; greet you at the end of the day with a drink and a home-cooked meal (possibly a featherbed or Jacuzzi, too); and, in the morning, send you on your way with a hearty breakfast, snacks for the road, a map of your walking route, and best wishes for a pleasant day.
A final feature that sets this tour apart from so many others? You’re on your own, so you can set your own pace. Walk alone or with friends; do as much or as little of the walk as you like; and at any time of year and in any order. Basically, the tour is as idiosyncratic as the state you’re walking in.
Part 1: Inn Victoria to Old Town Farm Inn (9.1 miles)
Imagine an artful sprinkling of Victoriana, with extras like a full-blown English tea on weekends; a breakfast that runs the gamut from elaborate crepes to a baked frittata; and friendly innkeepers Penny and Dan Cote, whose warm welcome tempts you to forgo walking and just wait for afternoon cookies.
Step out the front door of their 1851 Victorian mansion, and you’re in the heart of Chester village, home to the eclectic Moon Dog Café, where you can stock up on additional road snacks or Indian incense, and Misty Valley Books, where the door’s always open for French conversation (they hold weekly classes) and a good read.
Beyond the village border, you’ll pass historic Chester Depot before straying into deep countryside. Pavement morphs into dirt (the Green Mountain State is home to more dirt roads than paved), and suddenly it feels as though you’re stepping off the map into uncharted Vermont. Red barns sprout up, ubiquitous as milkweed in late summer, along with enough winding stone walls to defend a medieval village. By the time you amble off the dirt and onto Route 10, with the Old Town Farm Inn in sight, you’re ready for a full-blown Japanese meal.
Part 2: Old Town Farm Inn to Combes Family Inn (10.7 miles)
Japanese haute cuisine in the Vermont boonies? Michiko Yoshida-Hunter’s family owns a restaurant north of Tokyo, and halfway around the world, the tradition continues at the small inn’s ToKai-Tei restaurant. Husband Aleks Hunter steps up as sous-chef, and tiny Michiko, slender as bamboo, takes your order, prepares the food, and delivers it to your table: delicate gyozas, veggie tempura light as sea foam, and spicy tuna roll so fresh it practically flops. (It’s BYOB, but if you pack it in your luggage, it’ll arrive in your room before you do.)
When it comes to the walking tour, Aleks does his best to help you de-stress. “We try to make it relaxing,” he says. “Help people turn off the part of the brain that worries too much.” For emphasis, “Cell phones don’t work here. No signal,” adds this former Brooklynite. In the morning, on the drive to where the next walk begins, he might take you via Mount Ascutney or along scenic Route 131. At the very least, he’ll spill the beans on former residents, including Pearl Buck and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. “I give my own twisted version of history around here,” Aleks grins.
He drops you on a road that winds past Lake Ninevah (moose alert) and then parallels Patch Brook, a classic babbling beauty. More water ensues–the Black River and Lake Amherst–until you reach the Revolutionary War cemetery overlooking sparkling Echo Lake. For three bucks you can stroll across the street into Camp Plymouth State Park, throw off your backpack, and slide into the water. You’re less than two miles from Combes Family Inn in Ludlow, where hearty home cooking, spiced with pearls of Yankee wisdom, awaits your arrival.
Part 3: Combes Family Inn to Rowell’s Inn (9.6 miles)
“I’m not a chef. I’m more of a cook,” announces Ruth Combes. If you’ve got a pad of paper, you may want to take notes. For starters, freezing potato chips keeps them fresh.
Ruth runs the inn with her husband, Bill, and the dining room feels like your grandmother’s, except that it seats 39. A pretty field spreads out beyond the bay window, framing a weathered barn surrounded by phlox. They’ve been running the place for 34 years–so long that “our kids are moving back.” Ruth says things like “hoity-toity,” and when I ask what’s in the casserole, she picks up my fork and pokes at the fresh fiddleheads and mushrooms: “Here’s what’s in it!” The delicious broccoli soup is thickened with potatoes and garlic.
Ruth originated the walking tour, and it’s been in business with these four inns for about 13 years now. In the morning, after serving pancakes and French toast, she drops you at the Weston Priory, preferably at around 10:00 (on a Saturday or Sunday) or 10:30 (if you’ve come on a weekday). That’s when the gift shop opens, stocked with CDs, wool, and pottery produced by the Benedictine monks who live there. Her timing also gets you into Weston around lunchtime. It’s a well-thought-out plan, plus “I don’t want them to linger,” she says matter-of-factly.
Peace settles like mist on the Priory grounds. The monks have restored the once-abandoned farm site with a pond, fruit trees, and lush vegetable gardens that they’re watering by hand, a scene with the simplicity and beauty of a Millet painting.
With the priory at my back, I set off under a canopy of broad-leaved greenery. The road ambles along, and so do I, until a few miles later I hit Weston’s shady village green.
Right on schedule, according to Ruth’s timetable, but she didn’t tell me there would be fudge to sample at the original Vermont Country Store; crackers and jams to test, as well. Then I discover the cheese cubes and a couple of excellent dips, and when I finally tear myself away, I’m fortified with a little too much sugar. Time to buzz out of town.
I’m about to discover my favorite view, up here on Piper Hill Road, with Magic Mountain in the distance, old Capes and farmhouses around me, a rolling field to my right, and two companionable horses parked head to tail. Once again, I step off the pavement and onto dirt, the road to Andover unfurling ahead. A handful of hours later, I smell BBQ.
Part 4: Rowell’s Inn and Back to Inn Victoria (11.2 miles)
Mike Brengolini looks up from the blackened smoker outside Rowell’s Inn. It looks like something that survived the Revolutionary War. He lifts the lid, and hunks of meat the size of Frisbees sizzle as they hit the grill. I’m ravenous.
Truth be told, as I round the corner of this Greek Revival stagecoach stop and climb onto the front porch, the worn-out wood and dangling Christmas lights look as weary as I’m feeling. Inside, however, the place is practically a museum. Built in the early 19th century, it’s still got the town’s original post office. On the third floor, Mike shows me a hidden room where escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad probably stayed. “The curved porch outside was a sign it was a safe house,” he explains. And you can also peruse guest logs from the 1880s.
Mike loves his history, and it’s hanging everywhere. But he also loves his slow-smoked spare ribs and fajitas and hot sauce, which is why he bottles his own. That night, in a room off the inn’s English-style pub, I taste ribs that dissolve in my mouth, and a delicate quesadilla with awesome guacamole. The place fills to capacity–both locals and summer folks. The couple at the next table, who’ve come up from Buck’s County, Pennsylvania, tell me, “We eat here every Friday when we’re up here.”
The place is rockin’. Mike, his wife, Susan McNulty (an acupuncturist), and a lone waitress serve 44, but in the morning there’s still enough left over for a breakfast quesadilla. Then it’s time to hit the road–last leg of the journey. This particular walk, I’m told, is especially beautiful in the fall, with views over the Tater Hill golf course, before it meanders alongside Popple Dungeon Creek.
It’s a meditative walk. Long before the village of Chester appears and I’ve come full circle, I realize that my life has become breathtakingly simple in the last few days. I walk; I look at wildflowers; I avoid poison ivy; I take a deep breath and listen to nature singing; I wonder what’s up ahead; I try to remember to look back from time to time. Occasionally I hum—and then try to get the song out of my head.
And then I take another step. Am I closer or farther away? It’s my path, my walk. I get to decide.