The hills are alive with hiking, fishing, and a bounty of farm-to-table eateries in Manchester, Vermont. And, of course, some of the best outlet shopping in New England.
By Annie Graves
Jun 18 2018
In Dorset, one of the oldest marble quarries in the U.S. (established 1785) is now a popular—and picturesque—swimming hole.Photo Credit : Mark Fleming
Sometimes beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Other times, it’s simply there.
In Manchester, Vermont—wedged between mountains and divvied up into two distinct communities—it takes a visitor only minutes to see how stunning the landscape can be.
Oozing charm and low-key elegance, pristine Manchester Village is crisscrossed with white marble sidewalks—a seeming extravagance, except that the materials were handy (local quarry) and abundant. Mount Equinox, at 3,848 feet, dominates one side of Route 7A, which bisects the town; opposite, the Green Mountains shimmer with a mistiness that’s practically Arthurian. A short distance away, Manchester Center kicks in: It’s a hub of commerce, with a fine independent bookstore and a number of appealingly disguised designer outlets, from Ann Taylor and Armani to J. Crew (though just up the road there’s a major nod to homegrown retailing in the form of the Vermont Country Store’s corporate headquarters).
For pure beauty, there’s the legendary Battenkill River. It has challenged trout fishermen for decades, and its location marks the epicenter of American fly-fishing (Orvis lives here, since its founding in 1856). Meanwhile, the mountains so entranced Abe Lincoln’s son, Robert, who vacationed here as a boy, that he built his summer mansion, Hildene, high on a Manchester hilltop, surrounded by views and breezes, there for all to visit today.
I almost felt I’d replicated Hildene life when I checked into the 1902 Wilburton Inn, run by the Levis family—except that this union of artistic invention and gourmet breakfasts was also one of the most mindfully stimulating stays I’ve ever experienced, on an estate dotted with sculptures, ringed with mountains, and vaguely reminiscent of The Sound of Music. These hills really are alive.
And while the Battenkill’s catch-and-release policy means you won’t be fishing for your dinner, there are more than two dozen eateries here, ranging from New American cuisine to Mexican street food. You can even stave off hunger with wood-fired pizza while debating which Persian rug to buy at Depot 62.
A roundabout in the heart of Manchester Center sends drivers spinning off to the four compass points, with a different experience down each road. Take 7A south for an upscale ramble to Manchester Village, settled in 1761. It bristles with massive “cottages” of every era and description, set back on deep lawns and anchored by the famous Equinox Resort. Just beyond the village, the Mount Equinox Skyline Drive delivers hairpin turns and vertiginous views—well worth the $15 toll—courtesy of the silent Carthusian monks who own it. Back in town, turn north to delve deeper into Manchester Center, or east, on Route 11, into a swarm of shops. To the west, it’s pretty Dorset and the cool, sparkling swimming waters of its marble quarry.
The Social Scene
The approach is majestic: At the end of a mile-long dirt road, the 1905 Georgian Revival mansion sits pressed against the sky. By the time Robert Lincoln built Hildene, he was the well-heeled president of the Pullman Car Company. “He saw this as his ancestral home,” a docent at the threshold explains, then points to a small brick outline laid into the front lawn. “That’s how big Abraham Lincoln’s log cabin was.” No question, this is the place to be a volunteer—in summer, the garden is a riot of peonies waiting to be weeded, with goats to groom at the farm.
Where else would I want to hang out? Well, there’s the Southern Vermont Arts Center, set on more than 100 acres, where sculptures dance over broad fields and paintings enliven a 28-room mansion. All in one place, you can sample art classes, performances at the 400-seat Arkell Pavilion, and exquisite home-style Japanese cuisine at the seasonal Café Sora, which cooks up its own kind of art.
Manchester’s farm-to-fork activity comes in all shapes and sizes. At the tiny Silver Fork—six tables, five bar seats—I snagged the last barstool and ordered a vibrant little silo of salmon wrapped in spinach and phyllo. “Wednesday Farm Night” at the Wilburton Inn enlists fresh veggies and bread from the Levis family’s Earth Sky Time farm. Ponce Bistro chef-owner Ron Rodriguez has featured his mom’s Puerto Rican rice and beans since he opened (“She taught me to cook at the age of 4,” he told me). At the Perfect Wife, Manchester native Amy Chamberlain relies on goodies such as Hildene Farm Havarti to create her “freestyle” cuisine; I tucked into meltingly good sesame-crusted yellowfin tuna (“the house favorite since we opened in 1996”). Then there’s Cilantro, which plates up Mexican street food that’s local and abundant.
Designer outlets line up on Route 11—Eileen Fisher rubs elbows with Ralph Lauren, Le Creuset nudges Bass. At Orvis, over on Route 7A, master craftsman Charlie Hisey, 62, carries on the store’s tradition of hand-making bamboo fly rods. (You can learn how to use one across the street, at Orvis’s famous fly-fishing school.) Next door to Orvis, the American Museum of Fly Fishing gave me a feel for why so many are devotees of the sport. The flies are tiny works of art, and it’s fascinating to see Ernest Hemingway’s Hardy Fairy rod, alongside other celebrity fly-fishing paraphernalia such as Bing Crosby’s hat and pipe. Northshire Bookstore, an independent force majeure since 1976, touts “the joy of serendipity.” That translates into 10,000 square feet of books, gifts, a café, and an entire floor devoted to kids. Also, I caught a glimpse of John Grisham, about to do a reading. Serendipity indeed.
A world away from time, I raise my left forearm. From deep inside the forest, a hawk swoops, landing on the leather gauntlet encasing my arm. I feel like a knight in Ladyhawke. You haven’t gone medieval until you’ve stared a hawk in the eye. Side-stared, anyway. “Don’t worry, they can’t sense fear,” says a grinning Rob Waite, owner of Green Mountain Falconry School. We are strolling through the woods behind his school at Boorn Brook Farm, once the home of famed Vermont painter Ogden Pleissner—only I’d bet that Pleissner never imagined what it would be like to have a captive-bred hawk like the glorious Monty follow him through the woods. “Hold your arm like this,” Waite demonstrates. And Monty lands.
Getting Your Bearings
Dr. Albert Levis bought the Wilburton Inn 30 years ago, when he turned 50, envisioning a place to integrate his theories of art and science. “It was like having another sibling,” said son Max, who was 2 at the time. Today, with 27 rooms and five houses dotting 30 acres, this big-hearted family-run estate is widely considered one of the top mansion hotels in the country. Nearby, in the heart of Manchester Village, the historic Equinox tempts guests with fly-fishing and a par-71 golf course. In fact, this small town offers one of the highest concentrations of fine country inns around.
If You Could Live Here
At the time of our visit, a three-bed Victorian on Main Street in Manchester Center, with open kitchen and deck, listed at $399,000. An airy four-bed contemporary Cape in Manchester Village, with slate patio and views of Mount Equinox, was selling for $498,000. Anglers could scoop up a Manchester Center three-bedroom house, built in 1914 on the West Branch of the Battenkill, for $275,000.
To see more photos from our visit, go to newengland.com/manchester-2018.